June 30, 2013

Hospital worker recovering after being hit by truck

Rachel Brown

— Ann Hammontree was furious as she looked at her friend lying unconscious on a crosswalk near Hamilton Medical Center after being hit by a full-size pickup truck.

“Why did you do it? Why couldn’t you have waited?” Hammontree remembers screaming at the driver. “How could you not see her?”

Hammontree said she witnessed the hit as she sat in her vehicle at the four-way stop of Memorial Drive and Broadrick Drive near Hamilton Medical Center. She told police she saw the truck come to a stop and watched as Deborah Carden stepped into the crosswalk.

Hammontree said it was her turn to go, but she was waiting for Carden to fully clear the crosswalk. She said she then saw the truck driver, a middle-aged woman, give Hammontree a look that she interpreted as, “Well, if you’re not going to go, then I am,” and she saw the truck accelerate and turn left.

Down went Carden.

Fast forward five weeks to a small room in Regency Park Health and Rehabilitation where Carden is recovering from numerous broken bones, blood clots, memory loss and brain damage. It’s the place where she undergoes a couple of hours of rehab every day to try to get her strength back, to try to move from a wheelchair to a walker to normal mobility.

Carden said she still doesn’t remember exactly what happened. She knows she was crossing the road at around 8:30 a.m. on May 16 while headed in to work at Hamilton. As someone who had worked her way up to supervisor over a unit where employees clean and sterilize surgical tools, she had crossed the road countless times during the past 35 years. She was getting ready to go to a ceremony in which long-time employees were recognized for their years of service.

She wishes she could remember seeing the truck, but she can’t. She vaguely remembers a woman holding her hand while someone called 911, and she remembers being in the surgical intensive care unit with a broken pelvis and wishing she could sit up or move to lessen her pain. She remembers the headaches, and she understands that family members and doctors said she suffered from memory loss. She still can’t believe what happened.

“It’s such a shock,” Carden said. “You get out of your car and you’re going to work, and next thing you know you wake up and you’re in the ER.”

Dalton Police Department spokesman Bruce Frazier said it’s unusual for vehicles to strike pedestrians but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of close calls.

“It’s a problem,” he said. “State law says that you cannot cross the crosswalk until pedestrians are clear. Just because somebody has cleared your particular lane doesn’t mean that you’re cleared to drive through that crosswalk.”

The driver of the truck, Antoinette Dean of Cohutta, was cited for failure to yield and paid a $125 fine to Dalton Municipal Court. She said she looked before moving into the intersection but never saw Carden. Dean believes Carden walked into her blind spot as she was turning.

Dean said she prays daily for Carden. With two parents who don’t drive, Dean said she needed to get behind the wheel again. Yet she approaches intersections with more caution, she said, and that bad feeling of having hit someone continues to stick with her, even though it was accidental, and even though she never saw the woman until the point of impact.

“It’s hard to say if it was my fault or not because when you hit somebody, you hit somebody,” Dean said. “... There’s nothing to say I (wasn’t at fault) because I didn’t see her.”

Under state law, drivers who fail to yield right of way and cause “serious injury” such as dismemberment or certain other kinds of injuries are to be fined $250 and charged with a misdemeanor. The penalty escalates to a fine of between $500 and $1,000 plus 10 days to 12 months in prison for additional offenses within a five-year period.

At the intersection where Carden was hit, there are signs attached to the stop sign poles that advise motorists they must yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk per state law. Dean wishes there were pedestrian crossing signals at the intersections instead of only signs. Carden said many drivers don’t pay enough attention to signs, but they will recognize a uniform. Frazier said the police department doesn’t have enough resources to station officers at every potentially dangerous crossing.

Frazier said motorists should be reminded to keep an extra eye out for pedestrians. Pedestrians, he added, should be aware of their surroundings and not text or otherwise be distracted. Sometimes, they can avoid a potentially dangerous situation just by letting a car pass.

“Legally, you may have the right to cross there and be in the right, but it’s probably not safe to assume that every driver knows that,” Frazier said.

Hammontree, who also works at Hamilton and has known Carden since high school, said workers who regularly cross the intersection know its dangers and are trained to watch for them, but sometimes that isn’t enough. She and Carden were talking only days before Carden’s injuries about how drivers don’t watch for pedestrians, she said. Some roll through intersections without ever stopping. Some act as if they are going to yield but then don’t. Others stop but are attentive only to other vehicles.

“I don’t know what it’s going to take to make the public more aware unless you just have a policeman standing out there,” she said. “We’re like sitting ducks out there. Those little signs that they’ve got, they don’t mean anything (to unaware drivers). They’re not looking for us, they’re looking for other vehicles.”

She would like for a walkway to be built up above the road. She would like for drivers just to pay attention. For now, she wears a fluorescent green vest her husband bought for her and tries to exercise extra caution when crossing.

Doctors hope Carden will be able to leave the rehab center soon, but because of the stairs at her home she will likely have to stay with a family member for several more weeks.

Hamilton Medical Center spokesman Daryl Cole said hospital officials are working closely with Carden’s physician to get her back to work as soon as possible.

“I know they miss her there,” he said. “She’s a cornerstone in her department.”

If she is able to return to work within the 12 weeks her job is required to be held under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, she knows she’ll have to cross the intersection again, but right now, the thought is difficult to imagine. For now, she’s just trying to get well.

“It’s frustrating,” she said. “Everybody tells me I’m lucky, and I know I’m lucky to be alive, but you can’t help but think, ‘Sure, if I’d been 10 minutes later, or 10 minutes earlier, then I would have been lucky.’”