Crash survivor: “In the blink of an eye, everything can change”


That’s the photo we published in this report the night of June 15, when a motorcycle and minivan collided at 30th/Trenton (map) and closed streets for a few hours. The photo we didn’t publish, with the motorcycle on the ground, is later in the story. That night, there was no word if the motorcyclist was likely to survive. But she did. Days and weeks later, friends dropped into the comment thread on that same lone post from time to time with updates – finally, a few weeks ago, out of curiosity, we e-mailed one of the commenters to ask if the crash survivor would care to tell her story. And that’s how we met West Seattle photographer and motorcycle rider Karen Derby, who is battling back from leg and face injuries, and hoping to ride again. Here’s her story – including photos, some she took herself, before and after – but before you click ahead, a warning that two included in the story (and one you won’t see unless you click a link) are somewhat graphic – Karen wanted to tell her whole story, and the visuals are part of it:

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

Before summer officially ended this week, Karen Derby reflected on having spent it doing something very different from what she expected to be doing.

When June arrived, she was looking forward to spending the summer learning to be a motorcycle instructor, teaching others how to ride safely. Then came the June 15 crash – and instead, it became a summer of surgeries, and rehab, and recovery.

As a professional photographer (explore her website to get an idea of the range of her work), she couldn’t help but document what has happened along the way, as well as events long before the crash. Here for example is one of her favorite self-portraits:


That’s the motorcycle totaled in the June crash. Here’s another self-portrait that Karen photographed shortly after our conversation in her West Seattle studio last week:


Surgeons have rebuilt sections of her right leg with muscle and skin grafts. But before we get into details like that – the backstory:

On June 15, Karen was riding to Westwood Village to meet a friend. Earlier that same day, she says, she had enrolled in a course taught at South Seattle Community College to become a motorcycle instructor, and had shadowed another instructor: “You have to shadow three classes to become state-certified,” she explains. “I was planning on being certified by summer’s end … now it will have to wait, maybe another year.”

The crash happened just a few blocks west of the shopping center. Afterward, she says, she doesn’t remember anything of what happened for four days. Here’s what she does remember: “I’m traveling east on Trenton – he (the minivan driver) was on 30th – In my mind’s eye, we were half a block apart but must have been a lot closer – I saw he wasn’t going to stop at the stop sign, so I hit my throttle – he slammed into me, and my brain took me away.”

This is the photo we decided not to use the night of the crash. We didn’t know if the victim was going to survive. But now, we know she did, and she doesn’t hold back any details of what it’s been like to battle back:


“I was just out of it in the hospital,” she recalls – that’s Harborview Medical Center, our area’s major trauma hospital. “I would come to, and my boyfriend would say, ‘you were in a motorcycle accident’ – I would then sit up every so often and say, ‘I got T-boned’.” That was the start of what eventually turned out to be three and a half weeks in the hospital before she could come home.

Miraculously, she did not suffer any major organ damage. But her right leg was a mess: “It was pushed into the engine … Some of the people at the scene tell me the paramedics said, ‘she might lose her leg or her foot’ … One doctor sent me a photo of the leg before they did the work, it was a big old stripe of red. There was a lot missing.” Consider that she had never before broken even a single bone, so everything about the recovery process, from crutches to cast, was new. (She took a photo of her rebuilt leg at one point in the recovery process – somewhat graphic – click here if you are interested in seeing it. Doctors took skin and muscle from other parts of her leg, to replace what the crash tore away.)

She suffered facial injuries as well, requiring surgery to put a plate in her right eye socket, and she’s going back to consult doctors soon to see what they want to do about her broken nose. Here’s a photo she shared from the hospital:


“I’ve still got some nerve damage, some numbness in the upper right lip.” In all, she counts five surgeries so far, and laughs that she has learned a lot about anatomy, rattling off terms like tibia and fibia. “The surgeons at Harborview are amazing,” she says, with praise for her physical therapists as well, and the occasional wince-inducing side note, such as an explanation of how skin grafts “burn all the time” until they are fully healed.

