Tom, 1993

My husband Tom Martinez was just leaving Crossroads Fitness facility in Grand Junction, Colorado, where he regularly exercised. He was on his way to work as night custodian at a local middle school; he was due to report to work at 3 p.m. and the drive from Crossroads takes about 15 minutes. He was driving his 1994 Grand Prix.

It was January 6, 2000, about 2:30 in the afternoon. A Thursday, the weather was abnormally warm for that time of year, sunny with cloudless skies, almost 60 degrees.

Tom had just turned his car onto Horizon Drive, a busy four-lane street lined with hotels and restaurants. As he neared the I-70 overpass, at about 25 to 30 miles per hour, he may have seen a white delivery van approaching him in the on-coming lane. The van was driven by a 70-year-old, semi-retired, part-time employee of an office supply company. Normally, the driver finished the company’s deliveries by late morning, but a client had called with a request and he had continued working to deliver the order. Inexplicably, he passed the client’s turn-off and continued east on Horizon Drive.

Tom was approaching the van, from the opposite direction; both vehicles were traveling at approximately 35 miles per hour, when suddenly the van’s driver made a sharp turn, then continued across the lanes, striking Tom’s car on the driver’s side at a vehicle’s most vulnerable spot, the area at the hinged door and the narrow post where the windshield is.

The van crushed the driver’s side door, forcing the Grand Prix to stop its forward motion, yet pushing the car sidewise towards the curb. Tom was belted in his car, and the airbag deployed, but the collision forced his brain into a ‘contra coup’ movement – his body was physically stopped at 35 miles per hour but the side collision forced his brain to smash into the right side of his skull, then smash back into the left side of his skull as his body whip-lashed back. This collision also broke his left arm and punctured his left lung.

After the initial impact, momentum caused the van, larger, heavier, and higher than the Grand Prix, to slide sideways, then tip onto the top of the car, crushing the roof, and actually spinning around on top of the car. One of the van’s front wheels smashed through the windshield and hit the front of Tom’s head, causing frontal lobe, middle and brain stem damage as the brain smashed into the back of his skull.

In less than 30 seconds, my husband suffered massive and total brain damage. Almost all of the bones in his face were pulverized, including his upper and lower jaw, eye sockets, and cheek bones.

It’s estimated that an ambulance arrived within three minutes of the accident. Later, one of the ambulance attendants would tell me that Tom was already “posed.” He asked me if I knew what that meant and I told him I didn’t.

“When the brain is starved for oxygen,” he said, “the body begins to pose in a fetal-like position. Usually,” he added, “most of the people I’ve seen do that don’t make it.” Because of the massive damage to Tom’s face (it had already begun to swell) they were not able to intubate him, providing much-needed oxygen. That would have to wait until he arrived at the hospital.

I got “the call” at 3:30 that afternoon. My husband was in an accident, and it was serious. You need to get to the hospital, but please, please, drive carefully, the voice said.

My thoughts exploded into three distinct pieces as I scrambled to gather address book, cell phone:

  1. They are wrong, they have the wrong Tom Martinez. It’s a common name, after all.
    2. It’s not as bad as they said.

I kept repeating those three thoughts as I drove to the hospital, a 15-minute drive that I took carefully, but still frantic.

When I arrived, I was escorted into a darkened room where my husband lay. It seemed that room became cavernous as I focused on him, it was surreal. He was beneath a white sheet and his face – his head was swollen to an unbelievable size, 3, 4 times normal. He’s not expected to live, I was told by a voice.

I called my son, Tom’s mother, one of his sisters, our insurance agent, then I called our attorney (one of the best decisions I ever made in my life, by the way) to make sure I had an attorney of record. I had the presence of mind to realize just how serious this was.

Four days later, still in a coma, and the nurses are starting to ask about organ donation. I had stopped wearing face makeup because it just a made a mess when I cried, which was all the time. When I went home it was only to take a bath and sit, crying, as the water got cold.

Family all around, my son proving to be a God send as he dealt with insurance issues, police. The accident wasn’t Tom’s fault, that was clear, but they were trying to piece together what had happened. The fact that the van had ending on top of Tom’s car hadn’t been discerned yet. When I found out, I almost fainted. (The delivery van driver broke a few ribs and suffered a concussion. He was released from the hospital five days after the accident.)

