From the brink of death: One teen driver’s long road to recovery from a crash
Vehicle crashes are the No. 1 cause of death among U.S. teens, but for the teen drivers who survive, the pain doesn’t immediately go away. Some teen drivers are on a mission to tell others about the physical, emotional and financial consequences of a crash.
“The biggest effect would either have to be the depression, or the lack of wanting to do anything,” says Tennessee high school senior Joe Polakiewicz, 17, who was injured severely in a car accident in 2010.
Beyond Joe’s emotional strain and staggering physical injuries – including suffering brain trauma and losing a kidney and his spleen – the financial stress is significant. For example, his annual auto insurance premium almost doubled to nearly $3,000.
Joe, then 16, was driving his yellow Volkswagen Beetle to a friend’s house around 5 p.m. on a clear day in October 2010. State Farm says October is the most dangerous month for teen drivers.
He was coming around a curve on a rural road when his right tire went off the edge. He over-corrected, which caused his car to spin around 180 degrees and shoot across the road. The car hit a tree on the passenger side, splitting the car in two.
His family originally thought he was reading a text behind the wheel, but they determined he had not made any phone calls or done any texting while driving. Joe, who had not been drinking alcohol, cannot remember the details.
Joe’s parents would remind him daily not to speed, make phone calls or text when driving. His mom, Nancy Polakiewicz, says Joe probably had more driving experience than his peers, as his school is 45 minutes from their house.
“We felt that we did everything we could,” she says.
Teen drivers’ mistakes
Trying to determine what teen drivers do wrong has occupied researchers such as those with The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and State Farm. A study released in 2011 found these three most common errors teen drivers make that lead to serious crashes:
• 21 percent of crashes were blamed on going too fast for road conditions.
• 21 percent occurred because of distraction by something inside or outside the vehicle.
• 21 percent were attributed to a lack of scanning, which is use to detect and respond to hazards.
Trying to stop accidents at the hands of teen drivers is critical, as teen drivers are involved in fatal crashes at four times the rate of adults, killing an average of 11 teens a day. More than 5,600 fatal crashes involved teen drivers in 2009, according to the National Safety Council.
“No teenager ever leaves the house thinking, ‘Well, I’m just going to smash my car today.’ Neither did Joe. But it happened,” Nancy says. “When you get into the car, driving is your job.”
Joe was flown to University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville. The trip by air ambulance took seven minutes; by ground ambulance, it would have taken 40 minutes. When Joe arrived, the only sign of life was a faint pulse in his neck. “He was almost gone at that point,” Nancy recalls.
Doctors had to remove his left kidney and his spleen. He had a torn liver, several fractured vertebrae and ribs, a fractured pelvis and lung bruises. His urethra was cut off from his bladder. He suffered a brain hemorrhage and traumatic brain injury.
Doctors initially gave Joe’s parents little hope that he would survive. He was hospitalized for a month and then moved to a rehabilitation center for three weeks. About 12 hours after he returned home, he had more complications and returned to the hospital for another week. Joe spent about three months in outpatient physical, occupational and speech therapy. He’s undergone several more surgeries since his outpatient therapy was completed.
Joe had two catheters for about six months; it was the only way to remove urine from his body. He had reconstructive surgery to repair his urethra and now can urinate on his own.
“They said it would be a miracle if I ever peed again,” he says.
So far, the medical bill – including surgeries, treatment and therapy – exceeds $452,000:
• Nearly $283,000 was covered by insurance.
• Almost $162,000 was written off by health care providers.
• Nearly $7,200 was paid by the family.
His parents withdrew about $10,000 from savings to pay bills. That money replaced wages they lost while Joe was in the hospital and needed to be cared for at home.
What the future holds
Joe and his parents have noticed short-term memory problems and personality changes. They’ve affected his relationships and his performance in school. For instance, he’s now prone to making inappropriate comments.
“Basically, he just blurts out whatever comes through his mind,” Nancy says. “We will just say, ‘Joe, that’s enough.’ Sometimes he doesn’t know when to stop.”
In school, Joe went from someone who didn’t have to study to someone who struggles in the classroom. His injuries have affected other activities, such as working out, that were a regular part of his life. Joe, a former wrestler, still lacks motivation to exercise. “I can’t run or jog anymore. I can’t tell my brain that I’m moving each leg in front of (the other) each time,” he says.
Joe is on track to graduate from high school this spring. Instead of attending a four-year university, he plans to enroll at a two-year community college, which offers smaller classes and one-on-one help, Nancy says.
“People sometimes ask me if you had one wish, what would you wish for? Every time I tell them I wish I could go back to the day before my wreck, because those were my happiest times,” Joe says.
Insurance ‘sticker shock’
The family expected their auto insurance premiums to increase, but not so dramatically. The cost of Joe’s coverage – included in the family’s policy — has nearly doubled since the accident. The annual premium for Joe’s coverage now stands at $2,886.
“It was like sticker shock,” Nancy says. “We told him that he’s really going to have to get a part-time job and help us out with this.”
Looking back, she wished Joe had taken driver’s education or gone to driving school, but they weren’t required for Joe to get his license.
Allison Curry, a researcher at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Center for Injury Research and Prevention who conducted the study about teen crashes, says promoting safe driving skills is as important as preventing bad behavior.
State laws seek to limit behind-the-wheel distractions for teens, such as cellphones and texting, and graduated driver’s licensing programs put caps on the number of passengers for teen drivers. Dr. Dennis Durbin, co-director of the Philadelphia hospital’s Center for Injury Research and Prevention, says formal teen driver training should focus on skills such as observing surroundings far ahead of the vehicle and side to side, which can make drivers more aware of hazards.
Since the accident, Joe has taken a defensive driving course through the local police department and a course through the Drive 4 Life Academy in Knoxville, Tenn., which included 30 hours of classroom education and six hours of one-on-one driving with an instructor. One of the things he learned: how to avoid over-correction in behind-the-wheel emergencies like his car crash.
The new guidelines that Joe follows include this one: Allowing a minimum of three seconds behind a car in front of his and adding another second for every poor driving condition, such as rain, fog or darkness. Studies show that teens are more likely to follow too closely than older drivers.
“You’re pretty far back, but at a high speed, your stopping distance is really, really far,” says Joe, who now drives a white Ford pickup truck.
Driving correctly has resulted in a less stressful and even soothing experience behind the wheel, Joe says. But he recognizes teens have the ability to remove one of the biggest distractions – technology. His message to teen drivers: “Put the phone away. Turn it off and put it in the glove box.”