They Lived… Thanks to Government-Led Innovations

There are those who question if the government should be acting as a venture capitalist.

Without the government funding innovative research, significant life-saving technological developments could be delayed or prevented. Since the late 1950’s the U.S. government has led the way in groundbreaking technologies through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and other pioneering research efforts. Some of the innovations to come out of these programs include the internet, GPS, cellular technology, lithium batteries, and airbags.

In 1968, Allen Breed invented the world’s first automotive air bag sensor of its kind. His development was based upon the earlier research he had done for the U.S. military to develop safety and arming sensors. His sensor was the first to allow airbags to deploy in under 40 milliseconds.

What follows is the story of how the airbag, a government led innovation, has affected my family.

More than just another day…

Tuesday May 13, 2014 started as just another day at the office. The morning consisted of meetings and conference calls. As usual these activities were interrupted by “priority” emails demanding immediate responses. While addressing one such email, my cell phone started ringing. Caller ID showed it was my wife, Laura. She normally texted me when I was at work.

I grabbed the phone, “Hey what’s up?” In a detached unaffected tone she responded, “We were in an accident.” By “we” she meant she and our four daughters. The girls had the day off from school for local elections. What?!?! “What happened?” I asked, “Is everyone ok?” She replied in the same unemotional tone, “I don’t know.” Now I was really starting to worry. “Hon, what do you mean you don’t know?” Again, she plainly responded, “I don’t know.” She explained that they were on the side of route 51 near the Country Day School. “Everyone is out of the van, I have to go.” “Wait! What happened?” I almost shouted. All I got in response was, “I don’t know, I have to go.” The phone went silent.

I was left bewildered. Foolishly I tried to account for the lack of answers by attributing her confusion to being rear ended. I also tried to reassure myself with her statement that everyone was out of the van. I falsely assumed that meant everyone was okay. Having worked in law enforcement for nearly two decades I should have expected the worst, but I couldn’t or didn’t want to think the worst when it came to my family.

I went to my boss, Mike, to tell him what just transpired. We quickly tried to formulate scenarios for Laura’s tone and lack of answers. It was an exercise in futility. I requested to leave, I felt a compulsion to get home and ensure things were okay. Mike told me to go take care of my family and let him know if there was anything he could do. Coming from him, I knew this was a genuine statement. Although he had only been my boss for a year, he had been a friend for many more.

With that I left the office in Reston, Virginia and headed for Charles Town, West Virginia. The commute home could be done in an hour, without traffic. With traffic, the time could easily double. Since it was late morning, I figured I could be home in an hour. However, less than 10 minutes into the drive, just passed the Dulles toll booths, my phone rang again. This time I didn’t recognize the number displayed on the caller ID.

I grabbed the phone, “Hello?” The caller said, “Hi, it’s Angela, your neighbor.” I knew exactly who it was. She was the mother of the twins that Laura watched. She started to tell me there had been an accident. I said I knew, Laura had called but couldn’t explain what happened. Angela replied, “It’s bad, it’s really bad.” With that, my false assumptions were instantly crushed. I tried to remain calm and ask for details. Again, Angela said it was bad. There were multiple cars involved and all Angela would say at that time was our van was “really bad”. The next thing I remember her saying was the ambulances were there. “Ambulances? How many? How bad was it?” She told me the EMT’s were already evaluating Laura and the girls.

They had put Laura and three of the girls in one of the ambulances for transport to Jefferson Memorial, the local hospital within minutes of the accident. However, they were still evaluating my oldest daughter, Sara. They were concerned she had internal injuries and were trying to decide if she should be air lifted directly from the scene.

Flashback…

At that instant, my mind flashed to 20 years earlier. On the night of January 17, 1994 we received a similarly unexpected phone call about my older brother. It was from Rochester General Hospital, telling us that Bob had been in a car accident. All they would say is he had a broken leg and was headed into surgery.

By the time we arrived at Rochester General it was the early morning hours. We entered the hospital through the emergency room. We were immediately met by a security officer who escorted us to the elevator for the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). There we were met by a doctor and a nurse. In the midst of all this, the severity of the situation was not sinking in. Once in the elevator it would hit me like a bus. As the doors closed, the doctor turned to us and said something to the effect they had done everything they could. I remember little else of what was said after that.

We later learned that Bob’s car, a late model Pontiac, was struck almost head on by a pickup truck. His car lacked airbags and other safety features that are standard today. The other driver was intoxicated and crossed over the center line. There was little Bob could have done to avoid the accident. Due to the severity of the impact he suffered multiple internal injuries. It was these injuries that caused his death. The surgeon explained they were unable to identify and stop all of the internal bleeding.

These memories swirled through my head upon hearing the words “internal injuries”. This horrible scenario was further compounded by the fact that I was still an hour away from my family. With the decision to air lift Sara still pending, I didn’t know if I should keep driving or wait to find out where she was going. I told Angela, I would wait for her to call me back once she knew what was going on.

