On Mother's Day weekend, 1996, Phaedra, age 22, a preschool teacher who had also done some modeling on the side, was enjoying a concert with some friends not far from her hometown. The two car loads of youth who were completely sober were driving home in Morgan County, Missouri, as a misty rain began to fall. Unbeknownst to them, a drunk driver with a .08 BAC was heading their way as he crossed the center line of Highway 5. Phaedra's friends in the car in front managed to see him in time to swerve. The drunk driver clipped them and headed straight for Phaedra's car. As he topped the hill around a curve, she had no warning and he hit her nearly head-on.
Phaedra's injuries were numerous and life-threatening. At the hospital, doctors discovered that the impact of the crash had ripped her aortic valve from her heart. Most people would have died within minutes, but Phaedra had not. In an emergency surgery to repair it, surgeons struggled to stop the bleeding. They quickly realized that she would bleed to death on the operating table if something wasn't done immediately. So, to save her life, they cut off the blood flow to her lower extremities to slow the bleeding enough to make the repairs to her heart.
She spent 3 weeks in a coma and 5 1/2 weeks on life support before waking to learn that the decision to save her life had cost her the ability to walk. In addition, she also had plates in her arm and both legs due to both ankles, a left femur, and a right forearm being broken. Her pelvis had been broken on both sides as well as 4 ribs. Both lungs had collapsed and her liver had been lacerated. Her gallbladder, appendix, and spleen were damaged and all had to be removed.
Phaedra's son was 4 years old at the time of the crash. She missed his first day of kindergarten because she was still in the hospital. As he grew up, someone else taught him to ride a bike, played in the ocean waves with him, and rode roller coasters with him while she sat on the sidelines and cheered, quietly wishing she could be the one beside him.
In 2000, Phaedra began working for MADD Missouri. She became a Victim Specialist helping other victims by providing emotional support and guidance through court proceedings. In 2010, she was crowned Ms. Wheelchair USA, again bringing awareness to the dangers of drunk driving by choosing it as her official platform. In 2012, she moved to Tennessee as the Underage Drinking Specialist for the MADD Tennessee state office. She built the program up from a presence that was non-existent to the top program in the country, talking to thousands of teens annually about the dangers of underage drinking and sharing her story with kids, parents, and DUI offenders.
Phaedra's original scars may have healed, but the impact of a DUI crash lasts for a lifetime. With no spleen, Phaedra is more susceptible to illness and her immune system is unable to fight simple infections. An ear infection can end up in a hospital stay. Independent and resolute, Phaedra drives, works full time, and is now the mother to an 8 year old daughter, as well as her grown son and step-daughter. People are amazed at how she lifts her wheelchair overhead, in and out of her car, and is not deterred from anything she sets her mind to doing. However, her determination takes its toll on her body. She recently had to have surgery on her arm because a problem with one of the plates had caused a fracture in her arm. Because she is constantly lifting her chair and transferring herself in and out of it, the injury to her arm caused a significant hardship on her ability to proceed with life as normal. And because of her immunity problem, the healing process was also complicated.
But those who know Phaedra, know that despite the lifelong affect drunk driving has had on her life, the thing that stands out most about her is her positive attitude. She never waivers. For years, she has fought to serve others who have been impacted by the crimes of drunk and drugged driving and underage drinking and to spread awareness about their dangers by sharing her story. She is an inspiration to all! And she will continue to fight until MADD fulfills it's vision of No More Victims!
By Kathy Kilgore Beeler
When one of my family members calls someone a “Cole,” it means something special.
It’s family shorthand for calling someone Compassionate, Obedient to God, Loving and Enthusiastic toward life – all such core personality traits of my handsome son Cole, who was killed while riding with a drinking driver.
Cole Hansen Kilgore was my little stinker, my only child. He was charismatic, fun-loving and always kept me on my toes. He had a sense of humor that charmed everyone around him. He was a city boy who lived in the country, so he knew how to both skateboard and skeet shoot. He was compassionate, and always tried to take care of me, even when it wasn’t his responsibility. Most importantly, he was the only person who called me “Momma.”
People gravitated towards Cole. He simply pulled people into his stratosphere, and you felt lucky to be there with him.
Cole wasn’t a perfect child. He was perfect to me, but Cole had his struggles with underage drinking and drugs. When I found out, I talked to him and moved him to a new city to be around new friends; we worked together to turn his life around. I remember speaking with him about the dangers of alcohol when he was 12 or 13 years old. I wish I had spoken to him sooner, but I never imagined alcohol would be on his radar at such an early age.
When Cole turned 19, I could tell that he was really trying to turn his life around. He was looking to start college classes and worked with a construction company in the summer. He never wanted me to worry; he repeatedly told me, “Momma, everything is okay. I’m okay.”
On June 4, 2011, Cole was still living at home, and he shouted out that he was going down the road to visit his friend and would be right back. I told him I loved him, and he yelled it back before driving two miles down the road. Just two miles…
Cole went down to a friend’s house where a group of older guys were sitting outside drinking. Even though Cole was sober, he made the choice to get into a truck with a man who had been drinking. Intoxicated, the driver recklessly drove more than 100 miles per hour before careening into a guardrail, hitting the gas tank on the driver’s side. The truck went up in flames, engulfing the driver and Cole. The driver died at the scene, but my Cole managed to pull himself out of the vehicle.
When I arrived at the hospital I saw my handsome boy with burns covering 95 percent of his body. Cole looked at me and said, “I’m sorry; it was stupid.” He knew that he had broken my heart. “Momma, I’m a burnt chicken,” he joked in typical Cole fashion, trying to make me laugh. His nickname in high school was ‘Chicken Legs.’ My sweet boy was in pain, and was put in a medically induced coma. After being life-flighted to a larger hospital, I said I love you to Cole for the last time.
In my mind, I kept thinking the doctors would save him, that somehow this great miracle would occur, and I could just switch places with him.
But my baby boy with the bluest eyes imaginable took his last breath. We stood by his side, still praying for that miracle that never arrived.
Before Cole passed away, I never thought about joining a group like MADD. That’s exactly what MADD is – a family you never knew you needed – until you suddenly need them desperately.
Today, I try to share my story to prevent this from happening to others.
This April, I’m partnering with MADD in honor of Cole. April 21st is MADD’s PowerTalk 21 Day, the national day for parents to begin ongoing conversations with their children about the dangers of alcohol, and the dangers of riding with a drinking driver. Parents, please use MADD’s Power of Parents tools and have these lifesaving conversations with your children. Download the free materials at madd.org/powertalk21.