A car crash, a coma, and a miracle.


My beloved MR2 Turbo

Good Friday, April 17, 1992: I’d just started a great job at Investor’s Business Daily in Los Angeles, and two weeks earlier I’d purchased the car of my dreams, a beautiful, blue Toyota MR2 Turbo. To me, at least, it looked like a small Ferrari. It was fast and sleek. I was taking my girlfriend, Mary, who had just recently followed me out from Denver, where we’d met, to see a city she’d always dreamed of visiting: San Francisco.

But we were in no hurry, and I wanted her to see the majestic beauty of the central California coastline. That meant taking the Pacific Coast Highway. Cut into the cliffs and filled with sharp, winding turns, it can make for a white-knuckle ride in many parts. As the driver, you take quick glances at the scenery and then shoot your eyes back to the road. A front-page article in the Monterey County Herald would later be aptly titled “The Beauty and Danger of Highway 1.” An accompanying piece: “Rocks and Surf below Highway Become Tomb for Some.”

Those articles would be about us.

Just after buying the car, we’d taken it for a spin on a very deserted road. The car’s back end flew out and we almost did a 180. I thought I must have hit a patch of oil or sand. Or something. We didn’t give it any further thought. We should have.

Two weeks later, just south of Big Sur on our way to San Francisco, steep cliffs fall off on our left. The road is as narrow as it gets, with the white stripe essentially on the edge of the asphalt. My right front wheel goes just over the edge of the pavement, so I turn the steering wheel slightly to the left. Suddenly the back end flies out, just as it had before. No room this time. I slam the brakes, leaving skid marks that at least a year later still bore silent testament to my desperate effort to stop.

Mute testimony to a failed effort to stop

But the cliff is right there. No chance. One wheel of the car hits a bump, putting the vehicle into a spin as we go airborne. The MR2 lands on its top, on Mary’s side, and the roof caves in. It rolls. My first thought is remarkably calm: “So this is what it’s like to die.” But as the tumbling slows, I begin to think it’s possible that we’ll stop rolling before breaking up on the rocks below. We do — just. We hit a spot where the cliff almost became level, a spot just big enough for a small car. And we land upright. I’ll shortly address the importance of that.

As the car comes to a full stop, the airbag deploys. “Thanks a whole lot!” I think to myself.

I’m a former paratrooper. Jump out of enough planes so low to the ground that your reserve chute is practically useless, and you’ll lose your ability to panic. This would serve me well 14 years later while embedded with the Navy SEALs and 101st Airborne in Iraq’s meanest city, and last year when I awoke to find an intruder standing over me with my own seven-inch Marine Ka-Bar knife at my throat. And it served me well on that Good Friday. Mary is unconscious beside me. I assume she’s dead, but finding out isn’t my first priority. If I don’t get help, and soon, she will be in any case.

I check myself thoroughly, as soldiers do. My chest aches from the shoulder restraint, and my face stings from the explosive powder that they used in airbags at that time. Otherwise I seem to be unscathed. (Nature would later claim its due; the foliage was entirely poison oak.)

I quickly crawl out the broken window, incurring just a few cuts, then jump on top of the car and begin to wave and shout. I realize that only my arms can be seen above the brush. If that. And we saw almost nobody on the road that day; the chances of anybody having seen us go off are practically nil. And I sincerely doubt I can mount the side of the cliff.

The side of the cliff

Incredibly, somebody (who would later report he saw just the dust) is looking over the side. He’s a young man, and he waves back. I let him know with hand signals there’s somebody else in the car.

I get back into the vehicle. Thank God! Mary is moaning. But her head is now so covered in crimson I can’t even tell where she’s injured. It’s clearly severe trauma to the skull. Her eyes are popping out like she’s a surprised Warner Brothers cartoon. Her brain is rapidly expanding, pushing aside everything it can as it crushes against bone. It’s disturbing to watch her hands constantly moving as if to fend something off.

It doesn’t seem like it takes a long time for the paramedics to come; it does take a long time. I have to keep Mary covered with my shirt and keep talking to her to keep her out of shock. “What’s your blood type?” I ask. “They’re going to need to know your blood type!” She gives what turns out to be the wrong answer; she’s just trying to shut me up. But it’s all I can do. I learned a lot beyond first aid in the Airborne Army, but I can’t stop massive brain hemorrhage with a tourniquet around the throat. Only surgery can staunch the blood flow.

