What I Learned from Hitting a Semi.

Author: Terra Fletcher – Fletcher Consulting.

It was January 7, 2019. A winter storm had started early that morning. I had both hands on the wheel. I wasn’t on my phone. I wasn’t distracted. I was vigilant because the roads weren’t great. Suddenly there was a slushy patch of snow in my lane. I took my foot off the gas pedal. There was no way around it. I had to hit the slush.

The slush pulled me in. I couldn’t straighten my vehicle out. Countersteering was futile. The semi next to me slowed down. I spun and spun. I saw the side of the semi getting closer. I closed my eyes and prayed. When my van stopped, I was in the median facing the opposite direction.

The airbag had gone off. The windshield and my driver’s side window were shattered. Something smelled awful, like burning fluids and hot electric wires. I did a quick check of my body from head to toe. I didn’t think anything was broken. I called my husband and 911.

I was afraid to move. My travel tumbler was on the floor. I watched hot tea pour all over and didn’t pick it up. What was the point? The van was totaled. Without seeing it, I knew there was no front end.

A local sheriff approached, running through the snow. I crawled out the passenger side of my vehicle at his urging. I was in the back of the squad car when I noticed the glass in my boots. My hands had a friction burn from the airbag. My face felt like it had a thousand tiny abrasions. I was hysterical now, in shock. I couldn’t dial my phone to tell the doctor’s office why I wasn’t coming.

My husband picked me up. He took me to a friend’s house. She met me at the door with hot tea and tissues. For hours I cried and talked nonsense. She just listened and held me and didn’t pass judgment.

I am very fortunate. Not everyone who hits a semi walks away. I suffered whiplash, neck strain, and soft tissue damage. I only found one small bruise and a few scratches. I’m still afraid of snowy roads, but I’m mostly back to myself. The seriousness of the accident made me reevaluate my life, however. Here are some lessons I learned. Please take them to heart.

Slow Down

We are all endlessly busy. We can do better. I didn’t want to reschedule a non-emergency appointment and lose one day. Instead, I ventured out in bad weather and lost a full two weeks. I’ll have to see the chiropractor for months. I could’ve slowed down. I could’ve rescheduled.

Look at your calendar for the next two weeks. Will you eat right, exercise, and get enough sleep? Why not? When is the last time you took a deep breath?

Have you said yes to commitments you wanted to say no to? Can you do less? Can you work less? Before you reject the idea, consider Parkinson’s law, “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

Can you disconnect from technology and find a hobby that energizes and refreshes you? Can you put more space between appointments, so you aren’t rushed? When is the last time your family shared a meal? When is the last time you read to your child?

Refocus and Reconnect

The scariest part of the accident wasn’t the possibility of my own death. It was the sobering thought that I could have missed the chance to watch my son grow up. The accident reminded me to hold on to my family and appreciate the time I have with them.

Tomorrow is not guaranteed. Be present today. Give loved ones the honor and respect of your full attention whenever possible. Put down the electronics and play a board game. Go for a walk. Appreciate natural beauty. Really talk to your family. Listen deeply. Reconnect with those who are most important to you.

No One is Invincible

There was a 40-car pileup in Eau Claire yesterday. Seven people were injured. One critically. In Wisconsin, there were 60 fatalities due to car accidents last year. This year there may be 130,000 total car accidents statewide.

We believe, “it won’t happen to me.” We think we’re better than average drivers. We convince ourselves that having four-wheel drive and good tires make it impossible for us to lose traction. Accidents can happen to anyone.

My mother works for the Department of Motor Vehicles. She administers driving tests and is a fantastic driver. She admits that she gets overconfident, at the same time, when the weather is terrible, mom stays with my family, rather than risk the 35-mile drive on dark, winding roads.

What NOT to Say

Sometimes well-meaning friends say the wrong thing. Think about how you would want to be dealt with during a critical time. Treat your friends and family accordingly.

  • Don’t ask about the car first. “Are you ok?” Should always be first.
  • Don’t ask if it was their fault. It’s called an accident for a reason.
  • Don’t say, “Now you know how us old people feel every day.” Be encouraging. Say, “I’m so sorry this happened.”
  • Don’t say, “Let me know if you need anything.” Make a specific offer to help. Try saying, “Can I pick up your medication or bring you a meal?”
  • Don’t ask, “What happened?” Some people might not mind recounting the details. They might even share it on social media. I did not. I did not want to continue to relive the event. It was traumatic. I especially didn’t enjoy recalling the story in front of my child. This was very painful for him. I let my husband tell our friends. And this is the only time (I hope) I’m writing the story.
  • Don’t say, “You could’ve died!” in front of someone’s small child. Yes, it may be true, but kids don’t need to hear this. My son was physically ill from worrying about me. He missed two days of school because of it.

*You may also wish to read How to Help a Friend After a Life-Changing Accident.

Provide Practical Help

I appreciate the friends who brought me chocolate and sent cards. But the most encouraging visits were the friends who did what I really needed. Friends listened to me, took me to chiropractic visits, carried laundry upstairs for me, and vacuumed my house! My husband and son were fantastic, too. My husband bought me Coke and the most expensive ice pack he could find.

After an injury, surgery, or the birth of a baby, short visits and a healthful meal are usually welcome. Helping with housework or running errands is appreciated. You could also offer to babysit or walk the dog.

Show Gratitude

This accident put things in perspective for me. Why do we allow ourselves to get worked up about little things? Someone told me once that if it won’t matter in five years, we shouldn’t worry about it for more than five minutes. Spend your energy focusing on the good. Let go of little slights.

Rather than allowing dinner table conversation become a competition for who had the worst day, make it positive. Ask each family member to tell you three good things about their day. Record happy events. Try journaling or scrapbooking. Write thank you notes at least once each week. Do nice things for other people; you’re guaranteed to feel good.

Do the Important Things Now

For a month before the accident, I was sitting on the first draft of my book. It was finished, but I was stuck. I hadn’t sent it off to my editor. Why was I waiting?

The perfectionist in me wanted it to be just so. I could’ve died with a finished manuscript on my computer, one that no one had read. Stop waiting. Whatever you want to do, just do it. Don’t make any more excuses. If it’s important, you’ll find the time.

Getting hit by a semi is not something I recommend. Please take my advice and learn the lessons without the pain. Slow down, remember you’re not invincible, provide practical help and encouraging words. Do important things now.

Please, go hug your loved ones.