OCTOBER 4, 1999
I was in a bad accident on the freeway, got rear ended by a semi. I was at work, delivering medical supplies in Long Beach. It was at the freeway on an off ramp and a bronco pulled up behind me, the person driving the semi (which was not loaded) hit us at 55 mph and killed the guy behind me, crammed the guy in the bronco up behind into the back of my van, crushed his car really bad and ruptured the gas line. The semi flipped over and landed next to me on the freeway and it sprayed the gasoline from the guy’s ruptured tank. My van was really destroyed.
I was knocked out, it all happened in a matter of about 3 minutes and when I woke up the steering wheel was in my chest, pinning me in the van, dashboard was in my lap and my feet were pinned underneath. When I looked over, I could see the top of the semi next to me and funny thought went through my head about what a nice paint job they had and then the fire started.
All the windows in my van had been blown out (like a huge explosion). It was a big impact and then a gust of wind came by and the fire just accelerated and blew it right on top of me so I started screaming, crying and praying at the same time. Then, the fire started dying down enough for me to come to my senses and realize I had to get the hell out of there. I tried once and couldn’t move and I thought “I’m was going to die, this is it”. I had to undo the seatbelt and wiggle out from under the steering wheel, I crawled up through the window which was not that big of a crack left. I sat on the edge of the window which was all busted glass and I hooked my foot under the steering wheel so I would just fall on to the floor and not hit my head. I leaned backwards and rolled back to land on my arm to protect myself.
I got out and stood up and said “ha ha I’m alive, we’re going to make it”. I ran down the freeway to a couple cars back, I must’ve looked like a burned up french fry, I saw some guys and said to them “you know what, I’m going to sit right here, when the paramedics get here you guys tell them I’m here, I was in that van” and they told me to sit. When the paramedics came, they cut my clothes off and put me on a gurney.
I remember one of the firefighters on his phone say “cancel life flight, we’re just going to transport him, yeah we’ve got mustache involved and airway involved and some burns, we need to get this guy to the hospital but cancel life flight” and I thought, “wow somebody must be really hurt” and they came over to me and said “sorry about the helicopter ride, we’re going to have to take you to the hospital ourselves” and I was like “oh wow that was for me, that’s crazy!”.
I was a pianist for all my life, my hand had three-degree burns. I have this strange injury called post traumatic radioulnar synostosis because I broke my ulna hitting it in the steering wheel. When it healed, it grew an odd block of bone in between my two bones and it froze my arm so I couldn’t rotate it so I had this revolutionary surgery at UCLA, I remember it’s a learning hospital so the doctor came in with his troop of interns with their jackets and said “this guy is a concert pianist, he can’t play the piano cause he can’t rotate his arm so we’re going to give him back his life so he can play the piano again”. That was an eight-hour surgery, they cut both sides of my arm open and cut the block of bone that was in there and flipped the facial tissue between the two bones so it would grow, the surgery had only been done once in the whole world. It gave me the ability to play the piano again.
I have my clock radio set to a jazz station and I was not having a great time playing the piano you know, I kind of gave up. One morning I heard this really, really outstanding guy playing the piano on the radio and his name was Michel Petrucciani. I went out, bought his album, and saw him on the cover. It just really triggered me, I thought “I have no more excuses, if this guy can play, what am I complaining about?”. I think I had eight surgeries in my hand but a total of about 30 surgeries. It took a lot for me to get my hand back. I had a pin stuck in my finger and I would always tap it everywhere. When the doctors took it off, I kept it. My fingernails fell off too. The nurses came in and brought me a Casio keyboard but it sucked playing it.
I got most of my surgeries done in about two years or maybe three since I had a window because it was all under workers compensation. I was brought to surgery like every other month, I was in the hospital for about six weeks and I know I had seven or eight surgeries in those weeks. I was in an induced coma for three weeks. My face was grafted until I was out of the coma and that’s when I was really scared. As soon as I found out I was going to be alive, I was pretty happy and didn’t complain.
I had gotten really sick when I first woke up and was taken out of the vent. The vent had to be put back in and I for sure hated that. I was in such a weird space because I thought they were punishing me because I tried to unwrap the bandages off my arm, I was on a lot of drugs.
Before the accident, I was one of those people that worked from Monday to Sunday. I had a day job and night job playing the piano and also a third job playing the piano at the church. When it was Monday, I was already waiting for Friday so I could play a couple of jobs but once I got hurt, I just slowed everything down. “Let’s love every second, let’s slow the clock down, let’s enjoy the sunlight and look at the flowers, look at the clouds, look at the sunlight”. My relationship with my family changed a lot, the relationship between me and Leslie really changed. We were really busy raising kids, I was working all the time and was gone a lot. She was way involved with the kids and then she became my angel in the hospital. She came in to the hospital every day and learned how to change my dressings. A really interesting thing happened, she was afraid to touch me at first and an OT that I really liked, her nickname was diabla, came in and grabbed my arm and Les was standing there so diabla faked like she had a call and told Les “I have to go take this call, please put some lotion on his arm” and Les’s look was like “umm, alright” and she started putting lotion on my arm and when she touched me, she could finally touch me again.
All of a sudden, she just started taking care of me and started changing my dressing, which was horrendous you know it’s all puss and smelly and terrible and she would do it for me. She would take the tweezers and pick the eschar and I mean; she would tell the nurses “It’s ok, I got it”. She would sit with me for hours. When I was in a coma, she would rub my feet every day and that’s something I remembered when I woke up. Pay attention to what’s going on, you’ll remember everything, but pay attention to the good stuff, not just the bad parts because there are a lot of good parts. You’ll remember like I remember diabla, because even though she was hurting me, she was also doing really good things. She would wrap my hand for 15 minutes because I couldn’t make a fist, she would give me a shot of morphine and just wrap it so I could do a fist. She would come around and we’d just talk and laugh ad she would stay and make sure everything was ok and I didn’t need anything. I kind of became the burn unit cheerleader, once I figured I was going to be OK and alive and that I was going to get through this crazy shit that had happened, I started going around and getting everyone out of bed to get them to come take walks with me and I’d tell them it was going to be OK. At ten o clock at night, when they closed the cafeteria, we would all go get a cup of coffee and Les would come around and we’d just hang, we would leave a trail of bloody gausses on the hallway. It’s fun to go back and see if I can find staff that was there before. It’s funny, a bittersweet journey of getting burned. Like the girls from the bachelorette would say “it’s a LOT”