She is looking forward to milestones such as being able to put weight on her foot again in a few weeks, once it’s been three months since her surgery; she’s just been given the green light to take off the “boot” that protects her foot. But even once she can put weight on the foot, “I’ll be learning to walk again – it will be a three-month process, at least.”

She has started to work again — simple jobs that don’t require much mobility. “I can’t shoot weddings” — yet — she says with regret; those had become a staple of the photography business she has grown over the past 15 years, most of that time here in Seattle, where she’s lived since 1995, in West Seattle the past six years. Friends put on a fundraising benefit that “raised some money that got me through a couple months”; her health insurance has kicked in, and she says it’s helping a lot.

But more than the nitty-gritty of the accident and its aftermath, she wants to talk about motorcycle riding, which she has been doing for nine years. “Nobody gets on a motorcycle NOT knowing it’s a dangerous sport,” she says. So what’s the appeal? “It’s meditative,” she says.

She tells the story of how riding became an “instant passion” when she tried it during a workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “The instructor told us to document Santa Fe using an element that we would delve deeply into. I chose motorcycles. When I left there, I thought, I’d better learn how to ride … It’s hard to imagine living without it.”

So will she ride again?

“I hope to. There’s a chance I might be too scared – I don’t think I will be too freaked out; I think the passion will override the fear.” Her other motorcycle, a Kawasaki, was just feet away in her photography studio (a converted garage) as we spoke.

And along with teaching would-be motorcyclists how to ride safely, as she is determined to do once she is able to resume the instructor training she had barely begun, Karen says: “I also want to be an advocate for drivers to really look out for motorcycles. Part of why it’s so dangerous, is that we are invisible on the road. I would like to teach drivers more about how to keep their eyes open, double-check your blind spots.” And motorcyclists must in turn realize that drivers don’t always notice them: “It’s a difficult skill; you have to be aware of just how invisible you are, and compensate for that.”

Compensating for her injuries has been difficult in its own way, for a strong person who is not used to having to ask for help: “I’m proud of myself to be handling it relatively gracefully – that’s how my brother puts it, ‘gracefully’. I have a positive mental attitude – the doctors say that’s what you need, and I am a strong believer in that — but it’s hard sometimes.”

A bit easier, at least, with the help of friends – like those who built a deck while she was in the hospital, and added a temporary ramp so that she can get between her house and studio; and those who give her rides to Burien for physical therapy. Then there’s the friend who told us the account number set up for donations on Karen’s behalf, since health insurance doesn’t cover everything for a small businessperson who can’t resume fulltime work again just yet (Friends Of Karen Derby, Account Number 3622621070, Any Wells Fargo Bank) — but hopes to, before too much time passes: “I just want to be back to normal!” she says, matter-of-factly, not bitterly, noting the lesson she has painfully learned: “In the blink of an eye – everything can change.”
POSTSCRIPT: Karen says she has not been contacted by the 18-year-old who was driving the minivan that hit her. We have a request out to Seattle Police for investigation information, to find out, for example, if a citation was issued; still no response, but we will publish a followup when we find that out, and when Karen lets us know of a milestone in her recovery. THURSDAY AFTERNOON UPDATE: We talked at midday today with Detective Michael Korner, who is investigating this crash. He says the investigation is almost complete – and within a few weeks, they expect to forward it to a prosecutor for consideration of further action. Too soon for him to tell us, though, whether that would be a citation or something more – we’ll keep checking back.

22 Replies to "Crash survivor: "In the blink of an eye, everything can change""

  • Todd September 24, 2008 (11:00 pm)

    Wishing you the best.

  • Scott September 24, 2008 (11:42 pm)

    Did the other driver have insurance?
    Their insurance should be helping?

