My entire body shook. My closest friends, family and I had waited for this day for months. The last court date, 18 people had attended with me, all wearing “Team Erin the Beast Shirts” to show their support. This time, 13 people came. I had earned the nickname, “Beast,” years prior by my immediate family because they considered me rather physically strong. Now, this nickname took on an entirely new meaning.
October 18, 2016 represented two years of waiting. Two years I had spent in and out of the hospital, undergoing surgery after
surgery, totaling six thus far. I would be undergoing my seventh when I returned from my honeymoon at the end of October. My wedding would be taking place that Sunday, October 23, only five days after this particular court date. I hadn't attended court dates for at least the first year and some months following the collision because I physically wasn't able to and/or I didn't want to have to face the trauma. But by this time, I had attended at least four, on and off.
Everyone, including myself, hoped for a conviction. All those who had supported, comforted, visited, served and prayed with me, and watched as I struggled to regain my dignity, agreed the offender should go to jail. We didn’t make this spoken or non-spoken agreement hastily, or because of a lack of forgiveness, but rather because we knew that forgiveness and justice are two separate things.
Some of my closest friends, family members and even people I didn’t know that well at points during those two years, however, had confided in me that they hadn’t yet forgiven the driver who almost took my life that cold November night in 2014.
I had forgiven her.
But there was one aspect I had trouble letting go of. I had forgiven her for the reckless decision that led to her getting behind the wheel at a BAC of twice the legal limit with open liquor in her car, and for driving the wrong way on the expressway for miles, finally hitting my car in a head-on collision. Three people had called the state police to alert them about the wrong-way driver right before she struck me. But I had trouble forgiving her complete lack of remorse for those two years.
At one point early on into the court case, she had asked the judge for permission to go to Las Vegas for the weekend. I was infuriated. She still had her life while I lost mine.
I may not have physically died November 9, 2014, but I lost my life. The Erin I once knew no longer existed. My body was damaged, broken, ravaged, and sliced open several times, leaving me with three long scars, one up and down my abdomen from right below my ribs to my groin area, one from the middle of my back to the tailbone and one stretching horizontally from my left rectus muscle to only a couple of inches away from the back scar. I also had a medium-sized scar where the surgeons repaired my severed left iliac artery, and several smaller scars from drains put in after surgery.
I had lost so much— my car, job, independence and a possible love interest to name a few—with my body being the most devastating. But there was one thing that sustained me through it all: a prayer that I had prayed most of 2014.
In the ICU the first full night after the crash and initial surgery to repair holes in several organs, my family shuffled the 50-plus visitors into my room, two-by-two, at my request, and I joyfully recounted
something I knew to each of them that no one else did. God had let me in on a little secret. And this secret sustained me at the most pivotal, scary, and difficult point of my life.
There are people who have the gift of premonitions before big events happen. I wouldn’t say that I am one of those people.
What I would say is that I prayed a series of specific prayers for seven months prior to the crash and asked God what it was going to take for those things to happen.
This is the list of those prayers:
1.) I prayed for my best friend, Misha, to come back to God. She hadn’t just left the church we both attended; she had stepped away from her personal relationship with him five years prior. It took those five years for my heart to break on her behalf and to beg God for her soul.
2.)I prayed for my dad to recommit his life to Christ.
3.) I prayed to meet my husband, and asked that he would have a heart to serve the poor like the preacher, Francis Chan, I had grown very fond of in previous months.
4.) I asked to make an impact with my life. I wanted to leave a legacy.
On November 6, 2014, I took my little black and white Pomeranian/Pekingese dog for a walk, like I did every other day, and asked God once again what it would take for the things I had prayed for to happen. This time, I heard God speak to me as if he was standing right next to me.
"Erin, something tragic needs to happen."
There I stood at the end of the cul-de-sac I had grown up on and racked my brain trying to figure out if God meant the tragedy would happen to Misha or someone in her family.
Then God said, “Erin, it is going to happen to you.”
