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SOUTHWEST OHIO Woman still recovering from 'freak' road accident



Published: Sat, January 8, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



A steel and plastic road reflector hurled by a snowplow nearly killed her.

AMELIA, Ohio (AP) -- One year ago, Debra Black drove eastbound along Clermont County's snow-covered Ohio 125.

She had just left her neighborhood grocery and was on her way to pick up her granddaughter. Visions of making a snowman with the little girl danced in her head.

Suddenly, the windshield of her green Mercury exploded. A 4 1/2-pound steel and plastic road reflector crashed through the glass.

Her car crossed the center line and two lanes of the busy highway. It clipped a mailbox before leaving the road and slamming into a tree.

Black was covered in blood as she felt her way out of the car. Her face shredded, she was fighting for life.

The 43-year-old housekeeper everyone calls Debbie eventually won the battle. She has the physical scars to prove it. But her sense of humor and her will to live remain unscathed.

One year, two months of hospitalization and five operations later, she sits in her home on the outskirts of Amelia. She's been off work since the accident.

"All I do is go to the doctor."

But her spirits are up.

Good spirits

"I used to have a double chin. But the surgeries on my neck and face got rid of that."

She calls herself, "Miss Lucky." Two weeks ago, Miss Lucky sat at her kitchen table and watched her family celebrate Christmas. Megan, the 4-year-old granddaughter she's rearing, sang "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town."

What did Santa leave for Debbie?

He could have filled her stocking with good health. She has not been well enough to clean houses since the accident.

She needs money. Her doctor bills stand at $285,000 and counting.

But she says Santa gave her what she wanted.

"I'm here. That's all I need," she says, touching wood. "I'm alive."

Jan. 8, 2004, a westbound snowplow struck the road reflector and sent it airborne. The wicked-looking, H-shaped reflector is officially called a snowplowable-raised pavement marker. It's made to stay put when snowplows come calling.

Ohio has 1.2 million of these $20 reflectors made by three different companies, embedded and glued into the pavement of state routes and interstates. By helping drivers see the lines between lanes, they're supposed to prevent accidents, not cause them.

So, it would be correct to say a traffic safety device crashed through Black's windshield. The points of the reflector dug into the middle of her face and made two jagged cuts. One point sliced her face from her upper lip to her right cheek. The other point cut her skin from her forehead toward her right ear.

The impact shattered Black's cheekbone, her jaw and her nose. In their place, surgeons installed 14 titanium plates.

She lost most of her teeth, much of her lower gum and almost every bit of her sense of smell.

"Every once in a while, I get a whiff of something," Black says with an almost toothless grin. "I relish it."

Megan strolls into the room. Resembling a living Precious Moments figurine, she totes a bottle of Strawberry Shortcake scented body lotion.

Unscrewing the cap, she waves the bottle under her grandmother's nose.

"Can you smell it?" Megan asks.

Black shakes her head.

"Can't smell it today," she says. "Maybe tomorrow."

Megan lets out a disappointed sigh.

She took her grandmother's accident very hard. Megan was staying at her uncle's house on that day.

Her grandmother was coming to take her home. They had a date to build a snowman. Megan had her shoes and coat on. She was ready to play in the snow.

"She didn't take her shoes and coat off for four days," Black says. "She was still waiting for me."

Uncomfortable feeling

Megan feels uncomfortable about leaving her grandmother.

"For 2 1/2 years, when I would leave her at a baby sitter, she would start to cry and ask, 'Will you be back?'" Black says.

"I'd tell her: 'Grandma always comes back.'

"Then, there was Jan. 8 when grandma didn't come back."

Grandma came close to never coming back.

If the snowplow operator had not seen her car go off the road and called 911. If she had not received prompt medical care -- the paramedics were stationed a block away from the accident -- and if a breathing tube had not been inserted in her throat, she would not have lived to tell her story.

"She suffered massive injuries," says one of Black's surgeons, Kevin Shumrick. "It's surprising she survived."

In 20 years of reconstructing shattered faces at University Hospital, Shumrick calls the series of injuries caused by Black's accident "one of the worst I have ever seen."

He also considers the accident to be one of the rarest.

"What are the chances of something getting kicked up off the pavement and hitting somebody in the face while they are driving?" he asks.

Apparently, the chances are slim. Tom Pannett is an assistant legal counsel for Ohio's Department of Transportation. Looking at 10 years of cases, he knows of "only three instances" of people being injured by flying road reflectors.

Soon after the accident, while Black was still unconscious, a person from the Transportation Department assured her relatives that the state would help her financially, Black says. After her relatives contacted a lawyer on her behalf, she says, the state's offer was withdrawn.

Three road reflectors sit on Black's kitchen table. Mark Rhizor, her boyfriend, picked those up in November as he drove to construction job sites. He found two more in December.

"I've been looking for these things ever since this happened to Debbie," he says.

Every time Rhizor sees a snowplow while driving, he guards his face with one hand and keeps the other on his steering wheel.

"I'm petrified of those things."

His girlfriend is not.

"I know it was just a freak accident," Black says. "No snowplow driver could do this on purpose."




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