The police get there soon, but the cliff is too steep for them to get down, confirming my doubts about trying to climb it.

Finally, paramedics are able to reach us, but other than provide a blanket and take her vital signs, there’s nothing much they can do, either. Mary is trapped in the car, and we’re all trapped on the side of a cliff. Another agonizing passage of time. Mary has already lost a massive amount of blood; this cannot continue. The feeling of helplessness is indescribable.

Then I hear the “whump-whump-whump” of a National Guard helicopter. It drops the Jaws of Life, and the paramedics soon cut Mary out. I’m ordered to go into an ambulance. I belligerently refuse — I promised Mary I wouldn’t leave her side. Finally, I’m threatened with arrest. That does the trick.

The helicopter drops a doughnut-like device that I slide into, and it yanks me up from the side of the cliff, giving me a view of the whole surreal scene. Then it deposits me on the highway beside an ambulance. Inside, the paramedics — who saw the wreckage — keep marveling that I’m unhurt. Actually, they marvel that I’m still alive.

The ambulance takes me to the nearest hospital, the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula (CHOMP). Mary goes directly by helicopter and arrives just before I do.

Mary in CHOMP

When I get there, an orderly tells me her pupils are not reacting. That’s bad. Really bad. He gently tells me to expect the worst or, barring that, permanent mental incapacitation and probably paralysis. Her neck is broken at the C-7 vertebra, which can cause anything from loss of dexterity in the hands to full paralysis of the legs and arms. Therein lies the importance of our landing upright. Had we been upside down, I would have had to move her, and she’d have been paralyzed for sure.

On hearing the orderly’s words, I do what you’d expect. Even paratroopers are allowed. In fact, I’m doing it now — eighteen years later, doesn’t matter. And yet, as she’s rolled to the operating room on a gurney, I tell her I love her, and she makes a good effort to respond. I kiss her lips, and she kisses back. That definitely trumps non-dilation of the pupils. There’s hope.

As it happens, we have another stroke of luck: Because CHOMP is the hospital that serves the Monterey area, including the famous Pebble Beach golf course, it had gotten huge contributions from people like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. With all that money floating around, they can afford to have one of the nation’s top neurosurgeons on call.

I stay at a friend’s house, where I fall into a fitful sleep and dream of Mary. She’s my best friend, my confidante. In my dream, I’m telling her about this horrible thing that’s happened to Mary. That’s one of the worst things about the whole situation — losing the very person I would normally turn to for solace.

Around midnight, there’s a call, and my friend takes it. I’m knocking on the door lightly. Then harder. Then harder yet. Finally, the door swings open and I can talk to the doctor. Mary made it through the surgery, he tells me, and it looks promising.

In movies, the doctor always comes out of surgery and says one of two things. One is: “She’s going to be just fine!” (Never “fine,” always “just fine.”) The other is: “I’m sorry, we did everything we could.”

In reality, unless it’s the “everything we could” answer, they are always very guarded, even cryptic, in what they say. I learn more from looking at the chalk board that has patient names and two-word statuses such as “critical, stable.”

Back at the hospital, a nurse tells me I need to call Mary’s mother “NOW!” I had forgotten. The post-surgery timing works out well, because I have good news to report, but it’s still one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do. The parents fly in and, well, proceed to drive me batty. Not their fault; I just want to be alone with Mary. The mother flips through Reader’s Digest; the father plays solitaire. When they’re not around, I flagrantly violate protocol and crawl into Mary’s bed and hold her. It’s not easy, though. I didn’t think you could fit that many tubes into one person.

As we maintain our bedside vigil, the question becomes: Which is it, a coma or a persistent vegetative state? If she comes out of it, it’s a coma. That’s how you find out.

My beloved MR2 Turbo

It’s now Easter Sunday. Nothing has changed. But at midday I think I see a slight stir. Wait! Yes, she did move! She looks like she’s trying to talk. I put my ear to her mouth. Nothing audible. She tries again. I can barely make out the whisper: “I just want to go home with you.” Yes, I know that sounds melodramatic. If I were editing a novel, I’d strike it.

Ten days later, Mary checks out of the hospital, head shorn like lamb, with some Frankenstein’s-monster scars that hair will soon cover and her head cocked to one side, but only temporarily. She would later develop epilepsy but is otherwise intact, though for several months she pronounces our destination city “San Fernisco,” which is what we still call it. She not only has no memories of the impact, she doesn’t even remember going off the cliff. When we revisited the accident scene, she kept referring to it as “where you went off the cliff.” The mind has marvelous ways of protecting itself.

