Life changed forever after woman hit by car in Milwaukie in 2014
On Aug. 5, 2014, 25-year-old Kelsey Zionskowski was heading home from her second day working as an office assistant at Oregon Health & Science University when her life was changed forever.
Zionskowski's dream of becoming a nurse was shattered after she was hit by a vehicle as she waited to cross McLoughlin Boulevard near River Road. She suffered massive trauma to both legs, just after getting off the TriMet bus that took her from OHSU to the bus stop across from her home in Milwaukie. While she was waiting for the traffic signal to change before crossing McLoughlin, a gray 1996 Honda Accord careened out of traffic and smashed her body against a light pole.
Seeing her case return to the news after a couple of other high-profile incidents involving pedestrians in Milwaukie, Zionskowski, now 28, agreed to speak with this newspaper on the three-year anniversary of her life-altering injuries.
Physical therapy and a prosthetic leg have allowed her to walk painfully using a walker. Zionskowski's physical therapist hopes she'll one day only need a cane to walk as she fulfills her new dream to become a epidemiologist instead of a nurse.
Police interviewed and conducted toxicology tests on the driver, 45-year-old Ramon Avila-Perez, who said he may have fallen asleep when he hit Zionskowski. Avila-Perez was given a citation for careless driving in a construction zone, causing injuries. He paid a total of $460 on June 26, 2015, to the Milwaukie Municipal Court.
Zionskowski hopes one day the city of Milwaukie and the Clackamas County District Attorney's Office will take cases such as hers more seriously.
"I wished there were more serious consequences for something like what happened to me," Zionskowski said. "He just got a ticket, and I'm dealing with the consequences for the rest of my life."
Milwaukie has seen three high-profile cases of women being badly injured or killed in crosswalks lately, and in none of the three cases were criminal charges pursued against the perpetrators, although citations were issued in two of the accidents. A FedEx van driver paid $260 in fines for fatally injuring 83-year-old Norma Gabriel on April 26 in the Milwaukie Transit Center, and on Oct. 16, 2013, a Milwaukie police officer wasn't cited after he hit Gillian Hibbs, 70, while she biked across a marked crosswalk on the Springwater Corridor.
Stephanie Kropelin, who works as a software designer in Portland and commutes to her home in Oregon City, was a couple of cars behind in traffic and saw Zionskowski being hit. Kropelin agrees with Zionskowski that the police and district attorney's office should have pursued charges against the driver for criminal negligence. In the case of killing Gabriel, the FedEx driver could have faced criminally negligent homicide, and Avila-Perez could have faced jail time for fourth-degree assault of Zionskowski if a jury determined that he was "reckless" in deciding to drive while he was so tired.
"When you're too tired, it's almost equivalent to driving drunk, so maybe the penalties should be the equivalent to driving under the influence of intoxicants," Kropelin said.
Milwaukie Mayor Mark Gamba has said he wanted to see if it was possible to limit through traffic on Southeast Jackson Street, where Gabriel was hit, and to encourage the district attorney's office to pursue criminal charges against drivers who hit pedestrians in crosswalks. It's unclear whether a meeting between Gamba and District Attorney John Foote ever took place.
After some preliminary discussions between city officials and executives of Dark Horse Comics, which has a loading dock across from City Hall, it appears that no further action will be taken to limit traffic along Jackson Street. On June 15, City Manager Ann Ober sent the following memo to members of Milwaukie's City Council:
"Per her [Norma Gabriel's] passing, the Police Department reached out to the District Attorney's office following the incident to inquire about their interest in pursuing charges. The DA's office declined to take further action. I am passing this information along in case you receive questions. In conversation with the Police Department, Engineering, Risk Management and [City Attorney] Tim Ramis, there is full consensus that the intersection has performed as expected and meets best practice. Unfortunately, we had a driver not paying attention."
Amputation saves her life
Zionskowski remembers being hit, the pain that made her realize her injuries were much worse than a broken bone, people talking with her at the crash scene, and the ambulance arriving.
