~In Memoriam of Wendy and Kimberly Sands~.............

Unjust Consequences

DRIVEN magazine, Spring 2003

For many victims, a drunk driving crash is just the beginning. Years of emotional, physical and financial ramifications are the unjust burden these innocent motorists bear.

Imprisoned for 12 years, Sherry Catarcio longs for release from the sentence of drunk driving. Oh, she never drove drunk - the man who did that got nine months in jail with work release privileges. Nor was she a passenger when the offender, who had been drinking all day, hit her husband's car head-on. But her punishment has been long. And her prison is her home.

"You might as well put bars on the windows, because I never get to leave," Sherry says, referring to her New Brighton, Pa., residence where she struggles, cries and provides around-the-clock care for her husband Jerry. This has been her life since the day in 1991 when a drunk driver stole their dreams.

"Jerry was a few minutes from home. He never knew what hit him," she says, remembering the helplessness that suffocated her when a nurse handed her a bag containing 35 cents, a bloodstained tennis shoe and a mangled watch. "We weren't sure he would make it," she says. "Unfortunately, he did."

What sounds like a heartless statement is really the reflective longing of a wife whose heart breaks every time her husband howls in pain.

"Since the crash, Jerry has been unable to talk," Sherry says. "He cannot eat or drink. I bathe him, shave him and administer his IV. I take care of his bladder and bowel control. All he can do on his own is breathe." And cry out in pain.

 Jerry on his wedding day
Jerry after his crash
Above:Jerry Catarcio on his wedding day, years before a drunk driver stole the dreams he and wife, Sherry, shared.
Below: Jerry, who needs around-the-clock care, has missed out on normal grandfatherly activities because of his debilitating injuries.
For 12 years, Jerry has suffered excruciating pain, emitting sounds Sherry likens to the cries of a wounded animal. Meanwhile, more than a decade of isolation, financial strain, health problems and unrelenting daily demands are taking their toll on Sherry.

"I don't get to enjoy anything outside this house because Jerry needs 24/7 care. I miss my grandchildren's softball games and awards ceremonies. There are times I'm just so tired and I know tomorrow is going to be the same as it was today. I'm just holding on," Sherry says.

She is not alone.

Her fate is shared by people all over the country -people living with the long-term consequences of drunk driving. They are the ones who bear the daily and unjust burden of someone else's decision to drink and drive.

The Ripples Never End

Few are as well acquainted with the lifelong ramifications of drunk driving as 51-year-old Scott Alan Keeler, president of MADD Kalamazoo County, Mich., and member of the MADD Michigan Public Policy Committee. In 1962, a drunk driver broadsided the Keelers' family car. His mom died instantly, his father suffered serious injuries and his sister was thrown from the car. Rescue workers found Scott, then 10 years old, pinned in the back seat.

Scott KeelerScott sustained traumatic brain injury - a condition that can impair cognitive and physical abilities and cause behavioral or emotional disturbances. Because of his brain injury, Scott still suffers from severe limitations in mobility on his left side as well as short-term memory loss and, sometimes, a lack of inhibition.

But what people first notice is the way he talks.

Stilted and sometimes indecipherable, his speech sets him apart in a fast-paced world that prizes quick communication.

"People have judged me to be mentally retarded or drunk. Or they think I have cerebral palsy," Scott says. "They finish my sentences or just cut me off altogether."

Because of his limitations, he has had trouble finding almost any job. Though he now has a good job working 12 hours a week as a community outreach advocate for the Disability Resource Center of Southwestern Michigan, previous workplaces have delivered cruel blows.

From dishwasher and custodian to teacher aide and pharmacy technician, Scott has been scrutinized and belittled on the job.

"People judge my gait and the way I speak," Scott says. "One boss even asked my wife - instead of me - if she thought I could do the job."

In 1980, a neuropsychologist assessed Scott's intelligence as questionable. Scott proved his intelligence by earning a master's degree in social work. His larger goal now is to prove how long lasting the effects of drunk driving are.

He tells audiences about his ordeal that began in a coma with a fight for his life and continued into adolescence with his struggle for social survival. Rejected by his father's new wife, he was placed in foster care - missing his mom, alienated from family and without friends.

