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Cheating Death

28 August 2009
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A deafening series of violent bumps. A patch of thickly clustered trees. A terrified scream. A sickening crash. A crushed mass of twisted metal and broken glass. A smoking heap.

Silence.

TUESDAY

I took my 28-week-pregnant wife to the doctor for the latest in her now-weekly ultrasound appointments. Two weeks earlier, the doctor had announced that after being pregnant with twins for six months, my wife was at risk of preterm labor, and she needed to go on bed rest. This
meant more frequent exams, no more excursions for her anywhere except for the doctor, more trips by me up and down the stairs to fetch a plate of pasta, a peach, a glass of juice. There was more worrying in our house, but still plenty of joy and anticipation. Take it easy for a while, and soon enough we’d have a beautiful baby boy and girl to hold and love.

Only this time, the message was anything but reassuring. Angèle’s risk had increased further. Though she’d tested negative for contractions after the initial diagnosis two weeks earlier, there were now fears that labor could be imminent. We were ordered to the hospital for further tests. We drove back to the house to pick up clothes and supplies. When you’re expecting twins and even the slightest concern comes up, you’re trained to take a bag with you, because routine tests can occasionally turn into a frantic, all-too-early delivery.

Though I don’t profess to have any great mathematical skills, I do break down everyday events into probabilities. I rarely get anxious about negative outcomes, because the odds of the turbulence on your plane turning into a crash, or the rustling noise outside your door being an armed robber, or the little bump on your neck being a tumor are so slim that, in my fast-moving, probability-based mind, there’s no reason to be concerned.

This is where my thoughts drifted when we were ordered to the hospital — probabilities and likely outcomes. A baby born at 28 weeks is likely to survive some 90% of the time. Good. On the other hand, risks abound. Full lung development typically doesn’t occur until Week 34. At 28 weeks, there are risks of mental impairment, neurological problems, motor skill impairment, long-term health problems, you name it. You read tales about preemies having a dozen surgeries before they even reach their due date.

When I first peeled away the stats, I started with a narcissistic thought: My wife’s the smartest person I know, a PhD with incredible powers of critical thinking and real-life problem solving. I am
woefully behind the brilliant baseball analysts and financial writers with whom I’ve worked over the years, but still a relatively intelligent human being. If our children don’t get the full benefit of
those good genes due to a chemical imbalance, the strain of a twin pregnancy on her body, or the vagaries of random chance, and instead end up struggling to read, write and form cogent thoughts, what a waste that would be.

Soon the narcissism stops and the real fears set in. My babies might never be able to do things for themselves. They might suffer from terrible illnesses. They might die.

The first hospital did nothing to assuage those fears. A quick scan revealed that yes, she was having contractions, 4-5 minutes apart. They’d need to stop or at least slow them down. After a couple hours and a barrage of medication, they succeeded in doing so. Still, Angèle would need to be transported by ambulance to another hospital, more than an hour away in Portland, Maine, for further monitoring. If she were to give birth in the next 24 hours, she needed to be in a hospital better equipped to handle severely premature twins, with a high-level NICU and a team of specialists.

I kissed Angèle goodbye in the ambulance bay, then rushed home to get more clothes and personal effects, and to collect my thoughts.

As analytical as my thought processes tend to be, I can also be very high-affect. This behavior almost always shows up in fun situations — playing pickup hoops, partying (or even just hanging out) with friends, watching a good ballgame. Those of you versed in psychology will know what I mean when I say that when I took the MMPI
(Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory)
, I scored very high on Scale #9 (the Hypomania scale). In other words, I can and do often experience moments of euphoria. Thankfully, I don’t experience the flip side of that affect, so bad moods, unpleasant thoughts or sadness are pretty quickly and easily remedied. Angèle is perceived by everyone we know as being the calm one in the couple. But as I drove up to the hospital to meet her, I was eerily calm, while she was, understandably, distressed.

Once in Portland, the doctors kept talking in terms of imminent birth. The OB went over what would happen in the event of the births. We discussed emergency C-section, anesthesiology, living wills, all the scary stuff you never want to think about.

Things eventually turned for the better. Her contractions stopped. Though Angèle remained uncomfortable (heavy duty medication, a triple-line IV, and a host of other doo-dads and wires will do that) and scared (having twins 2-3 months too early will do that), I could objectively say that things were looking up. She clicked off the light around 12:30 am and I fell asleep almost instantly on the couch/makeshift day bed in the room beside her.

WEDNESDAY

I woke up just after 7 a.m. I felt groggy, but considering the circumstances — all the stress, Angèle having only slept a couple hours even with prescribed Ambien, etc. — it seemed like I’d had a
decent sleep.

We spent the morning together collecting a slow trickle of good news: Babies still looked fantastic according to ultrasound. Contractions were now fully stopped. Labor-stopping drug regimen could soon be changed to reduce side effects (she’d had dehydration, rapid heartbeat, chest pains, etc. on the more intense medication). My whole family happened to be in town for the week on their annual late-August visit. We were all slated to explore the Maine coast, drive to Boston, pig out at our favorite New England restaurants, hit a Red Sox game. Instead, this.

