- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Marcia Fuchs thought she was invincible in 1975, skipping school, getting high, living for rock ’n’ roll and her boyfriend.
On Dec. 7 of that year, just a couple of days shy of her 16th birthday, she made a decision that almost cost her life and irrevocably changed it.
Now 53, Fuchs sits in a wheelchair. She spends most days at the Spring Dell Center in La Plata. Her speech is thick and slow. She needs help to eat her lunch.
“[T]hat night my friends and I were going to my 16th birthday party given by Becky, my girlfriend from school, and my boyfriend picked me up about 6 p.m., and we left and started on our way,” she said in an interview by a Spring Dell staffer for a center project. “We started drinking beer and drugging (acid and marijuana) ’til about 2 a.m.”
She was in the backseat of the car on her way home. The driver was drunk and high, as well. He ran a stop sign at the intersection of routes 6 and 425, straight into the path of another car, and Fuchs’ life blew up.
“I was stupid and foolish, and all I wanted to do was be with my boyfriend,” she told a reporter in the clerical room at Spring Dell on a recent afternoon while other folks who receive Spring Dell services worked on projects. “I was in a coma for 2½ months. ... Ever since the accident, I’ve used a wheelchair. My left arm is fine, but my right arm is slow. I had a brain stem injury that affected my motor skills.”
She nearly died.
“My mother said I stopped breathing twice in the helicopter,” she told the Spring Dell staffer. “They cut my clothes off. I was mad because they cut my favorite jeans off. They were my hiphuggers.”
“She doesn’t really remember much about the accident,” Fuchs’ sister Dottie Kreeger said in a telephone interview. “It’s probably for the best. She had a horrible brain stem injury ... and was in a coma in Shock Trauma [at University Hospital in Baltimore] for several months. She had to learn everything all over again, even how to swallow.”
In a way, she was lucky. A 16-year-old boy, Tommy Lee Swann of Indian Head, died in the wreck.
“Tommy ... flew out of the car through the windshield and was killed instantly. Back then nobody wore seatbelts,” Fuchs told the Spring Dell staffer.
Ironically, if her mother had been a little more stern, she would not have been in the accident.
“I was on restriction at home [the night of the party]. I begged my mother to let me go out to my own birthday party my friend was giving for me,” she told a reporter. “She didn’t know. I didn’t know [what was going to happen to her].”
Apparently, that sort of willfulness was a big part of Fuchs’ personality before the accident.
“She could be the devil when she wanted to,” Kreeger said. “She was spoiled of course, being the baby. We stayed [at their parents’ house] when we came back from Hawaii. My husband was in the Navy. She’d stay with my kids and tease them, make them cry. She was kind of in a wild crowd, what was wild then. Pot was more accepted then. It was rampant.”
After the accident, the ordeal was just beginning. Fuchs was so severely injured that the outcome was in doubt for days.
“She was teetering back and forth between life and death,” Kreeger said. The family was kept from seeing her. Only her priest was allowed in the room, to administer the sacrament of anointing the sick, commonly known as the last rites.
“It was a big shock when we saw her,” Kreeger said. “She was a pretty girl. She had real long, dark hair. ... Her head was shaved, her eyes were real swollen ... she had tubes all over her. Her legs were all bent around [from injuries she suffered in the accident]. She had a tongue depressor stuck in her mouth. She had bitten the end of her tongue off. She didn’t look like the same person.”
Fuchs said she remembers a little bit about the aftermath of the accident. Her mother visited her in the hospital frequently when she was in a coma, and she can recall hearing her voice during that time. Her first clear memories are of surgery she had on her legs, to straighten them out after the tendons had contracted since she was in the same position for so long.
Kreeger said Fuchs was in a rehabilitation hospital for a year once her life was no longer in danger. She suffered bouts of crippling depression for years afterward, but her time at Spring Dell helped with that, and her placement in a group home, where she can be more independent.
“She does have a sense of humor,” Kreeger said. “She’s been through some bad times, periods of depression, but the group home and programs at Spring Dell helped a lot.”
Fuchs has made peace with what happened to her, though it’s apparent that some of the details still hurt her very much.
“My friends all deserted me,” she said. “I had to make all new friends.”
Charles County Sheriff Rex Coffey said Fuchs’ story is typical. News media report fatal accidents and serious injuries at the time of a crash, but the aftermath for those who survive with much-diminished lives is rarely reported.
“We’ve made a lot of progress since those days,” Coffey (D) said in a telephone interview. “Cars are safer, and I think kids are more aware of the risks. We certainly try to raise awareness.”
Coffey said his office and Charles County Public Schools began a program after a particularly bad year for traffic fatalities in 2008, when nine teenagers died in traffic accidents.
“It’s the kids who do this, design the programs and talk to their peers,” Coffey said. “We follow their lead. We bring in people who have lost loved ones, who have survived accidents.”
Since the program started, “We are fortunate that we’ve lost only one student, Katie Murray [who was killed in a one-car accident Feb. 9, 2011] since then. We used to average three to five deaths of teens every year. ... You can never tell if you make a difference, but I swear we have.”
Coffey said he did not know about Fuchs’ accident personally, but it sounds all too familiar. “Peer pressure has a lot to do with it. Kids feel like they’re invincible. Then it changes everyone’s lives.”
Kreeger said she thinks about that aspect of the accident often.
“It ruined her life,” Kreeger said. “She never got to get married or have children. She loves kids.”
Fuchs said she wants to help if she can. She said Spring Dell is working with her on a video about her experiences, and she would like to speak to high school or other groups, to serve as a warning, a visible symbol of how far down poor judgment can bring those who use it.
“In a way, it’s kind of a success story,” Kreeger said. “She almost died, and she’s come so far from when she couldn’t even swallow.”