Now, four full decades later, he fights for normalcy; the kind of normalcy his offender easily obtained following 208 days - served only on weekends - in Michigan's Genesee County Jail.

Scott's wife Stephanie serves alongside him in the fight against drunk driving in her role as chairwoman of MADD Michigan. Together, they face financial burdens, health insurance hassles and a brick wall of social disadvantages.

"It's not something you just get over," Scott says, inviting anyone who believes otherwise to walk in his $250 shoes - shoes that he has had to have custom made since the 1962 crash that changed even the length of his legs. "Drunk driving changes your whole life. The ripples never stop."

Don't Tell Me He Was Drunk

In Pensacola, Fla., Jerry Fifer is settling into the rigors of life after an alcohol-related crash. A retired Navy Cryptologic Technician, Jerry was already acquainted with the tragic consequences of drunk driving. Drunk drivers caused the deaths of both his high-school girlfriend in 1978 and his brother-in-law in 1994.

That's why his first words following his head-on crash were, "Tell me the guy had a heart attack. Tell me he had a blown tire. But don't tell me he was drunk."

Jerry FiferThe driver who hit Jerry's prized 1987 Jeep in Sept. 2000 was indeed intoxicated with a .22 percent blood alcohol level. He completed one year of work-release jail time in March and is now on probation for four years.

Meanwhile, Jerry has endured 14 surgical procedures, skin grafts, infections and a grueling rehabilitation regimen to get him moving again following multiple head injuries, broken bones and a nearly severed leg.

Because of a circulatory problem, he experiences severe inflammation in his right leg. A half-day outing lands him in bed, where it can take nine hours for his extremely swollen lower leg to return to normal size.

And then there's the collateral damage.

A steel rod inserted in his right femur, along with a steel screw in his right hip, and three steel plates and screws in his left forearm are all used to hold broken and cracked bones in  place. They will remain there forever.

He has also developed diabetes and two hernias. Because he is unable to work due to the crash, he has teetered on the brink of bankruptcy and his credit is shot. He constantly fights depression and his marriage has been shaken to the core.

"I would sit near windows, in tears, watching my wife mow the yard, fix fences or take care of our four dogs. She works, takes care of me and struggles with the bills. The pressure is enormous," Jerry says.

Though the crash was not his fault, the marital conflicts have been many.

"There were times it would get so ugly Iwould wish I had died. And the kicker was, I couldn't even get up to walk out of the room to avoid a confrontation."

His sense of humor masks the depression he often feels.

During his long recovery, Jerry was confined to his bed or a wheelchair. Home alone while his wife was at
work, he would get frustrated at not being able to do the things he used to do. "I'd drop something - the phone or a glass of water - and I couldn't get to it. I would just weep and think to myself, 'How did I wind up like this?'" Jerry says, adding that isolation adds to his despair. "My friends don't come over as often. When they do, I feel like a wallflower. It all changed so fast."

Beginning of the End

While some drunk driving victims must learn to go on living, others endure the tragedy of saying goodbye.

Sherry Hampton-Sands began the morning of June 10, 2000, in the Apple Valley, Calif., home she shared with her 26-year-old daughter Wendy and six-year-old granddaughter Kimberly. Heading off to a friend's birthday party, Kimberly asked, "Grandma, do you want to go to the party too?"

"No, baby, maybe another time," Sherry said.

Another time would never come. A drunk driver traveling 90 mph in a pickup truck ran a stop sign and broadsided Wendy's sedan. Wendy was instantly killed and Kimberly struggled to breathe for two minutes before she died.

 Kimberly

 A drunk driver going 90 mph killed six-year-old Kimberly (above) and her mother, Wendy (below, with Kimberly as an infant).

 Wendy
Sherry describes that day as the beginning of the end. In addition to trying to cope with the unbearable sorrow over the death of her daughter and granddaughter, Sherry was fired from her 13-year job because of the time off she needed to take to grieve. Her $40,000 annual income was slashed to $758 a month in Social Security benefits. She suffers post-traumatic stress disorder and her doctor deemed her unable to work. Eventually, she had to let go of her house because she could no longer afford it.

Other effects manifest themselves in more subtle ways.

