The Windsor Star


401 crash401 fog crash survivor writes book on trauma

Grace Macaluso, The Windsor Star
Published: Friday, June 27, 2008

In the end, it was the screams of a 14-year-old girl engulfed in flames that saved the lives of Ute Lawrence and her husband, Stan Fisher.

The London, Ont., couple - feeling slightly harried after turning their house upside down in search of Lawrence's passport - were on their way to a 9 a.m. business meeting in downtown Detroit on that "beautifully warm" September morning in 1999. Despite the delay caused by the frantic search and a stop at a service station to fill up Lawrence's sleek, new Mercedes sports car, the couple was making good time barrelling down Highway 401.

As they approached the Manning Road exit, they came upon a "wall of fog."

"My husband had to slam on the brakes and we actually didn't hit anything," says Lawrence. "We came to a halt and immediately afterwards an 18-wheeler went over our trunk, and we were hit and hit and hit -- over and over again. We actually had a van on top of us."

Suddenly, everything became quiet. Lawrence sat "frozen" in the passenger seat, but a banging sound shifted her gaze toward a "little arm about half a foot away pounding the roof of the car."

The arm belonged to a young girl pinned between the Mercedes and a van, which had struck the teen as she and her family attempted to flee the scene of an 87-vehicle collision.

"She was screaming, 'Get me out of here; I'm on fire,'" says Lawrence. The girl's dying pleas -- "I'm only 14, please help me" -- grew louder, and caught the attention of a truck driver with a fire extinguisher. As he sought out the child he spotted Lawrence and her husband, smashed the windshield and assisted the couple out of the Mercedes, which had been buried under the burning wreckage of steel and rubber.

The girl wasn't so lucky. She, along with seven others, perished in one of the worst traffic accidents in Canadian history.

Lawrence and Fisher -- who were among the more than 100 injured -- walked away from the horrific scene with a few scratches.

But they bore scars that would surface in other ways -- crying spells, fits of anger, sleepless nights and the inability to perform the simplest of tasks.

"I suddenly realized there was something wrong," says Lawrence, who ran a magazine-publishing company. "I could not conduct anything on a day-to-day basis, from keeping a kitchen clean to running my business."

Within a month of the Sept. 3 accident, Lawrence visited her family doctor, who suspected a case of post-traumatic stress disorder -- a diagnosis confirmed during a referral to a psychiatrist specializing in the illness. Recovery would take years, but it set Lawrence on a new career path toward raising awareness about the prevalence and devastating effects of an often misdiagnosed mental disorder.

"I'm on a real mission to help people," she says.

Her battle with PTSD is the focus of a recently published book entitled, The Power of Trauma (iUniverse Inc.) "Because I shared my journey with other people, they might see there is a life after PTSD, and to encourage people to seek help, because it's an anxiety disorder that has so many different symptoms."

Commonly associated with war veterans, post-traumatic stress disorder can affect anyone involved in traumatic or life-changing events, such as serious accidents, natural disasters, death of a loved one, sexual or physical assault, says Lawrence.

The Canadian Mental Health Association estimates that the disorder afflicts one in 10 people, while its U.S. counterpart, National Institute of Mental Health, pegs the number of cases at about 5.2 million.

Symptoms -- flashbacks or reliving the traumatic event, emotional numbing and avoidance and changes in alertness or sleeping patterns -- usually start to appear three months or years after the traumatic event, says the Canadian Mental Health Association.

"I had a full dose of PTSD," says Lawrence. "My husband, the next day after the accident, went out to get some milk for our coffee and couldn't leave the driveway. He burst into tears."

The couple underwent treatment together - a factor Lawrence believes aided her recovery and saved her marriage. "If the two of us hadn't been numb together who knows what might have happened to our marriage," she says, adding that marital breakdown and job loss are two common consequences linked to PTSD.

As well as discussing various treatments and programs which can assist recovery, Lawrence's book includes profiles of individuals struggling with the illness. There is James Vail, a London, Ont., native who refers to himself as "a casualty of the war on terror." Vail, a systems analyst working in Manhattan, was on his way to the office on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. As he approached his workplace across the street from the World Trade Center, chaos ensued as two planes struck the Twin Towers.

One image seared into his memory was of a man and woman holding hands and jumping off the ledge of the building. "It sounded like a sack of potatoes," he said.

Vail's entry into a treatment program came years later, long after he lost his marriage and job.

Because the illness is misunderstood by both patient and doctor, it is often misdiagnosed, says Lawrence. "When somebody goes to the doctor and says 'I'm depressed,' they usually end up with anti-depressants. Because the root of the cause is not dealt with, they're doomed to a life on these drugs."

Lawrence says her recovery included counselling, psychotherapy, acupuncture as well as exploring Buddhism. "I'm not a Buddhist, but I found the philosophy very helpful."

Ultimately, healing can only take place once you accept the change that comes from trauma, says Lawrence. "I wasted two years trying to get back to who I was," she says. "You cannot got back to where you were because whatever traumatic event you have had becomes who you are now. You're kind of replanting yourself.

"You know, I used to get up every morning full of piss and vinegar," she adds. "Something like this happens to you, and you lose your faith, you lose your confidence and you don't trust anymore, so you have to replant yourself. Having been uprooted you do need professional help.

Seeking help, she adds, can lead to personal growth.

"There are tremendous opportunities to grow into a much more compassionate person, more appreciative. So it can be in the end the big silver lining."

© The Windsor Star 2008