Holly Wheeler, an 18-year-old, 2010 graduate of Oakdale High is among a growing number of people joining a club created of unfortunate circumstances.
On Sunday, Dec. 26, 2010, wearing her brand new white jacket she’d received for Christmas, she called her mother, Sonya Poe, to let her know she was on her way. She was at the roundabout near the high school, approaching the crosswalk on West F Street at USA Gasoline and Walgreens.
The time was 8:02 p.m.
The teen and her mother shared care-giving duties for a local elderly citizen and Wheeler took the night shift in addition to working at Gold’s Gym. She was saving money for college and she had aspirations of becoming an EMT, then a paramedic.
Five minutes later, at 8:07 p.m., a 2003 Toyota Camry, driven by a 20-year-old woman, slammed into Wheeler, throwing her body into the air to roll up the windshield and bounce from the top of the car to flop onto the ground.
Wheeler, who only seconds prior had been your average, newly graduated teen, was suddenly fighting for her life — her entire right side shattered so badly in some places, the bone simply disintegrated — and a member of the club filled with people who’ve been mowed down by a passing motorist when they’d been crossing the street.
It’s not a club Wheeler wanted to be a part of, for certain, but as Wheeler is discovering as she begins the slow, arduous journey toward recovery, she wasn’t given a choice in the matter.
Sonya Poe had only just gotten off the phone with her daughter when the phone rang again. The voice on the other end was that of a stranger.
“I was waiting to be relieved by my daughter and the witness called me,” Poe recalled. “I was only two blocks away on California Avenue. The police officer saw me and told me not to go over there but I saw my daughter lying in the road. She was just lying there, not moving. I thought she was dead. The witness said she seen Holly in her bright white jacket and light blue jeans from far. She said she heard the hit of her (Wheeler’s) body even over their music and watched horrified as my daughter hit the hood and windshield.”
Poe’s eyes glaze a little — the retelling is difficult but she holds it together for the sake of her daughter who lies in the temporary hospital bed eating up most of the space in their living room.
“You can’t even imagine what that feels like to see your child hurt like that,” she said.
Wheeler doesn’t remember anything from the point of impact. Although she’d babbled her mother’s number to the witness, she doesn’t remember doing so. Wheeler suffered a broken elbow, a broken L5 vertebrae that cannot be fixed and will simply float in her spine for the rest of her life, a fractured top and lower pelvis, a shattered lower leg, which required a plate and 15 screws to hold together, a partially collapsed lung, and multiple abrasions from skidding across the pavement.
Her pristine white jacket — much like her body — was ripped and covered in blood.
“There’s a lot of floating bones that they can’t put back together,” Poe said.
The driver said she hadn’t seen Wheeler. The street lamp at the corner was out, Poe said, blanketing the road in darkness. Wheeler’s bright white jacket hadn’t been enough to catch the driver’s attention.
“I’m always nervous at certain parts of (the street) where it’s pitch black and people are crossing without crosswalks in dark colors,” Poe said. “People need to focus on their driving especially at night. And the city or state, I’m not sure who, needs to keep up on the street lamps on 108 and 120 to prevent deaths and injuries. This has hurt us physically, financially and emotionally.”
Wheeler was airlifted to Doctor’s Medical Center in Modesto and later transferred to Kaiser Hospital.
She required blood transfusions and multiple surgeries.
Nurses had to make multiple “pie cuts” down Wheeler’s leg to relieve the swelling. As she heals, the scars will remain.
Poe lost the care-giving position when her daughter was injured and although Gold’s Gym said they’d hold Wheeler’s position for when she returned, the financial as well as emotional blow to their family has been catastrophic.
“I’m looking at a year of recovery with bed rest and physical therapy,” Wheeler said, her voice small. “It sucks. If this hadn’t happened I could’ve…” she stops and the tears start. “I could’ve seen my grandma before she died.”
Wheeler had planned to see her grandmother the next day. When Wheeler awoke in the hospital, she discovered her grandmother had already passed. The two were very close and that, above all else, hurts nearly as much as her physical injuries.