The neurosurgeon we “drew” the day of the accident, Dr. Larry Tice, ordered MRI after MRI, watching for swelling; none occurred so his brain and skull never had to operated on, no pieces of bone needed to be removed to allow the swelling to happen. That’s how it works, I was told. In the bed over from Tom, a young man had suffered a brain injury in a car accident and his brain had swelled. His forehead had been removed, and there he lay, brain exposed while everybody waited for the swelling to go down. Unimaginable.

The Monday after the accident: it’s about 7 am, I’m by Tom’s bed talking to one of his sisters, Hope, who has just flown in from California. Tom hasn’t changed, his eyes are closed, face still horribly swollen. I have just been told that he may not wake up at all. He may always be in that vegetable-coma we all read about. I keep thinking about that scenario of “pulling the plug.” I look around, there are no plugs. Tom is breathing on his own, he’s not hooked up to anything.

What plugs would they pull?

We leave to get some coffee.

Back less than an hour later, Hope and I enter his room, talking. and we take our respective positions on either side of his bed. I look down.

Tom’s eyes open. And they get wider. Ohmygogohmygodohmygod. “Tom,” I gasp, and plead, “keep your eyes open.”

Hope says. “You’re OK, you’re going to be fine. You’ve been in an accident. You’re going to be fine.” She runs out to get a nurse.

I take up the mantra of “you’re fine..accident…ok…in the hospital” over and over, and then I see in his eyes not only recognition but….

Fear. Abject fear. Horror. Not pain, but fear and horror.

His brain is alive enough to know that something horrible has happened, he’s in trouble.

That one moment, which I could have missed for any number of reasons, give me the hope that he wasn’t going to end up like a vegetable, that he was not only alive but conscious.

An hour later, he is whisked off to the first of two surgeries to repair his face.

He was back in a coma the better part of six weeks; he was in the hospital a total of 14 weeks. During that time he had another operation to finish repairing the broken face bones, procedures that entailed dozens of wires and metal plates; an infected tube implant that caused him to run temperatures exceeding 100 degrees for more than two weeks; contracted a life-threatening colon infection; and underwent excruciating rehabilitation therapies designed to teach him the fundamentals of how to eat, swallow, read, talk, breath, and walk.

His hospital bills were almost $300,000; fortunately, he had excellent insurance coverage between our automobile and his employer. But Tom’s subsequent therapies and treatments have cost thousands more in co-pays, non-insured treatments, and deductibles. We modified our home to help him with his disabilities. I relinquished ownership of one of my businesses (no big loss, really) so that I could care for my husband since we could not afford in-home care and his insurance would not cover this expense.

Because of the accident, Tom had to retire from his school district job. He was only 45 years old.

Tom, 2000

Tom, 9 months after his accident

Tom and I have been together almost 25 years now. We were married September 11, 1997. From the time we met, we were determined to enjoy our lives to the fullest, and we did. We took many vacations to Washington, D.C., North Carolina, to Florida, Yellowstone, Idaho, New Mexico. We remodeled our home and made plans for a new addition.

When we met, I had a demanding but wonderful job, requiring a great deal of travel; in late 1996 I began a business and the demands increased. Through it all, Tom was encouraging and supporting. He took perfect care of our home, cooked most of the meals, did the shopping and much of the cleaning and yard work. We had three dogs and loved to take them for long hikes.

When I think about the vacations we took, the many things we did together, I am glad that we at least have those memories, since now, because of the accident, learning and exploring new ways to enjoy our lives together is a day-to-day struggle, filled with setbacks, pain, sadness, uncertainties, and fear.

For the first year, I could not leave him alone for more than an hour or two at a time. He was unable to cook a meal, but he helped as he could, making the bed, trying to mow a small section of our front yard. That became difficult so I had the grass removed and xeriscaped the whole thing. No more grass, no more mowing.

I transitioned from being his wife to being his caregiver. He re-learned old tasks. I learned new tasks.

