Alcohol, Articles

Guest Post: A Drunk Driver Changed My Life…

Host of ABC 33/40’s Talk of Alabama

This is why I became a journalist.

In 1981, a drunk driver came crashing through my home in the middle of the night, hitting my baby bed head on. I was sent airborne across the room and found in a bloody mangled mess, stuck between the cars fender and my closet door. I was 4 years old. The driver was 19 years old, drunk and on drugs. He was speeding- two times the legal limit- when he came flying into my bedroom.

I suffered 2 broken legs, a shattered growth plate, busted knee cap and internal injuries, just to name a few. The next 15 plus years I was in and out of Cleveland Rainbow and Babies Hospital, undergoing dozens of leg operations and endless hours in physical therapy. In this picture my mom is helping me rehab after the first of two leg lengthening operations I would endure.

The drunk driver paid a $400 fine and walked free. My family got nothing. He was from a powerful family and all the evidence was “lost” when it finally went to court. You can draw your own conclusions as to what really happened and I bet you would be right. He never apologized. My parents were young, naive and just too busy helping me, to fight the system. Keep in mind, DUI laws were not nearly as strict back then, as they are now. And the closest TV station was Cleveland – 1.5 hours away… So only the local newspaper in my rural Ohio hometown even covered the accident. Doctors wanted to amputate my left leg, but a Navy trained doctor stepped in and took a gamble on me. He saved my leg. He had worked with soldiers in WW2, so he was familiar with extensive knee and leg reconstruction. I would wear huge lift shoes in between surgeries to keep my hips even. My mom would have to cut all of my new school clothes each year so the multiple metal bars and brackets that were screwed into my bones could exit out of my pant legs. I would go to school on crutches and in wheel chairs, depending on what operation just took place. I would scream and cry through thousands of hours of physical therapy – learning how to walk again, after every grueling operation.

My last surgery, I was a senior in college. So yes, I knew my entire life I wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to be that watchdog to help moms and dads like my own. To help families let down and screwed over by the system. To be the voice of the weak. The injured. The young and naive. I wanted to say that I spent my life fighting for people who didn’t know how to even begin the fight. For nearly a decade I was a hard news reporter for NBC6 in Charlotte, NC and for FOX5 in Atlanta, GA doing just that. Throughout those years, I broke thousands of local and regional stories. A few of them went national and international, including a Georgia Tech student planning a terrorist attack on Washington, DC …followed by the most egregious police corruption case in Georgia’s history when an elderly lady named Kathryn Johnston was murdered in her own home. I slept well all those years – partly because I was working 16 hour days, but mostly because I knew I was doing what God intended for my life. I was helping families devastated by tragedy and injustice.

I eventually got married in my 30’s and moved to Birmingham where my husband’s business is located. For the past 9 years I have anchored a morning lifestyle program on ABC33/40. And although I am not on “the front lines” as often, I am blessed to still be able to help local community members by promoting their businesses, organizations and charities, which in turn creates growth and spreads awareness.

Of course, I still go out and report every week. I now focus on in-depth pieces. In fact, my series, “Gay In The Deep South” took home the AP’s Best Reporter Award. From interracial marriages to the struggles of single parent homes, I choose stories that need to be told. Stories that deserve to be told. And in the process, I am humbled to make dear friends along the way.

So here is am, 39 years old, and coming up on nearly 2 decades in this business.  My profession has blessed me in many ways, including the opportunity to speak to young drivers across our state.  You may have never stood over a lifeless body … but I have. You may have never seen a body ripped to shreds, so much so, that teeth impressions are required to make a positive identification … but I have.  You may have never waited with a family in a morgue to collect the personal belongings of a teenager … but I have. You may have never rolled up on an accident scene, where even the police officers are crying because a young driver’s leg or head is laying on the side of the road … but I have. I tell you all of this, not to gross you out, but to remind you that waking up tomorrow is not a guarantee.  Do you know the hardest part of journalism? Covering the funerals of young men and women senselessly killed, much too young. Our youth killed by drunk drivers, or dead as a result of driving under the influence. I look into the eyes of their mothers and fathers, over flowing with tears and we stand silent. All knowing their child’s death could have been prevented. The parents blame themselves. Full of sadness and rage, I hear them say things like, “Why didn’t he call me for a ride?” Others say, “We should have done a better job telling her about the dangers of drinking and driving.”