So I stood there a little surprised, but without fear. I felt sure. I needed to deny myself so that God’s will could prevail. God didn’t make the girl who hit me sin, but he knew it was going to happen. In a way, I felt God was asking my permission. He was giving me free will.
So I made a request.
“OK, God, do whatever you need to do, just do not take my life.”
On November 9, 2014, my life changed forever.
At around 1:15 am, I left the new Icon Theater on Roosevelt Road in Chicago, where I had met a friend of mine for a movie, and drove my little blue 2006 Scion TC for the last time.
At approximately 1:29 am, the drunk driver that I faced today struck me head-on. Needless to say I almost died multiple times.
I truly believe that had I not asked God to spare my life, I wouldn’t have made it.
I don’t remember the crash at all. On impact, my spine shattered. I sustained two burst fractures at L5 and S4, rendering me paralyzed—I couldn’t feel or move anything below the waist. I also suffered tremendous injury internally leading to holes in my bowels, colon and small intestine; a severed iliac artery, lacerated liver, fractured sternum, three broken ribs, and a concussion. My right foot was broken in three different places, and the seatbelt tore my left rectus muscle basically in half.
The paramedics, state trooper and hospital staff told me repeatedly that I was lucky to be alive. But when your body is in shock, you can't move and you're in the worst pain of your life— I'm talking pain that even high doses of morphine can't touch— the statement, "you're lucky to be alive" doesn't really sink in at that moment.
My first memory is of being wheeled into the ambulance. The next memory I have is of the state trooper standing over me at the hospital. He asked my name and then if I knew what had happened. Unable to move or speak from the pain, I shook my head no.
He then said, “Erin you were hit head-on by a drunk driver traveling the wrong way on the expressway; you are lucky to be alive.”
Next, he walked over to a dark-haired girl laying next to me in the ER. I remember looking at her face because a curtain separated us only up to the shoulders. And I felt compassion for her.
Apparently she asked if I was all right.
The state trooper responded firmly, "No, she’s not all right," he said.
"Does she look all right to you? Look to the woman to your right. That’s the woman you hit."
He then began to lecture her, but my brain shut down. Too much trauma. Too much pain. My brain was overloaded.
And here I sat, on those same hard, wooden benches in the Criminal Court Division Building of Cook County, that I had sat on several times before, and once again I faced the offender whom I had laid next to that initial night in the ER. For two years she appeared stone cold, never looking in my direction. The first time I went to court, I still rode in the wheelchair; and as she walked out of the glass door after pleading not guilty for the umpteenth time, she had let her hair fall in her face so she wouldn’t have to look at me.
My opinion of the defendant wasn’t solely based on how she acted in court, but also on how she behaved when I wasn't present. In fact, the state trooper, who I recently talked to for the first time, told me that she was more arrogant and narcissistic than any other young lady he had interacted with in his career, and as a result he took a special interest in my case. He also noted that each time he saw her in court, that he, the state’s attorney and the victim’s advocate would marvel at her lack of remorse. It makes sense why both the state’s attorney and victim’s advocate had communicated the same sentiments to me prior.
He also said that in the 17 years he has served as a state trooper, by the severity of the crash and the damage to both of our cars, he had thought he was walking into a “double fatal.” Finding both of us alive, especially me, greatly surprised him.
But this court date was different. Both lawyers had presented their cases during the last meeting at the end of August, and the judge had given the defendant ample time to decide if she would accept the plea deal of 18 months incarceration, or not. If she chose to decline, the case would go to trial. But the evidence stacked against her far outweighed the possibility of her innocence.
- Several eyewitness accounts verified the direction she traveled and the crash occurring
- She had open liquor in her vehicle
- The police cam revealed that she showed signs of intoxication due to very garbled speech when compared to the other voices in the video. When asked if she knew she was driving the wrong way on the expressway, her response indicated she had no recollection of anything beyond leaving the bar
- I had a pretty extensive medical record, including thousands of pages of material
To clarify how severe the injuries sustained in the crash were, (the last couple of court dates I walked into the courthouse with no assistive devices, except orthotics) I asked three of my main surgeons— my trauma, plastic, and neurosurgeons, who had done extensive work on me—to write letters to the judge explaining my injuries and the surgeries that were performed.
