A Mother’s Nightmare
A cool iced drink,
a warm spring day.
Smash, metal tearing, scraping,
Name bellowed, ice explodes through veins,
pools in the heart.
Lungs desperate for air,
drums beat a steady rhythm in my ears.
I close my eyes,
catapult to that precise, catastrophic moment.
Remember the sounds of nightmares,
horror seeped in fear.
The picture and noises,
so true, so vivid.
Hieroglyphs forever engraved
on my memory.
“Stay still, love.”
“Am I going to die? I’m dying, aren’t I, Mum?”
“No, darling, you’re not dying. You’ve just been in a bad accident. Rhiannon, clean towels and the scissors from my bedroom – now, please, love. Okay, darling, can you tell me your full name and date of birth?”
“That’s it, love, and the rest.”
I know it’s a cliché to say you can’t know what it’s like till you’ve experienced it...but it’s true.
On October seventeenth 2015 around one pm, a junkie high as a drone on methadone hit the back of my son, Pierce’s, car dragging it down the road, into a tree and through the neighbours’ fence.
Unfortunately Pierce was under the car at the time.
For a novel change, our postage stamp patch of the winterless north (said tongue in cheek) was bathed in sunshine. The washing was done and hung out, the house was as clean as it was going to get – hey, don’t judge, I work full time and the last thing I fancy spending my weekends doing is cleaning. Plus that’s what you have kids for...isn’t it?
I’d just parked my butt in a deckchair, an iced coffee perspired on a small glass table to my right and my book de jour was open on my iPad.
How to explain the sound of tearing, screeching, ripping metal as it collides, crushing together? In the twelve-odd years we’d lived in Hikurangi I’ve heard that same sound, but to lesser degrees, three other times.
The first was when a Kaitaia Transport truck hit a little white Toyota I had parked out front. Next a young male hoon, lost control and ploughed into a tree, half-climbing it. Then my partner, Kevin, was backing out of the driveway and someone else (again driving too fast) clipped the back of his work vehicle.
The craziest thing though, the Whangarei District Council has never got back to us about putting in speed bumps to slow traffic on a residential street that’s used as a racing track...go figure!
With chills I remember Kevin bellowing my name and the sprint through our house to discover my son lying on the roadside, broken and bleeding.
“PHONE THE AMBULANCE!” My turn to yell.
Don’t move him. Spinal injury? Monitor breathing. Airways are clear. Major arteries bleeding? Compound fractures?
For the love of God, where’s the bloody ambulance??????
“Stay still, love, the ambulance is coming.”
When they finally arrived I handed over to the ambo officers and sent Rhiannon for my wallet and phone. Wild horses couldn’t keep me out of that ambulance.
To say the trip to hospital took hours and hours would be an understatement.
Pierce’s girlfriend, Brooke, and Violet ‑ my middle child ‑ arrived twenty minutes after we got to Accident and Emergency and I’d had a five-minute bout of hysteria.
How can you laugh in A and E? Well...first, Violet’s boyfriend fainted a minute after seeing Pierce.
“I’m in the Matrix, Mum. I’m part of the machine. It’s like a seventies trip.”
“Jesus, I don’t remember the seventies being that good, son.”
“Nurse...is my penis all right?”
“Yes, Pierce, your penis is fine.”
“Oh, thank God. I can handle anything as long as my penis is okay.”
Saying goodbye to us before he was wheeled off for x-rays for eight hours of surgery with three different surgical teams was the last Pierce spoke for two days.
He was in intensive care, sedated, tubes feeding and hydrating him, and with machines breathing for him, medicating him and monitoring everything.
Over the next five days Pierce had another four surgeries.
The list of injuries: a burst vertebrae, broken processes on at least four other vertebrae, broken left humerus, broken right femur, de-gloving (torn open wound) of the peritoneum, grated off right ankle, four fractures to his pelvis, the tendon to his left big toe torn, fractured ribs, bruising of the lungs, right leg peeled from hip to ankle front and back, abrasions to back, right shoulder, and left and right arms, plus two top teeth knocked out.
The cretin who hit Pierce went around Hikurangi telling people his victim had suffered only a broken pelvis and would be back at work in a week or two. It was in fact four weeks before he even came out of hospital, with nearly two of these spent in ICU, and then started many months of healing at home.
