A grieving mother vs. drunken drivers

February 16, 1994|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Sun Staff Writer

Pain and hope drove Susan Edkins into the world of politics.

Her 12-year-old daughter, Annie, died in October after a crash involving a driver charged with operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated.

Still struggling to cope with her grief, Mrs. Edkins finds herself in a vortex of interviews, legislative hearings and strategy sessions. She has become a champion of stricter laws against drinking and driving.

"This is not the usual me," she says. "I stand up for what I believe in, but I usually try to do it in the background."

It didn't take personal tragedy to get her immersed in the lives of her children.

The 40-year-old pediatric and intensive care nurse volunteers at school and teaches water safety and last year she served as a parent supervisor in the D.A.R.E. program, which shows young people the dangers of drugs and alcohol.

Responsibility is the key, she says.

"People make a conscious decision, impaired or not," Mrs. Edkins says.

"They choose to pick up those keys and drive. I used the word accident during the memorial service for Annie, and the children were very angry with me. They had learned. This was not an accident."

Others have not learned: Last year, 2,345 drivers were arrested in Anne Arundel County on charges of drunken driving.

Today, Mrs. Edkins takes her wrenching message to the state Senate's committee on Judicial Proceedings. The surroundings will be unusual for her, but speaking up for children has been a part of her life. "As a pediatric nurse, you are the patient advocate. You fight for their rights, you speak up to the doctors and tell them what the patient and the families need."

Even now, the children come first.

"She constantly worries about how Annie's classmates are holding up," says Diane Bragdon, a teacher at Magothy River Middle School. "She's baring her soul to do all of this."

A resident of Arnold for the past four years, Mrs. Edkins was born in Bryn Mawr, Pa., and went to nursing school in Utica, N.Y.

She has worked in intensive care units in many states, but switched to pediatrics when she moved to Maryland with Annie and her son, Drew, now 9, and her husband, Alan Edkins. Annie's father, Peter Davis, lives in Illinois.

Today, with two of Annie's classmates, Mrs. Edkins will urge the Senate committee to pass a bill that would require those suspected of drunken driving to take a blood test in certain circumstances.

Under current Maryland law, the test is compulsory only after an accident causes an immediate fatality. Thanks to helicopters and medical science, gravely injured persons often live long enough to allow a suspect to evade the test.

If a person refuses to be tested, he or she may be found guilty of driving while intoxicated -- but the degree of intoxication, which speaks to the driver's state of mind and intent and might have an impact on sentencing, cannot be determined.

These complexities have been part of Mrs. Edkins' new reality since Oct. 29, when a Ford pickup broadsided her minivan on her way home from a McDonald's. Annie, two other children and Mrs. Edkins were injured in the crash. Annie was declared brain dead the next day. The driver of the Ford, Thomas Francis George, 61, faces a charge of vehicular manslaughter.

Police say Mr. George smelled of alcohol and "volunteered" that he had been drinking, but refused to take a blood alcohol test.

Trial is scheduled March 29.

Retribution, Mrs. Edkins says, is not her goal.

"A 10-year sentence wouldn't bring Annie back," she says.

There are tears, but she has managed well as a spokeswoman for her new cause, according to Annie Powell, executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Maryland. "Because she is so clear thinking and eloquent she carries off the emotional appeal very well."

Mrs. Edkins is scheduled to start work again at Anne Arundel General Hospital on Sunday, but she worries that the surroundings will trigger flashbacks.

Almost everything does. Over Christmas she got a card from friends who weren't aware of what had happened.

She invited Annie's friends over to bake Christmas cookies as she and Annie had always done.

She is putting together a book of her daughter's writing.

A poem called "Limits" speaks of a process in which people push themselves, reaching their goals and setting new ones until they find what Annie called "perfecticity."

Mrs. Edkins she is redefining and pushing her own limits.

She says she and her husband, who works for the Military Sealift Command in Washington, must try to understand their family without Annie. They know it is something different -- but what?

She wants legislators to consider again and again how drunken drivers "demolish lives."

"I have to work hard for all my kids," she said, referring to the 1,100 sixth- and seventh-graders at Magothy River Middle School and others beyond its classrooms.

"I can't let Annie's life be for nothing."

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