Dani Simien was in his car, driving home from his girlfriend’s prom. It was a foggy Saturday night, April 29, 2007.
The next thing he remembers is waking up in a hospital room.
“I tried to move my legs and arms and I couldn’t. I saw all kinds of machines, feeding tubes, a trachea in my throat, tubes in my sides. It was very scary, like a nightmare. One day you’re dancing, having fun and the next time you wake up and it’s several weeks later and you can’t move.”
He was paralyzed from the waist down. Two weeks had passed. His mother, doctors and lawyers told him that he was involved in a head-on collision about 1:00 a.m. that prom night. Some weeks later, after he had gotten out of intensive care, they told him more: that the driver of the other car, a young woman, had been drinking—and was killed.
“I had a broke back, was paralyzed from the waist down, had shattered both ankles and both knees; broke my thigh bones,” explained Dani, speaking by phone from his home in Beaumont, Tex.
“They told me I had a brain injury and liver and kidney damage, lung damage, broken bones; six broken left ribs. I had to have heart surgery, had to get my aorta repaired. The doctor told me I was lucky because when I first came in, they told my family I wasn’t going to survive and if I did I would be mentally challenged, a vegetable, and be on dialysis the rest of my life.”
His mother had her own life-changing experience that night, after hearing the dismal prediction from doctors. She called a friend who insisted Wendy Knight give her life to God, right then, over the phone.
“I told God my life was his, to please save my son,” Knight said.
After that, the miracle happened, she said. The doctors who said her son’s kidney was failing and that other organs would shut down now told her the kidney was back to normal.
When her son was afraid to breathe on his own, without the trachea, she held his hand, stared into his eyes and breathed with him, matching his inhales and exhales.
He spent over twomonths in intensive care and many more months in rehabilitation. He’s had at least 14 surgeries; he’s lost count.
At first, when the lawyers and his mother told him that Casey Hernandez, 19, was drunk when she plowed into him, he felt nothing but sorrow that she had died.
“But when I got out and got into the real world, it started working on me hard,” said Simien. I was trying to cope with myself and the needs of who I had become now. At times, I was very angry. A lot of people who had been in wrecks like me have passed away or are in worse shape, so I thought, ‘Dani, you should try and make it.’
“I had to stop being angry at everyone in the world—and at her. If I’m angry 24/7, I’m not happy or enjoying life. That was not what I wanted.”
He worked hard at rehabilitation and was released from the hospital.
“They told me if I came back I would have to run the program,” he recalled.
For some time he had been thinking about speaking to young people about his experience, so one day he called MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers) to inquire about speaking.
A woman at the MADD office surprised him by saying, “We’ve been looking for you.” It turned out that Kathy Hernandez, mother of the driver who hit him, also made speeches and she had been searching for him and wanted to talk to him.
“I had it in my mind I wanted to meet someone on her side of the family to see how they were doing,” said Simien.”I wanted to show this happened but I’m here and there’s no bad blood.”
Simien and Hernandez met at a park and talked for four hours. They also looked at an album filled with photos of Casey.
“I felt her pain and she felt mine,” said Simien.
“I think God gave us time for him to accept what has happened and heal, and for me to realize I could even breathe and live without my daughter in my life,” said Hernandez. “I wanted him to know Casey wasn’t a life-long sorry drunk. She was a young person who made a horrible choice. I wanted him to know we cared about him. We were both at that place where we needed something else. It seems like God provided it for us. He provided Dani and I with each other.”
Hernandez describes her daughter Casey as “always trustworthy,” a cheerleader and honor roll student. She was in her second semester of college. In fact, Hernandez said, “I think that’s why the good Lord took Casey because she would not have been able to live knowing what happened to Dani.”
Hernandez is relieved also by Simien’s forgiveness. “He doesn’t even hold a grudge against Casey. He says you try things when you are young.”
“Some things you have to let go,” Simien said, nonchalantly.
The two travel together to speak about the tragedy that binds them and how they have used it to fashion a way to help others.
Earlier this month they appeared on ABC’s "The View."
Of their speaking, Hernandez said, “I had to do something. I. couldn’t believe Casey died for nothing. I lost my daughter, but I gained a son.”
“People are being killed over something that can be prevented,” Simien said of their work.
Hernandez would like to see Simien doing something he really enjoys.
“He had hoped to be a firefighter. He’s saving lives in another way,” she said.
He’s been unable to find a job. He doesn’t want a desk job, anyway, because he loves physical activity. He lives independently in a handicapped accessible apartment and drives a car customized for him. He’s learned to be patient and pace himself.
He dreams of qualifying for the Paralympics cycling competitions, a goal those who love him fully support. But first, he needs a specially designed bike. The cheapest one he has found was $3,000, which was still unaffordable to Simien.
“I’m happy,” Simien said, laughing. “I could be happier if I could stop getting these surgeries. But I’ve been in this body for five years now. I’ve accepted myself for who I’ve become. I still do everything I used to do, it’s just a little harder, takes more time. It’s still my life–and I’m still living it.”
Wendy Knight calls her son “amazing." He can overcome any obstacle. He will go around it or climb over it. He has taught me a lot-–compassion, how to forgive. He is my hero.”