16 years later, DUI crash victim still learning to survive

Posted: Sunday, April 25, 2010

Blood had already started to dry in Becky Barrett's curly blond hair. More blood was splattered on the Ford Ranger's shattered windshield.

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Photo By Andy Cripe/Gazette-Times
Photo By Andy Cripe/Gazette-Times
Becky Barrett, formerly of Nikiski, is pictured coaching track at Linus Pauling Middle School in Corvallis, Ore., earlier this month. Some days, pain still causes her to cry almost 16 years after an alleged drunk driver nearly killed her in Soldotna. Now she hopes for justice in a Kenai courtroom.

Becky's right hand was broken. Her left arm was pinned to the driver side door. The truck's engine had been forced inside the cab, crushing Becky's legs.

The only light source came from a neon Budweiser sign, which seemed to flicker forth an encroaching reality.

In that moment, about 12:30 a.m. on a windy September 1994 night, Becky couldn't remember the actual impact. She could recall only those two headlights coming at her like a de-railed train.

Becky had been on her way home from her friend's house, driving along at a steady 55 miles per hour on the Sterling Highway that night.

Her life could have been described in a similar vein.

Becky's future was in front of her, laid out like tracks or a well-marked road. She was 18 and had just graduated from Nikiski High School with a 3.98 grade point average. She was about a month out from starting her service with the U.S. Marine Corps -- following in her big brother's footsteps.

After finishing her service, her schooling could be paid for and she could go on to a successful, professional life.

Then, on that 1994 night, she drove by a familiar bar. That's when she saw the full-size Chevy van barreling toward her.

Becky attempted to veer out of the way by turning into a ditch. But she couldn't avoid collision. The alleged drunken driver made a lazy left turn into Becky's lane.

Becky's world went dark.

When she eventually came to, everything seemed hazy inside the pickup. Her future -- both her immediate health and the rest of her life -- were clouded.

Over time, things would slowly clear up. She'd realize the full extent of her injuries and how her life might be different from the one she had envisioned.

But mostly, the crash would teach Becky, now 34, that she's a survivor. And it would give her the right mindset to cope with a blow more severe than the one she lived through on that night almost 16 years ago.

A changed landscape

Becky didn't think she'd make it. The crash left her incapacitated, helpless. She was literally stuck.

Finally, a face appeared at her window. The man called for help and sent emergency technicians to the scene. Even the Jaws of Life couldn't free Becky. Paramedics had to push her splintered leg to slide it under the collapsed steering column. After they finally pulled Becky from the wreck, EMTs rushed her to Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna.

Dr. Hal Smith, then in his mid-40s, was on duty that 1994 night at CPH's emergency room. He was one of several doctors to work on Becky. Smith said he doesn't remember the night clearly, but looking at notes and other records of the treatment jogged his recollection.

Becky's injuries included a fractured femur, shattered elbow joint, fractured thighbone, and fractured first rib. Glass was embedded in Becky's forehead. She also had a broken wrist and a fractured finger.

"Just by itself, a fractured femur can be a fatal injury," Smith said recently. "It's the largest bone in the body. You could lose several liters of blood."

Many of Becky's wounds exposed her bones to the open air, compounding the situation with a potential for contamination.

"Communication between bone and the outside world makes it a much more dangerous injury," Smith said.

Before entering surgery that night, Becky prepared to die. Her mother, Harriet, and younger brother, Brian, came to the hospital to be by her side. Brian started to say his goodbyes.

Then Becky realized something: She was wearing Brian's pants. And she started apologizing for ruining them.

Becky underwent more than nine hours of surgery. Doctors put a metal rod through her left femur and attached it to her hip and knee with locking screws. She would spend 10 days in the intensive care unit. While in the hospital, Becky received her medical discharge from the marines.

"The landscape of a person's life changed drastically," Harriet Wegner, Becky's mom, said. "It changes course, and it takes a lot of work from the community, family and friends to help that person get back on course and to have that new life."

No justice

Before Becky could worry about starting her life over, she had to relive the moment when it all changed. From her hospital bed, Becky testified about the accident to a grand jury at the Kenai Courthouse. The testimony would be the start of a long, ongoing legal battle attempting to bring her alleged assailant to justice.

In November of 1994, Felipe M. Perez, now 49, was charged with first-degree assault with a deadly weapon. The initial case against him alleged that he had a .119 blood alcohol level when he crashed into Becky. The legal limit then was .10 instead of the current .08. But during court hearings, Perez's alleged BAC reading was lowered to .086.

Perez walked.

In early 1995, Perez was re-indicted on similar charges, but he had already left the state by then. A warrant was issued for Perez's arrest, but nothing came of the case until 2006, when Perez was the victim of an assault in Georgia, putting his name back on police radar. He was eventually arrested for the outstanding warrant.

