This is the first in a three-part series by Drunk Driving Victim Erin Rollins:
My entire body shook. My closest friends, family and I had waited for this day for months.
October 18, 2016 represented two years of waiting. Two years spent in-and-out of hospitals undergoing several surgeries, totaling six thus far, and hundreds of hours of physical and occupational therapy.
Everyone who had supported me hoped for a conviction and agreed the offender should go to jail. This agreement wasn’t due to unforgiveness; rather, the knowledge that forgiveness and justice are separate things.
I had forgiven her for the reckless decision that led to her driving at a BAC of twice the legal limit, traveling the wrong way on the expressway and hitting my car in a head-on collision. But I had trouble forgiving her complete lack of remorse for those two years.
I may not have physically died November 9, 2014, but I lost my life. The Erin I once knew no longer existed. My body was damaged, broken, ravaged, and sliced open several times. It left me with three long scars, one from right below my ribs to my groin area, one from the middle of my back to the tailbone and one stretching horizontally from my left rectus muscle to only a couple of inches away from the back scar.
I had lost so much—my car, job, independence and a possible love interest to name a few—with my body being the most devastating. But there was one thing that sustained me through it all: a prayer that I had prayed most of 2014.
I prayed for my best friend and father to return to Christ, to meet my husband and to make an impact with my life. After seven months, God answered.
On November 6, 2014, I took my little black-and-white Pomeranian for a walk, and asked God once again what it would take for the things I had prayed for to happen. This time, I heard God speak to me as if he was standing right next to me. He shared with me that something tragic needed to happen.
There I stood surprised, but without fear. So I made a request.
“OK, God, do whatever you need to do, just don’t take my life.”
On November 9, 2014, my life changed forever.
At approximately 1:29 am, the same drunk driver that I faced today struck me head-on.
I truly believe that had I not asked God to spare my life, I wouldn’t have made it.
On impact, my spine shattered. I sustained two burst fractures at L5 and S4, rendering me paralyzed—I couldn’t feel or move anything below the waist. I also suffered tremendous injury internally leading to holes in my bowels, colon and small intestine; a severed iliac artery, lacerated liver, fractured sternum, three broken ribs, and a concussion. My right foot broke in three different places, and the seatbelt tore my left rectus muscle in half.
The paramedics, state trooper and hospital staff told me repeatedly that I was lucky to be alive.
The surgeons explained that I needed two emergency surgeries and they needed to decide which to do first: repair the holes to my organs that would cause sepsis and kill me, or decompress my spine to prevent complete and permanent paralysis. Needless-to-say, they chose to repair my organs first.
The next day, the surgeons wanted to conduct an 8-12 hour spinal fusion. My family wasn’t comfortable with the pace they wanted to move because of how critical of a condition I was in. I was subsequently transferred to Northwestern Memorial Hospital two days later. There, they fused my spine, inserted two titanium rods and 10 screws, and removed as many shards of bone as possible that had taken residence in my spinal canal. The neurosurgeons said there was more damage than they anticipated, and they weren’t sure if I would ever walk again.
The third emergency surgery became necessary because the first one to repair holes in my intestines failed, and I became septic. The surgeons said had they not caught it in time, I would’ve died hours later.
I spent six more weeks in inpatient rehab learning to sit-up, catheterize myself, clean and change the colostomy that was formed during my sepsis surgery, and walk using a walker, while suspended in a harness that hung from the ceiling.
By discharge from rehab, I had survived the most difficult part of my life thus far, but I couldn’t have imagined the task of learning how to live once more with a completely different body and set of circumstances, as well as the emotional task of processing such profound trauma.
Additionally, for the first year and a half afterwards, I was too weak to attend court dates for the criminal case against the drunk driver who almost took my life. When it finally came time to read my victim impact statement in court almost two years post crash, I could never have anticipated what it would be like to face my offender, and the lesson I would learn on forgiveness that day.
Erin's story is also featured in Chicago Now.
On August 14, 1997, I was able to witness the birth of my nephew, Damion Michael Henderson.
For the next 16 years, 6 months and 23 days, I watched him grow from an infant into a young man. He was a loving, caring person who dreamed of going to college and playing professional football.
Damion was like most other little boys. As a toddler he liked Blues Clues, then Pokémon cards (because his older brother liked them) and Spiderman.
I watched as he started school, graduated from Kindergarten, made new friends and turned into a “social butterfly”. I remember when was so excited when learned to read.
He was so thoughtful, if he was going to get a treat, he’d want one for his brothers too. He was just a down to earth kid who took life one day at a time. He was a friend to everyone he met.