After hanging up with Angela, I exploded with rage. I found myself punching the steering wheel, slamming my fist on the console and cursing at the world. I tried to collect myself as I awaited Angela’s call, but I couldn’t bear the wait. Discarding any sense of reason I sped back onto the toll road and headed for Charles Town. Only minutes later Angela was calling back. I grabbed the phone. “What’s going on?” She said they were air lifting Sara directly from the scene to Fairfax Children’s Hospital. I abruptly thanked her, hung up and raced for the next U-turn.

A moment of reason…

As I hit the U-Turn, I decided to head back to the office. At that moment only God knew what awaited me at Fairfax Children’s hospital. With this in mind, I felt the need to secure my firearm instead of having to account for it in the chaos of an ER or ICU. This decision also served a greater significance than I realized at the time.

Upon returning to work, I went straight to Mike’s office. He instantly knew things were bad. I told him Sara was being airlifted. He quickly informed the chain of command. In a matter of moments my firearm was secured and I was being ushered into a colleague’s car. They knew I was not in a stable frame of mind. This was painfully obvious when I kept arguing about where the hospital was. I mistakenly believed the hospital near the office was Fairfax Children’s. But I wasn’t able to comprehend that it was Reston General. Without my co-workers intervention I would have gone to the wrong hospital in a hopeless search for my daughter.

As we pulled into the emergency entrance of Fairfax Children’s, the helicopter was landing on the helipad adjacent to the ER. I rushed to the admissions desk, pointed at the helicopter and blurted out, “That’s my daughter!” With a perplexed look, the ER nurse asked how she could help. I again responded by pointing at the helicopter and exclaiming, “That’s my daughter!” Then my colleague interceded and explained the situation. Shortly thereafter we were taken to a private waiting room.

Eventually, a surgeon came into the room. He provided the first words of reassurance since taking Laura’s call. He started by saying that Sara was conscious and stable. He explained that they needed to do x-rays and scans to determine the extent of her injuries. From there they would take her to surgery to address her injuries. Then he said I could see her for a moment before they took her to imaging.

I was led down a series of hallways to a curtained off waiting room. On the other side of the curtain I found Sara immobilized on a stretcher. She was awake but dazed. I asked her how she was doing she muttered, “Okay.” I told her that the doctors needed to take some pictures of her. After the pictures they would need to fix anything that was broken. She hoarsely whispered, “Okay.” I gave her a kiss, told her I loved her and that everything was going to be okay. With that they wheeled her away.

Later…

During the long hours of waiting for the surgeon to return and tell me everything would be okay, I slowly began to piece things together. The accident occurred at the intersection of route 51 and the side road for the Country Day School. It sits at the peak of a hill that offers limited visibility for those pulling onto the main road. According to one of my neighbors, a pickup truck struck the van on the front driver’s side, as it was pulling out of the side road. The pickup hit with such force that it spun the van 180 degrees. As the van sat disabled in the middle of the road, an SUV driving the opposite direction slammed into the driver’s side sliding door. Again the van was sent spinning.

The impact from the two vehicles caused the frontal airbags and both side curtain airbags to deploy. That explained Laura’s detached tone during the phone call. She was in shock from the collisions and had suffered a concussion from the force of the airbags. However, it was these airbags that served to limit Laura’s injuries and those of my daughters. Of my three other daughters, the two youngest walked away with only bumps and bruises. My second oldest suffered a fractured collar bone. Her injury was the result of the seatbelt restraining her while the van was violently thrown after being struck twice from opposing directions.

As I sat lost in thought, overwhelmed by the day’s events, the surgeon came out to the waiting area. He started by telling me how Sara was in the recovery area and was doing well. He explained that they had to repair tears in her stomach and both the large and small intestines. They also discovered that her pelvis and two lower vertebrate were fractured, but everything was stable. There was no spinal cord damage. In regards to the fractured vertebrae they would fit her for a body brace in the coming day. He concluded by saying that for all my daughter had been through she was doing extremely well.

Fast forward…

Over the months and years following the accident, my wife and daughters have made full physical recoveries. During this period we have heard from numerous doctors, specialists and first responders who overwhelmingly expressed the sentiment about how lucky we were that things turned out the way they did. In expressing these statements, the significance of the airbags was regularly identified by all of these individuals. For me the significance was further reinforced when looking at the different outcomes for my brother and my daughter.

While this one story may seem anecdotal, the true impact of airbags can be seen through hard numbers and multiple studies. A study by The National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration (NHTSA) identifies that more than 39,000 lives have been saved as a direct result of frontal airbags. This figure does not take into account the number of lives saved by the increased use of side curtain air bags. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) Highway Loss Data Institute states that the use of Frontal Airbags for drivers increases the survivability of head-on accidents by 29%; for passengers, survivability increases by 30%. When coupled with the use of lap and shoulder seatbelts the survivability of a head-on accident is increased by 51%.

It is because of numbers like these — the more than 39,000 lives saved and the increased survivability rates — that the Government needs to continue to act as a venture capitalist. Who doesn’t want their family members to have a 30–50% greater chance of surviving a car accident?

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