One of the worst moments of Will Cunningham’s life was captured by television news cameras: His panic, his horror as he stood on the side of the 52 freeway with his son, helpless and able only to watch as emergency responders tended to his wife and three daughters, who were inside a now-crumpled minivan that had been hit head-on by a drunk driver going the wrong way on the freeway.
That awful scene played out in front of a packed Torrey Pines High School gym last week during a Red Ribbon Week assembly, Cunningham sitting in a chair, unable to even look at the screen.
His message of “Don’t drink and drive” carried the weight of someone who lived through the lasting impacts of another person’s decision to get behind the wheel while intoxicated.
“It is hard to see this video,” Cunningham said, fighting to speak through tears. “Even though it’s been about a year and a half, it always seems like yesterday.”
It was around 9:15 p.m. on St. Patrick’s Day 2013 and his wife, Alisa, and three daughters were returning home from various activities. Their busy life included activities such as dance and sports.
As they were driving east, the wrong-way drunk driver came up over a slope in the freeway going westbound at 65 miles per hour.
The impact killed the driver instantly.
“For him, his journey was over. For us, the journey just starts to begin,” said Cunningham, a basketball coach at neighboring Cathedral Catholic High School.
Alisa’s foot and hand were severed. His daughters, Logan and Jayden, riding in the back seat, each suffered a fractured neck, pelvis and punctured lungs.
His oldest daughter, Taylor, 17, had been riding in the front seat with her feet up on the dashboard. In the last instant before impact, Alisa had shoved them down, which saved Taylor’s legs.
Taylor’s injuries were the most serious — she had a severe brain injury, punctured lungs and a broken jaw, clavicle, pelvis and left foot. She remained in a coma for 17 days and spent a total of 75 days in the hospital.
Cunningham said there was no time for anger, only to figure out how to do what was best for his loved ones. For weeks, he had to handle it all without his wife, who didn’t know who he was.
They all faced long roads to recovery: Alisa’s hand and foot were reattached and she had to go through therapy to learn to use them. She still doesn’t have full use of her hand. His two younger daughters were cleared just two months ago to play sports again.
Taylor has had to re-learn to walk, talk and eat. Before the accident, she stood 5’9”; she is now 5’7”, as two inches had to be shaved off her pelvis to keep her alive.
She has persevered and progresses every day, but still has a long way to go.
“She is learning a new normalcy,” said Cunningham. “Nothing is ever going to be the same. For as long as she lives, she will be impacted daily by a person’s decision to drink and drive. It didn’t have to happen.”
You could hear a pin drop in the gym during the Dec. 10 assembly. Nearly 2,000 high schoolers were listening intently to Cunningham’s story as well as the stories of four other speakers whose lives were changed at an early age because of their decisions to abuse alcohol and drugs. Their stories were similar: It was all fun when the drinking and drugs started, but things quickly spiraled out of control.
One speaker, Kristine, attended Torrey Pines for a junior year she does not remember because of her use of marijuana and pills. She first tried heroin at age 18 and has been a heroin addict for the past four years. She became homeless, lived in her car, did a “rehab tour” of San Diego and spent six months in county jail.
“It’s not worth trying it one time,” Kristine said. “It completely ruined my life.”
Andrea, a former alcoholic who has now been sober for 10 years, spoke about how it all started at age 12. She drank through high school and was sexually assaulted at age 17, got a DUI and went to jail, was homeless and by age 22 was waking up at 6 a.m. just to drink. She got sober at 24.
“I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for the life that I have,” Andrea said through tears. “When I think back to who I was, my last drink was a mouthwash. I have to work my butt off to stay sober. It’s a miracle. But my life is better because I don’t make bad decisions anymore.”
Another speaker, Hunter from Arkansas, is only 18 but has already experienced a lifetime of pain because of his drug use. He started smoking pot and using pills in middle school, and by the time he was a sophomore, had moved on to cocaine.
“I screwed up my life and I was only 16,” Hunter said.
High on pills, he wrapped his car around a pole, went to various rehabs, moved on to meth and heroin, had a friend shot and killed trying to buy drugs, and last Halloween got into a head-on accident while driving drunk.
“Thank God I’m not dead. I should be dead. I shouldn’t be here talking to y’all,” said Hunter, who finally got tired of the way he was living and moved to California to get sober. He now has four months of sobriety.
Teacher Don Collins, who coordinated Red Ribbon Week, said the week is all about the students’ decision-making. He can only hope that some of the speakers’ powerful words find their way into a space in their brains.
Collins said he had a student confide that just the night before, he’d been in an accident with a friend who had been drinking and driving.
“I’m not asking you never to do drugs or drink. But if you’ve had something to drink, don’t stick your key in the ignition of a car,” Collins told the students. “The consequences are too dangerous.”
Throughout the week, Collins shared sobering statistics with the campus, including the fact that in 2012 the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) reported 33,175 Americans died from an unintentional drug overdose and since 2006 the numbers have risen 200 percent, mostly due to pharmaceuticals.
Unfortunately, Collins has known too many former students who overdosed and did not make it. He stopped counting at 12.
One of those former TPHS students was Ian Brown, who died in 2013 at age 21 after overdosing on heroin. His mother, Cathie Brown, was there Dec. 10 for her second Red Ribbon Week appearance.
“Last year, Ian had only been gone for 10 weeks. I think I was still numb. But I knew in my heart I needed to get the message out,” Brown said. “Drinking and drugs are not the answer. It’s a big lie.”
Ian was in his fourth rehab when he died; the drug had gripped his brain and made him feel that he needed it, the way he needed air to breathe. The day before he died, Cathie took him out to lunch and everything appeared fine. But the next day he went on his lunch break and decided to use heroin in his car one last time. He died there, alone. Nobody found him until the next morning.
As a parent, she said the loss is indescribable. Her love alone couldn’t keep him alive.
“He felt like he was stronger than the drug, but there’s no way to be stronger than heroin. He couldn’t stop,” Brown said. “Ian only overdosed one time, and it was his life.”
Brown said she asked several of Ian’s friends to be there at Torrey Pines that day, but they were not yet ready, had still not stopped using. She knew one who overdosed just this past Saturday and was in the hospital.
Brown believed that if he could, Ian would be standing up there that day with her. She said they had talked about how when he got clean, he wanted to share his important anti-drug message.
“Don’t put yourself in a situation where you’re spending the rest of your life trying to dig out,” Brown told the students. “It’s like a train wreck once you start.”