Still, everyone was very supportive. My dad arrived with my stepmom to visit Angèle a few hours later, my dad joking about what lousy hosts we were. We all laughed. Feeling somewhat relieved, I headed down the Maine coast to meet up with my sisters for a bite to eat.

After an hour with them, I headed home for a quick pre-dinner nap. I was worn out emotionally and physically. Things were still somewhat chaotic, though they’d calmed down considerably.

As I drove down I-95, my mind wandered to more mundane concerns. I knew I was now in crunch time for my upcoming book about the Rays, and needed to turn the volumes of interviews, research and notes I’d collected into finished chapters. I’d have to figure out when I’d want to be with my visiting family, when I’d want to stay at the hospital, and when I’d want to sneak in some writing.

I counted cars as they whizzed by. I crossed off mile markers in my head. The sound of some new band played from the local alt-rock station.

It was a drive like any other drive.

Here’s what bystanders told me:

I was traveling in the middle lane of I-95, initially going about 65-70 miles an hour, right around the speed limit.

The car suddenly swerved, crossing over the inside lane and onto the right shoulder.

Hit the guard rail.

Bounced off the guard rail.

Hit the guard rail several more times.

At an accelerated speed (possibly 75-80 mph, I was still, incredibly, asleep at this point), the car careened off the guard rail, sped through the exit ramp and onto a grassy embankment.

The car smashed through a thicket of trees.

It hit a bump, flipped, and crashed.

People who pulled up next to the wreck would describe it as the worst accident they’d ever seen. Everyone assumed the driver died on impact.

I woke up, screaming. A split second later, I was lying prone against the roof of my car, wedged between trees and the ground. I collected my thoughts at a speed that shocked me.

I’m upside down.

How do I get out?

Where’s my cell phone? Can’t find it.

Is the car still on? TURN OFF THE IGNITION NOW.

The engine smells like it’s burning.

Can I get out through the door? No.

Here come some guys running toward me.

“Call 911!”

One of the three guys, Adam, runs to his car to fetch a hammer. Tells me to shield my eyes. Breaks the glass on the passenger side window. Darren and Joe motion for me to climb out through the window. They pull me out.

I stagger to my feet.

“Are you OK?”
“I think so.”
“Is there anyone else in the car?”
“No. Wait, did I hit anyone else? Is anyone hurt?”
“No, you swerved right off the road. Dude, I can’t believe this! How did you survive THAT?”
“I…I don’t know.”

Paramedics arrive, along with multiple police cars, tow trucks and city workers to pull the car out. EMTs check me out.

Concussion? No. Spine, neck, head? All OK. Did I need to go to the hospital? No. A few minor scrapes. My foot kind of hurts, maybe a broken toe.

That’s it.

I sat on the grass for a long time afterwards. The fire crew, police and EMTs kept passing by, asking me if I was sure I was OK. I was.

They pulled the car out. 2002 VW Golf. Silver. Wife called the car “Scout” (only one person has ever correctly guessed why, because no one else in our generation knows the name of Tonto’s horse). The entire front was warped beyond recognition. But the seat belt held in place, all the airbags deployed, and the frame absorbed the blow. Scout saved my life.

As bystanders and emergency crews walked past and finished up, they all gave me the same look that everyone gave Bruce Willis in the movie “Unbreakable” after a huge train crash killed everyone on board except Willis’ character, who was completely unharmed.

The big feelings don’t register the way they tell you they will. Your life doesn’t flash before your eyes. You don’t see a white light. You don’t see God, ponder God’s existence or reflect on the nature of miracles.

I thought about all the selfish things I’d done in my life, times I’d wronged loved ones and co-workers, the white lies and little deceits. The moments of cowardice. The times when I could have done the right thing, but did the wrong thing instead. The people I’d upset, the feelings I’d hurt. During moments of clarity, you can tell yourself that nobody’s perfect, that everyone makes mistakes, that all you can do is strive to be a better person.

Sitting on the grass, mostly unharmed (the toe turned out not to even be broken), looking at the scene around me, I realized that this was both a moment of clarity and a moment of chaos.

Then I thought about Angèle and the twins. (I’d later learn that both she and the fetuses were stabilized, and the prognosis looks greatly improved for postponing the births for a good while longer.) I thought about my family and friends.

I thought about how happy I was that I’d still get to be with everyone I loved, still get to throw up my broke-ass lefty hook on the basketball court, still get to obsess over a defunct baseball team
longer than any sane person ever would. I laughed out loud, let a few tears drip down my face.

I should have been dead.

But I was alive.

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23 Comments leave one →
  1. 28 August 2009 5:14 pm

    Pardon my French here, Jonah, but holy SHIT. How…are you alive?

    I’m glad you are OK, and you and Angèle are in my thoughts/prayers today.