  • credmond September 24, 2008 (11:42 pm)

    A passion for life seems to be Karen’s creed and from that I know she’ll be back in the saddle. For that I’m grateful and thanks, Karen, for not only being brave and such an optimist but for being public.
    I can’t believe that we still don’t know whether or not a citation was issued for something which happened in June. I hope this isn’t true, but it almost sounds like SPD doesn’t care one way or the other about some of these accidents – which, if the van driver wasn’t paying attention, are NOT accidents but completely preventable situations. If there’s no pain, anguish, or suffering if you make a mistake, how is the learning to be accomplished?
    Where was the van driver when Karen was needing all those lifts about town? That would have been a solid soul quenching and restorative action the van driver “could” have done.
    Karen’s right, though, about being invisible. I drive across the country often and much of it is through territory favored by the Harley set (and Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, BMW, et al.) for the same reasons – great scenery, lonely roads with action to them, and the chance to explore one’s self – the contemplative element. I have taught myself how to be aware of motorcycles and how to ride in packs of them – I’ve often been the only car in a “herd?” of a dozen or more cycles. THEY drive like they know what they’re doing. I have learned how to drive with them but observe how others are caught unaware or instinctively move closer to the shoulder for no particular reason except they’ve been startled by a motorcycle passing. Don’t car drivers ever look around? Don’t they ever look in the rear-view mirror? In this case I am guessing they might not have even looked straight ahead.

    Godspeed Karen and definitely do get back in that saddle.

  • datamuse September 25, 2008 (12:20 am)

    I don’t have a motorcycle license but I have taken the riding class a couple of times and they definitely teach you to be aware–because so many car drivers aren’t.

    A good rule of thumb is to leave motorcycles just as much space and maneuvering room as a car.

  • WSB September 25, 2008 (12:22 am)

    To be very specific, while working on this story last week, I sent my inquiry about whether anyone had been cited to my usual SPD source, who forwarded it to another and also CC’d the traffic section. I repeated the inquiry yesterday. Still haven’t heard back. But it’s kind of an anomaly — SPD is usually very responsive to WSB (the other day, when we were a bit late in hearing about the Calif/Dawson crash because all the notes came in on one stream we didn’t monitor while dealing with something else, the media unit officer actually CALLED US UNSOLICITED after looking at WSB and noting we had just posted we were starting to look into it). I just have to nag them, again. But I didn’t want to hold the story any longer, because tomorrow’s going to be another busy news day, with the Viaduct briefing, three major evening events, and hopefully an interview with one of West Seattle’s in-progress restaurant proprietors …

  • Jim September 25, 2008 (2:23 am)

    The person who T-boned me at 15th and Roxbury got off without any tickets. She didn’t own the car and didn’t have a license, of course no insurance, and ran the red light. The judge filling in at traffic court, who had no idea how traffic court worked, threw them all out. It was amazing.

    I was fortunate, I lifted my leg out of the way, and only separated a couple ribs, and trashed my full face helmet. About six months later though the trauma caught up with me and I separated my sternum. I was able to work through my aches, but it took a good two years to fully heel. I had just completed the advanced safety foundation course the week before the wreck.

    My therapy was to ease back into the saddle on some blue highways out on the peninsula. And today if it weren’t for a broken throttle cable I’d be half way up Vancouver Island by now…

    Best wishes Karen

  • wsguy September 25, 2008 (7:02 am)

    To WSB owners, if the police are not giving you the information you’re requesting that would tell me it’s under investigation and legally they cannot hand you information at this point.

  • beachdrivegirl September 25, 2008 (8:03 am)

    What an amazing story. And I wish you the best Karen. I am so glad to hear that you survived.

  • TRICK September 25, 2008 (8:14 am)

    Karen, thanks for sharing, and my best wishes to you!

  • WSB September 25, 2008 (8:48 am)

    WSguy, we know these investigations can often take months, and in that case, police will simply say so in response to a media inquiry. I’m on the phone with an unrelated story right now but will be calling again in search of that info this morning.

  • JenV September 25, 2008 (9:37 am)

    Karen- as the sister, daughter and friend of riders- I wish you a speedy recovery and getting back on the bike again!
    As far as the minivan driver’s insurance- if he were found at fault then yes, Karen will get a settlement. However, until she settles – and she has 3 years to do so- she doesn’t see any money. Her own insurance is limited in the scope of what it can do for her in the question of lost wages.


