Chapter 4: No Accidents

Continued from Chapter Three: The Voice.

That I have a memory of this might be remarkable, but when it was time to tell the story, I was able to sketch in the details of the accident scene from the memory of someone who had been there. It was someone for whom I could scarcely have known to look, never mind know she existed. For all I knew Charlene Norton could have been an angel or a figment of my imagination.

In 1992, through my sister-in-law, and through a twist in fate, I met the woman who had saved my life 20 years before. My brother Bill’s wife Liz was studying under a teacher and nursing mentor – Charlene Norton – in a hospital practicum about chronic pain when they both discovered the connection.  Liz told her teacher. “My sister-in-law has chronic pain.” It wasn’t until sometime later Charlene inquired into the nature of the pain.

“It was phantom limb pain; she lost her leg,” Liz explained. Charlene told me later that at that instant she had the strange feeling that something profound was going to be revealed. Her heart sank, and all became still around her – an epiphany.

“How did she lose it?” was Charlene’s next question.

“In a motorcycle accident,” Liz told her.

After her teacher’s inquiry about where it happened, Liz almost hated to answer for fear of what they both might discover. The line of conversation had one of those eerie paths of twilight-zone revelation, but Liz haltingly told Charlene it had been in Amherst, west of Boston, at UMass.  When Charlene casually, yet carefully, holding a breath, asked if Liz’s sister-in-law was blonde, they both knew this was a synchronous event, discovering that they both knew someone in common – me – and that Charlene would finally meet the person she had expected to one day meet, though she didn’t know how. 

Liz didn’t know Charlene existed in the context of my accident; there were no accounts of her in the family folklore about that disastrous day. But I did have a story. The story of the Voice. I told Liz my memory, and asked Liz to tell me more.

Charlene had once been an emergency room nurse, but in May of 1971 she was working at the University Infirmary while her husband attended school in Amherst.

Liz told me, “She was coming home from work and saw a commotion at the side of the road. She got out of her car, and she saw right away that Mark was dead. His neck was twisted, and his body was torn by the handlebars, but he still had his helmet on.”

“I was the one whose helmet stayed on,” but Liz told me that my helmet had flown off.

“People were standing by – helpless – while you moaned and cried, ‘Someone help me. I can’t get up,'” Liz told me, “and you would ask where Mark was–was he OK? She assured you things were under control, and then she just started giving orders.

‘OK – you – get some ice from that gas station.’ There was a station a half mile away. She ordered another person to call the ambulance, and she told somebody else to go to the nearest house and get towels and sheets to wrap you and stop the bleeding.”  Liz paused, “She saved your life, Cale.”

I knew then that this was The Voice. Liz gave me a piece of paper, and I hung onto the phone number of this person whom I would never have expected to look for, never mind meet.  I wondered what Charlene and I would talk about when we met. I have been a reporter, and I have a habit of asking questions, detached, and/or out of some people’s comfort range. Would it seem inappropriate if I asked her the gory details? Did I want to know the gory details?  Oddly, the first thing to ask her was whether she saw the young man who had hit us. Someone had told me once that he was dazed, and he just walked in a circle around the crowd. She told me she saw nothing but me, and the memory would be imprinted on her mind forever.

“I knew one day we would meet. Accidents don’t happen,” she told me.

I was awed by her serenity on the phone. We decided to make a time and meet the next day just before my plane left, in Revere, on the beach where I grew up.  When we met, I liked her immediately. She was in her late 40’s, I guessed.

Charlene is what anyone would call a beautiful person. Her dark eyes, set into the frame of a soft face, reflect intelligence, wisdom, compassion, and humor.  Yes, this was the kind of person who could save another’s life.  I asked her about her family and learned she had a son who had been handicapped at birth with cerebral palsy; I was impressed that she described him as a normal, competent young man, not emphasizing or minimizing the disability. 

She was a nursing teacher who encouraged journal writing, and I was a writer who taught journaling classes.  On the beach she told me some things about the accident site, and between then and a few years later, when I interviewed her more formally for her recollections, I was given the view from outside my body.

“I think there was initially somebody there directing traffic,” Charlene told me. “I stopped and asked, ‘Do you need any help?’ Somebody said, ‘Yes.’ I went to Mark because there were people crowded around you. I saw that he couldn’t be helped. You were on your left side. I sent someone to get towels to pack you, and we kept you on your left side. If you don’t know what somebody’s injuries are, you don’t want to move them. We didn’t have anything to transport you with; we didn’t have a collar. We continued to go back and forth and get towels and pack as we could to stop the bleeding.