One of the last Instagram selfies Damion took said “Dewey’s Pizza, then Gameworks. Amazing Day ahead”. Little did he know that on the way home from that outing his life would come to an abrupt end. That amazing day turned into a tragedy that we are all suffering with. The adult who had been entrusted to keep the kids safe (a friend’s father) decided to drink while on the outing with the boys (his son, Damion and another friend).
He then drove at rates in excess of 100 mph, losing control of the vehicle. Damion was ejected from the vehicle, dying a short time later as his two friends watched. The father tried to get rid of evidence, even stepping over Damion as he lay there dying. Our children deserve better than this.
Our family has not been the same since this tragedy. Holidays and birthdays are not the same. We now have to “visit” Damion at a gravesite. The High School Graduation that Damion would have attended in 2016 was a sorrowful event for us. His school placed a Graduation cap, gown and flowers on an empty seat where Damion would have sat. The school band played a song in tribute to him.
Not only did this affect our family, but the driver’s family, the other friend who witnessed this along with the many other people who stopped to help at the crash scene as well as all of the many friends Damion had.
Our hearts go out to everyone who has endured the tragedy of losing someone to the senseless act of drunk or drugged driving and our hope is to end these tragedies. Kids shouldn’t have to worry that the person taking them for a ride may end up killing or hurting them.
By Joshua Jahn
Drunk driving victim
It was at her 8th-grade graduation that I first noticed her.…the girl who would eventually become my wife… I met Mandy and, I swear, she had the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen.
And I had the honor of looking into those eyes for years, including a beautiful stretch of almost a decade when we were inseparable...
My three-year-old son Ryan was already looking forward to his birthday on Dec.29th. As a volunteer firefighter, I was so proud he talked about following in my footsteps...
Kaitlyn was that perfect baby all parents want. Childcare volunteers at church used to fight over watching her. And she was at such an inquisitive age...
The only Christmas celebration we had all together with my wife, my son and my 11-month-old daughter before drunk driving ripped them away was in 2007.
We had a fresh tree. I was so protective of sweet baby Kaitlyn. I’d run outside to warm the car if she had to go out. Mandy and I stayed up until 3 a.m. putting together a train set for Ryan, and I took a picture of him jumping for joy with his sister in the background confused about all the excitement he had because of his present on Christmas morning.
Now, I am asking you for a different type of present – one you don’t have to wrap. Will you donate today in honor of every family missing a loved one? Will you donate in honor of all victims?
I left this part until last...the part about the crash because I want to focus on my family's life, not their death.
Ten days before Thanksgiving, a woman sat at a bar drinking for SIX hours, before staggering to her car, putting the keys into the ignition, and speeding away. Her blood alcohol content was TWICE the legal limit. She hit my wife and my two children going more than 70 mph on a back road, and the force of the impact snapping a nearby telephone pole like a twig.
When the doctors asked for permission to stop resuscitation efforts on Kaitlyn, I whispered to her, “I am sorry I couldn’t protect you.” When I had to say goodbye to Ryan, I told him, "You will always be my hero."
I returned to the field to make a vow to Mandy. I told her I will move heaven and earth to bring as much meaning to their deaths as they brought to my life.
My greatest regret is the future that the repeat offender that killed my baby girl stole from me. I will never get to watch Kaitlyn graduate or make a toast at Ryan’s wedding.
These future moments, the common and uncommon ones, that’s what I miss. That’s why I work toward a future I can make happen – a future of No More Victims®.
Will you join with me in donating to MADD to prevent other families from experiencing this pain and tragedy. When you give today, Nationwide will DOUBLE your donation.
And that's a prsent that we all truly need - the end of drunk driving.
By Brandon's mother, Brenda Holden
PFC Brandon Bennett served as an enlisted soldier in the Texas Army National Guard starting in 2010, even before he graduated high school.
He is and will forever be a member of the 236th Engineer Company, 111th Engineer Battalion, 176th Engineer Brigade currently located in Lewisville, Texas. Brandon enlisted in the Texas Army National Guard just 25 days after his 17th birthday, because he had a passion for protecting others since he was a little boy. In high school at L.D. Bell, he even had the National Guard emblem on his senior class ring, which shows his determination and dedication for serving others and our country. On his landmark 18th birthday, he was at basic training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina doing exactly what he wanted to be doing, which was beginning a life of service.
Brandon touched so many lives during his short 20 years on this earth! To his many friends and to his family, Brandon was an extremely kind, loving, and generous soul. Whether providing safe haven for those with nowhere else to go or by simply lending a sympathetic shoulder to cry on, he always tried to do the best he could to make any situation better.
Brandon was known as a great soldier, a great "battle buddy", and an even greater friend to all he touched. His life ambition was to become a police officer, to serve the community we live in.