    WSB- excellent piece of writing yet again. There is no question you once worked in the “big time” journalistic arena and it shows- thanks for bringing your professionalism to us.

  • Johnny Davies September 25, 2008 (10:47 am)

    As a rider, I must beg all two-wheel riders, PLEASE, do everything you can to make yourself visable. Orange saftey vests, bright helments – the works. The choices a rider makes is an important part of mitigating some of the risk we take on as riders. You are instructed on this in your MSF class, yet the majority doesn’t abide. Cloaking yourself in black does not help your chances of being seen. ATGATT (all the gear all the time).
    My comment is general and not related to this accident or situation in any way. I wish Karen the best. I completely understand the deep pleasure she acheives from riding and I totally get the reasons that she looks forward to riding in the future. Can wait to see you back on the road again Karen! Heal fast and heal well!

  • M September 25, 2008 (11:18 am)

    Was she wearing a helmet? Can you still get facial injuries while wearing one?

    I was thinking about getting a scooter for fuel and green reasons, but stuff like this makes me glad I did not

  • t4toby September 25, 2008 (1:16 pm)

    She was wearing a helmet.

    I drove up to that intersection before the aid cars got there, maybe 1-2 minutes after the crash. I saw how many people were around, so I knew I would do nothing but get in the way. It really affected the rest of my day, both because I couldn’t do anything to help, and because the damage looked so extreme.

    I was sure the motorcycle rider was dead. I’m very happy to hear that she made it and is recovering.

  • Johnny Davies September 25, 2008 (2:43 pm)

    Did she sustain those facial injuries wearing a FULL FACE helmet? I’m curious if that can happen..

  • Toddinwestwood September 25, 2008 (4:50 pm)

    Karen, get well soon.. Another motorcyclist here.

    I was rear-ended in Los Angeles a block from home by a drunk driver doing about 35 mph. I was wearing a full face, leather jacket, Levis and boots. When I landed with my left arm underneath me, I “rode” on my arm for a few feet. I would hate to think what would have happened if I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt.
    It is a dangerous game we play, but I couldnt do without it. A long day of riding a mountain road or the Peninsula will clear your head. Kind of my Zen moments. Get back slowly, go ride Vashon for an afternoon, go ride somewhere new and the passion will come back.

  • Katie McA September 25, 2008 (9:22 pm)

    Good luck and a fast recovery Karen!

    To all car drivers: Check the roads and your blind spot twice and you could save someone’s life. Motorcycles are everywhere, especially with gas prices on the rise.

  • JANET September 26, 2008 (12:29 pm)

    Seattle Fire here,

    Glad to here your getting better. You have an angle watching over you, so make your life count. Share your thoughts and wisdom with others.

  • Bounce September 26, 2008 (4:25 pm)


    I hope you get back on the horse. After my own fall and the surgery and rehab, I wondered if I’d have the courage to ride again. That fear was more about my own fallability than the machine, though. When I did start to ride again, I found (as you might have) that it can be a fast track to that Zen state of being fully with what is. So riding again served two goals: one, a sort of immersion therapy, the other a way to clear my mind of more generalized worries for a while. Hard to start…but ultimately worthwhile.

    In any case, best wishes on your recovery. So glad you made it through!


    PS: +1 on Janet’s comment, except make that “a cute angle.” ;-)

  • Marc October 9, 2008 (3:11 pm)

    Hi Karen-

    Hope you are recovering quickly.

    Lots of love, Marc & Jayne

  • Arlene October 10, 2008 (7:49 am)

    I’m so grateful that Karen survived to share this story! She is a wonderful photographer and a graceful and beautiful woman – what a shame that this happened. Karen – I wish you all the best in your recovery. Your friends at Providence Mount St. Vincent are rooting for you!

  • BB October 10, 2008 (5:36 pm)

    OMG!!! I had no Idea…. Karen photographed our wedding in 2005 and we count her as a friend (apparently we have a lot to live up to). Get well Karen! a call is on the way!

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