Crystal Bertolucci remembers parts of the Wednesday almost two years ago that turned her life upside down.
On Dec. 3, 2008, Bertolucci, 33 at the time, her 1-year-old daughter Skylar, and friend Kimberlee Dingman were heading home to Sandpoint after Christmas shopping in Spokane.
The hours up to that point, Bertolucci said, are full of good memories. Later that night, her family, including her husband, Skylar and 10-year-old daughter Kiah, was going out to get burgers as part of their payday ritual.
The crisp winter day was turning to night as Bertolucci drove her 1999 Jeep Cherokee north on Highway 95, her little girl strapped into a safety seat in the back and Dingman sitting in the front passenger seat. The vehicle also stowed holiday gifts the trio had picked up earlier for Bertolucci’s children as well as Dingman’s little boy.
What unfolded is an all-too-real reminder of the lethal mix of alcohol and impaired judgment.
As Bertolucci’s vehicle rounded a corner near Careywood, Spokane resident William Deardorff was southbound in a Chevrolet pickup and failed to negotiate the curve. Deardorff, who had three previous DUI convictions and later was found to have a blood-alcohol level above the legal limit of 0.08, at 0.12, smashed his truck head-on into the Jeep.
“He had been reported twice that day and nobody responded,” she said. “Then, seven minutes after he was reported the second time, he hit us.”
Lives forever changed
From that moment on, Bertolucci’s memory is a blur. She doesn’t recall the impact or lying on the cold road for a half-hour after she and the two other occupants were pulled from the crumpled vehicle, which caught fire after the crash. Bertolucci was severely injured, while her daughter only had minor injuries. Dingman, 44, died from her injuries. Bertolucci, after undergoing a first round of surgeries at Kootenai Medical Center that night, was flown to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle the following morning.
In the aftermath, the reminders are everywhere – in the mail and etched into her mind and body. Two facial reconstructive surgeries. Several operations to replace shattered bones with titanium implants. Medical bills totaling about $400,000, most of which isn’t covered by insurance or victim compensation funds, Bertolucci said. Any money Deardorff, now 55, makes in prison is sent to Dingman’s son for child support.
“I was very critically injured and suffered a lot of trauma. … But it’s nothing compared to losing my friend,” she explained. “I didn’t wake up until four days after the accident. My lower jaw and upper palate were destroyed, a quarter-inch of my tongue was severed and I had several teeth missing, and my femur, tibia and ankle were broken. … But I don’t remember any of it, thankfully; they are not memories I seek.”
MADD is back in North Idaho
Carolyn Mattoon wants anyone who has gone or is going through a situation like Bertolucci’s to know that help is just a phone call or e-mail message away. As the Mothers Against Drunk Driving victim advocate for North Idaho, it’s Mattoon’s job to help survivors and victims of drunken-driving crashes find the help they need. The free services include preparing compensation applications and victim-impact statements, as well as offering bereavement support, resource identification and referrals, court accompaniment and crime victims’ compensation applications.
“The aftermath or the fallout of a drunk-driving crash is something that is very far-reaching, particularly where you have a case that either there is a death or there is serious injury,” said Mattoon. “Those are life-long – those don’t ever go away.”
The position covering the state’s five northern counties is one of two posts made possible by the federal Victims of Crime Act and the Idaho Council on Domestic Violence and Victim Assistance.
Mattoon’s victim advocate position was created in January 2009.
“There had not been a MADD presence in North Idaho for 10 years,” she said.
Though she doesn’t have personal experience with drunk-driving incidents, Mattoon said “I do know what it’s like to lose someone unexpectedly, and so I know how hard it is to recover from that.” Mattoon’s mother died of cancer six years ago. She said her mother’s illness “came on totally unexpectedly. It happened so fast. It was not something the family had anticipated and it was very difficult. … It is something that is very difficult to deal with, and unfortunately it is something that we have had to deal with in my family. … Within three months of being diagnosed, she had passed away and I spent every day in the hospital by her side.”
According to a MADD press release, Benewah, Bonner, Boundary, Kootenai, and Shoshone counties saw 306 impaired-driving crashes last year, with seven resulting deaths and 232 injuries.
One of the most important but least planned aspects of dealing with tragedy involves the court system. It can be overwhelming to navigate for victims and survivors, Mattoon said, and that’s where victim advocates can really help.
“It’s so difficult when you have been involved in a trauma; you’re dealing with issues that you’ve never dealt with before. You’re so emotionally distraught you don’t know where to turn,” she said.
It also doesn’t matter when the crash occurred, Mattoon said. “Our service to victims isn’t just to recent victims, but it may be to someone victimized years and years ago and never had the resources available to them to deal with those issues.”
Victims struggle to deal with aftermath
Bertolucci knows the feeling of being weighed down in the aftermath of trauma. The two years since the crash have been awash in surgeries and lingering medical bills for the former novelty store clerk. Rods, screws and plates have replaced much of her bone, cartilage and ligaments. Her mouth was wired shut for five weeks after surgery.
“It was kind of like being hit by a car again. My face is just a bunch of titanium – it looks like a bicycle chain with screws in to keep it together,” she said. “It’s very difficult to not feel pain; I have to move around a lot so it’s really tough to keep a job.”
About the bills, she adds: “I just don’t open the envelopes anymore. But these medical bills are not my priority. I did not cause the accident. It’s an insult that the bills are even in my name. But I still have to pay these bills. The resolution is bankruptcy – honestly, that’s where it’s at.”
Bertolucci hopes to become a MADD volunteer. Had she known about the organization’s services, she believes she would be much better off today both financially and emotionally.
“I think it’s important to let people know that when something like this happens to your family, the last thing you are going to think about is what you need to sign. As soon as the accident happens, you need an advocate outside of your family, someone with less of an emotional attachment to the situation who can step in and help,” she explained.
Bertolucci knows her situation is not unique and stresses that people shouldn’t feel sorry for her.
“How many people think about what’s going to happen to them when they go get in their car? You are just like me, you get in your car every day and you are sharing the road with thousands of other people, and you don’t know if they made bad choices or not. You may have to share their bad choices.”
Along with physical therapy and counseling, Bertolucci said she is turning to Mattoon and MADD to find closure.
“Everyone has tragedy in their lives and it just manifests itself in different ways. … Everyone in their lives gets dealt their own cards. How could you feel sorry for that? You can only move forward from where you are today,” she said. “I think it’s something that happens right after an accident – right after you wake up, you make the decision that you’re not going to give up. You don’t have to like it, but you do have to do something to get well. It’s not going to stop just because you don’t like it.”