It is said that the death of one’s child is not an event, it is the onset of an incredibly painful journey of survival. It brings on a grief so fatiguing that sleep won’t touch the tiredness. It is also said that time heals all wounds, but that assumes that the source of the pain ends at some point. Birthdays roll around every year, Christmas stockings need hanging, there are graduations and all sorts of other life events that become painfully hollow. And when a child is lost due to the reckless behavior of a complete stranger it stings even more.
On Dec. 14, 1999, Paula and Dino Schaefer were moving to Colorado. The Army was transferring Dino and although the move was taking them away from their families of origin, there were high hopes for a new lifestyle in the mountains. Dino Sr., accompanied by 5-year-old Dino Jr., was driving a rental truck and towing one of the family vehicles. Close behind were Paula and their 7-year-old daughter Sarah, along with an unborn child Paula had been carrying for almost six months.
The Schaefers allowed almost a week for the trip so they could take in the sights along the way. However, just outside Columbia, barely an hour into their journey tragedy struck. A semi driver loaded with 80,000 pounds of steel and driving under the influence of illicit drugs slammed into Paula’s car, driving her into oncoming traffic. Daughter Sarah was taken by helicopter from the scene to the hospital, followed closely by Paula. The next day they informed the Schaefer’s that their daughter was brain dead. Paula begged the hospital to keep Sarah alive one more day so she didn’t die on her grandfather’s birthday. The hospital complied and the Schaeffer family never made it to Colorado.
“For years I was just numb” Paula shared. “Three months later another child who we named ‘Angel’ was born. Three years later, son Aiden was born, and life marched on. Sarah was the first grandchild for the grandparents, the first niece to the aunts and uncles and was very close to her brother. The loss of a child is a life sentence for the parent; learning a new normal after such a life-altering event is not easy. You have to be kind and gentle with yourself. For a long while I felt there was something different I could have done to prevent it, and that I didn’t deserve to be happy. After 7 years I still didn’t really want to be engaged in life. I went to see a doctor who wanted to give me a prescription, but I was afraid of becoming addicted and I refused it. I had to re-learn to smile and laugh and love, and I began doing those things again when I started helping other people.”
Paula says she initially couldn’t see where anyone was trying to make a difference, so she went to Washington, D.C. to advocate with congressional leaders for adherence to load limits on trucks and mandatory rest periods for drivers. She also started a group called “Compassionate Friends of Dorchester County” to help others who are struggling with a similar loss. But it was through the organization of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) she found other like-minded women and men. As a MADD member, she speaks at the Mount Pleasant Police Department’s “Victim Impact Panel,” a bi-monthly two-hour class that many DUI offenders are required to attend as part of their sentencing. Sadly, Paula and Dino’s situation is far from unique.
We meet with Mount Pleasant Police Traffic Lieutenant Pat Carter who coordinates the Victim Impact Panel. Carter grew up wanting to be in law enforcement as his father retired after 23 years as a South Carolina Highway Patrolman. He has worked his way up through the ranks over the years and has been involved in investigating the most serious accidents in Mount Pleasant and has seen the rise in accidents caused by mind and mood altering drugs other than alcohol. Impaired drivers cause one-third of traffic fatalities and South Carolina is especially deadly. As a state we rank 23rd in population but ninth in the number of traffic fatalities with over 1,000 killed in 2018, according to Carter.
“It is very difficult when we have to go inform families that one of their loved ones has died,” Carter said. “And we don’t have time to prepare ourselves – with social media we have to inform people as soon as possible. It is even harder when you go back and visit them a week or two later and they have all the pictures and flowers and memorials up. The victims are blameless. They were doing nothing wrong and they end up dead, severely injured or losing a loved one.”
“I don’t believe anyone sets out to be a felon when they get in their car impaired, but just in South Carolina hundreds do every year. If your medication says that you shouldn’t operate heavy machinery while taking it, remember that a car is heavy machinery. 80% of our DUIs involving drugs are prescription drugs; there are times we will see stacks of white prescription bags in a vehicle. If you are driving impaired and cause someone serious bodily harm the jail sentence runs to 15 years, and if someone dies up to 25 years. So educate yourself before you take a prescription and drive. The stakes couldn’t be higher and it is your responsibility.”
“If you know someone is going to drive impaired, get their keys or call us. You owe it to others to keep them off the roads. You are potentially saving a life. Statistics show that the average person arrested for DUI has previously driven impaired more than 80 times. And at any given time, for every impaired driver we get off the roads there are 500 more out there. As a result of DUI more than 300 South Carolinians will die this year – almost one a day. We all tend to think that the problem is something that happens to ‘other people’ until it happens to your family. With Uber and Lyft as available as they are, there is no excuse. But it takes all of us to really impact the problem. If you have a family member or friend you feel needs educated on the topic, please enroll them in our Victim Impact Panel – we have attendees who were not charged with anything but sent by a family member so they can better understand the potential impact of their behavior. Be sure to talk about it to your children – communication is the key,” Carter said.
“Personally, I don’t drink. My grandfather’s brother almost killed him while drinking, so there were enough warnings about it when I grew up that I have chosen to not drink at all. I have no problem with others drinking, but when you drink and get behind the wheel of a car it becomes my problem. I have a daughter who will start driving this year, and we have thoroughly discussed this issue. When I see young people die in these tragic accidents I can’t help but to see her face from time to time,” Carter said.
“We call them accidents, but they are not accidents” Paula said. “An accident is something that was out of your control. When you get behind the wheel of a car drinking or using drugs you are driving a weapon – nothing less than that. These are not accidents – these are crashes. I personally won’t even take Benadryl before driving. I am not saying that people should not have fun and enjoy life – but have a plan. Parents, make sure that if your children have a plan and can call you if they need to. I myself will go pick up anyone anywhere that has been drinking and give them a ride any time of day or night – no questions. It might seem inconvenient at the time, but it is so much better than the potential alternative,” Carter said.
It comes as no surprise that the spike in drug use that has come with the Opioid Crisis has shown up in traffic incidents. We have all seen news reports about people on opiates “nodding out” – randomly falling asleep at the wheel, sometimes with their children in the car. But what we don’t hear about nearly as often is that the vast majority of DUI charges due to drugs other than alcohol are from prescriptions. The stakes are high for everyone, so please be careful. And remember; if you quit taking a medication please get rid of the remainder of it. There is a big red lock box in the lobby of the Mount Pleasant Police Department where you can drop drugs off to be incinerated. And if you can stop someone from driving that is impaired or alert the police to someone who is driving impaired don’t feel bad. You may well be saving numerous people from tragedy.