Woody Lee was struck by a drunken driver decades ago. With friend John Cummings standing nearby, Lee wept as he talked about the accident that changed his life. In the past decade, more than 37,000 Minnesotans have been injured in alcohol-related crashes.

Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

Woody Lee was struck by a drunken driver decades ago. With friend John Cummings standing nearby, Lee wept as he talked about the accident that changed his life. In the past decade, more than 37,000 Minnesotans have been injured in alcohol-related crashes.

Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

In 2005, Rebecca Preston suffered a traumatic brain injury when a drunken driver ran a red light and plowed into her car.

Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

Rebecca Preston proofread some of her work before attending a writing class while her pet cockatiel, Billy Bob, kept her company. Preston was in a car hit by a drunken driver in 2005. She suffered a traumatic brain injury and still has severe memory and balance problems.

Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

Minnesota lives derailed by drunk drivers

  • Article by: CHAO XIONG
  • Star Tribune
  • April 26, 2011 - 4:43 PM

Rebecca Preston can't remember what it was like to drive a car or hold a job. Because of the traumatic brain injury she suffered in 2005, Preston sometimes forgets things that happened five minutes ago. She has double vision and serious balance problems that make her fearful of walking. She takes pills for depression.

When a drunken driver ran a red light and plowed into her car five years ago, Preston joined an unhappy fraternity, becoming one of nearly 4,000 Minnesotans who are typically injured each year in alcohol-related accidents. She has to depend on others for the simplest of chores, like finding someone willing to take her pet cockatiel to the vet for an injured leg.

"It's hard, it's really hard," said Preston, 51, a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for 29 years. "My whole life has been flipped over."

Over the past decade, more than 37,000 people in Minnesota were injured in alcohol-related crashes, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. Altogether, those accidents accounted for $702 million in medical expenses, lost wages and other costs. In 2008, 337 people suffered serious injuries in alcohol-related crashes, or about twice the number of people killed in such accidents, state records show.

While such crashes don't always make headlines, survivors and experts say the emotional and physical costs are lifelong and incalculable.

"What happens in so many people's lives is these everyday things, their dreams, their goals, are totally different," said Jean Ryan, alcohol programs coordinator at the state's office of traffic safety. "They can't achieve them any longer. There are all different levels of cost when someone is in a severe crash like that."

Many crash survivors become dependent on Social Security disability for their income because they can no longer work. Preston receives $1,100 a month in government assistance, but it's not enough to cover her rent, food and other expenses.

While she occasionally grapples with thoughts of suicide, Preston said, she can't remember enough of her old life to feel anger or regret at what she has lost.

"This has become normal," she said of her daily challenges, which include severe attention deficit disorder.

'Equal opportunity tragedy'

Woody Lee's life changed in 1967, when a drunken driver hit him while he was changing a tire. At the time, Lee was 19. He was learning how to fly from his pilot dad and dreaming of becoming a doctor. The accident cost him three years in a hospital and the little finger on his right hand, which was fused with his thumb to maximize hand movement.

Lee's fiancée dumped him, and he could no longer play the sports he loved. His first marriage ended after five years because of crash-related mood swings.

Because of short-term memory problems, Lee, 62, hasn't been able to keep a job for more than 40 years. He was fired on his first day of work at a deli when he forgot what his customers ordered and delivered cottage cheese instead of sandwiches. He now depends on Social Security disability for his financial needs.

Despite all that he has lost, Lee remains optimistic, speaking to schools, prisons and drivers' education classes about his experience.

"If you can afford to drink, you can afford a cab or to take the bus," said Lee, who has limited mobility and spends most of his time in a wheelchair. "[Drunken driving] is equal opportunity tragedy."

Injuries on decline

Since 1990, when 6,723 Minnesotans were injured in alcohol-related crashes, the number of people hurt in such accidents has declined steadily, reaching a low of 2,896 in 2008. State officials estimate the cost of those 2008 crashes at $61.5 million.

"There are more severe injuries than there are fatalities,'' Ryan said. "It just seems so preventable."

Despite the toll, Ryan said, it's hard to get people worked up about the financial costs of drunken driving. "It's so many steps away from the actual thing that happened," she said.

Some crash survivors, such as Andrea Hardrath of Andover, appear unscathed but live with life-changing injuries and emotional trauma.

Hardrath, 19, was a freshman at Winona State University when a drunken driver drove the wrong way onto an exit ramp and collided head-on with her vehicle in 2008. Hardrath was leaving a karate class in preparation for earning her second black belt.

Dropped out of school

Hardrath's legs were pinned between the seat and dashboard, and emergency personnel had to saw off the top of her Yukon to free her. Among her injuries: a fractured jaw, two broken legs, a concussion, a shattered right ankle, and a lacerated spleen and liver. Hardrath spent eight days in intensive care and several months recuperating at her parents' home.

The accident forced her to drop out of school while she learned how to walk after metal rods were inserted in both legs, permanently limiting her flexibility. Hardrath still teaches karate, but her injuries make it impossible to complete simple tasks like balancing on her right leg, sitting cross-legged on the floor or kneeling on both knees.

Hardrath has arthritis and chronic pain in her right ankle, but her doctors said she can't get a metal ankle because she is too young -- such devices, which must be replaced every few years, are better options for the elderly.

"It kills me every time to think about it," Hardrath said. "It's lifelong. You can't take it back, and you won't ever get back what you had."

Hardrath plans to return to Winona State this fall after living at home and going to a community college. She frets that she'll be starting far behind her friends, who were able to experience a regular freshman year.

"I'm afraid to go back, because I'm afraid the workload is going to be a lot more than I'm used to," Hardrath said.

Chao Xiong • 612-673-4391

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