Although the original news reports say that my condition “was non-life threatening” immediately following the crash, this couldn't be further from the truth. According to my medical record and the testimonies of these three surgeons, my injuries were immediately life-threatening. My organs were seeping, my spine was in shock and my iliac artery, which supplies blood flow to the lower extremities, was severed. I was slowly dying. But, with God’s help, modern medicine and these surgeons saved my life.
In addition to my surgeons, I had almost 40 friends and family write letters explaining my injuries in detail, the grueling 68-day stay at 3 different hospitals, including the rehab hospital, and the many, many months spent in both physical and occupational therapy.
The letters explained each surgery performed at both the initial hospital (John H. Stroger), and the one I was transferred to, two days later (Northwestern Memorial).
Surgery 1/November 9, 2014: Laparotomy/Exploratory surgery to repair the iliac artery and holes to my organs
Surgery 2/November 12, 2014: Spinal fusion, decompression of nerves, thecal sac repair, removal of hundreds of shards of bone from the burst fractures, and installation of 2 rods and 10 screws
Surgery 3/November 19, 2014: Emergency surgery because the 1st surgery failed and I became septic.
-The trauma surgeon told my family that he and his surgical team had caught the widespread infection just in time and that my colon was spewing at them when they opened me up. Feces filled my body cavity. He said had they caught it any later, I would have died.
- He needed to create a colostomy
-He said the team left my abdomen open and most likely it would need to be open for nine months because there wasn’t enough viable tissue to close
After the third emergency surgery, I felt completely helpless and broken. I had tried to be so strong, but I had nothing left to give. I told God I needed Him to take over.
My trauma surgeon ended up calling Dr. Gregory Dumanian, head of Plastics and Reconstructive Surgery at Northwestern, who determined that he would attempt to close me after five days, once the medical staff could ensure I was infection-free.
Monday, November 24, 2014, the plastics team took me to the OR for the fourth time. I determined that if Jesus could feed five thousand people with five loaves of bread, God could grant me enough fascia on my stomach for the surgical staff to safely close me. Dr. Dumanian was able to reconstruct my abdominal wall, repair the left rectus muscle and successfully close using a technique that he had developed. I was the first severe case to undergo his now FDA-approved procedure. And, I am forever grateful that despite even questions in the OR from other surgeons about what he was doing, that Dr. Dumanian fought for me by saying:
"I am not going to put her through hell. She's been through enough."
Had Dr. Dumanian not used his technique, a skin graft would be the only other option, requiring several more incisions and extensive surgeries. This would have completely changed my physical therapy course. Studies show that the sooner someone is up and walking after a spinal cord injury, the better outcomes they have. But having that large of a skin graft in place of my intact abdominal muscles would make learning to walk again, on very atrophied legs, next to impossible.
Surgery #5/January 2015: Removal of IVC filter. This filter was placed during my third emergency surgery because I had developed two dangerous blood clots, and one had traveled to my lung already. The filter would prevent the second clot, and others that formed, from traveling to my lung, or worse, heart.
Surgery #6/September 17, 2015: Repair of left flank hernia
Surgery #7/November 16, 2016: The left rod in my back broke. During this surgery, the surgeons replaced the broken rod with a longer one.
The letters also explained in detail the length of time spent in the ICU and how I couldn’t eat most of the time, causing me to lose so much weight I was almost unrecognizable. Other people recounted how no one could be sure I would ever walk again, and that the surgeons needed to choose between saving my life by repairing my organs or the possibility of complete, permanent paralysis that initial night in the ER because I needed two emergency surgeries, and the two teams had to decide which one was more immediate.
My friends and family described my six-week stay in inpatient rehab and the years of physical and occupational therapy to come.
