After car crash, a life to be thankful for

Thanksgiving is far and away my favorite holiday.

For all the cliched reasons, of course. I love seeing family, the sounds and smells of the season, and of course the socially acceptable gluttony.

But forced, scheduled and planned as it is, spending time to think about all the things that you are thankful for is something important to me.

This year, more so than others. I’ve got an awful lot to be thankful for this year.

In late March, I was driving on the Washington Beltway, headed toward Fairfax, Va., in the late afternoon. For some reason traffic was — for once — moving at full speed, and I was driving at around 60 miles per hour in the passing lane.

That’s when something happened.

My memory of the entire thing is, admittedly, hazy. All I seem to be able to recall is that something — I believe it was the car next to me turning into my lane, not seeing me because I was in the driver’s blind spot — impacted my car and sent it toward the separator between the lanes I was in and the commuter lanes.

Not wanting to hit the tractor trailer truck I saw immediately to my left, nor wanting to crash head on into the separator, I pulled my car back into my lane, which caused me to strike a truck. That collision sent my car spinning out of control, across four lanes of traffic at full speed, and sent me into a cement wall on the far side of the highway.

I’ve been in car accidents before and have always been fine. That’s why, once the stunned shock of a full-speed impact wore off, and I regained my bearings, I decided I should get out of my car and assess the situation.

I reached down for my phone — which had flown out of the center console where it was charging — on the floor of the passenger side of my car, and that’s when I noticed that I couldn’t breathe.

Plenty of people have heard me talk about this accident, but I don’t typically describe how close to death I was. As the firefighters ripped the side of my car off with the jaws of life, I desperately spat out some words telling them I couldn’t breathe and couldn’t move. The air wasn’t coming, and I was getting close to losing consciousness.

As I was transported in the ambulance, I got worse. Whatever shallow breaths I was able to get before were now more difficult as I moved from sitting in my broken seat to lying on a gurney. Oxygen wasn’t helping, and I began to tearfully consider what my son’s life would be like if I didn’t make it.

I arrived in the emergency room in critical condition and was, obviously, eventually stabilized.

Later that day I would learn that I had destroyed two vertebrae in my thoracic spine and was extraordinarily lucky that I wasn’t paralyzed from the chest down. I would need reconstructive spinal surgery and would spend the next 12 days in the hospital recovering from the subsequent spinal fusion.

The people I work for, particularly my boss, didn’t even hesitate to tell me I could take whatever time I needed to heal and wouldn’t have to worry about a paycheck. A seemingly unending avalanche of friends not only visited me in the hospital but brought my wife and son meals at our house, so they didn’t have to worry about that. Family dropped everything and came 700 miles to see me.

It is easy to be cynical and feel disconnected from people, and I know I have certainly felt that way sometimes. Not after that accident.

I was in excruciating pain for months afterward and had to wear a back brace for three months. Even now, eight months later, my new bionic spine is only half healed, and I’m still stiff and can’t do everything I used to do.

But it is very hard for me not to be thankful. Thankful to be alive at all. Thankful that my injury wasn’t worse than it was. Thankful that I was brought to one of the country’s best hospitals and was operated on by a world-class surgeon. Thankful that I had friends and family to step up to the plate to not only help me and my family but support me emotionally in a very difficult time.

Those are gifts I have that, sadly, not everyone is fortunate enough to have. And that’s something I will remember this Thanksgiving and all Thanksgivings I celebrate for the rest of my life.

So I apologize for the sentimentality, but this is my favorite holiday and always will be.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.