  2. 28 August 2009 5:17 pm

    My God. I’m thinking for you, too.

    And “relatively intelligent” people do not write things of this power.

  3. 28 August 2009 5:38 pm

    Wow, what an amazing story. Glad you made it through it all & were able to share it with us.

    Best of luck to you and your family.

  4. vannstruth permalink
    28 August 2009 5:54 pm

    That’s amazing, Jonah. Really glad you’re OK and those babies still have their Dad.

  5. tdhurst permalink
    28 August 2009 5:57 pm

    Eerily similar to Fight Club, when everything becomes clear after narrowly avoiding great tragedy.

    Glad you’re okay, good luck with the kids and dammit, I hope you never forget your combined moment of clarity and chaos. Use it well.

  6. pieman1121 permalink
    28 August 2009 6:05 pm

    Wow. Glad to hear you’re okay, Jonah. I live up here in Maine and we don’t have a lot of crashes up this way. I am glad you and Angele and doing well and can’t wait for the book, too!

  7. socnorb777 permalink
    28 August 2009 7:44 pm

    Wow, I only know you as a listener to the Dave Dameshek podcast, but you’ve always been one of my favorite guests on his show. What a crazy story, and so well written. I’m glad you’re okay, and all my best to you and your wife as you guys get ready for the twins. Thanks for sharing this in such a well written story.

  8. hentrose permalink
    28 August 2009 11:00 pm

    Jesus Christ, dude. Take it easy from now on.

    I’ve found that a 5-10 minute catnap is usually all you need to clear your head and complete the drive home. Keep that in mind.

  9. spudrph permalink
    28 August 2009 11:01 pm

    Jesus Christ indeed.

    Thank God you’re alive, sir.

  10. cruzich permalink
    29 August 2009 1:52 pm

    Oh, my God. Jonah, so glad to hear you came out of this terrifying experience unhurt, both for you and for your family.

  11. Jonah permalink*
    29 August 2009 1:55 pm

    Thanks for the best wishes, everyone. I’m fine, both physically and mentally. Angele is doing great, twins still cooking. We very much appreciate all the support.

    Go hug your loved ones. In the end all that matters are family and friends.

  12. 29 August 2009 3:23 pm

    Jeez. So glad to hear that you, and just as importantly the twins, are fine. Hopefully the rest of Angèle’s pregnancy has less drama and more happy, healthy kiddos at the end. Oh, and hopefully no more Fast and Furious style car wrecks for you too!

  13. mekalek permalink
    30 August 2009 4:37 pm

    As a fireman/paramedic you don’t need me to tell you how lucky you truly are. As a father to be in a couple of months I couldn’t imagine the thoughts that not only you had…but the thoughts your wife must have had about raising twins on her own. God bless you and your family.

  14. bestlight permalink
    30 August 2009 7:26 pm

    Sometimes cheaters DO prosper.

    So glad this turned out the way it did. I wish you and your wife and children an uneventful end of summer and beginning of fall.

  15. rgkeri permalink
    31 August 2009 1:19 pm

    Jonah:

    Every driver needs a solid companion in his ride. Scout gave his all for you.
    The famous Keri luck, although not Irish, comes through again. Onward and upward with an unsurmountable amount of thanks. We’ll definitely have an harrowing story to tell the grandchildren when they are older. Talk about the fanfare and drama of arriving in the world!

    Love,
    Roslyn

    PS. B&P were definitely looking out for you.

  16. pslade42 permalink
    31 August 2009 3:33 pm

    jonseyjones- I’ve been reading you going all the way back to the earliest days of the Expos boards…newsgroups even. So glad to know you are all OK, and wanted to thank you for this post.

  17. danfauchier permalink
    8 October 2009 1:22 am

    Jonah, this is your father-in-law. I’m unbelievably glad that (a) you’re alive and safe, and (b) I didn’t read this until after the twins were born and known to be healthy. The day you and Angele were married, I told the assembled family and friends that you are the luckiest man in North America. Once again you have proven it. I stand by my assessment. And we are unbelievably happy you can live out your life as the esteemed husband of a remarkable human being and the father of yet two more.

    Granddan

  18. 29 August 2011 4:32 pm

    Wow, know the feeling…had a full blown gran mal seizure at 70 mph and hit a concrete barrier after crossing six lanes of a busy Florida road. Cops were tailing me thinking I was drunk and said they thought for certain I was dead. Front end buckled, every window in the truck exploded. Somehow, I didn’t have a scratch on me. Paramedics got there, I was post dictal, and I was home a few hours later.

    I know the “unbreakable” feeling that you speak of….I never want to know it again!

    Great write up.

  19. 30 August 2011 1:02 am

    Wow. Just wow.
    A horrifying experience so eloquently written.
    Thank you for sharing.
    Jp

  20. 27 August 2012 12:50 pm

    I just read this and couldn’t believe it. You are one lucky guy. Definitely made me stop and think about my life. Thanks for sharing your story.
    All the best,
    Ryan

Trackbacks

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