February 12, 2021. This morning I realized that yesterday marked five years since the hit-by-truck incident on February 11, 2016 in Madison Wisconsin, when a pickup truck collided with me as I was walking to work, layered heavily in goose down and fleece against the 5-degree cold. I don’t mean to belabor a major life horror by remarking on it every single year. However, I thought it was interesting or maybe odd that I didn’t even think about the anniversary on that exact date. I didn’t notice it, perhaps because my sister-in-law underwent brain surgery in Vermont on the same day as the anniversary. Yesterday, there were other things to think about besides getting slammed by a truck five years ago. She had been slammed by a stroke in December and the surgery was an attempt to prevent future strokes.
Also today, in the wee hours of a morning insomnia experience, I listened from under the warm covers and quilts to Sam Harris’ podcast discussion with Iain McGilchrist (#234 – The Divided Mind) in which they opine eloquently on the differences between the right and left hemispheres of the human brain, and among many other topics in two hours and 30 minutes, the unique deficits resulting from damage to the left and right hemispheres. Of course, I thought a lot about my sister-in-law’s stroke experience. I also thought about the fact that we are not the same person after a traumatic experience that we were before the experience. “Recovering completely” is a fantasy. Experiences change us profoundly and permanently. Then I thought, well, of course we are never the same from one decade to the next, regardless of experiences. Or because of them.
Then I began to wonder about the contributing factors to change. The person I am now at age 69 is different from who I was five or ten years ago. Of course. Explanations? Mainly because of aging and moving from the Midwest back to the east coast? Or mainly from the hit-by-truck trauma? Or mainly from the trauma of trading my Wisconsin social network for a new Virginia network made up partly of friends from decades ago and partly of new friends. Everything contributes.
That’s a lot to think about on a snowy cold morning in this forest we live in, from which we have not departed much in a year. What’s going on with my mind and my brain and my recovery from trauma?
My memoir, Risking Wreckage, opens with the scene of the incident five years ago as told in an eyewitness account obtained by my lawyer. A young woman driving a vehicle behind the offending truck saw the incident happen in real time and told the lawyer every painful detail, none of which I knew until some weeks after the not-accident. [I don’t use the word “accident” because the collision could easily have been prevented.]
I used that scene to open the memoir because the trauma of that incident was a wakeup call that we lived isolated from family in an extreme-weather part of America and that when we retired at the end of 2016, we might want to consider moving somewhere warmer and closer to family. So we did.
2016, February 11: From eye-witness deposition. “I saw the driver try to brake at the last instant, but it was too late. The truck smashed into the front of her body so hard that she flew backward several feet in the air. I then saw her strike the road as she landed on her back.
“I pulled over to the side of University Avenue and rushed over. As I reached her, I could hear her groaning. I asked her about her condition, but she was unable to respond. I then called 911 and waited with her until an ambulance arrived. I also helped gather jackets from bystanders to keep her warm. Before she finally was transported from the scene, she was able to tell me her name and that her chest hurt but seemed unable to say anything else. She was visibly experiencing significant pain during the time I stayed with her while she lay on the pavement.”
The Hit-By-Truck Incident. “Who can I call?” asked the ambulance attendant as I lay on the gurney on a sunny freezing February morning, clutching my cell phone and groaning with each lurch of the ambulance.
“Uh, well, my husband is working in Manhattan right now. My brother’s in Costa Rica, my son is in Norfolk, VA, and my daughter is in DC. There’s no family here right now.” Here being Madison, Wisconsin. Anyway, there is no other family, except a sister-in-law in Vermont and a niece in DC. That was the extent of the extended crowd.
After all the risky stuff I’d done in my life, involving mountains, oceans, hot-air balloons, charging rhinos, dehydrated nomads and gun-toting African teenagers, I never could have imagined that the wreckage from an encounter with a Dodge Ram pickup truck, driven by an 80-year-old man, would prove the most damaging. Seven broken bones requiring a few weeks of oxycodone did not flip me into drug-dependency. But I couldn’t walk without a walker. Me, the mountaineer.
Lying on the stretcher in the ambulance, I extracted my cell phone from my coat pocket, clutched it to my chest, and announced that I did not want anyone to take it from me. Even in pain, my phone addiction is stronger than opioids. I texted my husband; he called and spoke to the attendant. I could barely talk; I was just trying to breathe.
The attendants established that I was oriented and knew the basics: it’s 2016, my name is Jan Hogle, I have health insurance, Obama is in the White House. They asked which hospital I preferred. Dumb question. The University of Wisconsin hospital is just up the hill. I said, “UW. I work there.” As confirmed by the badge on a lanyard around my neck.
Being hit by a truck while walking in a crosswalk is no adventure of the Kilimanjaro variety since neither choice nor a helmet is involved. One fraction of a second and life careens off in an unexpected direction, leaving time to think about my upcoming retirement which I had announced a few weeks previously. Time to move, again. But right now, I can’t move without pain.
Lying in the hospital bed, grateful that I hadn’t died, I wondered how it happened that the truck did not run over me but instead, sent me flying like a tackled NFL receiver. I kept thinking I’d get out of bed and go upstairs to work. But then, I’d breathe and feel the crackles that meant broken ribs and could manage no more than a groan.
Marooned alone in the upper Midwest, at least for the moment, my text to my husband from the ambulance was brief: “Hit by truck. Ambulance. UW Hospital.” It took him 10 hours to get home from Manhattan. He walked into my hospital room, directly off the plane, sat down in the chair opposite my bed, and said, “I never thought I’d see you like this.”
Bruce said this morning that he thought it was a good thing that I’d forgotten about the incident on the anniversary. Why is it good to forget about trauma? Maybe it’s not that I forgot but rather that I’ve processed the experience enough so that I can continue on with as much life as I have left, which I hope is a couple of decades at least. Still, each year on the anniversary, I like to remember and feel gratitude for another year of life.
©Jan Hogle 2021 Risking Wreckage: a memoir of adventuring out and settling in