As members of the trauma team at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, MaryAlice McCubbins, PNP, and Bobbi Williams, MSW, LCSW, have treated children and worked with many families after severe injuries suffered from everything from  falls to gunfire. A teenager who spent several weeks in their care as the result of a car accident, though, is inspiring them to spread a message they hope her peers – and theirs – will hear.

Ashlei was heading to a friend’s house to babysit. She couldn’t remember the directions, so as she drove down 141, she turned to type the address into her phone’s GPS. That’s all it took.

She was 16 and driving, window open, arm out, no safety belt. When she first started to roll, she was ejected from the car. She says she remembers screaming and her arm hitting the pavement. One of our trauma team members was driving the opposite direction at the time, and saw the whole thing happen. Even from a distance, he could see her injuries were so severe that as the only ACS-verified, level 1 pediatric trauma center in the region, we’d eventually see this teen at Children’s.

Sure enough, the first responders took her one place and the hospital transferred her to us. She lost the skin off her arm, suffered compression fractures to her spine, as well as a liver injury. All of that landed her in the pediatric ICU – waking in the PICU was her first memory after hitting her arm in the accident.

We see this all the time- and not just at work. We’ve all seen a car slowly drift into our lane, and we know. That driver is texting.
We call them accidents for a reason. These aren’t “on purposes.” People don’t mean to swerve into other lanes or lose control of a vehicle. It just happens. But we have gotten relaxed in the way we treat these very powerful machines. It only takes 5 seconds at 55mph to travel the distance of a football field.

We have to remember, it’s not just the act of reading or writing a text. It’s the act of processing the information. When we look at the phone when it dings, we divert our eyes from the road for at least five seconds – and that’s not the duration of distraction. If you just got an e-mail, and you’re processing that e-mail, and you’re still thinking about that e-mail you just got, you’re distracted. It’s not only that you looked at it and now you’re looking at the road, but your brain is still distracted.

And we can offer all the education we want. It’s not that teens aren’t hearing the message. They’re bombarded with it. But do they have an example to follow? Most parents are hard-working, maximizing their time, and that’s when they become distracted drivers. But rather than worry about checking that e-mail, I think we need to worry about what we’re teaching our children. It doesn’t matter what the household rule or even the law is; it matters what’s going on around them. Ashlei coming in definitely made me more aware and conscious of what I am doing. We’re more conscious in regard to all of the safety steps we’re taking – wearing a seatbelt, leaving

the phone in a purse or backseat – because what would that look like if either of us was injured in a distracted driving accident? The

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Ashlei struggled through weeks in the hospital and months of rehabilitation. She will still always have scars from this accident, but we can’t help but be inspired by how she has chosen to model them. A year after her accident, she wrote to us and asked what she can do to help. She’s taken it upon herself to educate her peers on the dangers and consequences of distracted driving. We always talk to families when they’re leaving the hospital, “If you had it to do over again, would you do anything differently?” They talk about wearing seatbelts or putting the phone away – but we catch them after the fact. Ashlei is catching them before, and hopefully her advocacy will prevent a few other children ending up in our care. She’s setting an example for all us. Shouldn’t we, as adults, be able to do the same?trauma nurse or trauma social worker at St. Louis Children’s Hospital got in an accident or suffered a brain injury because she wasn’t wearing her seatbelt? We’re even more aware of that than we are of our own safety.