Your 21-year-old car has looked a little better in its time, but it’s still running great as you coast toward a green light on the US highway that cuts through your small Midwestern town. An oncoming car sits waiting and waiting in the turn lane, waiting through the huge gap between you and the car ahead. As you reach the intersection, the driver abruptly turns left. There’s a split second that lasts an hour, in which you hold your breath, choking on fear as you slam on the brakes, already knowing that the laws of physics make impact inevitable. The noise as the two cars crush together is familiar from years of Hollywood’s most thrilling action films, but now you are inside the noise, not separated from it by a widescreen and a projection system, and it echoes in your ears long after the sound waves have dissipated.
The air bag explodes with a cloud of suffocating powder, filling the close confines of the car. You choke, gasping for air, and somehow find the presence of mind to inch your car out of the intersection and into the driveway of the nearby high school, hoping the cloudy air and your watery eyes don’t cause you to hit anything else along the way. You roll down the window, desperate for oxygen, and in between gulps of fresh air you fumble for your cellphone, feeling like Homer Simpson when you think, “What’s the number for 911?” As you remember the number, you forget how to operate your phone, and as you remember that your fingers forget how to move without shaking uncontrollably.
You have just managed to dial for help when you’re interrupted by a voice at your window, spilling out of the lips of a man in a blindingly fluorescent yellow vest. You wish he would go away, and let you finish doing the responsible thing. You try to focus on the voice on the other end of the phone, asking for the location of your emergency, and when you name the intersection the voice asks you what city you are in. The rest of the call is a blur, and after you hang up you are surrounded on all sides by witnesses reassuring you that the accident was totally the other driver’s fault and that they are staying to give a statement.
It seems like mere seconds between the end of your phone call and the beginning of sirens, and it may very well be seconds given how tiny this town is. The fluorescent yellow vest belongs to a man who has identified himself as a volunteer firefighter who happened to witness the accident. He keeps telling you not to move, and you are incapable of listening, trying to reach for the window handle on the passenger side, reach for the hood release when the official firefighters show up.
You won’t realize until days later that you never give a thought to the condition of the other driver, as you sit there filling with panic and trying to focus on the paramedic’s instructions, asking you what hurts and whether you can squeeze his fingers. In the back of your mind, you’re convinced that you’re okay, but you know what happened a few weeks ago when you thought the same thing after taking a tumble on an icy sidewalk. You know that even if your body isn’t hurt, your fragile emotional state is well on its way there, so you agree to go to the hospital.
This is when things take a turn for the embarrassing. Out comes the neck brace, which does its job of immobilizing you – perhaps too well, as your chin no longer functions when you try to answer an onslaught of questions. Out comes the backboard and you are surrounded by dozens of disembodied hands trying to pull you onto it and out of the driver’s seat as gently as possible, which is, as it turns out, not that gently.
You lie on the backboard on the stretcher, face to the sky, being pelted by raindrops in Mother Nature’s sick game of Chinese water torture. You reach blindly, unable to open your eyes in this weather, for the wallet tucked into your lunch sack, and successfully present your driver’s license and insurance card to the person you have to assume is a police officer. You seem to lie here in the rain forever, the sky crying tears you are still too shocked to muster, before finally being loaded into an ambulance.
After a series of steps to secure you in place, and the removal of a glaring light that still prevents your eyes from opening, the ambulance takes off, blaring its sirens as you think, “This is not an emergency!” It is a small town though, low on excitement, and clearly the paramedics will take any opportunity to show off their siren. You jostle and bump along, then head up a steep hill which gives you the bizarre sensation of lying down and standing at the same time. You are thankful that your injuries are minor, as this carnival ride would have you shouting in pain otherwise.
Somehow, amid all the noise of the siren and jostling of the stretcher, you are expected to answer a series of questions, to which you can barely remember the answers. You hesitate when asked for the name of your family doctor before finally remembering that you’ve seen your new nurse practitioner a whopping two times and she does have a name and it’s right on the tip of your tongue… You are asked to name any medications you currently take, and hesitate again when one of them leads to a blank expression and a “What’s that one for?” “Bipolar disorder,” you mumble.
Eventually the ride comes to an end. It seems to have taken an awfully long time in spite of the aforementioned smallness of the town. You are rolled out of the ambulance and into the ER, seemingly inches away from the lights zipping by overhead. You barely notice when the combined 200 lbs of your body and the backboard is transferred from the stretcher to a hospital bed. Someone comes to get your health insurance card and ask you a million more questions, and by now you’re so overwhelmed that you’re not going to remember anything that was said. Except that after again asking for a list of medications, your medical history is repeated back to you as “high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder”. Clearly someone is not up-to-date on what “bipolar disorder” means, seeing as how depression is one of the poles.
A woman offers to call your mother for you, if you can’t get a cellphone signal. You barely get a signal, and your mother doesn’t answer, so as you are leaving a voicemail the woman has to remind you to let your mother know that you’re okay. You do, but if you were totally okay then you wouldn’t be at the hospital, would you?
Your mother arrives in no time, and that’s when you start to cry. You feel awful about the car and are terrified of the process of dealing with insurance companies and hunting for something new to drive. A sweet young nurse practitioner comes in to inspect your knees and chest, and she orders x-rays of your chest and right knee. You go off to play the most contorted game of Twister in order to have the x-rays taken.
At some point, a police officer arrives to return your driver’s license and insurance card, which is now smeary from the rain. You think about how you’ll need to get it replaced, before remembering it’s for a car that you will no longer have. The officer takes your statement and thankfully remarks that it matches the one given by a witness, so the insurance companies should determine that the other driver was at fault.
The results on your x-rays come back and everything looks fine, so you end up leaving with an ACE bandage on your knee and a naproxen prescription in your hand, but not before grudgingly accepting a tetanus booster. You know you’ll spend days feeling like a bullet ripped through your triceps, but given that you work in a filthy warehouse and are exceedingly accident prone, perhaps the shot is not such a bad idea.