That first year he was impulsive to the point of causing danger for himself and others. He could not concentrate on an assignment for more than a few minutes. Before the accident, he was a voracious reader, but for many months he would just stare at the pages of a book, reading the same section over and over.

The right front brain injury is the largest factor in his inability to ever work or drive a car; while much of his personality has returned (with his sense of humor), his short-term memory is compromised. He may not remember that a friend visited yesterday, or was it this morning? Sometimes his judgment is not sound and he may not perform a task in a logical order. We have the same conversations 3, 4 even 5 times a day since he can’t remember what we discussed a half hour ago.

He suffers from accumulating fluid on the brain – which impairs his balance and causes an abnormal walking mode. He has panic attacks. He has undergone two spinal taps that helped his doctors decide that a surgically-implanted shunt would not help his gait.

But he has patiently endured even the most intruding of questions and prodding and poking by a multitude of therapists, nurses, doctors and patients. We are most fortunate in that, unlike the majority of head-injured people, he has never suffered seizures – and, again, unlike that majority – he takes no prescription medication. He has actually read – and finished – a book or two and has resumed his old habit of reading the morning newspaper with his coffee.

His recovery has been called nearly miraculous, and it truly is. Conventional medical wisdom is that progress stops cold at the two-year mark after a traumatic brain injury. I was told that time and again, but I rejected. it Two years? How does the brain know that – to switch off after 24 months?

Tom’s brain didn’t believe it. Seven years out and he’s a wonder to his doctors who have come to believe that 2-year thing is so much horseshit.


Crowds and children – and our dogs – make him nervous because of his balance problems.

He now walks with a walker all of the time – we have three of them, one for the house, one for the car, one for outside so he can at least get the mail, it has a basket – and cannot cross even our neighborhood street without help. After 18 years, it is difficult to leave him alone for more than an hour or so. Our community has a day program for the elderly disabled to “give a break” for caregivers. Tom attends a few times a month on those days when I have appointments or meetings.

Time means nothing to him. An hour may seem like all day; 5 hours like 20 minutes. It’s arbitrary, and atom little humorous, too. We joke about it; it’s something special that he CAN joke about himself. We had to eliminate all of the household plants, he had taken it as his task to keep them watered. But he couldn’t remember when he had last watered, so he would water them 2, 3, 4 times a day. Plants don’t like to live in mud, he found out.

We can travel, but there are limits; the beach was a favorite place but when we visited the Outer Banks in late 2001, almost two years after his accident, he could not bring himself to approach the shoreline within 50 feet. We will probably never get to Europe, but so what? It was a dream, not an important one, and we have so many other things to look forward to.

I spoil him, I mentioned our dogs, we’ve cycled thru a few in 15 years ago. Almost 6 years ago I decided to get a puppy; we visited our local animal shelter and they had just received a large litter of border/aussie mixes. There were two males, brothers. Tom decided we couldn’t’ separate them. “They’re brothers, they have to stay together him,” he kept saying. So, we bring home the pair, certain that the shelter folks thought we were nuts. We were, we are. Casey and Corky joins the family as did Molly, a Cocker Spaniel who hangs out in the house, frequently begging treats from Tom and of course he gives them to her. We also adopted a very pregnant cat but that’s another story and it’s here.

I have learned, also, to have my own escapes. About 12 years ago I let my health decline and ended up in the hospital for a week – burst appendix, emergency operation, the whole bit. I call it “Caregiveritis” – the caregiver is so busy caring about somebody else they forget about themselves. I came down with it big time. And I learned to not to THAT again!

Since then, I have spoiled myself – I went to President Obama’s first inauguration, solo without Tom. I got chickens. I also bought drones – multi rotor aerial video equipment – joined a flying club and even got my FAA commercial flying permit. I am no the author of three books, The Abandoned Trilogy, and working on a forth.

I tell this story for a lot of reasons. Perhaps it will give hope and comfort to others in similar circumstances. Second it shows how life can change literally in a heartbeat. That’s a trite phrase but remember one of the three thoughts that I had over and over as I drove to the hospital? Yes, IT CAN HAPPEN TO YOU!

And  third. This is actually the beginning of my retirement story. The beginning of Retirement, More Or Less.