Vigils to honor the victims of drunken drivers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Laid off from his job as a long-haul truck driver, Thomas Fitzgerald was driving a cab to make ends meet when a 19-year-old youth, returning home from a party, sped around a curve on Hanson Road in Edgewood and met him head-on at an estimated 80 mph.

The impact of the crash left Mr. Fitzgerald's body a twisted wreck that had to be cut from the mangled taxi and flown to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.

He spent 100 days in the hospital as doctors patched him back together. His leg had been broken, his knee shattered and his skull crushed. Every bone in his face was broken. He was unrecognizable to his family.

In the seven years since the accident, the 61-year-old man has had countless operations to repair the damage, including skin grafts and bone transplants.

Two years ago, after nearly every procedure known to surgeons failed to repair his knee, his left leg was amputated above the knee. He was fitted with a prothesis.

He's put his body back together again, but he's hardly whole.

"Emotionally and psychologically," he says, "I'm only halfway there." He still uses a wheelchair to get around, has not adapted to the prothesis, rarely leaves the house and has no idea when he might drive any kind of vehicle again. There's still a lot of healing to do.

And though he was the only person in the cab, he was not the only victim. His wife, son and two daughters, too, all have their own stories to tell of the desperate effects the accident had on their lives.

The other driver, who was hospitalized for seven days, was charged with three traffic violations, including speeding and negligent driving. But he was never declared legally drunk.

By the time he was tested for alcohol consumption, says Mr. Fitzgerald's wife Sue, the other driver was found to have a blood-alcohol content just below .07, the state's legal limit for driving under the influence.

"He paid his fines and walked," she said.

The Fitzgeralds' story is not unique, say members of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the national group that fights for justice for the victims of drunken drivers. Those victims are to be the focus of a candlelight vigil on the steps of the Harford County Circuit Courthouse Saturday evening.

At the same time, a national vigil of remembrance will be held in Chicago to honor those injured and killed by drunken drivers. The national vigil is held every year during National Drunk Driving Awareness Month.

The candle lightings are held to honor the dead, but also to offer solace for the living -- the victims who survived unthinkable accidents as well as their families, who must pick up the pieces of their shattered lives, says Kimberly Schaffel, president of MADD's Harford County chapter.

"It devastated our family," says Mrs. Fitzgerald of Aug. 16, 1986, accident that made her 54-year-old robust husband a cripple. She said it not only burdened them financially but destroyed the innocence of their three children.

"Our son wanted revenge. I had to convince him he couldn't go that route," she says of Tim, who was 18 at the time and knew of the drunken driver as a fellow student of his sister's at Joppatowne High School.

"He quit a summer National Guard training program two weeks before graduation and took a part-time job to help pay expenses," said his mother. "In the fall, he continued working and didn't return to high school to graduate with his senior class."

"He felt he had to be the man of the family."

Today, he rarely takes a drink and rarely talks about the accident. As did his younger sister Tracy Fitzgerald, who was 15 at the time, he "went into a shell" after the accident, says Mrs. Fitzgerald.

"They're carrying around a lot of bitterness," she says, "because that kid got off scot-free."

Mrs. Fitzgerald says the driver who hit her husband paid about $1,500 in fines, but that was a fraction of what Mr. Fitzgerald's medical bills have totaled.

"We had to file for bankruptcy. We lost everything," she said, explaining that because her husband had been laid off he had no health insurance. And because of his temporary status as a cabdriver, he was not covered by workmen's compensation benefits.

"That boy had $20,000 insurance, but our medical bills were over a quarter-million dollars," she said.

Older daughter Tammy Fitzgerald, then 20, "put her life on hold to help me," says Mrs. Fitzgerald. Tammy, who had just started a second job to save for her own apartment, began turning the extra earnings over to the family pool.

In time, she joined MADD and became a speaker on the Victims Impact Panel. Among other things, members of the panel take turns telling the story of their personal tragedies to convicted drunken drivers who have been ordered by the court to attend their sessions.

"The people in MADD have been my saviors," says Tammy Fitzgerald. "No one in my family had had any meaningful counseling, but I had to have an outlet. I was victimized as much as my father, if not physically. They helped me get through that."

She says that repeating the details of her father's injuries to others, and the emotional and financial impact of them, helped her accept "the fact that I wasn't daddy's little girl anymore."

"For me, knowing he would never be what he was before was very difficult. This is something everlasting for us. It will never change. He's still dependent on all of us."

As an impact panel member, she had the task of describing her father's injuries in detail. She described how his face was torn beyond recognition and how he spent five years trying to save his leg, "undergoing one moral defeat after another" as doctors tried new remedies.

She saw her father lying unconscious for 10 days; she saw him with his jaws wired shut and his eyes sewn shut. She told of how doctors had to slowly build him a new face.

They re-created his eye sockets using one of his ribs, put a steel bridge between his eyes and made sinus cavities out of metal rods. They used a muscle from his back, skin from his thigh and bone from his hip to try to rebuild his knee.

Today, he is still self-conscious about his face. He has some memory loss, poor eyesight and impaired hearing, with a tube in one ear and scar tissue in the other. And he admits that he has "a huge psychological battle ahead" in learning to depend more on his prothesis.

Grateful to be alive, he is nevertheless "full of resentment and anger." "I lived 54 years and was never really sick. I was strong and healthy and whatever I asked my body to do it did. But this . . . this destroyed my life," he says.

He spends his days at home baby-sitting with his 3 1/2 -year-old granddaughter, Katelyn, an opportunity he cherishes. But he would like to be out on the road, driving for a living.

As is her daughter, Mrs. Fitzgerald is a member of MADD. She works in the Bel Air office as its secretary. It's one of three part-time jobs she has today as chief breadwinner.

"The effects are so devastating and far-reaching," says MADD President Schaffel of the cases she has seen through the organization. "Even to the general public. Here's a man who was a taxpayer, a contributing member of society. And now he's missing from our ranks."

"People say you're lucky to be alive, and we are, but your outlook on life changes drastically," says Ms. Schaffel, who herself was run down by a drunken driver on Christmas Eve 1977. She had both legs broken, and still walks with a limp.

Ms. Schaffel joined the Harford chapter of MADD in September 1991, when it was a satellite of the Northern Maryland chapter and had 17 members. Today, a year after becoming an independent chapter, it has 240 members.

Unfortunately, she points out, "90 percent of them are victims," meaning survivors or family members of survivors of drunken-driving incidents.

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