Desde la Logan columnist reflects back on an incident 25 years ago.
By Brent E. Beltrán
Twenty-five years ago today my existence changed forever. My physical self was torn asunder whereas my socially conscience self was just beginning on the journey that I am still on. That fateful day in 1989, the ides of March that the Soothsayer warned Julius Caesar about, was the start of my new life. A life that eventually lead me to Barrio Logan and the San Diego Free Press.
In 1989 I was an eighteen year old recent graduate of Clairemont High School. At the time I was attending my second semester at Mesa College and had been working at Vons (now Keil’s) at the Clairemont Village shopping center since I turned sixteen.
I was a typical aimless youth of the era. I worked and went to school but had no real sense of what I wanted to do with my life (who really does at 18?). I was a good worker and I assumed that I would eventually work my way up the ranks of Vons.
Before March 15, 1989 I was a courtesy clerk (a bagboy) who had recently been given a promotion to the liquor department. From there I probably would’ve ended up on night crew, perhaps be a checker within a couple years and then move up to Assistant Manager, Manager and perhaps even higher.
I had a strong work ethic (I got my first job at 14 working under the table at Kobey’s Swap Meet). I get that from my dad. He comes from a large Mexican family of ten siblings and began working as a teenager to help provide. My work ethic was a little different though. I didn’t have to work to provide. I worked to have cash in my pocket to buy the things I wanted like music, books and comics. When it was work time I’d bust my ass. But when it wasn’t I was as lazy as I could be. I’d read, listen to music and play video games (at home or in the arcade) wasting the hours away until it was time to go back to work.
I was content with this existence. But that all changed on a morning in mid-March.
I didn’t have a driver’s license at the time so I carpooled to school on weekdays with a co-worker named David who also went to Mesa and my cousin Tom. David would pick us up in his VW van and we’d get to class by 8am. On this fateful day he was a little late and pulled up in a new used car that he had recently purchased.
As I left my home in Bay Park (two houses down from where my father grew up) my mom yelled out the door, “Beware the ides of March!” Which I thought kind of weird since my mom was not known to quote Shakespeare.
Nonetheless we went on our way to pick up Tom in Clairemont near Longfellow Elementary. From there we drove the normal route of Burgener, right on Field, down and up Mt. Acadia past Tecolote Golf Course and then right on Acworth. Normally we’d continue on Acworth which turns into Boyd that hits Genesee and then Mesa College. But this day was anything but normal.
David wasn’t quite familiar yet with his recently purchased used car. He was a pro driving his VW van around but not so much the new car. For some reason he decided to test out his driving skills on the bend that is Acworth. He accelerated rapidly before he took the curve and lost control of the vehicle when he went into it.
He lost control and we crossed over into the oncoming lane and slammed into the curb. David instinctively jerked the steering wheel to the right and just when he was about to cross back onto the correct side of the street an oncoming car slammed into the rear of the driver’s side.
None of us were wearing seatbelts. It wasn’t the law at the time and we were young adults and thought we were invincible. This one incident proved us wrong.
I don’t recall whether or not I was knocked unconscious from the crash. It’s possible that I was but if so it wasn’t for very long. I could hear my cousin Tom moaning in the back seat. David the driver seemed ok. As I sat there I felt pain in my lower extremities yet I couldn’t move them. My neck hurt and seemed unstable. The worst though was my hands and forearms. They felt as though they were on fire. Yet there was no flames or smoke.
Eventually a Good Samaritan called 911. He told us not to move until the ambulance got there. When they arrived they carefully placed me on a spinal board to keep my back and neck straight. And off we went to Sharp Memorial where I’d spend the next six months of my life. I was somewhat disappointed that they didn’t turn on the lights and siren.
I ended up lying on that spinal board for hours. Time slowed down as my hands burned from the invisible fire that encompassed them and my legs failed to heed the commands sent from my brain. I knew something was wrong yet I didn’t know how bad.
Through tests and scans the emergency room doctors eventually diagnosed me with a spinal injury (which I later learned to be Brown-Séquard Syndrome). Three vertebrae in my neck (C3-C5) crumbled like a cookie causing damage to my spinal cord. Which explains the fire in my hands and lack of movement below the waste.