On Friday, Perez, who is in custody at the Wildwood Correctional Complex, sat for a bail hearing in front of judge Carl Bauman. The hearing was continued until April 26, when it's possible that Perez could be released to a third-party custodian in Georgia.

The absence of a resolution frustrates Becky and her family.

"The failure of the judicial system is what bugged me," Becky's dad, Don Waldrop, said. "I hope they do something for his benefit and that something positive can come out of it. If he could just stand up and say 'I'm sorry I did this to you.'"

"He's spent less time in jail than I did in the hospital," Becky says.

But Becky knows she has no control over the legal process, just like she had no control over a tragedy that would somehow manage to dwarf her life-threatening accident.

Gaining control

What Becky had control over was her own recovery. It wasn't easy. At first, she couldn't even do simple things like hold a glass of water. A year went by before she took her first unassisted steps.

Becky's athletic career, which included high jumping and two state basketball championships, was assuredly over. Becky was the kind of basketball player who prided herself on assists, steals and rebounds -- she wasn't a selfish shooter.

The crash's resonance never fully dissipated. Becky cannot remember what it feels like to run without pain. And she still gets upset when her arthritic hand prevents her from opening a jar.

"That hurt doesn't go away," she says.

If Becky hyper-extends her leg, it could spell disaster. That's why her mom gets nervous every time she receives an unexpected phone call.

"If she steps wrong, she can fall down," Wegner said.

For the most part, though, Becky's life continued to rise after the crash. Eventually, she was cleared from medical treatment. In 1997, she moved to Corvallis, Ore., finally feeling like she was beginning anew, stepping on firm ground.

She attended Oregon State University and took a job at the Corvallis Gazette-Times before moving on to a job in the marketing department at an Oregon medical clinic. In Oregon, she met a man, fell in love and got married. Becky's new dream seemed almost complete. She had made the impossible best of what seemed like the absolute worst. Becky even had a daughter, Annie, and a stepson, Jace. She was ready to have another child.

Beautiful Claire

Claire Bella was due Jan. 1, 2008: New Year's Day.

On Christmas morning 2007, Becky woke up feeling strong contractions about four to five minutes apart. She waited for the labor to progress. The problem was that her contractions were becoming less frequent instead of getting closer together.

Becky noticed Claire seemed to be kicking less and less. She and her husband, Jason, went to the hospital to see if everything was all right.

The ultrasound showed what Becky feared. The umbilical chord had tied in a knot, cutting off Claire's air supply.

On Christmas 2007, Becky delivered the baby girl who died inside her.

That moment, lying in her hospital bed after giving birth to her already-deceased child, was the worst moment in Becky's life. As a nave 18-year-old in 1994, Becky was sure her accident would trump all disasters.

"I was fighting for life when I woke up after the crash -- fighting to survive," Becky said. "When Claire died it was a different feeling. It was the greatest loss you can ever imagine. I don't know how long it took me to smile, to laugh."

But, just like in those critical moments on the Sterling Highway in 1994, Becky realized something after losing Claire:

"You have to survive. You have to get to a point where you realize you can keep going," Becky said. "I came to it a lot quicker when Claire died."

High jumping

Becky climbed a mountain recently. She's not as limber as she was when she was 17, and she needs to be careful with almost every step she takes, but Becky Barrett is still capable of ascending the world's peaks.

"I try to find the joy in living," Becky said. "I don't know how it happened that I survived my crash, but I have this chance."

Part of Becky's job involves promoting the clinic's new parent classes and talking with new mothers about the bundles of happiness they recently brought into the world.

"I would never think to hold it against them. To do that would mean that I don't love Claire as much as I do. She is love," Becky said. "If I were angry or jealous -- those things just don't fit how I feel about her."

Becky believes her purpose in life now is to share her story. That's why she volunteers with the Benton County Victim Impact Panel. One her primary goals is to prevent drunk driving.

The Kenai Peninsula's emergency dispatch center fielded 695 drunken driving calls in 2009 alone.

But Becky also wants people to realize that while tragedy may be out of a person's hands, coping with it is not.

"The crash went from the worst thing that ever happened to me to something tragic in my past. When I speak about the crash, I try to relate to my audience that there are true tragedies in life, things we can't control," Becky said. "I know this because Claire died."

Much of Becky's life remains devoted to kids. She gives the children's message at church every week, volunteers with the writing and literacy program at her stepson's school and coaches middle school track.

Becky's event is high jump. It's an event that requires speed, agility and an extra spring at the last possible second. Becky's injuries have taken away that spring. She never gets to demonstrate a jump to her athletes.

Instead, Becky guides them with words. She nags at her team to pop off the ground and to be sure to squeeze their butts in so they won't knock down the bar.

During meets and in life, when her team members are soaring above the bar, they'll be heeding Becky's coaching as she gazes up at their flight.

"They get to jump," Becky says. "But I get to watch."

Andrew Waite can be reached at andrew.waite@peninsulaclarion.com.

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