I have no memory of the minutes immediately following the crash. I must have passed out at some point, but I couldn’t have been out for long. When I came to, I was still in the car. I could tell some time had passed, though; there were flashing lights and rescue workers all around me.
The first thing I remember saying was my wife’s name. “Kristin?” I asked, trying to turn my head toward her. That was when I realized I was wearing a neck brace, which was strapped on so tight, it made it impossible for me to move my head from side to side. Shockwaves of pain radiated up and down my spine, from the base of my skull to a spot between my shoulder blades, but I fought through it, focused on making sure Kristin was okay.
I tried to reach over to the passenger seat, wanting to know if she was still there, but my arm wouldn’t move. I thought it must be broken, but wondered why it didn’t hurt. That was the least of my worries at that moment, though; I was more concerned about my wife.
“Kristin? Kristin!” I kept calling her frantically, but there was no response. I couldn’t even tell if she was still in the car with me. Maybe they’d taken her out already, I told myself. The rescue workers must have known that, had I been conscious when they’d arrived, I would have told them to help her first, anyway.
“Sir, don’t try to move,” one of them said, when he realized I was awake. “We’re gonna get you out of here; just sit tight until then.”
I wished I could see what was going on. I could hear the mechanical rumble of an engine in the background and the creaking, scraping, crunching sounds of metal being bent and broken nearby. My heart began to race as I realized what was happening. My father had worked as a volunteer firefighter for a time when I was a kid, and I remembered seeing his squad do a demonstration with the Jaws of Life - still pretty new technology at that time. I knew the damage must have been bad if they were using it now to extract me from the car.
“Are you in any pain, sir?” asked a voice on my right - a paramedic, I assumed.
“My head and neck hurt,” I admitted, “but otherwise, no.” The brace made it hard to talk; my chin kept bumping against the top of it when I opened my mouth, and I felt like it was choking me. “Please, can you tell me where my wife is? Is she okay?”
“She’s in good hands,” replied the paramedic. “They’re working on her now. I want to make sure you’re okay. Can you tell me your name?”
“Kevin… Kevin Richardson,” I said, wondering if she would recognize it.
If she did, she didn’t acknowledge it. “Do you know where you are, Kevin?”
“In the car…” I tried to remember what street I’d been driving on. “...somewhere on La Cienega?”
“Very good. How about today’s date?”
I thought for a second. “It’s New Year’s Day… January first.”
“That’s right. Not the best way to ring in the new year, is it?” she said sympathetically. “Do you remember what happened?”
Whatever had happened, it had happened fast. All I remembered was the headlights suddenly appearing in my peripheral vision. “I… I don’t know. My wife and I were driving home, and this car came out of nowhere and hit us.” I could still hear Kristin’s in my head, though I heard nothing from her now. “My wife Kristin - is she gonna be okay?” I asked.
“The other team’s taking care of her,” the paramedic tried to reassure me. “Are you having any trouble breathing?”
“No, but... this brace is pretty tight. Can’t you take it off? Or at least loosen it a little?”
“Sorry, but no, sir. We need to stabilize your neck until they can assess your injuries at the hospital.”
“Okay.” I tried to keep myself calm, knowing it would do no good to panic, but it was hard not to when I felt so completely helpless. All I wanted was to see my wife and make sure she was okay, but I couldn’t even move.
Eventually, the firefighters finished taking the driver’s side door off, and the paramedics took over from there. They maneuvered me carefully onto a backboard and slid that onto a stretcher, strapping me down so that I was still immobilized. I couldn’t see anything but their serious-looking faces leaning over me and, beyond that, the black sky above. I felt a cool breeze on my face before they whisked me into the back of an ambulance, but below my neck… nothing. The rest of my body felt totally numb.
That was when the panic really started to set in. This is bad, I thought, listening to the sirens wail as we sped away. This is really bad.
The rest of the ambulance ride was a blur. I remember the paramedics asking me more questions as they poked and prodded. “Can you squeeze my hand, Kevin? Can you wiggle your toes?” I tried my best to follow their commands, but I couldn’t tell if my fingers and toes were cooperating. “Kevin, I’m going to start an IV in your arm,” one of them said at some point. “You may feel a little prick.” But I never felt a thing.
