Crash course

What it really feels like—physically, emotionally and financially—to be hit by a truck

The author revisits the intersection where he was struck by a half-ton pickup last December.

The author revisits the intersection where he was struck by a half-ton pickup last December.

Photo by Howard Hardee

I was surprisingly alert when I woke up after the impact, lying flat on my back in the street with a pool of blood growing around my head. I was able to answer all of the EMT’s questions and provide the required phone numbers, and even pulled the miraculously still-functional cellphone from my pocket to confirm the information I’d given wasn’t brain-damaged gibberish.

I wish I’d been a little more with it, though, because I realized months later that I’d missed the opportunity to take—and I’m not even being hyperbolic—the most epic selfie ever.

Nor am I exaggerating when I say I nearly died that night, just two days before this past Christmas. I was leaving the Winchester Goose with an old friend, headed downtown for dinner. We’d taken just a few steps into the crosswalk, on a green light, when a half-ton pickup turning left from Broadway hit me going about 25 mph, launching my substantial mass into the air like a rag doll. The truck’s bumper fractured my right knee, and hitting the pavement caused a concussion, three fractured ribs and ripped a crack in my skull several inches long on the left side. The driver, luckily for me, stopped and took responsibility (he didn’t even see me, according to the police report).

I’d never been in a significant accident or otherwise sustained serious injuries, and over the next few months I learned the pain of the impact is just the beginning. I stepped off that curb into an ever-deepening quagmire of doctor visits, insurance claims, existential crises, frustratingly slow recovery, anxiety, disappointment, bills, pills and paperwork. I was knocked out of the real world for over a month and returning felt like walking alone through a minefield, which ain’t easy with busted knees and a crash-addled brain.

There’s no guide telling you what to do in case of an accident. It’s quite literally a school of hard knocks. In addition to dealing with the pain, the interlocked medical-legal-insurance system is difficult to navigate, and the only people who seem to really understand it work in hospital billing departments, personal injury law firms and insurance companies.

I spent most of Christmas Eve in the hospital undergoing a series of X-rays and other tests necessary to find the fractures, check for internal damage and determine if the pieces of my broken skull were displaced. After about 18 hours, I was released.

The accident’s physical and mental effects lasted long after the bruises faded.

Photo by Ken Smith

The doctors informed me that having been knocked unconscious for several minutes made my head injury more serious than I’d realized. I was warned off most physical activity for six to eight weeks, as a second impact could be fatal. I also was advised to avoid intense visual or mental stimulation, like watching action movies. This seemed silly until I tried to watch Paranormal Activity 3 a few days later and got a splitting headache from the shaky camera.

The physical pain was intense—I spent most of January sitting in a recliner in my living room, too uncomfortable to stand up or lie down—but more surprising were the effects of my brain injury. For months, as I limped back into my daily routine, the mildest mental exertion often left me anxious, frustrated and exhausted. I found my critical thinking and communication skills—a journalist’s bread and butter—hard to easily access.

Then there were the deep realizations, the first of which came on New Year’s Eve. From the moment I woke up in the street I knew I was lucky to be alive, but the true immensity of my near-death experience eluded me until then, when it crashed into me like … well, like a truck. A fraction of a second or a mile per hour difference, a few more or fewer pounds of body weight, so many variables and possible outcomes. Yet here I was, alive and walking, my brains a bit scrambled but still intact. I’d never been so in touch with my own mortality, and I’m still sometimes overwhelmed thinking about it.

Recovery has been long, slow going and continues still, and the stress of getting on with normal life was initially compounded by the rest of the accident’s aftermath.

Although I went to the same specialty clinic for follow-up visits, I never saw the same doctor twice, and each one seemed less informed about my injuries than the previous one. I had to establish a new primary doctor, some of whom flat-out refused to take patients who’ve been recently injured. Initial hospital bills were shocking—a torrent of five-figure tabs—but not what my insurance actually paid. Everything is negotiable, but nobody bothered to tell me that.

I learned to be (even more) wary of insurance companies, having dealt with both my own and the other guy’s, because of their inadequate offers and undue demands. Some necessary treatments weren’t covered. Even with insurance, there were a lot of out-of-pocket costs—medication, co-pays—that threatened to become a huge financial burden.

My own situation was greatly improved by retaining a good lawyer. Some people advised against this and I had my own misgivings, but I’m glad I did. Having an advocate who understands the process was essential. Right off the bat, he took charge of collecting insurance forms, medical bills, police reports and other pertinent documents, lifting at least some of the strain so I could focus on my health and a return to some kind of normalcy.

That, for me, has mostly returned. My body aches more than it used to and some mornings I feel 10 years older than I did before the bang-up. I have a slight limp that resurfaces at the end of long days, and my ribs, knees and head throb when I witness others getting hurt (like on America’s Funniest Home Videos). But I’m alive, and for that I am grateful.