Since the sentence in Texas for intoxication manslaughter ranges from 2-20 years in prison, I am absolutely elated that the perpetrator received the maximum sentence of 20 years for taking the life of my son, Brandon Tyler Bennett. Even though 20 years is not nearly enough to pay for my son’s life taken, it does display some justice served for the crime.
Every day, we live with the reminders of our Brandon, especially since the crash occcured two miles from where we live in our own neighborhood. Brandon lived his entire life within an area of less than 10 miles. The elementary school, junior high school, high school, and community college are all in the same neighborhood. Memories of his childhood and young adult years are everywhere we turn; where he attended schools, played baseball/football/soccer, birthday parties, friends’ sleep-overs, and the list goes on and on. No mother or family should have to endure this much heartache and pain every day when this senseless act could have easily been prevented.
MADD was with us every step of the way during the emotional, heartbreaking journey. It was invaluable having a MADD representative present through the entire trial to not only support us, but to also to help us make sense of the proceedings.
Ultimately, drinking while intoxicated always has the potential to end tragically. There are no do-overs. Just don't do it.
By Jamie Dillon
It occurs to me that while this coming weekend signifies 21 years in one way for me, there are many of you I've never even met who are gearing up for it in another way that’s much sexier and far more fun. This is for you – for the birthday girl and boys who become women and men and turn legal drinking age this weekend. (And a little bit for me, too, I guess).
Let me start by saying this: I’m not trying to kill your can’t-wait-to-get-carded anticipation here. On the contrary, if you hang tight, you’ll see I’m trying to keep it going.
It was 21 years ago this year when my mom left for work and never came home. She planned on it – on coming home. She looked forward to the big weekend ahead. She had a car full of goodies for her grandson, a bouquet of daisies (her favorite), and the family dinner grocery list in her sweet, loopy, hard-right leaning cursive to prove it.
In bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic, another driver heading toward her somehow managed to swerve into the opposite lane and hit my mom head on.
I say somehow like it’s a mystery, but it's not.
My mom always left a little extra space between her white Subaru and the car in front of her to keep her safe. My mom died three days later. She was 54.
She was the light of my life, and I’m not at all alone when I say that.
What happened after this 36-year-old stranger spent her afternoon in a bar and drove just a few miles toward home with a blood alcohol level nearly three times the legal limit? It was, well, a mess of ardent doctors and nurses and bad news, of judges and journalists, of crying in public and under the covers, and doing things we didn’t know how to do like pick out a top that looked light and seasonal enough for sunny springtime but could still cover the impact wounds around my mother’s neck.
The funeral coordinator said it would help keep people from being any more uncomfortable when they said their goodbyes.
When the young girl at the department store was putting the high-necked peach blouse in the bag, she asked my sister, “Is there anything else I can do for you today?” My sister said, “Can you bring my mom back? That’s what I really need you to do for me.”
We cringe and laugh a little bit about that now, but I’ve never heard a more desperate, earnest answer to an innocent question in all my life.
Our family still looks and feels different than it should. Sure, we’re a little bit stronger in some places. But when you find those bits of us, don’t forget the broken pieces right next to them. They’re there and every bit a part of us.
We learned things we never planned on learning like what a brain with no activity looks like on an MRI scan and that someone with five prior DUIs can kill a person on her next one and still only get a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
We learned that choosing a bench as a headstone is a horrible idea if the ground isn’t perfectly flat. It will always look tippy because one leg has to be longer than the other to make the top even.
But then we learned we don’t like to go up there much, anyway.
We learned my mom’s last words to the EMT who helped extricate her were, “I’m so scared.”
That was 21 years ago.
While every little essence of my mom that still remains in my heart and head flooded through me like it does every morning, I was drawn to think of someone else in my very first thoughts.
You. The one with the big birthday this weekend.
Just a smidge over two decades ago, families were starting while mine stopped. There was joy.
When my dad was holding the hand of his wife, there were people holding the hands of their loves in that same hospital. Instead of saying goodbye, they were saying hello to a new son or daughter. For the first time, they were looking at the light of their life.
They were looking at you.
I’m obviously not trying to hide where I’m going with this. Those who know me know subtlety is no more a virtue of mine than patience.
Put your ID to use to get you into the bar you always wanted to visit. Make your first liquor store purchase or add a six pack of beer to your grocery cart. Do it, if that’s what pleases you. It's literally your right.
But then do something else.
Use Uber or Lyft or a cab or a designated driver if you’re out. Stay home if you’re home. If you can plan the first part of your night, I pinky promise you will have the wherewithal to plan the last part of it. Just plan it now.
I woke up thinking of you this morning, and something tells me so many others did the same. Remember, you are the light of someone’s life, and those you spend time with are the lights in someone else’s life.
Be safe. Be silly. Be 21.
And then be 22 (I’ll be thinking of you then, too).