While an inpatient at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, I learned to sit up, walk with a walker while suspended in a harness that hung from the ceiling and how to use the bathroom alternatively. To pee I was taught to catheterize myself every four to five hours using an intermittent catheter, which looks like a clear straw that's pointed on one end. The staff at RIC trained certain friends and family members of mine how to cath me, so that if need be, they could assist me until I learned how to do it independently. I also learned how to clean out and change my entire colostomy system, and how to transfer from the wheelchair into the car and the shower.
Lastly, the letters shared about the emotional scars I incurred and subsequent PTSD, as well as, the fact that I lost two-thirds of my hair after the doctors prescribed Gabapentin, a nerve blocker, for debilitating nerve pain that keep me bedridden at times.
At the last court date in August, the judge determined that he wasn't only going to read my sister's, parent's, and my victim impact statements as predicted by the attorneys, but that he wanted to read every single letter written.
We all decided we would meet again in October, with the only date that worked for both families landing on the 18th. I felt extremely relieved by the judge’s decision to read all of the letters in their entirety. I had wondered how he could make an informed decision about a fair sentence for the defendant if he had only briefly seen me at court a couple of times. Not to mention, that he would have to sift through hundreds of pages of medical jargon that would be hard to translate into everyday life, and emotional impact. Surely so many people, even in the medical field had had trouble understanding at times the complexity of the situation.
Read the previous blog post in this series called: "The Prayer That Changed Everything: How I Survived a Drunk Driver and the Story I Couldn't Tell Until Now."
This brings me to the moment of truth.
There I sat, with the 14 other people who had accompanied me on this day, including the Victim’s Advocate, Julie Rusco, who had worked with me on my case since the beginning of the court process, all eagerly awaiting the defendant’s decision.
Would she finally take responsibility and plead guilty, or choose to go to trial, which would be many more months of court dates, waiting, and just plain agony?
The state's attorney and victim's advocate, who I had grown to love, told me that even if the offender was convicted, most likely
she would only be sentenced to probation for a specified amount of time because she is young with no prior record. The fact that Cook County is known to be one of the most corrupt counties in all of the United States didn’t offer me much consolation either. But, I continued to pray and trust that God would bring justice one way or another.
Each time the victim’s advocate, or state’s attorney, mentioned the possibility of probation, my stomach dropped. It was a slap on the wrist. The crash had altered, changed and destroyed so many parts of my life. Even if my body did fully heal, which is a medical impossibility—there is no cure for paraplegia—I would have lost two years of my life. And time, I would never be able to get back. But even that was a stretch. I didn't want revenge. I wanted justice, and so did all of my family and friends.
Every court date, the "Team Erin the Beast” clan would sit across the room from the defendant and her family and friends. It felt like we were worlds apart. I always had at least nine people with me, she, two or three. This particular day, five other people attended court with her.
My body felt weak. I knew I would need time to recover when I got home. Facing the offender in court always sapped all of my energy. I also knew that if she pled guilty, that one of two things would happen: she would either be taken into custody that day or there would be yet another court date, and I would wait to read my victim impact statement until the next time. I had prepared my statement in June. It totaled 11 pages. Writing out all of the grueling details and reliving the most traumatizing moments of my life, however proved to be a very difficult task, much more difficult than I initially thought. And reading other people’s accounts of what had happened to me? Forget it. I was thoroughly retraumatized.
I still had flashbacks, not of the actual crash, but of what my mind invented it would be like, despite having no actual memory of the incident. I have memory of moments before, and about 20-30 minutes afterwards. But, in trying to understand what happened, my brain fills in the blanks. I often imagine the point of impact, me seeing her car right before she crashed into mine, headlights blaring in my eyes, and words I know I probably said: "Oh my God......."
I often feel the same emotions I felt in the moment, even though I can't physically remember it. And that feeling is of complete and utter helplessness; there is nothing I can do to change what is about to happen. That emotion alone has haunted me for two years. Although I know God allowed what happened to occur for a reason, it doesn't change the trauma. My brain doesn't know the difference, even if my mind does. Because my body remembers what my brain won't allow me to.