They say I was lucky though. If the vertebrae had snapped instead of crumbled I could have severed my spinal cord instead of just damaging it somewhat. Meaning that if I had stronger bones the violent action to my spine may have very well been worse than what was done.
To stabilize my neck they put me in traction. Which basically means that they drilled two screws in the back of my head and attached weights to them to immobilize my head and neck so more damage would not be done. I was in traction for a few weeks until the swelling went down and then was placed in what is called a halo brace.
A halo brace is a device that could’ve been created during the Spanish inquisition. To attach said device four screws were drilled into my head. A circular metal “halo” is attached to the four screws that are sticking out. Bars are attached to the halo and connect to a plastic chest and back plate. Two bars in front and two in back. When all is connected it completely prevents all head and neck movement.
But here’s the thing about the installation of the halo brace. I was completely conscious the entire time they drilled four screws into my head (making it six total since they couldn’t reuse the traction screws)! And boy did it hurt! They administered a local anesthetic to the four places where the screws go in. But to numb the site they had to pierce my skull with a needle and inject the anesthetic.
The pain was horrendous. The worst I had ever felt. Worse than the fire-like feeling my hands and forearms experienced right after the accident. But the needles in my skull were not the worse part of the experience. It was the sound. All four injection sites were so close to my ears that the sound was both deafening and nauseating. I could hear the needle crunching through the layers of my skull as though I was slowly biting down on a piece of toffee.
Then after the injection sites were injected came the screws. Slowly, one by one, the doctor screwed into my head, blood trickling down as if to escape my screaming skull. I could feel the pressure applied to my skull with each turn of the screw. The entire time I held the hand of a nurse, squeezing it in agony with a vice-like grip as the screws turned millimeter by millimeter.
Within a week or so I went under the knife and the doctor put Humpty Dumpty’s neck back together again. He took a slice of bone off my hip and attached it with metal twist ties from C-2 to C-6 vertebrae. This would eventually make those five vertebrae unmovable, forever.
With the operation a relative success it was time to move into the next phase: rehabilitation. I spent about ninety days in the acute hospital and it was time to move on. I was transferred to an onsite inpatient rehab facility where I began to relearn a lot of things I had taken for granted.
When I was admitted to the emergency room I couldn’t move my legs, it was difficult to move my arms, and I had loss of sensation on my left side. When I was admitted to rehab I had regained a lot of movement in my left side yet my right side was extremely weak. Because of this I had to relearn how to walk (initially my diagnosis was that I’d never walk again) and since I was right handed I had to learn how to do things left handed because my right side wasn’t (and will never be) the same that it was.
I spent approximately 90 days in rehab relearning virtually everything from brushing my teeth and feeding myself to bathing and going to the bathroom. Everything had to be relearned. To say it sucked would be an understatement. It was the worst experience that I ever had. But I’d relive it all over again in a heartbeat.
This experience (and others that followed) is what helped shape me into the human being I am today. I am grateful to have gone through this. It may have been horrendous at the time but looking back on who I could’ve been and what I’ve become there’s no way I’d trade places with an alternate self that never experienced this.
In no way have I fully healed physically from the accident. I’ve healed as far as I can. My right side is still weak and my left side still has sensation limitations (hot and cold feels the same). But I walked out of that hospital on my own. From that day forward I started seeing the world differently. I started to care more. I had empathy and compassion. I always had those but for some reason spending that amount of time in the hospital increased it.
I limped back to school in the Fall or Spring semester and took my first Chicano Studies class. I joined M.E.Ch.A. and became a student leader within the group. I went on to join other organizations outside of the campus including Raza Rights Coalition and Unión del Barrio. I cut my community journalist teeth as part of the newspaper Voz Fronteriza. I got involved with Chicano Park. I co-founded Calaca Press and helped created Voz Alta and the Red CalacArts Collective. I joined the Arts Advisory Committee and Board of Trustees of the Centro Cultural de la Raza. I found my wife, had a beautiful baby boy and we moved to our beloved Barrio Logan. I was asked to join the San Diego Free Press as a columnist and then as an Editorial Board member. I’ve done all of these things and more because I didn’t beware the ides of March. And I’m glad I didn’t. I am who I am because of what took place on that fateful day twenty five years ago. And I’m better off for it.