For better or for worse

My wife, Kathy, died July 7. Here's the ordeal we endured together since the accident 18 years ago.

click to enlarge David and Kathy Blanchette at their daughter's wedding in 2006. - PHOTO BY ROBIN JACAWAY.
Photo by Robin Jacaway.
David and Kathy Blanchette at their daughter's wedding in 2006.

My wife, Kathy, did not want her full story told while she was alive. The Aug. 9, 2002, accident that forever changed our lives was simply too emotionally overwhelming for her to consider seeing it in print during her lifetime.

Not long ago we had the discussion again, and Kathy agreed that if she were to die, I should tell everything that we experienced through our ordeal, the good and the bad, as a final testament to what the words "for better or for worse" truly mean. I asked what sort of spin she wanted on the story, and she replied, "Do what you do best. Tell things like they really are. No fake news."

Kathy died suddenly, but not totally unexpectedly, on July 7. This is how things really were.

My wife, Kathy, never met the two young men who eventually killed her. Kathy was on our quiet, residential street in Jacksonville coming home for lunch from her dream job, being a day care teacher, when two drag racers became airborne over a railroad crossing and landed on top of her car. Since the crossing was steep, she never saw them coming.

Kathy's right leg was traumatically amputated by the weight of the vehicle that crashed downward through her dashboard, with only the calf muscle remaining attached. Her left leg sustained a compound fracture and was twisted behind her. She suffered a concussion, all of her teeth were knocked out or severely cracked, she had deep cuts all over her body, and she was in shock.

The registered nurse who lived nearby and first rushed to the crash scene, the paramedics, police, firefighters – no one expected Kathy to live. She was trapped inside her car for more than an hour. Several people who witnessed the crash or saw her mutilated body needed counseling after the ordeal.

I was working at the Illinois State Fair when I kept getting calls from Kathy's work number that I let go to voicemail. When I finally called back, Kathy's boss said, "David, you need to come home right away. Kathy has been in an accident."

Unable to obtain answers from anyone over the phone while driving back to Jacksonville, I turned on the radio to see if the accident was being mentioned on the news. What came on instead was the Bob Dylan song, "Knocking on Heaven's Door." Even 18 years later it is uncomfortable for me to listen to that song.

I saw Kathy on an emergency room table, silent, eyes wide open in shock, with butchered meat for the lower half of her body. The only sounds came from the next room, one of the injured drag racers who was screaming in pain.

I was with Kathy for just a few minutes before they loaded her onto a helicopter for the flight to the trauma center in Springfield. I was handed a bag containing Kathy's blood-and-gore-infused sandals as I headed out the door.

On the way back to Springfield I called both of our daughters, who live elsewhere, and told them their mother had been in an accident and may not survive.

At one point the St. John's Trauma Center chief came out of the operating room and said they might be able to save Kathy's life, and asked if I wanted them to try to save her legs as well. I said, "Hell yes, I like her legs!" Given the 20 surgeries and the innumerable problems we went through the next 18 years, Kathy and I later agreed that was the worst decision I ever made.

An external fixator was implanted in Kathy's right leg to hold little pieces of her bones in place in the hope they would grow back together. The metal rods that pierced the skin and went to the center of her leg had to be cleaned and the dead skin around them pulled off every day. We had to do that ourselves when Kathy was eventually sent home.

Kathy's therapists would not allow her to return home until our house was made ready, and this included the construction of a wheelchair ramp. My photography studio business partner, Steve Todd, and I built the wooden ramp and I contacted Kathy's fellow day care center teachers to see if the students would like to decorate it. The result was so lively and colorful that it lifted Kathy's spirits and proved to be one of the happier highlights of her ordeal.

Kathy insisted that I not abandon the team effort of which I was a part regarding the soon-to-open Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, so I lined up people to sit with her in our hospital-bed-equipped living room while I was away. From people we barely knew, to church members, to elected officials, these volunteers all got to know Kathy and for the next 18 years never failed to inquire about her.

click to enlarge Kathy and David Blanchette in 2005 in their Jacksonville home. - PHOTO BY MARILYN BLANCHETTE.
Photo by Marilyn Blanchette.
Kathy and David Blanchette in 2005 in their Jacksonville home.

The two men who hit Kathy pleaded guilty to aggravated reckless driving, but Kathy could not bear to attend their sentencings. I read her victim impact statement in the courtroom while looking them both in the eye. They never apologized. One received five years in prison, the other two and a half; both were out after serving half of their sentences. They were ordered to make $250,000 in restitution. By the time of Kathy's death we had received a grand total of $37.

One of the men whose vehicle struck Kathy was uninsured, the other under-insured. Both were indigent. Our insurance company balked at paying her medical bills because the injuries she sustained were someone else's fault. We hired an attorney to make sure the company did the right thing so we would not be sued for more than a million dollars in medical expenses. When the attorney met with us at our house, you could see the horror in his face when he looked at Kathy's injuries. He was also not a fan of our dog, who scratched her itchy butt on his expensive shoes.

A high school friend of Kathy's, Laura Ward, became a lifesaver during that first year and beyond. A registered nurse, Laura was there from the day Kathy was brought home, helped us set up the proper medical equipment, showed us how to perform wound care, and became Kathy's own unofficial medical provider.

Our house at the time of the accident was a split level, and Kathy's paramedic brother, Kris Templin, and I would usually be the ones who moved her in a wheelchair either up or down the stairs. During one such transit I slipped, the wheelchair tumbled, and all three of us ended up in a heap at the bottom of the stairs with Kathy's hardware-infused leg embedded in Kris' crotch. Kris howled in pain, I had the wind knocked out of me, and Kathy was laughing hysterically at the spectacle, miraculously unhurt.