Dressing changes were excruciating and barely managed with nitrous oxide ‑ in hospital, that is. Unfortunately district nurses aren’t allowed to carry nitrous oxide, so people with extensive injuries like Pierce’s get to have something like midazolam nasal spray which doesn’t help with the pain, just makes you forget as you suffer through the agony.
At 70kg and 178cm tall, twenty three-year-old Pierce had been fit and active, with not a bean of fat on him. By the time he left hospital he was 50kg wringing wet.
The first dressing change Pierce had at home took over two hours and there were three district nurses doing it. He ended up removing the dressing on his right calf himself, a millimetre at a time to minimise the pain. It was about twenty-five centimetres long and twelve in the widest part. It took a long time because the tissue had healed through the dressing.
For the first three months he had a cocktail of medication to help with pain, with sleeping, with eating, with all bodily functions – oh, and did I mention the pain?
After the first attempt at a shower and subsequent passing out we gave that a long miss and stuck to sponge baths for the next six weeks.
Pierce’s ACC case manager was awesome. He came to the hospital and house, and basically helped in every way we could think of ‑ as well as some we hadn’t.
Though ACC has been a fantastic help, this past year has still been financially difficult for Pierce and our family. When you take into account an apprentice electrician’s wage isn’t a lot to start with, eighty percent of that is sweet fanny adams. Every doctor, osteo and outside agency visit carries a surcharge. So far in our experience it ranges from thirty to forty dollars. An example: as Pierce starts back at work he has to get a medical certificate every two weeks, to make sure his body is coping with the gradual return to duties. The surcharge is thirty-two dollars. If he has an osteo or acupuncture appointment for pain it’s another forty dollars. So the week costs him seventy-two dollars of non-refundable surcharge. And the list goes on.
The company Pierce and I work for have been incredible. They allowed me to drop back to half days so I could care for Pierce and they held Pierce’s apprenticeship open until he was physically able to return. But I don’t have any annual leave left and we live pay cheque to pay cheque - I know most people do but when you are caring for a sick or injured person it’s just another added stress.
It’s really hard to put into words what that caring process involves. Coordinating doctor visits, hospital check-ups, district nurse calls three times a week, plus other appointments with dietitians, occupational therapists and physiotherapists. Making sure medications don’t run out and are reduced when the time was right. Bedding changed every couple of days. Copious amounts of washing done. And stay as positive and upbeat as is humanly possibly while watching your child suffer more pain than you’d wish on your worst enemy.
Thankfully the nastiest of it lasted only four months.
There were two more surgeries. One was a fairly minor one ‑ in and out in a day. The other, reasonably major, had him back in hospital for another week.
My brain remembers the first couple of months of hideous images, sounds, panic and sheer terror, but must have reached an ‘I can take no more’ limit because the rest’s a blank. Or maybe watching the pain Pierce was in one day simply matched the next.
“Mum, why me? Why did this happen to me?”
How, in all the layers and levels of hell, can you answer that question? I still don’t know. All I could think of when Pierce asked me that particular question was Eric Idol’s song, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, that plays at the end of Monty Python’s movie Life of Brian. At least Pierce was alive, without brain damage or a permanent spinal injury.
Intermingled through this fun time was the legal coming and goings.
There were two charges brought against Mr F Witt: Careless Driving Causing Injury and a category three driving offence of Driving Under the Influence of Controlled Drugs Causing Injury. This second one carried a maximum penalty of five years in prison or a twenty-thousand-dollar fine. He pleaded guilty to the first charge, not guilty to the second.
Soon after the plea hearing the court liaison contacted us to say the Police Prosecutor was planning on dropping the Driving Under the Influence charge because it had taken seven attempts to get blood at the police station before they took him to the hospital where they finally got a sample.
In my opinion – which sadly doesn’t count for much – he should have been hooked up to an IV line, blood syphoned off, and it given away free to local vampires or to poison rats.
We met with the Chief Police Prosecutor for clarification and were told that yes, they were going to ask to have the charge dropped.
“But I don’t understand. Did the blood test not show he had a large amount of drugs in his system?”
“Yes, it did.”