“Was I screaming?” I asked her because I had heard that I was.  Three years after the crash a fellow UMass student on campus who told me cries had haunted him for years.

“No. You weren’t screaming. You couldn’t move your legs, I remember you said you couldn’t feel your legs. And we said, ‘That’s OK, we’re staying with you.’

“Probably as we were waiting [for the ambulance], we started to question, out of natural curiosity, how this could’ve happened? I don’t even know who this other person was, [who helped her do the work] I couldn’t even describe him, but I can describe Mark. I could draw a picture of where he lay and how he looked. I could draw a picture of you and how you lay.”

“Would you?”

“What?”

I reached for my pen across the table. “Would you draw a diagram for me?” I asked, intending to slow things down so I could take it all in. Charlene did not disappoint me, as she replied readily.

“We said, ‘What caused this kind of damage?’ thinking to ourselves what would have happened. And the only thing we could think of was you must have been propelled through the air. “Then we thought what caused the injuries to Mark. The handle bars . . .uh. . . cutting into his abdomen. . .uh…

I asked her, “Is that what killed him?”

“As I recall. . . .” she said. “ It was one of those difficult things where you would look, but you didn’t want to see, but you know you needed to know whether you needed to help him, and we made a choice, there was nothing [I] could do.”

I asked really hard questions, because I had to. “Did it appear if his leg was there or ripped off?”

“I don’t remember. He was face first, head all twisted around. I knew it was a cervical injury that was severe and probably on impact he was dead. Helmet still on. If his head was bent and twisted, it was probably a cervical injury high up and would sever the spinal cord, and unless he had immediate treatment, he wouldn’t have survived spinal shock.

I asked her to explain how that works.

“Shock would have caused all kinds of physiological changes, the heart would’ve stopped. . .”

I interrupt her: “His brain wouldn’t have been able to get the messages down to the rest of his body?”

“Yes,” she nods, “and then we knew he had an abdominal wound that was severe. If he was conscious and alive we would’ve done what we did with you, pack him. We tried to . . . But there was no life.”

“How did you know that he had an abdominal wound? Was there a lot of blood?” I asked her.

“I can’t remember seeing the blood. I’m sure there was.”

Though at this point in the interview I had to leave—to get sick in the restroom—I was determined to follow through; I might never see her again. I returned, and setting down a napkin, I handed her a pen. “What I’d like you to do now is draw … “

“Sure. I’m not an artist … ” she said hesitantly.

“Just a graphic,” I said.

She began her map, with stick figures and straight lines for roads. “Mark was in the center of the pavement.”

“Were we both in the road?”

“No. You were on the side [of the road] facing Sunderland, going that way. He was here with his head in that direction. You were off … ” She drew me in on the right side.

““We were on same side of road as the gas station, so that’s why something happened, so that . . . something in the air – this telephone pole was on the right-hand side of the street, you got flung toward this side of the street, and you went toward the pole, and then you bounced back.”

I was awed by her straightforward delivery, her memory, and by her understated courage and accomplishment.

“Amazing you had the presence of mind to think of all these things. That you weren’t even in shock yourself. . . ” I said.

“Not until afterwards. Your adrenaline surges through the whole thing, but you try to keep a clear head, even though you know that at some point you’re going to crash later,” she said matter-of-factly.

I persisted in attempts to unlock the key to what seems like my luck to survive – her skill. “It seems you were unusual. I’ve heard that many nurses don’t even have knowledge of first aid. You obviously had field experience, or you were very savvy.”

She told me she was just 24, a few years out of nursing school. “I had worked at Beth Israel on a surgical floor, so I’d had lots of post-op patients and rehab patients, so they had nephrectomies and such, and lots of dressings. And then I’d been working at the University Health Services. The college students would come in with all kinds of crazy things. One fellow was in a fight and a guy had bit his nose. Lots of human bites, different unusual gashes. I worked the night shift (11-7 a. m.) in the emergency room.

“I think if I were doing it now, after having different experiences, I might react differently,” she said, to my surprise. And by way of explanation told me: “I was young and felt I could handle everything and anything myself. I had a sense of immortality. My philosophy was if I saw a situation in which I knew I could help, I’d stop.

“If there were two ambulances, . . . maybe not. If it was a situation like this one . . . It was closer to 5 o’clock, I remember people standing at the scene, looking, but not doing. They probably stopped to help, but they saw that [they couldn’t] and they didn’t know what to do.

