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The Toll Of Traffic Collisions In Washington

Summer’s almost here and more people are headed outside: that means more accidents. Statistics show that more road collisions happen during the dry season. Each year, about two million Americans are injured or killed in traffic crashes. For those who survive, picking up the pieces can be hard.Siobhan Hawkins-Flood knows this first hand. She's been hit twice by cars in less than a year. The consequences have been devastating.

Last October, Hawkins-Flood was riding her bike when the driver of a parked car opened his door and hit her. That incident damaged her left knee, which required surgery to fix it.

Then five months later, Hawkins-Flood was walking down Fourth Avenue in Olympia, and it happened again. “It was 2:00 a.m. I went to a karaoke bar with friends from New York,” she recalled. “We were walking and crossing the street, back to the van, to go back to my house.”

Hawkins-Flood was using a crutch and trailed behind her friends. Out of nowhere, she saw a car coming. She tried to move fast, but it was too late. “My friend tried to pull me out of the way of the car,” she says, “but couldn’t.”

The car hit her. “My leg was cut off. He ran over my leg,” she said. “That’s why it’s so crappy that I remember it all; I have those images.”

Hawkins-Flood's leg was amputated above the knee. She had five surgeries to fix her broken thigh bone and what’s left of her right leg. The driver who hit her was drunk at the time of the incident.

Hawkins-Flood said the past few months have been like a bad dream. Her immediate goal is to restore her physical health. At the same time she worries about her financial future. Before the accidents she worked in warehouses doing jobs that required a lot of standing and lifting. Now she’s not sure what kind of work she’ll be able to do. “I don’t want to be broke the rest of my life because I can’t work," said Hawkins-Flood. “I worked really hard most of my life at jobs.”

In the meantime, friends have raised money to help her.

The Road Ahead

Today, Hawkins-Flood is in a nursing home where she works regularly with a physical therapist. She faces a long road ahead. It takes at least a year, sometimes two, for patients to adjust to life after amputation, according to Dr. Janna Friedly, director of Harborview Medical Center’s Amputee Clinic. “The process of rehabilitation after amputation is very complex, and it’s not just replacing the limb with a prosthesis,” she said. “It really involves learning how to walk again; it involves learning to live your life in a completely different way.”

Friedly said rehabilitation involves physical conditioning, prosthetic fittings and months of training to learn how to use the new prosthesis. “We usually will start people walking in the parallel bars in a gym where they can hold on to bars, and not put as much weight through their leg, and they’re very supported," she said. "From there, patients progress to walking with a walker, crutches, a cane -- until they can walk without assistance."

There are other lifelong changes. Friedly said people living with a chronic disability have to learn to manage their energy levels, which can vary day to day. They have to be mindful of their surroundings because of the risk of falling.

Losing a limb is more than losing a body part. It affects self-identity. “It can affect your relationships with other people," Friedly said. "You really can’t underestimate the effect something like this has on someone’s psychological health." She said people can and do adjust after amputation, but it takes hard work and creativity.

A Culture Of Empathy

Accidents like Hawkins-Flood’s are not uncommon; traffic collisions make news headlines regularly. In Seattle and across the state, the number of serious injuries from vehicle collisions has remained steady over the past five years.

Jim Curtin is Traffic Safety Coordinator at the Seattle Department of Transportation. “We know that 90 percent of collisions that occur on our streets are completely preventable,” he said.

Recently Seattle developed an action plan to reduce serious injuries and deaths from collisions. It includes retrofitting some streets to reduce speed. The city has also added police patrols in areas known to be hot spots for collisions and started a road safety campaign.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is really trying to create a culture on our streets where people look out for one another; where people understand that the person trying to cross the street, or biking to work, or looking to get on the bus, are your friends, they’re your neighbors, they’re your coworkers,” said Curtin.

Curtin says they’re trying to get the message out that everyone who uses the streets can have a significant impact on other people.

Back at the nursing home, Hawkins-Flood holds on to a stretch band during a recent physical therapy session. The therapist holds the other end of the strap and yanks on it, as if to knock her off balance. These exercises help her trunk stay stable. Soon, Hawkins-Flood will be fitted for a prosthetic leg. She wants to go back to some of the activities she enjoyed before the accident. “I want a really nice prosthetic leg,” she said. “I would like a computer chip one so I can hike in the woods.”

Hawkins-Flood wants to move out of Olympia. She’s looking for a house to rent in Seattle with her friends. She’s anxious to put these traumatic events behind her and move on.

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