“I know everything happens for a reason but I can’t see what it is,” Poe said.
Wheeler’s eyes, filled with the impotent anger at a situation she had no control over, continued, saying, “This is not the way I planned to live my life. I’m 18 and I can’t go to college. I should be working and doing the things that kids my age do.”
The woman who hit Wheeler was not cited as the incident was reported as an accident. Excessive speed was not a factor, according to police.
The speed limit for that area is listed as 25 mph but even at 25 mph, the human body isn’t made to sustain that kind of hit.
The only miracle was that Wheeler hadn’t suffered massive internal injuries to her organs.
Another Oakdale teen, a 15-year-old boy, struck by an OID truck on April 6, 2010 while crossing F Street at Bryan Avenue, wasn’t as lucky. In addition to multiple broken bones, he’d had to undergo brain surgery to relieve an epidural hematoma that had formed, caused by the bleeding on his brain.
“I can’t even imagine how I would feel if I hit someone or possibly killed someone with my car,” Poe said. “I can’t stress enough that people need to pay attention. There’s no need for more deaths or harm to come to anyone.”
The Questions Remain
Wheeler is focused on healing but Poe is haunted by the questions that remain. Why didn’t the driver see Wheeler? Was it the poor lighting conditions? Was the driver simply distracted? Would additional safety measures at the crosswalk such as the blinking lights stationed at Lee Avenue make a difference? What can people do to make crossing F Street safer? How is she going to make rent, or pay the utilities? These questions keep Poe awake at night.
And she wants answers.
While Caltrans owns the highway traversing the city, it is possible for the city to install more blinking lights at the crosswalk junctions with an encroachment permit from the state agency but the effort would not be without significant hurdles, according to Dave Myers, Deputy Public Works Director.
“We would need to do a traffic study first to determine if there’s a need and then we’d have to identify a funding source,” Myers explained.
The lights at Lee Avenue were installed with the help of a grant and each set of lights run between $20,000 and $30,000.
The bigger issue, Myers said, is not installing the safety features; it’s getting the pedestrians to use them.
“We’ve discovered that elementary students will push the button, junior high students will sometimes push the button, high school and college students usually don’t. And sometimes pedestrians don’t cross safely, period. They simply walk out in traffic.”
Even so, the other side of the argument is equally persuasive.
In the last traffic study, taken in 2005 during broad daylight, plain-clothes officers attempted to cross East F Street at Quikstop and 7-11 and within one hour, 33 citations for failure to yield were given out.
“We could’ve written more if more officers were riding and walking,” Admin Sgt. Kerri Redd said. “People just don’t stop.”
Although you can’t force people to utilize safety precautions, you can certainly make them available to them; that’s what Poe is hoping.
“I thought that was one of the safest places to cross in Oakdale,” Poe said. “But it’s scary when people don’t see you. I want people to be more aware of their surroundings, especially at night.”
Many people have stated the blinking lights at the crosswalks are helpful, particularly at night and in the fog, for they grab the eye and force the driver to pay attention, if even for just a moment.
Perhaps if the driver who’d hit Wheeler had caught the flash of yellow lights she’d have seen Wheeler and stopped.
“People’s safety is a priority, of course,” Myers said. “But with the budget the way it is, it’s hard to find extra money for projects.”
Even so, Myers said it’s important for people to bring their concerns to the Traffic and Business Commission.
“All traffic issues are brought to the commission,” he said. “We really need full input from the community to know what the issues are and bring pictures if they can.”
Myers said sometimes by the time the city employees can evaluate the situation, the issue isn’t presenting itself at that moment and it’s difficult to ascertain the true urgency or importance of the issue.
“If the situation is happening at night, it’s going to look a lot different at 10 a.m. when we’re looking at it,” Myers said.
Anyone interested in bringing their traffic and business concerns to the city’s attention, is urged to call 845-3600 for information on how to put their issues before the commission.