Pat Henman got up on stage at a Capitol Theatre fundraiser in 2016 and sang Georgia On My Mind, accompanied by the Playmor Junction Big Band.
There was nothing unusual about that. After all, Henman is known in Nelson as an accomplished singer, actor, and director. She’s a mainstay in the city’s music and theatre scenes.
But this was Henman’s debut performance after three years of painful physical and psychological recovery following a highway accident in 2013 when a car she and her daughter Maia were in was hit head-on by a drunk driver near Cranbrook.
Not only had much of Henman’s body been destroyed and mostly put back together, but her voice had needed extensive therapy and she was told she would probably never perform again. Heading for the Capitol stage, she was scared.
“I had no idea how it would go,” she says. “I knew I could make sound again. But it was not dependable. Were those notes going to come out? Or was the throat going to constrict? So I thought in the back of my little devilish head, I have a great big band playing behind me. They’ll cover for me if something happens.”
They would cover for her because most of them knew her. They had been fellow members of the Nelson music community for years. They had her back, as did the audience.
For Henman, that performance was a big step toward her goal of returning to more-or-less normal life in the community she loves.
“It led me to then just be stronger and take more risks,” she says.
Henman has just published Beyond the Legal Limit: Surviving a Collision with a Drunk Driver, published by Caitlin Press, available in bookstores Feb. 19. The book recounts the accident, her excruciating physical and psychological recovery, the legal nightmare of negotiations between insurance companies, the criminal conviction of the driver, the need for legal advocacy and support for victims, her involvement with the group Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, and her re-entry into normal life in Nelson after being in hospital for almost a year.
Henman’s memories of the accident are spotty and horrific: pinned in the wreckage, the smell of burned rubber, shattered glass splintered into her skin, seat belts cutting into her torso, not feeling her body, not hearing anything.
At the hospital in Calgary, where the two were taken because their injuries were too complicated for the hospital in Cranbrook, Henman’s family was told she was not expected to survive. She was in an induced coma and had 19 surgeries in the first week, and about 25 in total. Maia was also in a coma for more than a week with multiple broken bones in all four limbs. In her book she describes a photo taken at the time:
In a photograph, I lie in a small bed in ICU, surrounded by the machines that are attached to me everywhere: my arms, my chest, my head, down my throat. I am in an induced coma with a tent over my abdomen. The rubber contraption covers my entire torso so infection doesn’t enter the considerable opening the surgical team made to stop the bleeding, remove the unsalvagable parts, and repair those they could save. The cavity must be flushed several times a day. The doctor directed to perform the chore calls my insides like a soccer ball with the organs gummed together in a mound of tissue and blood.
My face looks like a boxer’s beaten mug: eyes black and blue, lips three times their usual size. My nose is huge and looks as though it is spread across my face. It is stained yellow and green, like jaundice … My son Liam got shit from the nurse for taking the photo.
We all have about seven metres of intestine. Henman has less than one. All the rest was removed after being destroyed in the accident.
“And I still get to walk around, and I can still eat. I can’t eat everything you can eat maybe. But I can eat. And that is the power of healing, the power of the medical people of today. Unbelievable that they can actually allow me to continue to live and have so very little in terms of digestive system.”
She can do this because she is an ostomate, a person living with an ostomy, which is a surgically created opening in the abdomen that allows waste to leave the body. She vehemently fought acceptance of this, prompting the hospital to send a psychologist to her bedside.
Henman encountered many other complications, including a prolonged battle by multiple doctors to stop the eruption of fistulas, a type of abscess that kept erupting on her skin. Her life for years was an unending round of nurses, doctors, specialists, surgeons and therapists in Vancouver, Kelowna, and Calgary. Beyond the Legal Limit contains joyful accounts of Henman regaining her senses of smell and taste and her ability to listen to music and read books, after having lost all of those, not knowing if they would ever return.
“And then it comes back. And it’s like, oh my God, even an egg sandwich tasted so incredible. It really did.”
The drunk driver who hit Henman’s car, Shara Bakos, had a blood alcohol level of twice the legal limit and was a repeat offender driving without a licence. She was charged with a crime that has a maximum possible sentence of 10 years. The prosecutor asked for two and a half years, and that is what Bakos got, to be spent at the Federal Fraser Valley Institution for Women. She ultimately spent one year there and six months in a halfway house in Calgary.
Henman recounts the awkward, brief, and unsatisfying meetings with Bakos, and she delves into the still-ongoing process of coming to terms with Bakos in her own mind and emotions.
Maia and I had spent more than half of those eleven months in hospitals, while our offender has been at home, sleeping in her bed, after only two weeks in the hospital. She had spent over five hours drinking before she hit us. Her blood alcohol was 0.15 four hours after hitting us. She was dead drunk. I had died four times, once at the scene and revived three times at the hospital. Maia, at 19 years old, would never be able to run, skate, ski or dance again …
“I still think about who she is, about her life,” says Henman. “I think she has a serious disease and that the system failed her. She had four DUIs convictions for driving under the influence. They should have taken care of that a long time ago.”
An emotional civil lawsuit
In addition to criminal charges, there was a civil lawsuit, eventually settled out of court, in which the insurance company on the offender’s side tried to argue that Henman and her daughter were not injured or were actually at fault.
My question will always be this: why would lawyers, government and insurance adjusters assume that it is fine to treat victims as if they were the perpetrator? Even if it is just legal jargon, as we were told, words matter. Those words that I read on the first documents … that suggested that the accident did not happen or that perhaps Maia and I were the culprits, those words cut like a knife. Why should victims of violent crime have to plead to be taken care of by a system that should be their advocates?
“The civil suit went on for three years,” Henman says. “And you live that every day, so it’s very emotional. It’s just heartbreaking. It’s almost too much, but we get through it. Hopefully.”
The needs of victims
One of the main characters in Beyond the Legal Limit is Larry Vezina, Henman’s husband, who worked relentlessly on medical, legal and emotional fronts for Henman and their daughter.
When Henman first arrived home from the hospital for the first time, in a wheelchair, she discovered that her friends had raised money for the construction of a wheelchair ramp to allow access to her front door.
Later, when the ramp was no longer needed, Vezina took the materials and turned them into planter boxes for flowers and food.
Larry made the boxes and planted dozens of living organisms to remind us what the ramp was all about: to help us heal and grow. Every time we walked outside after Larry built the garden boxes, we would comment on how beautiful they were and how awesome it was to be able to reuse the gift our friends and neighbours had arranged for us to make our lives easier.
Maia Vezina meanwhile has a blog, Living Now, in which she tracks the progress of her recovery, also on Instagram: @livingnowwithmaia.
Henman has emerged from this experience with an awareness of the needs of victims – their need for advocacy and support. She has become a director for MADD’s west coast regional committee. She also serves on an advisory committee that advises the Parole Board of Canada and Corrections Canada on the treatment of victims of violent crimes.
“I wrote this book for many reasons,” says Henman, “one of them being that the criminal system re-look at their treatment of victims, plus to loudly suggest that lawmakers devise a plan to make sure a repeat or first offender can never do this again to innocent people.”