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.