Knowing my injuries now, I often think about what it felt like when I realized I couldn’t feel or move my legs, and having to relay that to the firefighter on duty that night. I wonder how I felt realizing at that moment, I may never walk again, and even if I did, my active lifestyle, as I knew it, would never is the same. I would never be the same. The idea that the things I love most in this world could be taken away in a split second, and all because of someone else’s reckless and selfish decision that night would be too much to bear.
I often imagine what it felt like to wait as the firemen sliced through the steel of my little blue car door because it was too jammed to open, and they had to extricate me.
I imagine the sound of the crash being so loud that all the while the firemen were cutting through the thick of my car door, I was screaming inside. I can imagine crying and begging them to hurry because I was in pain. So. Much. Pain.
Dr. Dumanian once explained some of my injuries to me this way: He said, "Erin, the seatbelt literally sliced your body in half. And in a physics analogy, with the impact being so strong, the energy had no where to go, but to shatter your spine at the tail end."
I can imagine how much that pain felt amplified when the paramedics stretched me out on a stretcher for the first time. I can imagine the octave I screamed at. Every time the ER nurses moved me even an inch, searing pain rushed through my body so quickly, I screamed bloody murder. I begged them not to move me any more, but protocol trumped my wants and needs.
I imagine all the while waiting to be extricated from the car, how trapped I felt in that little steel box that for nine years had been a
safe place. A place I felt closest to God, and would pour my heart out in prayer to Him almost every time I drove.
These are the things I relive every time I step into the courtroom. Facing the defendant was like facing my attempted murderer. And worse, she had showed no humanity up until this point. She gave off the impression that she did not care. As a trauma victim, I can vouch that I wanted her to care about, and feel remorse for, what she had done, even more than I wanted her to go to jail. Because if she hadn't, I knew what had happened to me could easily happen to someone else.
According to the MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) website, another 27 people will die today because someone else chose to drive under the influence. The site also says that about one-third of all drivers arrested or convicted of drunk driving are repeat offenders. If the defendant didn't have remorse, and only got a slap on the wrist for her actions, what would prevent her from continuing to drive intoxicated?
All of these thoughts raced through my mind as I stared forward waiting for our case to be called, not daring to look in her direction. I wasn't the type to want to intimidate other people, and I didn't particularly want to look at her. Not because I hated her, but more so because of what she represented and reminded me of: all of the terrible things that had happened, all of the things I had lost, all of the conflicting emotions of trusting God and knowing he remained faithful to what he told me on the cul-de-sac that day, but of never knowing if my hopes for full recovery would ever come to fruition.
More than anything, I wanted to have my colostomy reversed, but because of the spinal injury, I had, and still have, basically no pelvic floor function. I would be going into my marriage with a poop bag hanging off of my waist. Each time I saw her, she represented the dignity I had to fight for those two years to get back, all the tears I had shed, all the hopeless and shameful feelings I had had about what happened to my body and all of my shattered dreams.
Then our case was called. The 4'10, black-haired, now 24-year-old girl walked swiftly with her lawyer to the stand. He towered over her petite body. The judge presented the charges against her: Class 4 felony for aggravated DUI causing great bodily harm. He asked her how she wanted to plea and told her the contingencies of waving certain rights. She conceded.
The sound of that word rang through the courtroom. I could barely hold my emotions. My sister, Nikki, squeezed my arm.
The judge then called my sister to the stand to read her victim impact statement. She started to read and looked directly at the offender and her lawyer. Early on into her statement, she began to cry. I could no longer hold my composure. Everyone on my side of the room also cried. We sat there and listened, as Nikki recounted the fear that at any moment her sister, “best friend, soulmate” could die. She described the paralysis and watching as my once healthy, and muscular, body wasted away (I worked as an aerobics instructor and personal trainer from 2005-2012) those first few weeks following the crash.