When the ambulance paramedic arrived on scene, he asked, "Where are her legs?"
"They're behind her," someone responded, because her legs had been broken so badly they were bent back underneath where she was lying on the ground.
"When I saw it, I thought I had just seen a person get killed, so it's mind-blowing that she survived," Kropelin said. "She's pretty incredible to carry on after losing a limb and suffering so many injuries, and it's really commendable that she's willing to share her story with everyone."
Zionskowski's heart stopped during the ambulance ride to OHSU. She briefly died several other times and was resuscitated during the initial stages of her recovery from the crash. To save her life, medical teams had to take the extreme measure of amputating her left leg almost at the hip; it was one of 32 surgeries she received after returning to OHSU, now as a patient rather than an employee.
"In the beginning, it was back-to-back surgeries, and I didn't know for more than a week that they had taken my leg," she said. "One day I just realized, I have one leg."
She wanted to go back to having two legs, but she knew it wasn't possible.
"I was really sad, and I cried every day for months, and I had trouble accepting that this is the way things are," she said.
At one point Zionskowski told told her mom, "I want to be normal."
"What's normal?" was her mother's response.
Zionskowski's son, Santino, is her constant inspiration and her one-word answer for how she is able to carry on despite her injuries.
"My last thought before I went to the hospital and passed out was Santino," Zionskowski said. "I don't want him to see me give up."
Santino was 5 when his mother was injured and was not allowed to see her for about a month while she was in OHSU's intensive care unit, so he began telling people that his mom was dead. His family tried to tell him that the surgeons were attempting to save his mother's life, "but she's not out of the woods yet." When he responded by drawing a picture of his mother between some trees, his family explained further and showed him the scene of the crash on McLoughlin Boulevard.
Santino is now 8 and doesn't want to discuss his mom's injuries. On the way to an appointment, she recently drove past the crash scene with Santino when he said, "Don't even look over there, and don't remind me."
Santino initially had been excited about his mom getting a red "robot leg." She ended up getting a blue prosthetic, because her insurance company and medical provider didn't give her the option to choose its color.
Battle to get prosthetic
Zionskowski spent two months in the hospital. By October 2014 — well enough to leave the hospital but unable to live at home — she was sent to the Porthaven Healthcare Center.
It wasn't until Aug. 10, 2015, more than a year after the crash, that Zionskowski was able to return home. And it wasn't the same home that she had been trying to get to when she was hit.
To be closer to the hospital where she was receiving dozens of surgeries, her family had been forced to move from Milwaukie to an apartment near OHSU. Now a student at Capitol Hill Elementary School in Portland, Santino had to transfer after attending the first half of kindergarten at Oak Grove Elementary.
Zionskowski said she suffered her worst bout of depression in the months following her return home. In June 2015, she was able to stand up on one leg, but didn't have a prosthetic for walking on her missing left leg.
Zionskowski had lost 90 percent of the muscle mass of her right leg. A surgeon had inserted a metal plate to hold her shattered femur in place, but when it became clear that her right femur would never heal properly, surgeons then removed the remnants of the bone and replaced it with a metal rod.
"To make myself feel better while I was in the hospital, I would tell myself: 'When I get my prosthetic leg, I'll be walking,'" she said. "But even after I was finally able to get this prosthetic leg, I've fallen a few times, and learning to control this leg is really difficult."
Months of grueling physical therapy made her eligible for a type of prosthetic that would maximize her mobility with a walker, but her insurer dragged its heels.
"It took almost three months of doctors battling, when finally, the insurance company, said 'OK, we'll give you a leg,'" Zionskowski said.
She would have received her PSU undergraduate's degree in physiology in 2015, but the crash has forced her to delay graduation until next year, when she hopes to attend OHSU to get an advanced degree in epidemiology.
