In June, 2001, Dennis Lewinski was nearly killed when a car pulled out in front of his motorcycle on Route 2. More than three years later, he still can t remember details of the collision.
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Sitting with her husband Dennis, Sandy Lewinski thinks of all that could have been during the retirement years.
They could have cashed in a combined six decades in the work force for modest pensions and a motor home to travel the country.
After all, she said as she looked over at her husband, Dennis was a good driver.
"Yeah," Dennis responded in a strained voice as he glanced over his wheelchair, "I used to be an excellent driver. And see where it got me?"
The 59-year-old is blind, barely able to walk, and suffers from permanent brain damage -- all from one Saturday afternoon he still can't remember, when a car pulled out in front of his motorcycle on Route 2 just west of the Bono curve.
He and his family count their blessings in one respect: He survived, even after his head swelled to twice its size, even after doctors claimed he was brain dead and advised his wife to end his life.
Still, his struggles since that crash highlight how tough it can be for those who endure serious injuries from traffic crashes.
The Oregon volunteer firefighter and father of two had built a career as a heavy equipment operator with the city of Oregon, while his wife ran the copy center at St. Charles Mercy Hospital.
In August, 2000, they bought a spacious ranch home in Oregon complete with a pond, and a garage with room for his Harley Davidson motorcyle.
They were in their waning years of working, starting to think of the days when they could travel the country.
Those dreams ended one Saturday morning in 2001, the day before Father's Day.
He hopped on his 1993 Harley for a short trip to help his father fix a dock at his lakeside cottage. A resident along Route 2 pulled out of her driveway directly in front of him, and Mr. Lewinski hit her car at full speed.
His bike rammed into her front bumper. His body flew through the air and skidded along the asphalt. Although he was not wearing a helmet, his face didn't have a mark on it. But it swelled so much it was unrecognizable even to fellow firefighters, and he lost part of his tongue.
He was taken to Medical College of Ohio Hospital. When his wife was allowed in his room, she sat beside him and stroked his mustache -- the only thing on his face she recognized.
Doctors told Mrs. Lewinski that he was brain-dead and recommended she approve taking her husband off life support. But another doctor, a friend from St. Charles, said she should hold off and continue to hope for the best.
She did. In three weeks, Mr. Lewinski emerged from his coma.
Then came three more months in the hospital and nearly a year in two different nursing homes. And there were countless surgeries and doctors' visits.
It hasn't been easy. The family said the quality of care was lagging at the nursing homes, and some doctors weren't very caring.
At the Cleveland Clinic, one doctor complained to Mrs. Lewinski in front of her husband that science had come too far and doctors kept too many people alive like her husband that they shouldn't.
"That's just what I wanted to hear," Mr. Lewinski said sarcastically.
He now often spends his days in a chair in the living room, listening to the TV. He likes the animal shows, the detective shows, and any show that features the roar of a motorcycle.
His left leg, the one almost ripped off in the crash, still hurts so much he needs to wear pain patches.
Some longtime friends still visit, providing a morale boost. But many others have stopped coming.
"I wonder if they think what I have is contagious?" he joked.
The family has found blessings in the help of loyal friends, who raised $20,000 to help them with extra expenses. But money is still tight.
They've had to tap out that fund and insurance payouts to buy a special van, pay off their mortgage, pay down extra legal and medical bills, and retrofit their home for disability access. They've dipped into savings.
Some days Mr. Lewinski remembers plenty about his life -- he can crack jokes and smile, even at his misfortune. He's fiesty enough to still argue against the advice of traffic-safety advocates, who recommend motorcyclists wear helmets. He thinks a helmet would have killed him.
But on other days, he gets confused about where he's at, and his wife must try to fill in the blanks for him.
When Mrs. Lewinski tried to return to work for St. Charles two years ago, her bosses told her that her job had been eliminated. So she remains at home. If their son or daughter can't come over to watch Mr. Lewinski, they pay $10 an hour for an aide.
A lawsuit remains pending, but after insurance companies and lawyers get their cuts, the family expects to get about $12,000. That'll be enough to help pay the property taxes for a few years, at least.
They hold out hope for a medical breakthrough that will at least restore Mr. Lewinski's eyesight. But they're also realistic that their retirement years will continue to be dictated by what happened that summer day in 2001 along Route 2.
"Yeah, we'll get through it. We're survivors," Mrs. Lewinski said, before wiping away misty eyes.
"But it doesn't mean it's not sad, and it's not heartbreaking, and I don't wish it was a nightmare that I'd wake up from."
Contact Joe Mahr at:
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