And, she discussed her, and her husband’s losses too. How she had shut down her practice as a psychologist for weeks to be with me at the hospital as much as possible, losing thousands of dollars of income. How she, and my brother-in-law, Ryan, had come as much as they could, to be there with me when I woke up from each surgery, and to hold my hand when I had no idea what was going on, and as I received more and more disappointing health information. I found out later, that at points they even fought with my family about not withholding medical information from me, a trauma victim, because it would only further traumatize me. My sister described her own version of PTSD, and of intrusive thoughts of something else terrible happening to her loved ones.
Then it was my turn. I wiped my tears as I hobbled to the stand, trying to prevent myself from weeping.
"Raise your right hand, " the officer declared when I reached the witness box. "Do you swear that your testimony is the truth, and not falsified in any way?"
"I do," I said, straightening in my chair.
"Ok," the officer said. "You may proceed."
I started to read. The defendant and her lawyer sat at a table inside of the courtroom, while our friends and families sat in benches that looked like pews just outside of the glass. I looked towards my side of the room most of the time. I sometimes glanced at her because I didn't want her to sense fear. But I felt afraid. I wanted to be strong. To my surprise, she sat there, and listened to every word, only looking down a couple of times. Her mother, on the other hand, looked down most of the time. She looked grief-stricken and saddened. At moments, she even looked embarrassed for her daughter.
My victim impact statement was as real and honest as I could make it. I didn't hold anything back. To withhold even the most gruesome and personal details would deprive the offender of knowing exactly how her decision had impacted another person. I even recounted how she had asked for permission to go to Las Vegas only a year prior. The judge granted her request, and she had posted several photos of her bare belly on Instagram with the caption, "Loving life."
I continued reading, "and while you are baring your perfectly intact belly, I am carrying around a scar and a poop bag on mine. You wrote, 'loving life.' At least if you are too ashamed to admit wrongdoing, you could have the human decency to not rub in the fact that you are loving life while I’m sitting here begging God to pee.”
I then detailed how a potential love interest before the crash told me he was no longer attracted to me afterwards. And I wondered if any man would love me despite my newfound disabilities.
I said, "And as happy as I am to have met, and will be marrying, the man of my dreams, I am equally sad. Equally sad that my wedding day will not be quite as I imagined it. I am sad that I can't do many of the things with Dennis that we both love to do: run, dance with abandon, play, etc."
I could hear a murmur of weeping throughout my statement. Then Dennis lost it. I saw his mom, my future-mother-in-law, now sitting next to him cradling his head while he wailed.
The defendant's lawyer wiped away his tears.
Finally, I got to the closing argument. "Your behavior and seeming lack of remorse afterwards is what has been the hardest for me to work through. I will say though had God not been in the picture I would want to hate you, only that would hurt me more. So I have taken the other approach: I forgive you. The Bible says that love always forgives. If God is love and I claim to follow him, then I too must demonstrate love, which also equals forgiveness. I have never come this close to knowing what it felt like for Christ to carry my sin on the cross. And now I bear yours. But I want you to feel forgiven, even though I don't think you deserve it. Because, then again, Jesus forgave me and I didn't deserve it."
At that moment, I looked up from my statement and said one more thing that wasn't written on my paper. And with a confused look on her face, the defendant drank in my words.
"I want you to know that your worth doesn’t come from the attention going to parties and wearing skimpy clothing brings," I said boldly. "Your worth comes from God. You are worthy because of Him. You are beautiful because of Him. You are everything because of Him."
I stepped off of the stand feeling empowered, yet emotionally exhausted at the same time. I did exactly what I had set out to do, and I felt satisfied with that. I slowly made my way back to my seat.
Still crying, I sat down next to Dennis. He pulled me into his chest where I stayed for a couple of minutes. The judge waited. He then asked the defendant if she had anything she wanted to say. Now was the moment I had dreamed of. Literally. I had imagined in my sleep that she apologized and that we hugged.
"But this is reality," I told myself. I braced for her to decline saying anything. I prepared myself that even if she didn't acknowledge her sin, that my pain remained valid. I had finally realized that the thought that I needed her remorse to validate all that had happened to me, was indeed false.