Before I knew it, I was being lifted out of the ambulance at Cedars-Sinai. I caught another glimpse of the night sky overhead, which was quickly replaced by speckled white ceiling tiles. I watched the tiles fly by as I was wheeled down a hallway and into a room with bright, fluorescent lights, where a team of people transferred me to a padded table. They tried to be as gentle as possible, but I felt a jolt of pain at the base of my neck whenever I was jostled.
“Mr. Richardson, my name is Dr. Chapman, and I’m going to be taking care of you tonight.” The voice belonged to a brunette woman whose face appeared in front of my eyes.
“You can call me Kevin,” I told her, as a couple of nurses began cutting off my clothes. Kristin bought me this shirt, I thought, watching one of them remove the shredded remnants of my black Gucci button-down. “Do you know if my wife was brought here too? Her name’s Kristin… Kristin Richardson.”
“I’m not sure, but one of us will check for you when we’re done here.” The doctor slipped a stethoscope into her ears. “Try not to talk right now.” I could feel some light pressure as she placed the round end of her stethoscope on my bare chest, but it wasn’t cold like I’d expected it to be. I couldn’t stand not being able to feel or move parts of my body, not knowing if my apparent paralysis would be permanent or not.
“I can barely feel that,” I blurted out, my throat tightening with fresh panic. “Please… is my neck broken? Am I gonna be paralyzed?”
Dr. Chapman had a poker face; it didn’t give away much. “Your symptoms suggest an injury to your spine, but we won’t know how serious it is until we run some tests. Try to relax and take a deep breath for me,” she replied, as she listened to my lungs. I wondered how she was able to hear anything over the sound of my heart hammering as hard as it seemed to be. I could feel my pulse pounding in my ears, fast and frantic. My thoughts were racing, too, but I tried to follow her directions and focus on my breathing. “Good,” the doctor said, sliding her stethoscope from one side of my chest to the other. “Another deep breath in… and out.”
Finding it difficult to inhale enough air to fill my lungs, I felt increasingly claustrophobic. The rigid collar around my neck seemed to be getting tighter, slowly strangling me by constricting my airway. “Can you please take this off me?” I begged. “It’s really uncomfortable.” I tried to reach toward it, but nothing happened. I couldn’t even feel my hands, let alone move them.
“Not yet; I need to finish examining you first.” She repositioned the stethoscope again, pressing one of her gloved hands against my stomach. I could see her touching me, but I couldn’t feel it. “Can you cough for me, please?”
I let out a weak cough.
“Oh, come on, you can do better than that.” She gave me a crooked grin. “Nice big cough now.”
I tried again, but it wasn’t much better. Lying flat on my back, I couldn’t summon the strength I needed to cough any harder.
“Are you experiencing any shortness of breath?”
“Yeah… a little bit,” I admitted.
Dr. Chapman frowned as she replaced the stethoscope around her neck. “There could be some swelling around your spinal cord that’s compressing the part that controls the muscles you use to breathe. We’ll have to keep a close eye on your breathing. If it gets worse, we may have to put you on a ventilator, which means you won’t be able to talk, at least temporarily. Do you understand?”
“Yeah,” I whispered, terrified at the thought of them putting a tube down my throat.
“Is there anyone you want us to call, Kevin?” one of the nurses asked.
I thought quickly. They couldn’t call Kristin, not if she was already at the hospital. I didn’t have any other family in California, unless you counted the fellas, and if I remembered correctly, they were performing in Vegas for New Year’s Eve. “My mom,” I said finally. “Ann Richardson. Her number’s in my phone. She lives in Kentucky.”
“Okay, we can call your mom. Anyone else? Maybe someone close by?”
Mason’s face suddenly popped into my mind. “My son’s babysitter. Her name’s Rachel… Rachel Bauman. Someone needs to let her know what happened and tell her we won’t be home tonight, so she needs to stay with Mason until morning.” My voice shook as I imagined our six-month-old waking up and wondering where we were. We had never left him for longer than a few hours.
“Rachel Bauman,” the nurse repeated, writing the name in her notes. “And what’s the best number to reach Rachel at?”
“I dunno, my wife has her number. You’ll have to check with her - or you can call the landline.” I rattled off our home phone number for her to write down.