“So, because of the number of times the nurse attempted to take the blood with no luck, the police have to drop the charge?”
“That is correct.”
“Out of curiosity, why was the speed Mr. F Witt was going at not reported in the serious crash unit’s report?”
“I’m not sure. You’d need to ask that question to the sergeant at the Kamo police station.”
Why would we bother? Obviously pushing a car parked with the brake on one-hundred-plus metres down the road and through a fence doesn’t warrant calculations being made. Because if they had, these combined with the attending constable’s record that the initial speed was in excess of seventy kilometres per hour in a fifty km area could have had Mr F Witt charged with dangerous driving. Um, surely two plus two still equals four? Or not!
The first sentencing date the twat didn’t even turn up. The excuse emailed to the judge was his car had broken down in Auckland.
WTF! How has he still got his licence?
Apparently when you hit someone you don’t automatically lose it for the rest of your life. In fact, you don’t lose your licence until after you’ve been to court, and only then if the judge hands it down as a sentence.
A warrant was issued for his arrest. He turned up in Pukekohe Court asking for the hearing to be in Auckland since he’d moved down there. The court said yeah, nah.
Over several weeks and with help from myself and a lady from victim support, Pierce wrote a victim impact statement that was sent to court for the sentencing hearing. I procrastinated a fair amount over this because every time I tried to help Pierce I’d have a lump lodge in my throat, a burning, prickling feeling behind my eyes, and an almost uncontrollable urge to wail, stamp my feet and bury my head in the sand. After a few aborted goes we managed to produce something legible.
This is his statement:
My name is Pierce Harris and I am 23 years old.
I would like to tell you that I have just had a great summer, going to the beach with my girlfriend, having a beer with my mates on hot summer evenings. I would like to tell you that I have just started my three-year apprenticeship and am looking forward to beginning a new stage of my life, becoming independent, having a career and making it in this world on my own terms.
But that is not my story. My story changed in a split second, but the consequences will haunt me for the rest of my life.
I remember lying on the road seeing my blood pouring out from my mouth, I remember thinking I was going to die. Until the ambulance arrived I was in so much pain and felt terrified. Having Ketamine frightened me. It was the scariest experience of my life.
I was in the ICU. Not able to move due to the high doses of medication, it made me think I may never move again. Every sheet change and dressing change was agony. I’d given up on life and at times I didn’t want to live and sometimes wished I hadn’t.
Every day had brought me challenge after challenge, and I never knew if I’d have the strength to overcome them. I could not eat and sleep, and dressing changes brought with them indescribable pain. And I hadn’t even left the hospital yet.
Now I am at home, it is almost as the day-to-day reality of the accident has set in. The pain continues every time I have a dressing change and water hits my wounds. I hate looking in the mirror at my missing front teeth. It’s made me feel self-conscious. It was hard to eat when the feeding tube was removed. I have to pay thousands of dollars to get my teeth fixed before ACC will pay for implants, as well as paying for half of the cost of the denture. This upsets me because I don’t have the money to get all of the work done.
The most upsetting part of my injuries has been having a colostomy bag. Not having any control over my bowels is disturbingly weird and uncomfortable. I will be thankful when it is reversed, though the hospital has said it could be up to another four months away. I have found it completely traumatising and have found it difficult to do everyday things. Now that I’m getting better I want to go out and see my friends but am constantly aware of it. I have lost my appetite and have gone from being a fit and healthy person to losing over 20kgs because of the accident. I wasn’t very big to start with and so now look gaunt.
Putting aside the medical issues I deal with each day, my apprenticeship has been put on hold. What was going to take me three years, will now take four and I need to pay a lot of money to get back in the programme.
Today at my latest orthopaedic visit at Whangarei Hospital, I was told by the doctor that I will never be able to wakeboard or snowboard ever again, or any other sport like it. The burst vertebrae in my spine would not tolerate a fall without the potential for me to become paralysed. These are sports I love to do every year and it has made me depressed knowing I’ll never be able to do them again.
It’s hard knowing how it’s affected my family. Seeing my mum, stepdad and sisters struggle with nightmares, constantly worrying about me and having to carry out my basic needs has left me upset and feeling powerless.
