Bicyclist hit by drunken driver shares her story to spare others pain

EVERETT — The speed limit was 50 mph. The driver was drunk.

Kathi Sturgeon was riding her bike when she was hit by a car in 2008.

She doesn’t remember the two months before the crash, or the year afterward.

Living near Sacramento, Calif., she’d taken up cycling two years before. It was great exercise. Through cycling, she made good friends.

Since the crash, she’s spent the past six years recovering her body, her mind and her independence. Sturgeon, now 53 and living in Everett, speaks on a victims panel as part of Snohomish County’s efforts to combat drunken driving.

She hopes her story makes offenders reconsider a choice that changed her life forever.

Only vague memories

The morning of the crash, Sturgeon and a friend were training for the “STP” ride from Seattle to Portland. They both were in the bicycle lane, and both were hit from behind.

Sturgeon was airlifted to a hospital in Roseville, Calif., and taken into surgery. A portion of her skull was removed to allow her swollen brain time to recover.

She was in a coma for a week. She stayed in the intensive care unit a total of three weeks, and then spent another six weeks in an acute rehabilitation unit. In addition to a traumatic brain injury, she suffered a separated shoulder and a severe gash that nearly cost her the lower part of her left leg.

Sturgeon doesn’t remember waking up. She has a vague memory of being wheeled through a hallway, but she’s not sure if the memory is real.

At the rehab unit, friends and medical staff had to feed her. She needed physical therapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy.

Her progress at times was frustrating. She was someone who’d ridden her bike 100 miles in one day. For a while, she couldn’t walk by herself, even with a walker.

A rare survivor

As she healed, Sturgeon started speaking for Mothers Against Drunk Driving and another victim advocacy group in California.

In her former life, she was a director of women’s ministries for a church. She had experience speaking to groups.

“It just is an opportunity to show the other side of the story,” she said.

When she appears on panels about drunken driving, she’s usually the only victim to have survived to speak. She doesn’t know how people who’ve lost children and siblings find the strength to get up and talk about that pain, over and over again.

“I’m glad my sister doesn’t have to get up and tell my story,” she said. “It’s important that people hear from survivors. My life is not the same. I might look normal on the outside, and people can’t tell what I’ve been through.”

In 2013, more than 1,800 people attended Snohomish County’s DUI Victim Panels, coordinator Jan Schemenauer said. The county has 17 speakers, including survivors, families who have lost someone and offenders who’ve taken lives. Sturgeon was the county’s first survivor speaker, Schemenauer said. They met at a MADD event in Seattle last year.

“There are very few survivors of DUI crashes, and she’s definitely one of them,” Schemenauer said. “She’s an articulate woman, and she’s come so far in her journey.”

Snohomish County’s panels are open to the public. Parents sometimes bring their teenagers who are beginning to drive, Schemenauer said.

Others come on their own. Some are ordered to attend by the court after they are convicted of traffic or drug and alcohol offenses, including but not limited to a DUI.

In her speeches, Sturgeon shares photos from when she was in the hospital. Her relatives didn’t recognize her at first, she said. In one photo, her head bandage had a note scrawled across it warning medical staff where the bone was missing.

Sturgeon brings a loving, kind and encouraging message, and one of zero-tolerance, Schemenauer said.

“What she talks about a lot is the ripple effect,” Schemenauer said. “It’s not just what happens to you. It’s what happens to your friends and your family.”

Slowly coming back

Sturgeon still struggles to find the right words sometimes. That’s because of her brain injury. She knows the words are there, but they take time to come to the surface. She’s developed a fear of fender-benders and of hitting her head. She feels like she’s slowly come back as herself, though her confidence has lagged behind other progress. She’s training again, for two big rides this year.

In 2013, she completed the 204-mile STP ride in two days.

After five and a half years of not being able to work, she started part time in late February as a supply drive coordinator for Housing Hope. She feels lucky to once more have a job where she can do good for others, she said.

Early on, her physical therapist told her she would do well because of her support from family and friends. A co-worker let Sturgeon stay at her home for five months when she couldn’t live alone after the accident. In early 2012, she moved to Everett to live with family.

“I had so many people cook me meals, just all the things people did, just sitting with me. They were incredible,” she said. “I couldn’t have done it without them.”

Finding forgiveness

The driver’s life was changed, too, Sturgeon said. She thinks about her sometimes. The driver had her own life ahead of her. So much was taken from both of them.

The 19-year-old woman who hit Sturgeon blew a .10 on the breathalyzer. She said she hadn’t been drinking the morning of the crash. The young woman spent a year in jail and now, because of recent probation violations, risks years in prison, Sturgeon said.

Sturgeon, her sister and others spoke at the woman’s sentencing. Sturgeon’s Christian faith made forgiveness an important part of her recovery.

She wanted to protect her own heart from anger or bitterness, she said. She preferred to seek peace.

“It wasn’t about letting her off the hook,” Sturgeon said. “It was saying, ‘You’ve got to experience your consequences, but I don’t want it hold me back.’”

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

Victim panels

Snohomish County’s DUI Victim Panels are open to the public. For more info, go to http://snohomishcountywa.gov/466/DUI-Traffic-Safety or call 425-388-7269. Presentations also are held about four times a year at high schools in the Arlington, Snohomish and Stanwood school districts.

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