An Accident in Harrisburg

Taking a break from the narrative of my upcoming surgery, I thought I’d describe the only previous time in my adult life that I’ve ever spent time in a hospital. It was an auto accident in Harrisburg, PA.

This happened in October 1977 while I was living just outside Hershey. It was a Sunday morning and I was driving home from Harrisburg, minding my own business, obeying the speed limit and all other driving regulations then in force.

The seat belt law had not yet been passed, and for some reason that I’ve never been able to figure out I was not wearing my seat belt. This really is inexplicable because in those days the car that I drove offered “passive” restraints, so one had to intentionally unbuckle, something that I rarely did. But for whatever reason, I was not buckled in, and that may have prevented a more serious injury (I’ve never consulted an expert on the subject, so I don’t really know; it’s possible that if I had been wearing a seat belt I would have simply suffered a slightly different set of injuries).

Anyway I was approaching an intersection where the light was red; as I started to slow down, the light changed to green, so I pressed on through. And then–


The corner of Walnut Street and S. Progress Avenue in Harrisburg, PA, approximately where I think the accident happened.The corner of Walnut Street and S. Progress Avenue in Harrisburg, PA, approximately where I think the accident happened.

The corner of Walnut Street and S. Progress Avenue in Harrisburg, PA, approximately where I think the accident happened.

Alas, some other driver apparently didn’t notice that his light had now changed to red, and he and I reached the center of the intersection at approximately the same moment, with me having the unfortunate luck to get there just a split second earlier, so he came crashing directly into my driver’s side door.

The next few moments are a strange blend of a blur mixed with a heightened slowed down sense of reality (yeah, just like those slow motion car crashes they show in those physics-defying movies). I would like to emphasize at this point that the only mind-altering drug that I had consumed that morning was nicotine delivered via a pack of Marlboro cigarettes (happily I kicked that filthy addiction back in 1984).

The impact of his car into my driver’s side door caused the door to buckle, my car to fly into a nearby street sign pole, and me to transport to the opposite side of the car where my head smashed through the passenger’s side window. Or perhaps the impact caused the window to smash before my head reached it. Whatever. I do know that the glass was completely gone and my head was leaning through the open window when I gained some semblance of my senses.

At that point I was probably thinking more clearly than I ever have in my entire life, and I knew exactly what I had to do. Opening the glove compartment, which happily was now directly in front of me, I removed a baggie (which some thoughtful person had deposited there the night before) and stuffed it into my pants pocket. Had I not done so, the balance of my life might have played out very differently.

That moment of clarity must have passed quickly because the next thing I remember is some stranger telling me not to light the cigarette that was now dangling from my lips. He was polite, but very insistent. I also remember several people offering to testify that the accident was not my fault. Nice folks, those Harrisburgers.

Luckily the accident occurred only a few blocks from the Osteopathic Hospital, so an ambulance crew was there almost immediately. I remember them covering me with a blanket to protect me from glass shards as they broke the windshield so they could reach me. I remember them inserting the Jaws of Life to free me from the gear shift which was inconveniently pinning me down. I remember them lifting me out of the car through the windshield opening. The next thing I remember is being in the emergency room surrounded by a crew of doctors and nurses, who were cutting my clothes off. Damn! I really hated to lose that pair of jeans.

Well, the car was totaled, but I got off relatively lightly. My worst injury was a 15% pneumothorax in my left lung and I got to wear this really cool valve in my chest for a few days. Some stitches were required just above my right eye and they admitted me to the hospital for about three days so the nurses could wake me up every morning at 5am to take some more of my blood. I required the use of a cane to walk for about three weeks there-after. Yes, I’d say I was pretty lucky.

This has gone on long enough so I’ll relate the story of the insurance claim, my interview with the law enforcement officer investigating the accident, and my encounter with an l-a-w-y-e-r some other time.

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