Coincidently, the Sunday before the 18th, the minister of my church, Clint Larr, at the Central Region of the Chicago Church of Christ, talked about what forgiveness is and is not, helping me to solidify my own thoughts and feelings about the one piece I was holding onto. I just wanted her to care.
What Forgiveness Is:
Forgiveness IS the conscious release of resentment towards another person regardless of whether they deserve it or not.
What forgiveness is NOT:
-Forgiveness is not a one time-event. Every time I wake up to a non-functioning body, or I am saddened by yet another physical activity I am not able to do, such as ice-skating, I make the conscious choice to continue forgiving.
-Forgiveness does not mean allowing abuse to continue.
-Forgiveness is also NOT about forgetting.
I was finally able to let go of the last piece that I had been holding onto for those years. Even if she didn't apologize, I had released her, and myself, from feelings of resentment for her lack of remorse.
Forgiveness is not just a gift I wanted to give her, it was a gift I also gave myself.
Then the impossible happened. The defendant got up and turned to look at me. She began to weep, and with what seemed to be an unpremeditated statement, she said, "I am not going to stand here and make excuses for what I did. All I can say is that I messed up and that I am so sorry, Erin, for you and all those who have come to support you."
Through tears, she continued. "You are right Erin, I can live my life once I serve my sentence, but you will never have your life back, and for that I am so sorry."
The sobs got louder in the courtroom. And just like that initial night in the ER, I felt compassion for her. I felt compelled to run up and hug her, but I relented because I wasn't sure if I would be encroaching on her space. I didn't want to just tell her I had forgiven her, I wanted to show her.
The judge then went over her rights and told her to go with the officer. In that moment, completely unafraid and compelled by the Spirit, I knew I had only a narrow window of time left. I immediately jumped up, and walked as quickly as possible through the glass door into the courtroom.
"Wait," I exclaimed. "Jeanne, can I hug her?"
The state's attorney replied. "You'll have to ask her."
The defendant waited in the middle of the courtroom and turned towards me. I approached her.
"Can I hug you," I asked vulnerably.
"Yes," she replied and walked towards me. We embraced.
The courtroom lost it. The wails got louder. My mom and her mom sobbed loudly.
She looked at me with tear stains running down her cheeks, "I don't know what they [the lawyers] dug up about me, but it isn't true."
I looked back and said, "I forgive you. I want you to know that."
We hugged again. Then I looked her in the eyes once more and said one last thing. "I want you to know that I know it was no coincidence that you hit me of all people that night. I believe you hit me so that I could show you God. Do you get that?"
"Yes," she replied. We parted ways and she was taken into custody.
When I walked back through the courtroom to the benches, I noticed my mother had rushed over to her mother and they were embracing. My family and I then hugged every other member of her family. I hugged her brother. Dennis hugged her fiancé. My dad hugged her dad, and my sister hugged her brother. They all said they were sorry. My sister and I discussed with her brother the possibility of visiting her in prison.
Then something even more surprising happened. Her lawyer walked up to me, hugged me with tears in his eyes and apologized. Dennis later told me that her lawyer had shaken his hand, and told Dennis that "he had been wrong."
According to my sister and everyone in the audience, there wasn't a dry eye in the courtroom, including the officers and another person waiting for her case to be called. The judge quickly exited the stand after seeing us embrace, and with a crack in his voice, asked for a recess.
The victim's advocate and MADD representative reveled in what had just happened.
"In my 30 years of serving as a victim's advocate, I have never witnessed something like this," Julie said. "You truly are my walking miracle. You are amazing," she finished.
In that moment, I was freed in so many ways. Freed because I had said what I had intended to say, and was able to share the story that for two years I had kept pent up inside. Freed because I felt released from the bondage of watching everything I say and post on social media for fear that it may look like what happened was not as bad as it actually was ( I was advised by the lawyer handling my civil case against the offender to stay off of social media).
