TWENTY YEARS AGO TODAY … I broke my neck in a car accident which rendered me a complete quadriplegic for a short while. The only reason I am alive today, with relatively full functionality, is thanks to some stranger who saved my life and then disappeared without a trace.
On Leap Day 1988 in San Mateo, California I went on a BMW test drive. The salesman was driving. He was showing off the handing capabilities of the car on back roads. He lost control as we approached a turn which resulted in us plowing into a dirt embankment at what was estimated at 63 miles per hour. I was in the rear seat behind the driver – in a seatbelt, without an airbag.
While my seatbelt secured my body, my head continued to travel forward at 63 miles per hour. This resulted in a C2 spinal fracture (the same break that Superman’s Christopher Reeves experienced). I ended up sitting there in the car – each hand resting palm down on each leg, perfectly placed. Unable to hold my head up, I starred towards my lap fully aware we had crashed and to boot realized I was totally paralyzed and unable to breathe (as my hanging head blocked my wind pipe).
I had always wondered as a kid what would be the final minutes of thinking if you knew death was imminent. So there I sat staring at my hands slowly changing color from that of the living to that of the dead. And so it seemed this day would end my 23 years of Earthly habitation.
I do not know how many minutes I was forced to witness my slow death … more than a few minutes for sure and less than six for sure.
My door flies open, and only my door. An Asian man leans into the car and looks up into my face and says "Can you breathe?" I lip synch "No" … three times. He says "Do you want me to lift your head?" So, I lip synch "Yes" once. He proceeds to hold my head up in a hyper-extended fashion with perfection … as if medically trained. Once my head is extended I find I can breath. Move? No. Breathe, yes!
He holds my head in position with his arms fully extended for nearly thirty minutes until the ambulances arrive (heads are heavy and the fact this person could maintain this position for so long is in itself a miracle). Had he tried to rest or settle my head to assist the others in the car I would, without a doubt, be dead or a quadriplegic today.
The paramedics step in and take possession of my head.
Then … poof this savior disappears! No sign of him. No witnesses, no reference in the police report. Nothing.
The doctors told my parents I would most likely be paralyzed for life. No one told me that though … and so, despite this prognosis ... I recovered.
And recover I did - over the next four or five months, although not fully. To this day, I suffer from a very rare condition called Brown-Sequard Syndrome. In short, the center of my spinal cord in the vicinity of the C2 vertebrae is now dead. As a result, the right side of my body has a very lower ability to sense hot, cold, and pain. And the nervous system on the left side of my body is hypersensitive and I have a noticeable degree of muscle atrophy on the left side as my brain does not talk to all of those muscles anymore.
Does such an accident reorient one to the value of life and priorities? True, although oddly this new think only lasted about six months!
What are my thoughts about death now? Every day since February 29th, 1988 has been an extra day.
Regrets? I only wish I could locate and thank the person who saved me. Maybe he wonders what came of my condition and if he had done the right thing. My parents, my children, my girlfriend, and I would like to convey our thanks.
Dear Mr. Stranger: Thank you.