One year after the accident Kathy and Laura found a one-story home with wide doorways that was perfect for a person with her mobility issues. A team of relatives, friends and co-workers moved us from one home to the other in one long day followed by a thank-you pizza and beer dinner that night. It was the last time we entertained a large group of people as a couple in our home.

Kathy became increasingly terrified of going outdoors. Her pack-rat tendencies multiplied, and soon our spacious home was stuffed with hoarded items with just enough space between for her to navigate. Any attempt to remove even one small item was met with hysterics. The piles seemed to comfort her, so I learned to let them be.

We purchased a van and had it equipped with a left-foot accelerator so Kathy could drive using her "good" leg, but the use of the device required that she attend a special driving school in Alton, one of the hilliest cities in Illinois. Kathy passed the course, but eventually driving became too difficult even with her left leg.

Going anywhere with Kathy required patience, ingenuity and wit. We placed a trash bag on the passenger seat so Kathy could slide more freely into the car as she swung her stiff leg inside. We'd always ask for a table for three at a restaurant with one chair reserved for her leg, which had to be kept elevated. Kathy referred to her leg-lifting device as a "dog walker" and she would let kids anywhere walk her imaginary dog with it.

We tried to resume a normal life, but seemingly every attempt was met with another setback. While attending a family event in the Chicago area, we both heard a muffled sound like a twig snapping. Kathy's right leg had broken again, for no apparent reason – it just snapped. She gritted her teeth, said she was determined not to make a scene, and would not go to the hospital until we returned to Jacksonville many hours later.

Kathy had both knees replaced, one of them twice due to infection, had one hip replacement, and had metal rods inserted into her leg bones to hold them together. She was the proud carrier of a card that would let her get through airport metal detectors, but she never got to use it – lengthy travel was something she simply could not do.

Kathy was constantly beset by severe infections from all of her wounds. She developed acute lymphedema, which caused her badly scarred lower extremities to swell grotesquely. Arthritis brought on by the trauma made her develop what Kathy called "painful witch fingers." All of her remaining teeth had to be pulled and dental implants installed, which gave her constant problems because of the lingering damage to her mouth. Cellulitis, a serious bacterial skin infection that turned Kathy's legs several shades of red and purple, caused her skin to peel off like leprosy near the end.

We both learned how to give injections into her stomach, administer IV antibiotics, and change her foul-smelling, sometimes pus-filled dressings.

Friends and family told me I was stretching myself too thin and needed respite help. But I didn't need respite, I had work, which Kathy strongly encouraged me to keep doing. Kathy lived vicariously through my experiences and grilled me about every detail each time I returned home. But that was on good days. Being isolated, crippled and in constant pain meant frequent venting, and all of that spite, anger and frustration was directed toward me, the only constant in Kathy's life.

Kathy lived to see the weddings of both of our daughters, one after the accident, and the births of our five grandchildren, who were her reason for living. She was a fun grandma, whether holding tea parties for the girls or letting the boys draw "tattoo" patterns on her scar-festooned legs.

Kathy's parents had both died before the accident and Kathy had lost a younger brother, Kurt, to an auto accident just two months prior to her own. But my parents were alive, active, incredibly supportive, and even organized a benefit for Kathy.

Years later, when my mother required round-the-clock care due to several debilitating strokes, my cancer-ridden father cared for her as long as he could at home. When I asked why he didn't hire someone to help, my father said, "I'm inspired by how you have taken care of Kathy all these years by yourself." I took care of my father as best as I could when his condition worsened, and when my mother went to a nursing home, he finally decided to die in hospice care. My mother, never realizing my father had died even though she attended his funeral, passed away three months later.

Kathy did not have to worry about COVID because her final downward slide began in February 2020 and she never left our house. She was simply tired of fighting. Kathy refused to see the doctor despite repeated, emotional pleas from our daughters and me.

Kathy fell early in the morning on July 7, and because of her condition I had to summon emergency help to get her up. The emergency crews had just left, I had gotten Kathy comfortable in her reclining chair, given her a glass of water, and went 10 feet away to start the coffee machine. When I went to check on her less than a minute later, she had stopped breathing.

I called 911 and immediately started CPR, stepping aside when the emergency crews arrived for the second time in an hour. But it was clear from their expressions that she was already gone. And my only thought was that I couldn't remember the last words we had spoken to each other. I still can't.

Within an hour of Kathy's death I was called regarding cornea donations, and these helped two people to regain their sight. Van loads of her medical supplies went to help people in Appalachia, Central America and Africa. Knitting materials were donated to our local senior center. School supplies went to the Jacksonville School District 117 Foundation. Before her accident, these were the kinds of charitable gestures that defined Kathy.

Kathy was unable to wear her custom-designed wedding ring after the accident because of her arthritic joint swelling, but I thought it was time to bring it out of hibernation and wore it on my pinky for her visitation. But when I tried to remove her ring later that night, it wouldn't come off. "Looks like Mom just isn't letting go!" joked my daughters.

It's the little things I miss the most about Kathy. I miss how she was the ultimate spoiler and would describe a movie or TV show in lengthy, excruciating detail. I miss the clunking sound her cane or crutches made when she moved around the house. I miss the advice which she gave, whether the recipient was amenable or not. I miss the way her eyes would scrunch tightly and the cackling laugh she would emit when amused.

During the past 18 years I have often asked myself if the gut-wrenching heartache and pain were worth it. Knowing what I do now, would I have ever asked Kathy to be my wife more than 30 years ago? On really bad days in recent years the answer was sometimes "no."

But now, it will always be "yes."

David Blanchette of Jacksonville is a frequent contributor to Illinois Times.

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