The scar starts at the top of Margarita Jimenez’s neck and stretches down her back, serving as a constant reminder of a fateful morning one year ago. It’s a mark the Riverhead native will carry with her for the rest of her life.
She embraces it now.
On Monday afternoon, Ms. Jimenez stood by the Route 58 traffic circle in Riverhead, surrounded by family and friends as cars drove past slowly during rush hour, many honking in support. She held a sign that featured a close-up picture of her scar, while another photo depicted her bruised face in a cast. Dressed all in red, Ms. Jimenez wore a sleeveless shirt that revealed her scar instead of covering it up. She held her picture — one of dozens of signs she and her family created for a five-hour demonstration to warn people of the dangers of drinking and driving — in the direction of passing motorists.
The statistics on drunken driving are still staggering despite increased awareness of the dangers. We can always use another reminder. In 2014, nearly 10,000 people were killed in alcohol-impaired driving crashes, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Of those, 292 were from New York State, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles, which listed 2014 as the most recent year for available data.
The tragedies are all too common and all too preventable. That’s the message Ms. Jimenez, 27, hopes to spread by sharing her story. Monday marked the one-year anniversary of a car accident that left her with a severe spine and neck injury that nearly paralyzed her.
“I remember staring at the pole right in front of us,” Ms. Jimenez recalled of the accident, which took place in the early hours of July 25, 2015. “It was so quick and I couldn’t say anything. I just froze. The next thing I knew, I was facedown on the ground.”
Ms. Jimenez was ejected from the passenger seat when the driver of the car she was in struck a pole at the intersection of Doctor’s Path and Northville Turnpike in Riverhead. The force of the collision snapped the pole in half.
Three other people in the car, whom Ms. Jimenez described as acquaintances, weren’t seriously injured. At first, they tried to pick Ms. Jimenez up, but her injuries were too severe. They fled the scene, Ms. Jimenez said, leaving her behind. The driver had been drinking, she added.
At home in Cutchogue that morning, Ms. Jimenez’s parents received a call informing them of the accident.
“It’s a phone call every parent dreads,” said Ms. Jimenez’s stepmother, Jaclyn. “I hope that it doesn’t happen to anybody else.”
No charges have been filed related to the accident, Jaclyn said.
The crash left Ms. Jimenez, the mother of three young children, with broken vertebrae in her back, three broken ribs on her right side and a shattered cervical vertebrae. Today, Thursday, July 28, she’ll return to Stony Brook University Hospital for another surgery to have bone graft added to her neck due to the shattered cervical vertebrae.
“Your spine is a horrible thing to break, and the way I broke it, I’m going to feel it forever,” she said.
The night of the accident, Ms. Jimenez thought she was doing the right thing by not driving. But she made a mistake many people can easily duplicate: trusting that someone else who has been drinking is capable of driving.
It’s a mistake that nearly cost Ms. Jimenez her life.
“‘Maybe’ is never a good enough answer,” she said when asked what someone should do if a friend thinks they’re sober enough to drive. “If you’re drinking, you’re not OK to drive, period. For the price of a couple drinks, you can just call yourself a cab.”
Ms. Jimenez said she’s never spoken again to the other people in the car that night. She now lives in Cutchogue with her father and stepmother, who also have three kids.
“It’s like ‘The Brady Brunch,’ ” Jaclyn said. “But we’re very grateful. As terrible as it was and she’s been through a huge ordeal in the past year, it could have been so much worse.”
Among those who joined the family Monday to oppose driving while intoxicated were Debbie Conklin and her daughter Crystal Miller. Ms. Conklin’s other daughter Melissa was killed in 2008 when a drunk driver struck her with her vehicle while she was walking on Main Road in Cutchogue. The driver, who initially fled the scene, was charged with vehicular manslaughter. She served two years in prison, Ms. Conklin said.
“This just needs to stop,” she said.
Crystal added: “They’re getting away with it with a slap on the wrist.”
Melissa had been friends with Ms. Jimenez, which is how the two families got to know each other.
Ms. Conklin said she thinks of Melissa every day.
“I have to go on with my life, but it is easy? No, it’s not,” she said as she held a sign opposing DWI. “That girl’s on my mind 24/7.”
Looking ahead, Ms. Jimenez said she hopes to remain an active voice against drinking and driving. For now, though, she’s focused on her next surgery and the ensuing recovery, a process that’s far from over.
Top Photo caption: Margarita Jimenez (center) holds up a sign at the Route 58 traffic circle in Riverhead Monday warning drivers of the dangers of drinking and driving. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)
The author is the editor of the Riverhead News-Review and The Suffolk Times. He can be reached at 631-354-8049 or [email protected].