Later, everybody told us that after experiencing something like that, a couple has to get married. And some years later, we did. Every year, on Good Friday and April 17th, we wish each other “Happy Broken Head Day.”

While Mary was in the hospital, I was buying her flowers at the grocery store when I stopped to look at the car magazines. I was stunned to find mine mentioned on the cover of the May Car and Driver. The article said my model had suddenly been discontinued and replaced with a half-year model. Quite rare. The reason, said the magazine, was the car’s “loose hindquarters.” Specifically, “the back wheels toed-out, causing radical, often terminal, oversteer.” Exactly what we experienced twice. But we hold no grudges against Toyota; my next car was that half-year model, and my wife owns a Toyota now.

One word that always comes up when Mary and I tell this story is “miracle,” as in:

“It’s a miracle either of you survived!”

“It’s a miracle Mike was unhurt and able to get help!”

“It’s a miracle the car came to a stop just above the rocks!”

“It’s a miracle the car landed upright!”

“It’s a miracle that guy happened to come along right then!”

“It’s a miracle the closest hospital was so wealthy and had one of the nation’s top neurosurgeons on call!”

“It’s a miracle Mary only suffered epilepsy and isn’t a vegetable! It’s a miracle she wasn’t paralyzed!”

They don’t talk about the massive blood loss, because they didn’t see it. But when I visited the car in the impound lot, I found a large white sheet that had essentially been dyed red. She should not have survived that kind of blood loss.

And there’s the timing. Mary went into a coma on Good Friday and came out of it on Easter Sunday.

Indeed, each of these things was a true miracle, according to Webster’s second definition, “an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment.”

But I’ve thought about the first definition. You know what it is.

I look at the pictures of my once-beautiful MR2, which bears less resemblance to a car than a pancake, and I do wonder how either of us survived. As to the guy who saw me waving my arms on the side of the cliff? Traffic was sparse. He shouldn’t have been there. I’ve tried very hard to find him again. I’m good at tracking people down. It’s part of my job. But I never could. Lots of people insist to me he was no “guy.”

Celebrating a wedding anniversary

Still, when it comes to any report of miracles, I’m highly skeptical. The vast majority can be debunked in an average of two minutes and 37 seconds. And I’m sorry, but I’ve heard too many stories about Jesus appearing on a taco shell and thousands of the faithful lining up for a peek. I’ve also known too many famous miracles that have been debunked. But it must be admitted that the ones most likely to be real are the ones you never hear about — the ones that don’t lead to best-selling books or inspire tourist centers that sell plastic figurines of the saints.

A lot of people have a psychological need for miracles; I don’t. Moreover, I’m primarily a science writer who comes to conclusions based on empirical evidence. I often say disdainfully of the media, “To them, one anecdote is worth a thousand statistics!” I can’t begin to say how many “anti-miracles” I’ve debunked, people claiming that exposure to this or that gave them symptoms they couldn’t possibly have had. The guy whose Gulf War Syndrome made him constantly puke vomit that glowed? Everybody in the media but me went for that one.

So. In this case, the statistics say that, on any given day, over 100 Americans are killed on the roads. Back of the envelope, that comes out to maybe 75 fatal crashes and a lot more near-fatal ones. That was more or less the case on Good Friday, 1992. And I don’t have to look up the numbers to know lots of people go into comas every day, and surely a good percentage come out on the third one.

Conversely, though, there’s the rule that says that the odds of any two or more unrelated things occurring simultaneously get smaller as you add in new occurrences. Thus the odds of two independent events that separately have one chance in ten of occurring have only a chance in 100 of happening together. Add another and you have one in a thousand. And so on.

Conversely, though, there’s the rule that says that the odds of any two or more unrelated things occurring at one time get smaller as you add in new occurrences. Thus, if two events both have a one-in-ten chance of occurring separately, they have a one-in-100 chance of happening together. Add another and you have one in a thousand. And so on.

So the odds of all those things together going in our favor? My calculator reads: “Incredibly slim.”

Still, it could have been coincidence. No miracles required, and no reason to dwell on it.

Except.

Except for those times when I lay awake at night, and I do. XXXXX; include '/usr/www/users/moliver/templates/article.php'; ?>