Life after a road accident

Last updated 09:09 21/01/2013
McDougall crash
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Emergency services tend to Dave McDougall beside the ramains of his and wife Pam's 2004 Holden Commodore SS following a head-on collision on State Highway 1 near Dunedin in April 2010.

Southland Times photo
ROBYN EDIE/Fairfax NZ
The McDougall family in happier times, from left, Shelley, Dave, Pam and The Southland Times reporter Nicci McDougall.

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When two cars travelling at 100kmh collide, the immediate forces unleashed are enormous. But the ripple effects also have an impact, writes Nicci McDougall.

Where are my socks? I'm feeling absolute panic about having no socks to pack as I frantically prepare myself for a gruelling and unpleasant journey to Dunedin.

Where the hell are my socks? I can't go anywhere if I don't have socks.

I am unclear and hysterical.

A phone call has sent me into a whirl of emotions. I try to phone my partner and best friend but both can barely understand me.

I still desperately try to find my socks.

Feelings I could never put into words take over my brain as I head to Dunedin Hospital. There's panic as I consider a world without my parents in it.

About 20 minutes north of Dunedin, my Mum and Dad sit beside each other in their crumpled Holden SS Commodore unable to move, struggling to breathe, unable to think straight as they wait for the emergency services to arrive.

"Well that's it, Mother, I think we're done for," Dad says to his wife of 28 years.

"I thought to myself: This is it. We're dying," Mum recalls.

In the boot, a large plastic bowl has been reduced to hundreds of tiny plastic shards, while tomatoes in a chilly bin have turned to red mush.

A man arrives at Dad's window to try to help. A man who, it was later discovered, takes a photograph of the scene on Mum's camera and contacts my sister, Shelley, on Dad's phone.

Dad was driving, Mum was asleep. As he approaches the brow of a hill another vehicle is speeding towards him in the same lane. Instinctively, both feet are slammed on to the brake pedal, the effort causing a large bruise on the soles of his feet, but it's too late. There's nowhere to go.

We later learn a man travelling north with passing lanes in both directions, pulls out to overtake a slower vehicle but fails to check whether there was sufficient space between his car and one already in the passing lane.

The man brakes on the wet road and skids across the double yellow lines directly into the path of Mum and Dad's car.

"For his moment of inattention we suffer for the rest of our lives," Mum says.

You may be wondering why I'm writing this story now, two years on, and why anyone would care about my story or this crash. No-one died. It's just another car accident, something that happens almost every day, somewhere in New Zealand. It's because life does go on. Often no-one understands the aftermath or how dramatically life changes following a non-fatal car accident.

"If this story has one person think twice when they go to do something stupid on the road then that's what it's all about . . . Isn't it better to arrive a little bit late than dead on time?" Dad says.

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Southern District road policing manager Inspector Andrew Burns says current research suggests the survivability rate for a head-on collision at 80kmh is about 50 per cent - but at 110kmh the survivability rate is zero.

After the accident, there's a complete role-reversal that affects the whole family.

I have to step up and take over Mum and Dad's business, Riverside Autos, (where I had been working for several years), suddenly dealing with foreign invoices, end-of-month statements and tricky phone calls, while trying to explain why my parents were not there to every person who walked through the door.

I become so frustrated repeatedly answering the same questions I print that photo taken by the first man on the scene and simply say: "Here, THIS is what happened."

Shelley McDougall said the crash showed her who the people were in her life who really cared about her - "the one's who dropped everything in their lives to support me".

The crash changed all of our lives and one of the biggest impacts was watching mum and dad still dealing with the stress of it, she says.

Mum and Dad's victim impact statements, written 12 weeks after the accident, speak for themselves.

Mum writes: "Due to this accident my life has been turned upside down. With broken bones in both hands and both feet I was unable to do anything

for myself and had to rely on other people for the simplest things we all take for granted."

Dad writes: "Life for me has changed . . . there are no words to describe the roller-coaster ride and frustrations. The feelings of despair."

Dad undergoes months of assessments, physiotherapy and psychology treatments and engaged as full-time carer for Mum, who will need 24-hour care for several weeks.

Mum also undergoes months of assessments, physiotherapy and repairing.

Before the accident, Mum and Dad often spent their weekends travelling but after finally being able to leave the house they struggled being back in a vehicle.

"I had to watch my daughters going through all the stress this accident caused us and them.

"They now hate it if we have to leave town and panic till we get to our destination.

"I don't like putting that sort of stress in their lives," Mum says.

The pair avoid night driving and Mum is so nervous getting back into a vehicle she feels sick.

"I'm constantly watching the road and constantly thinking of that accident, whether I'm driving or the passenger."

"It makes me angry that someone else can cause such misery in our lives."

Since the crash Dad notices how many "dumb moves" are made on the road and how many lives are put at risk through stupidity. Mum says it's unfair it is the innocent person who always pays the price.

"We may be two years down the track but the aches and pains haven't stopped," Dad says.

Dad still has trouble with his foot because it is not as strong as it once was, and often aches. Mum has pain in her left ankle and left hand.

Her hand is tender to the touch and there's a constant ache, swelling and pain every day in her ankle.

"Pam now has large visible scars and metal plates, which will be there as a lifelong reminder. And me, the memories that will only fade with time but never fully go away . . . The ripple effect is phenomenal," Dad says.

"I don't like to think badly of anyone, but the person who did this has badly damaged my life and I struggle to forgive that," Mum says.

For weeks, Dad could only manage six hours a week at work. He wakes every night after reliving the accident over and over. The nightmares continue.

Mum's hands constantly ache and picking the weeds out of the garden, a hobby once enjoyed, is a struggle.

Dad struggles at work, tiring much faster than he would have before.

Another of their hobbies, bush-walking, has "been stolen from us. We can't do it any more because the pain becomes too much."

The pain continues.

Yes, life is back to as normal as it will ever get.

As a child, you take things for granted and rarely worry about the adults in your life. While the roles have reversed again, I am the one who is learning not to worry about them so much.

INJURIES SUFFERED

Mum's injuries included a cracked sternum, broken ribs, hands and wrists, bones broken in both feet, as well as severe bruising, lacerations and haematoma. She underwent two surgeries and had a metal plate fitted to her left wrist and metal plates inserted into her left ankle.

Dad suffered frontal lobe damage to his brain, broken ribs and a fractured foot, a large cut on his leg which required stitching, bruising, lacerations and haematoma.

Mr and Mrs McDougall would like to thank everyone involved in helping them, including family members and friends, police, ACC and hospital staff.

* Trevor Raymond Levens appeared in the Dunedin District Court and faced three charges of careless driving causing injury. He was sentenced to 80 hours' community work, ordered to pay $750 reparation to each victim and disqualified from driving for nine months. At his court appearance his lawyer said the crash was not caused by alcohol or recklessness but momentary inattention and bad judgement by Levens. He offered to pay reparation. His only contact with Mum and Dad was a letter of apology written before the court case.

- The Southland Times

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