I not only enjoy writing, but I am a journalist-by-trade. The inability to blog or share my thoughts on social media, caused me to feel like the prisoner. And then you add in the feeling of slavery to the needs of my new, and alternatively-functioning, body. This will forever be my prison.
But when I look back now, I have no regrets. Did I call this tragedy on myself because I gave God permission to do what he thought fit, and glorify himself? No. But I did get what I asked for.
While Misha still has not returned to church, she acknowledges that God is real and credits me for having an unwavering faith. She has since told me that she has never known a love like what I have shown her through my prayer and subsequent sacrifice: that I was willing to give of myself for her. And now I get it. God says that by our love other people will know we are truly his disciples, and I was able to exemplify that for one of the people I love most in this world. But, Jesus was the first example of this, and He did this exact same thing for me.
My dad ended up studying the Bible and giving his life back to Christ two months before my wedding date. I had also prayed years ago that I would only get married if my dad could walk me down the aisle as a disciple. I knew this prayer was risky because my dad was already in his late 70s, and I couldn’t be sure if he would ever want to recommit himself to God.
Through the movement of international churches I am apart of, I have been able to share my heart and faith with many of the regions in a way I could have never imagined, impacting people in a way I could never have predicted.
The way God answered my prayers may not be exactly the way I would have planned it, but I wouldn’t change it.
Oh, and one more thing: I met and married the man of my dreams.
So with that, I was able to go into my marriage freed from the bondage of even a hint of unforgiveness.
And now, I am starting off 2017 right. While many of us strive for New Year's resolutions such as a goal or a word to focus on, this year I am proudly declaring what I will NOT be taking with me in 2017.
Despite my circumstances, pain or trauma, or even the fact that I have every right to be upset about the decisions that were made that led to a specific person hurting me, I will not be taking bitterness or unforgiveness for a ride in my 2017 suitcase. Instead, I've made a conscious decision to leave these things at the door.
2016 was about finding the truth in my pain. In 2017, I want to have an impossible faith to surpass even more so what the doctors think is possible. Thus far, after all of the prayers prayed on my behalf and my refusal to take "no" for an answer, I am called the miracle patient.
This blog post is the second of many posts in the series: "The Prayer That Changed Everything: How I Survived a Drunk Driver and the Story I Couldn't Tell Until Now."
I want to personally thank all of my surgeons at John H. Stroger Hospital, but especially those at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. I was not sure if writing your names was appropriate in my article, but I truly am indebted to all of you. I truly had the "dream team" of surgeons.
Thank-you Dr. George Cybulski/Dr. Smith (Head of Neurosurgery/Neurosurgeon at Northwestern Memorial) for your positivity and urgency with my case, and for your care and interest in me as a person, as well as, a patient, Dr. Shapiro (head of Trauma and Emergency Surgery at Northwestern) for your thoroughness and for always wanting the best for me, and Dr. Dumanian (Head of Plastics and Reconstructive Surgery at Northwestern) for fighting for me when I couldn't fight for myself, and for always answering my emails even at 6am/10pm when I have a question or issue :). Thank-you Dr. Kadakia (Orthopedic Surgeon) for not being too eager to operate on my right broken foot and allowing it to heal on its own. Thank-you Dr. Rodriguez (Vascular Surgeon) for your help with the IVC filter placement and removal that saved me from life-threatening blood clots. And thank-you to all of the first responders: EMTs, paramedics, firemen and state troopers. I hope to personally thank you in person some day. I am currently working on it!
Trooper Bradley, thank-you for allowing me to "interview" you, and helping me to put the pieces of that night together. Thank-you to all of the hospital staff at John H. Stroger, Northwestern Memorial, and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago rehab hospitals, who worked on me or served me in any way. You are valued and so appreciated.
If you like what you have read, check out subsequent posts in this series here!
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Tags: auto accident, courage, court case, criminal court building, Faith, Family, forgiveness, Francis Chan, Friends, God, hope, internal injuries, love, loved ones, perseverance, scripture, Spinal cord injury, survivor, victim, wrong-way crash