These parents bury their sweet babies, and are left standing in the procession line instead of the graduation line. You see, if you kill yourself or someone else because you drink and drive, you are also killing your parents.  They have such big dreams for you. They want you to live a long and healthy life. They want you to be happy. They want to watch you get that first job or take that first trip overseas. You’re parents want to hear your laugh more than anything in the world. And even if you are lucky enough to survive an accident related to drinking and driving, how could you ever live with the guilt of killing or paralyzing someone else? Someone else’s child, best friend, or baby?  You have so much life to still live! Don’t spend that precious time behind bars, locked up and forever with a criminal record that will follow you.

I started telling my story more as I got older and more experienced in this business because I realized some young viewers would see me on TV and assume I have had a serendipitous and charmed life. They assume it’s all come easy to me. Little do they know I have scars from toe to hip. That when it rains, I limp. That when I’m older, I’ll most likely have to have a knee replacement. I’ll deal with arthritis. When summer comes, I have to force myself to put on a swimsuit, and ignore the curious looks I get when people realize one knee cap is larger and lower than the other. I constantly have to explain to my kids why mommy is not supposed to run long distances with them. I watched the championship basketball game earlier this summer and when Lebron James said to the reporter, that nothing comes easy in N.E. Ohio, that you’ve got to work for it, I looked straight at the TV and said “Amen!” My heart knew exactly what he was talking about. My father worked for 36 years in a factory, paying off my medical bills. I worked through college, while earning my journalism degree from Kent State. My mother worked full time to contribute to those medical bills and my sweet older brother spent too many days visiting me in the hospital… All of this because one man decided to drink then drive. Do not make a story like this, your story. Do not make a mistake, your legacy. Do not waste away God’s blessings on a few hours of fun.  It’s easy to make the right choice, but the wrong choice can haunt you until the end of time. Please remember, no drink is worth ruining your life or another person’s life. If you indulge, call über or a taxi…you’re mom or your friend. And to the bigger picture, if your battling an addiction in silence, please seek help- seeking help makes you strong, not weak.

I share this story because I want to remind all of you that dreams do come true, if you just keep pushing through. Maybe you’re dealing with bullying at school or you just broke up with your boyfriend/girlfriend. Maybe you’re having issues at home or got rejected from a job you really wanted. Maybe this phase of your life feels overwhelming and you feel like nothing every works out like you want it to. Whatever the case, know that you are loved.

That we are also a family to each other. Us Alabamians. Us humans. Hard times always pass. Doctors said I would never walk, let alone have children. Yet I hike, dance and walk just fine with no pain. Most importantly, God blessed me with 3 beautiful children that I carried full term- now 6, 4 and 8 months old. My husband could care less about my scars. That’s the funny thing about life- it will always work out, even when times seem dark. You can achieve anything you set your mind to- that college scholarship, that dream job, that prom date- know that you are worthy and you are good enough. Know that you don’t have to be perfect to be amazing.

I could of let that accident take control of my life, instead I used it to find purpose in my life. We all have a story- don’t be afraid to embrace yours. Surround yourself with positive people that believe in your goodness. I always tell my kids to wake up each morning and choose happiness. And at the end of a rough day, or even rough year, look back on how far you’ve come… How far we’ve all come and how much more good we can serve up to this world.

God bless all of you young men and women! – Nicole

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  • Amrita Arora

    Embracing your story – a salient point for any age. Thank you!

    December 26, 2020 at 11:00 am
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