"I have backed off from my siblings," says Sherry, one of nine kids in a very close-knit family. "If I am too close to them and I hear a siren, I think one of them has been involved in a crash."

As if the sorrow and fear are not enough, Sherry has dealt with court problems that border on cruelty.

"We were in court 39 times and nothing happened. The offender fired his first and second attorneys and they always had to re-do this or re-do that," Sherry says. Then, unbelievably, she received subpoenas from the district attorney's office for her dead daughter and granddaughter to testify. They came on what would have been Wendy's 28th birthday.

Referencing Edvard Munch's portrait "The Scream," Sherry says, "That's how I feel inside all the time, but I'm afraid to let it out because I'm afraid it won't stop." Sherry's son Matt states that three people really died that day: Wendy, Kimberly and Sherry.

Living in a controlled rage, Sherry goes through life's motions, but finds little joy in the things she used to
do. Mostly, she misses her daughter and granddaughter and wonders who they might have become. "I think of things like: What if God gave Kimberly the ability to cure cancer? But now, we'll never know."

We Buried a Part of Us

Pam Tripp of New Tazewell, Tenn., knows what those kinds of haunting questions are like, which is why she leaves the TV on all the time - even when she goes to sleep. "If I have noise, I don't think. If it's quiet, I think too much," she says.

Pam and her husband David's 17-year-old daughter Amy was killed by a drunk driver on Dec. 17, 1995. In cruel irony, it was the first night they had ever let her stay out past her 11 p.m. curfew - a time they set to help ensure she was home before statistics show that the majority of drunk drivers are on the road.

Hit head-on by a car driven by a 45-year-old man who had to have a beer bottle removed from between his legs, Amy's car had a trunk full of Christmas presents that were never delivered.

"We don't do a [Christmas] tree anymore," says Pam, adding that the unopened presents from 1995 rest in a curio case in Amy's bedroom. "I can't imagine at Christmastime not ever having that awful dark feeling I have."

 Amy Tripp

 While driving home with a
trunk full of Christmas presents for
her family, 17-year-old Amy Tripp
was killed by a drunk driver.

People have told Pam to put the fatal crash behind her. "I had a person tell me that one day, and I said to her, 'You tell me which one of your kids you can do without.' When we buried Amy, we buried a part of us."

Like so many other drunk driving victims, Pam had to leave her job, but not for reasons one might expect. She enjoyed her work as a legal secretary with the 8th Judicial public defender's office. But after Amy's crash, she could hardly stomach it because many of her office's clients were trying to beat drunk driving charges.

Meanwhile, David, a detective with the Union County Sheriff's Department, walked away from 25 years of law enforcement in 1998. "The first call he got when he went back to work after Amy's death was a wreck where three teens were killed. They had been drinking," Pam says. "After a while the job just started to eat at him, so he left."

David returned to detective work in September, but he no longer works car crashes.

As for Pam, she describes herself as an emotional wreck who relies on antidepressants. She developed whooping cough after Amy died, had a tumor removed from her head in 1996 and had her colon removed in 2000. "It's been an ordeal," she says, adding that doctors say stress from her daughter's death has likely contributed to her health problems.

Meanwhile, a circus of court proceedings has done little to assuage her stress.

It took four years, two judges and five hearings to get the offender in the state penitentiary. "Now he has filed a petition saying his lawyer was not effective and he was coerced into entering a guilty plea for vehicular homicide. It just never ends," Pam says.

One year after Amy was killed, a drunk driver hit Pam.

"I was on my way home at 4:30 p.m. I got so mad because it didn't kill me. How unfair it is for me to live when my Amy didn't," Pam says. "My heart is just broken."

Living with a Stranger

Tina Cook knows a different kind of heartbreak - the daily realization that the man she married is essentially a child trapped in a man's body. Hit by a 17-year-old, uninsured drunk driver in August 1999, her husband Gregg has suffered a fate shared by so many drunk driving victims. In addition to a broken neck and compressed spinal cord, he sustained traumatic brain injury.

"He's like a 250-pound toddler. He throws temper tantrums. He breaks things," Tina says. One day, the stress of watching his daughters - three active, squealing little girls ages six, seven and nine - caused his brain to short-circuit. "He just went in the closet, closed the door and fell asleep. He just shut his brain down because it was so overloaded," Tina says.

