In A Second, Impaired Driver Forever Changes The Life Of Ellicott City Women 50 Hours Of Reconstructive Surgery Required Yto Rebuild Victim's Body

October 14, 1990|By Deidre Nerreau McCabe

At 2:15 a.m. on Feb. 21, 1987 a very drunk young man pulled from a side street onto Route 108 in Ellicott City and changed the life of a 23-year-old woman forever.

In his drunken condition, he turned too wide to the right, pulling into the opposite lane of the highway as the woman's car approached.

The two drivers collided head-on at about 40 miles per hour, pinning both people in their cars.

Blood tests showed the man's alcohol level at the time of the crash was nearly twice what the state says it takes to be legally drunk. He later was convicted of drunken driving and spent six months of a one-year sentence in jail, with most of the time on work release.

The driver received substantial injuries -- a crushed chest and broken foot and kneecap -- and spent more than three weeks in the hospital.

But the other driver -- Chari Waters, now 26, of Ellicott City -- suffered far longer and, arguably, worse.

The crash left her with two broken legs, a broken arm, a broken wrist and massive facial injuries. Waters spent the next five weeks at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center at University Hospital in Baltimore. That period was followed by four weeks of therapy at a state rehabilitation hospital. Then came many more months of recovery at home before she finally began to piece her life back together -- getting another job, returning to school, finding a new apartment and regaining her strength.

Waters' mother, Chari Stoesser, remembers a Shock Trauma staff member calling in the middle of the night, telling her of the crash and asking that she bring pictures of her daughter to the hospital so surgeons would know how to put her face back together.

"That was the worst part, being told her face was broken," Stoesser said. "I knew what it is like to have a broken leg, but what the hell does it look like to have a broken face?"

Waters' broken body and face were reconstructed during a half-dozen operations totaling 50 hours of surgery. Doctors used metal pins to reconnect the bones in her arms and legs. A piece of bone from a rib formed a new nose. Metal was used to create new cheeks and an eye socket. Metal staples were used temporarily to hold together a crushed palate.

Three years later, Waters' face is healed, but it "is definitely not the same," she says.

Waters and Stoesser bristle when anyone refers to the crash as an "accident."

"It's not an accident -- it is the result of deliberate action, someone going out drinking and then choosing to drive a car," said Stoesser.

To emphasize that point, Stoesser regularly speaks to people convicted of driving while intoxicated during group sessions sponsored by the Howard County chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

MADD created the sessions -- the group calls them "victim impact panels" -- to allow convicted drunken drivers to hear the horror stories directly from the victims.

Often drunken drivers do not understand how their actions can affect others. Some, who regularly drink and drive, don't even recognize they have a serious drinking problem, activists said.

And even those who do realize it sometimes see it as a problem for themselves only, and not for anyone else, Stoesser said.

She is among a half-dozen volunteers who travel around the county every other month to tell their stories before groups of 20 to 30 drunken drivers, each of whom has been sentenced to attend the session. The panels began in January. The speakers at these meetings hope their audience will conclude that drunken driving is not a victimless crime.

Stoesser makes an obvious impression with her presentation, which includes close-up photos of her daughter's broken face after she arrived at Shock Trauma.

Toward the end of her talk, Stoesser takes out a pretty floral box, its decoration in stark contrast to its contents.

Opening the box, Stoesser holds up large pieces of metal, explaining their former functions.

"These pieces held Chari's legs together . . . . This piece was used in her arm."

Afterward the drivers are asked to complete brief questionnaires.

"What thoughts and feelings did you experience during the presentation?" the questionnaire asks.

The responses:

"Horror and grief."

"Deep sadness."

"Much regret."

"Pain, sorrow, disbelief."

"I never really thought that seriously about it until tonight as I faced and experienced . . . how I could actually hurt someone and the effects on their families," one convicted drunken driver wrote. "I felt like I was experiencing their pain."

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