Bystanders step in
Lance Stewart was carpooling home from work with Jim Gustafsson, just behind the car that hit Zionskowski. After seeing the crash scene, Stewart called 911, while Gustafsson tried to distract Zionskowski from her injuries by holding her hand and talking with her. They covered her with a blanket to protect her from gawkers' eyes and keep her warm in an attempt to keep her body from going into shock. Stacey and Witbeck employees Hailey Manson and Patricia Malone, who were working on the adjacent light-rail project, stopped to reroute traffic so emergency responders could easily access the scene.
Trained nurse Sally Hendren was driving on River Road when the crash happened and offered medical assistance at the scene.
Hendren, Malone, Manson, Gustafsson and Stewart were recognized at a Milwaukie City Council meeting in January 2015, where they received letters of commendation from Milwaukie police and thank-you notes from Zionskowski. Zionskowski was recovering from another surgery on Jan. 6, 2015, so she couldn't attend the City Council meeting.
In addition to the help she received at the scene, Zionskowski wished to thank everyone who donated to a fund organized by the Clackamas County Peace Officers' Benevolent Foundation. Mark Koberstein, a retired deputy with the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office who was in charge of the foundation, made sure that Zionskowski had the addresses of all of the people who donated to the fund so she could send thank-you letters. Kropelin was one of the donors to the fund.
"There are a lot of generous people out there," Zionskowski said.
After applying for help from the state and hassling with the three different insurance companies, Zionskowski was able to get most of her medical expenses covered. Zionskowski wasn't bankrupted by the crash, but she'll never get her leg back, nor will she ever get back all the time she spent dealing with her health insurer, her car insurance company, and the car-insurance company of the man who hit her.
Zionskowski's boyfriend, Daniel, worked two jobs for more than a year after the crash to support the couple and their child financially. Zionskowski's mother, Raquel, who had been Santino's main caregiver, became Zionskowski's main caretaker and continues to work at the Zionskowski household five days a week while Daniel is working outside of the home.
Zionskowski takes MAX to get to PSU and uses a wheelchair to navigate the hallways there, "because it's easier than using a walker."
Milwaukie crashes continue
During the morning commute on Aug. 11, two separate collisions between a bicycle and a car occurred in Milwaukie. No one suffered any major injuries and no citations were issued.
The first incident occurred about 6:30 a.m. when a bicyclist traveling northbound on the Trolley Trail rode through the intersection of River Road and McLoughlin Boulevard.
The cyclist did not stop at the traffic signal and was hit by a driver turning right onto McLoughlin.
Both the cyclist and the driver stayed at the scene of the accident and exchanged information. The cyclist suffered minor injuries, and the bicycle was damaged.
The second incident happened at 6:49 a.m. when a cyclist traveling northbound on the 17th Avenue Bicycle Path crossed the intersection of 17th Avenue and Waverly Drive.
The driver collided with the cyclist while headed eastbound on Waverly Drive and turning right on a green light onto 17th Avenue.
The cyclist did not stop at the intersection and received minor scrapes and bruises, and both the bicycle and vehicle received minor damage.
A total of four bicycle-motor vehicle related incidents occurred in Milwaukie during the previous week. The Milwaukie Police Department is strongly urging both drivers and cyclists to take additional safety precautions and be extra alert for one another.
"It's going to take everyone — motorists and bicyclists — being extra vigilant and keeping safety in mind to help reduce the number of these types of accidents," Chief Steve Bartol said. "With the time of year and nice weather we're enjoying, there's more people on the roads and more chances for mistakes to happen."
MPD advises cyclists to:
• Always wear a helmet.
• Stay alert for potential obstacles and vehicles.
• Be aware of surrounding traffic.
• Obey all traffic control devices and signals.
• Ride predictably and go with the flow of traffic.
• Stay visible. Always use lights when biking at night or in low-light conditions.
MPD advises drivers to:
• Always wear a seatbelt.
• Stay alert for potential cyclists, especially when driving through intersections or making turns.
• Be patient. Give cyclists extra time to ride through intersections.
• Refrain from tailgating anyone riding a bicycle and allow extra room when passing.
• Check blind spots and side mirrors before making right turns for potential cyclists. Always use turn signals to give riders enough time to brake.
News editor, Clackamas Review/Oregon City News
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