“Got it,” said the nurse, offering me a reassuring smile. “I’ll go give your mom and Rachel a call right now.”
“Thanks.” I closed my eyes to hide the tears that had welled in them, wishing Kristin were there with me. I wasn’t used to being in the hospital without her by my side. She had seen me through every major illness and accident I’d had in the fifteen years we’d been together: appendicitis… knee surgery… a dislocated shoulder… but nothing as bad as this. What if she’s hurt worse? I wondered, realizing she was probably just as afraid as I was and wishing I was with her, too. I sent up a silent prayer for God to give her strength and watch over her while we were apart.
Meanwhile, I could hear the medical staff talking to each other as they moved around my bed, attaching monitors, administering oxygen and medication, taking blood samples and X-rays… but I still couldn’t feel most of what they were doing to me. The doctor asked me all kinds of questions as she worked her way down my body, poking and prodding every part of it. Could I feel this? Could I move that?
“No,” I kept answering, getting more and more frustrated on top of my concern for Kristin. “I can’t.” The tears had started to trickle down my cheeks. I couldn’t even reach up to wipe them away, but at least I could feel them, wet and sticky on my skin.
“Okay, Kevin, we’re going to roll you onto your side now and get you off this spine board,” Dr. Chapman said, resting her hand on my right shoulder. Its warm weight was reassuring. Working together, she and her team of nurses carefully turned me until I was lying on my left side. It wasn’t exactly comfortable, but at least I could see something besides the ceiling.
As the doctor examined my back side, I stared straight across the room. There was a pair of sliding doors that connected to the next room. They were closed, but I could see through the glass. There was a woman lying on the bed, a woman with blonde hair.
“Kristin!” I cried.
“Let us take care of you, Kevin. I promise, we’ll try to find out your wife’s condition as soon as we finish examining you,” said Dr. Chapman. She didn’t understand.
“No - the woman in the next room is my wife! Kristin!” I called out again. But there was no indication Kristin could hear me. She was lying flat on her back with her eyes closed, asleep or unconscious. Her room looked a lot less crowded than mine; I could only see one nurse near her bed, writing notes on a clipboard.
“I’ll go check on her,” offered one of the nurses who had been helping me. “Be right back.” She went next door and spoke briefly with the other nurse, who glanced up at me through the glass. I couldn’t read her expression.
When my nurse came back, she knelt down on the floor in front of me so I could see her face clearly. “Kevin, I need to talk to you about Kristin,” she said. I could tell by her tone that it wasn’t good news, but I still felt blindsided by her next words. “She was found unresponsive at the scene of the accident. The ambulance crew and our trauma team here at the hospital tried everything they could to resuscitate her, but her injuries were too severe. She died about twenty minutes ago. I’m so sorry.”
I stared at the nurse in disbelief for a few seconds, struggling to process what she had told me. Then my eyes shifted back to my wife, lying on the bed in the room behind her. From my vantage point, she still looked like she was sleeping. I didn’t see any blood or bruising, nothing to indicate she had been seriously injured. Kristin couldn’t be dead. She couldn’t be.
“Would you like to see her?” the nurse asked sympathetically.
I tried to nod, but the tight neck brace made it impossible to move my head. “Yeah,” I managed to say, though my mouth had gone dry.
She went back into the other room and talked with the nurse who had been taking care of Kristin. Together, they wheeled my wife’s bed through the sliding doors and brought it alongside mine.
“Baby…” I whispered, taking in the sight of her with fresh tears in my eyes. Kristin’s pale white face was arranged in a blank, peaceful expression, but up close, I could tell she wasn’t just sleeping. There was a breathing tube protruding from her mouth and pink streaks near her hairline, where the nurse had apparently tried to wash off the blood. A plain white sheet had been pulled up over her body and tucked neatly beneath her chin. I wondered what other injuries it was hiding, but decided I didn’t want to know.
I wished I could reach out and touch her, press my palm to her cheek, run my fingers through her hair one last time. But my hands had been rendered useless. All I could do was lie there like a log and look at her, too choked up to even talk. The longer I looked, the more I began to realize that my life, as I had known it, was over. My wife was gone. My son would grow up without a mother. And I might never walk again.
In one terrifying moment, my world had been forever changed.