Monday, November 21, 2005

Crash (Part 1)

I rented a very good movie, Crash, over the weekend. It focuses on the interactions between several people in Los Angeles over a two-day period, and its main theme is the stereotypes and racism that exist in all cultures and at all levels of society. Again and again in the movie, minor actions turn out to have major consequences for most of the characters, connecting them in ways that make random chance seem like destined fate.

One of the key scenes in the movie involves a car crash, and as I thought about the movie's theme of fate, it brought to mind an experience that I had several summers ago. From Labor Day to Memorial Day, almost all of the single population in the city of Philadelphia virtually empties out on Fridays as people head to the Jersey shore for the weekend. Shortly after being hired at my current job, I finally was able to arrange to join a shore house myself. I wound up going in with some very cool people in a great house in Avalon, New Jersey, about a 90-minute ride from Philly, and soon I couldn't wait for the end of work each Friday afternoon to begin my weekly migration down the shore on the Garden State Parkway.

One Friday in particular, I had purposely scheduled a deposition early in the day for 1 p.m. Our office had a way of becoming a ghost town on Friday afternoons, so the plan was for me to run through the usual one-hour of routine questions and then head right from the office to the beach, getting an early start on the weekend and beating the horrendous rush hour traffic. It began to feel like the planets were aligned against me that day, because nothing seemed to go as planned. The court stenographer was late, and the witness being deposed would not give a straight answer to my questions to save her life. I would have to ask three or four questions just to pin her down to the simplest details, and her attorney kept objecting and placing meaningless, time-wasting statements on the record. By the time we finally finished, it was past 4 o'clock. Still in my suit and tie, I jumped into my car and headed for Avalon, figuring that I would change into more casual clothes once I got to the shore house.

At least I had been able to get on the road before rush hour really hit, so traffic was moderate but moving fairly steadily. I had been driving for over an hour and was just 15 minutes from my exit when I noticed a commotion in my rear view mirror. I saw a white compact car spinning wildly, and watched as it veered across three lanes of traffic, slide down a slight embankment, and slam into a row of trees that lined the highway. I continued driving for a second as my mind took in what it had just witnessed, and then I pulled my car over to the side. I ran a hundred yards or so back towards the car, which was now wrapped around a tree at point just behind the driver's door. All of the windshields were blown out, and white smoke was coming from the engine. A woman in her mid-forties was behind the steering wheel, and as I leaned in through the driver's window, she slowly started to come around.

She began to cry, and kept repeating that her neck hurt. The impact had broken her driver's seat, and she was leaning back at an awkward angle. I brushed the shattered windshield glass off of her and told her not to move. There wasn't any obvious sign of injury to her neck, but I had learned in first-aid training that the head should be kept still to prevent further injury just in case. The other point that had been emphasized was that if the victim is conscious, you need to keep them alert and talking to prevent them from slipping into shock. She was worried about the smoke coming from her engine, and began to panic that her car was going to catch on fire. I reached in and turned off the ignition, and assured her that the white smoke was just steam escaping from the broken radiator. Optimistic that her neck and back didn't appear to be broken, I asked her if she hurt anywhere else. She got silent for a moment, and then said that her leg did feel a little warm. I leaned further into the car for a better look and soon saw the reason why.

About halfway between the knee and ankle on her right leg, a steady stream of bright red blood was pumping from a 1-inch gash, and had already formed into a small pool on the floormat beneath the gas pedal. I knew from my earlier training that this meant that an artery had been severed in her leg, and that if left unchecked a person can bleed out in minutes, well before death from a lack of oxygen due to stopped breathing. I also knew how important it was not to alarm her any further, as shock would only complicate things even more. I quickly scanned the inside of the car, and grabbed a beach towel from the backseat. She asked what was wrong and I casually said that she had a little cut on her leg, and that I wanted to keep it covered to prevent infection. I slipped my tie off and tied a makeshift tourniquet around her leg, and put pressure directly over the wound with my left hand, while using my right hand to squeeze a pressure point in her upper thigh above the knee, hoping to slow down the blood loss until help could arrive.

With all of the hundreds of cars whizzing past on the highway, only one other person had pulled over and come up to the car. An older man appeared by the passenger door to offer help, and when I found out that he had a cell phone I told him to call 911. I didn't want to alarm the injured driver any further, so I kept my voice level and calm. But I caught the man's eyes and glared for emphasis when I mentioned that it would be a good idea if the ambulance got here soon. He ran down the road to get his cell phone and I went back to engaging the driver in conversation.

Her name was Terri, and she lived year-round in Wildwood Crest, a few towns further down the coast from Avalon. A good way to keep someone from slipping into shock is to take their mind off of the immediate situation, so I began to ask her all sorts of mundane questions about her job and her background. She was single and had recently moved up here from Florida, and was working in real estate sales. When she asked what I did for a living, I told her that I worked as an attorney for an insurance company defending people in auto accidents. It turned out that her car was insured by my company, and I joked that I would personally see to it about getting her a refund on her $100 deductible. As the minutes continued to pass, I had to stretch to come up with more innocuous small talk, and began to slip into a sort of first-date mentality by asking more questions about her background to keep her mind off of the present circumstances. I complimented her on her tan and asked about her favorite musicians that were represented by the CD cases now scattered all around her car. She began to ask the same types of questions of me, and at one point asked me directly why I was still single. I teased her about being a big flirt, and jokingly accused her of staging this whole thing as a novel way to meet guys.

All the while that I was talking with her, I remained bent over through the driver's side windshield with both hands clamped down on her leg. The towel had become soaked with blood, but the puddle on the floor had stopped growing larger. I couldn't move at this point, as I didn't want to release the pressure and risk more blood loss, and the car had been twisted so badly from the impact that neither door could be opened anyways. After about 10 minutes or so into our light-hearted conversation, a thought suddenly occurred to me. Because the cut on her leg had been so low, I had been forced to lean most of my upper body through the windshield to reach the necessary pressure points. As a result, my head was directly next to the steering wheel. I asked matter-of-factly if her car had airbags, and she said that it did and joked that I should represent her in a lawsuit against the manufacturer because they never went off. I said sure, but privately was more concerned about the fact that the airbags might still go off after all.

(Part 2 to follow tomorrow)