“I don’t know who this other person was, but we worked together. I didn’t go get the towels, but when he did, or someone else ran over to get them, we just started packing and talking with you.”

I asked what she said to me, wanting to hear her say what I remembered.

“The kind of questions I would ask, ‘Are you breathing? How are you doing? Hang in there. The ambulance is coming. We’ll stay with you.’ Those were the words I remember.”

“Did I respond?” I wanted to know, and she tells me that I asked, “Where’s Mark? How’s Mark?”

She goes on. “Our concern was to stop the bleeding. The biggest risk was a hemorrhage to death. With multiple fractures of the pelvis you would sever the major arteries: the femoral arteries going down both legs, the iliac and renal arteries, the mesenteric arteries.” By way of explanation, she adds: “When someone is traumatized, you stop the bleeding, slow it up to the point the ambulance could come, get some i.v.’s in you. We knew that the fractures were bad, but we had no thought for what came next because we didn’t know if there was going to be a next.”

“Did you think I would make it?” To have this time, 20 years later, to reflect and ask questions is a gift, I was thinking to myself.

“Well, the benefit of thought was that you kept talking with us. You were in and out. Most of what I was concerned with was the bleeding and breathing. We tried to give you as much as we could to keep your head turned. In retrospect, your head was already turned, with your face down in the dirt.

I don’t say anything, and she picks up the story, remembering what was important to her, and soon ending this report which I had so much difficulty responding to now.

“This would have been a tough decision to make, and we wouldn’t have wanted to turn it; that could kill you immediately, so it was one of those things where we said, “Leave her alone, she can breathe, she can keep talking.” There were no restrictions, so you could keep breathing. After that I don’t have recall. I don’t remember the ambulance people, just a policeman asking my name and address and thanking me for helping; I have no image of you getting off the ground and into the ambulance.”

Charlene never saw James Embree, the driver of the car. She told me she remembers nothing but this: her holding me there, waiting for the ambulance while my soul fought a battle for my life. “The time it took for the ambulance to come were the longest moments in my life. Everyone in the crowd felt the same way: What was taking the ambulance so long? You were fighting so hard to stay alive. I could feel the struggle your soul was making, and it was extraordinary.”

I have that same memory. I believed for years afterwards that it was my will, this desire, that passion for life that shouted down death’s throat, “You will not have me. I am staying. I want to live,” which saved me. I believed it was my own desire to live and create my own existence that kept me going through rough times. That belief lasted more than 15 years.

At a later time, however, it seemed to me that my own will and desire had nothing to do with living – only surviving. Once I had seen enough death, God’s will to save anyone appeared random, and it was conceit to believe I was saved because I wanted to live so badly. By my late 30’s, I was a fatalist. Life is a crapshoot; riding a motorcycle, I was a high roller.

At our interview, I told Charlene my ‘will to survive theory’, and that I believed if I had died, I would have gone to hell. “Because that’s where I was at the time. And now, because I do believe in God, I have been redeemed. “I told her this at our interview in 1996.”

She reminds me, “But God is not the other. It is also the Self, the place in you which is God is telling you to stay, stay on this plane.”

I silently wonder about her place in this scheme, and she answers without my asking.

“I believe I was put into your life for a reason. I could’ve said, ‘no, I don’t want to do that. It was too horrific. I don’t want to look at it again.’” When she told me this I realize I never questioned that our connection was as difficult for her to look at as I. “But you have,” I countered.

“Yes, this is a time for me to come full circle with this myself and help somebody else in the process.”

How could I help her? I told Charlene that during my first visit with her I heard a message that I had chosen life. My soul knew what it was getting into as I lay dying – even this hard part. For the first time, I began telling people freely, new friends – not just old ones who already knew most of it – openly about what happened to me. And I began to write again, this time about my accident. I began with a letter to Charlene.

Chapter Five: The First (on it’s way!)

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3 Replies to “Chapter 4: No Accidents”

  1. Carolyn,

    Thank you for sharing this. I can’t express the feelings I had reading this. My heart was so heavy. You have eloquently put to pen a most horrific time yet the after story is so beautiful. I am blessed to know you and so moved by your story and the synchronicity of it. An angel came to you that day and again when you finally met.

    Like

  2. Amazing writing … imagine 20 years and you meet Charlene…talk about fate…i was not very religious but i did pray for you… hearing about your accident is something i’ll never forget

    Like

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