This is my reality, my story. It is not what I would want for anyone. I should be enjoying my life, my friends, my job. But instead I am struggling and feel like I am playing catch-up with my life.
I have had no contact from the person who did this. It hurts to think they did not admit to being responsible for this when it first happened. I am angry to think that he does not seem to care what happened to me, as he didn’t even have the decency to apologise. But now he can read this. He knows my story and I hope very much that he realises the true impact of his actions on another human being. At the very least I would like compensation for the money I need to fix my teeth and keep my position in my apprenticeship. Currently this stands at $x.
I would also like compensation for doctor visits, prescriptions to be issued, and petrol costs for trips to the doctor, dentist and hospital. These are all things I’ve had to pay out for because of the accident. Currently this stands at $x.
The next sentencing hearing Mr F Witt fronted up half an hour late. That day we had Judge M, who basically said he wouldn’t accept the DUI charge being dropped because Mr F Witt had absolutely failed the roadside impairment test. Yay him! Pierce, Kevin, Rhiannon, Brooke and I were shown to an interview room by the Court Liaison Officer.
“Okay, the judge has asked me to speak to you about where we go from here. We can either go ahead with the one charge he pleaded guilty to, Careless Driving Causing Injury, and Judge M will sentence Mr F Witt today, or we can return for another case hearing where the charges will be looked at again.”
“So there’s a good chance he could be charged with something he’ll actually go to jail for if we wait?”
“There is that chance, yes.”
“If we go ahead today, the most he could get is three months in prison and six months’ loss of license?”
“The man was off his scone ‑ he shouldn’t get to walk away with a telling off. It’s taken nine months to get here. We can wait a bit longer.”
So another hearing date was set.
We didn’t have to attend this one, which was a good thing because I was really low on annual leave.
The long and short of it was, they dropped the Careless Driving Causing Injury charge, which carried a maximum penalty of three months in prison and six months’ loss of license. And, from memory, changed the second charge to Aggravated Careless Driving Causing Injury (maximum prison term of three years or maximum fine of $10,000). He pleaded guilty, and we did a little dance.
Another sentencing date was set.
We arrived in good form. This charge also carried a possible year’s loss of license. I had high hopes the judge would bend him over and give him the reaming he deserved. Or maybe he’d be hung, drawn and quartered; better yet, the stocks. But...at a push some jail time would be juuussst barely satisfactory.
A judge from Auckland was on the bench. There was lots of toing and froing between him, the defence lawyer and the defendant.
“Your Honour, Mr F Witt is currently working and has offered to pay reparations of $50.00 per week.”
Rubbish. Who in their right mind would employ a junkie who double doses his methadone on Saturdays???
“In that case he can have three months’ supervision with curfew nine pm to six am, nine months’ wearing an ankle bracelet and loss of license for twelve months, and pay $100.00 per week in reparations.”
OMG...in other words, hold out your wrist while I slap it soundly with a wet bus ticket!
Justice had been served and somewhere in the process we’d missed the entrée, main course and dessert, skipping straight to the cheese and flaming crackers.
I left the court disillusioned to say the least.
What a major let-down the justice system is for victims. With any luck karma will be what eventually obtains justice for Pierce, and with continuing good fortune we’ll get to hear of it. The reason I say this is Mr F Witt lied about having a job (oh, big surprise). He did it so the judge would be lenient and he’d stay out of prison.
Sadly, there is nothing in Mr F Witt’s sentence that will stop him from doing it all again, and the next time it may even be fatal.
For an added bonus at the writing of this Mr F Witt hasn’t paid Pierce a red cent of those reparations.
A few days ago it was the year anniversary of the accident. We had home-made burgers for dinner and sat around the table talking about normal, everyday things.
All I can ever hope for is that my family all get to live happy, healthy lives full of love and joy.
And that this is the first and last horrific accident that any of us ever have to deal with. Like never, never, never again.
I can honestly say I’m exhausted and in desperate need of a month’s holiday. A holiday where the only thing I need to think about is ‘What’s for lunch?’ or ‘When does the masseur arrive?” Actually, come to think of it everyone in my family could do with a holiday ‑ especially Pierce. So I’ll keep wishing upon the first star I see in the night sky. Because, just sometimes, wishes do come true.
© Justine M Payen 2017