 Cook family

 Gregg Cook's little girls hope to someday get their daddy back. But traumatic brain injury has changed him into a different person than he was before the crash, says his wife, Tina, pictured below with Gregg.

 Gregg and Tina Cook
After that incident, Tina took her husband to a brain injury facility.

"The girls thought I was taking him to make him the way he was before. They thought they would get their daddy back. I had to tell them they weren't," she says, adding that adjusting to their "new daddy" has been hard. Multiple surgeries and the placement of supportive titanium plates in his neck cause Gregg to moan and groan in excruciating pain. His daughters often remain at arm's length.

"My girls don't smile as much. Their father has been taken away. He is living in my husband's body but he is not the same person," Tina says.

Meanwhile, the offender, who jumped bail and ran for about a year, was apprehended on Nov. 23, 2000 - the Cooks' ninth wedding anniversary. He was sentenced to 10 years of probation and 180 days of "shock probation," prison time designed to shock or deter criminals from future offenses.

"He didn't get very much time because he was a first-time offender. But a family's life has been destroyed," Tina says.

Left to manage all the emotions, medications and finances, she has watched her middle-class suburban life disintegrate into a nightmare of daily calls from collection agencies. The Cooks make too much money to qualify for Medicaid and too little to make ends meet.

Laid off from her job in the aerospace industry after Sept. 11, 2001, Tina drew unemployment benefits for a year. Combining that with Gregg's $1,244 monthly disability check, they were scraping by. But her unemployment benefits have dried up. The medical bills are in the five digits, the mortgage payment on their home in an Austin, Texas, suburb is $1,000 a month and health insurance is $600 - an expensive but vital cost because Gregg becomes violent if he's not on his medications.

"I just cashed out our 401K, but that is the last of the last. I'm going to have to sell the house," Tina says.

In lighter moments, Gregg reads to the girls and he and Tina joke around. "I'll call him the 'Six-million-dollar man' because by the time our lives have ended he will probably cost that much," she says.

But light moments are rare.

Exhausted from the burden of keeping collection agencies at bay, parenting three little girls and taking care of the man who once took care of her, Tina often falls asleep doing daily activities. "I don't know how long I can hold on," she says. "I have been holding onto an unraveling thread for so long - it's about to snap."

Forever Haunted

Tina's words echo the hard reality expressed by so many victims - victims of a crime that in every single case could have been prevented. That's the thing that will forever haunt Sherry Catarcio. Remember her, the one whose husband requires around-the-clock care for his every need?

By the accounts of several bar patrons, the driver who hit her husband's car was literally falling-down drunk before he got behind the wheel. Any number of people - including the bartender, who was the offender's sister - could have taken his keys away.

Now, Sherry just longs for the day when her husband will be released from his excruciating pain. "I hope he will sleep away peacefully. For his sake, I want it to be soon. There's nothing left of him now."

For her, the hurt caused by the thought of saying goodbye is surpassed only by the hell of watching Jerry live. "His bones are pressing against his skin. The liquid food that nourishes him has ulcerated his throat so that he bleeds and coughs it up. He is in constant pain," she says.

While her husband's passing might deliver them both from one prison, Sherry fears it will usher her into another. At 59, she has not been in the workplace for 12 years. She is on government disability because of debilitating back pain caused by the pushing and pulling required to daily maneuver her husband to and from bed. "I don't know what I'm going to do with my life. How will I live? At my age and in my health I can't just go back into the workplace," she says.

And Jerry can never go back to the way he was.

"This isn't something that heals," Sherry says. "If Jerry could ever have recovered to the point of being functional that would be one thing, but he lives in a vegetative state. If he would have died the night of the crash, I would have remembered him the way he was-a 6-foot 1-inch, 240-pound man who hunted, fished, and was very handsome and energetic. Now I'll remember him as a 120-pound skeleton of a man who fights so hard not to hurt. That is what drinking and driving does."




   

Help Stop

The senceless
waste of lives from people who drive under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

 

 

More Articles

Wendy's Obituary

Kimberly's Obituary