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Struck by a Bus

September 12, 2018 | by Rabbi Shraga Simmons

Susan Segal miraculously survived a near-fatal crash that revitalized her marriage and changed her and her husband’s lives.

Susan Segal is known to TV fans for her roles in 1990s sitcoms like Seinfeld, Murphy Brown, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. But one fine morning in Los Angeles, Susan appeared on all the networks in a real life-and-death drama.

She was driving her daughter to school when a dump truck – parked on a hilly side street – suddenly rolled into traffic on Hollywood Boulevard. A bus swerved to avoid the truck, then lost control and crossed the center divider. The bus struck Susan's car head-on, crushing her car and trapping her underneath the bus in a clump of twisted metal.

Miraculously, the Segal's daughter emerged with barely a scrape. But Susan's situation was dire. She'd broken C2 vertebra that nearly severed the arteries leading to her brain – the "hangman's injury" so named because death from hanging is usually from a broken neck (not strangulation). If it doesn't kill instantly, it typically – as in Christopher Reeve's case – causes full paralysis.

When Susan's husband Doug – a writer, director and producer of TV shows and feature films – arrived on the scene, he saw what looked like the set of a Hollywood disaster film. The street was completely blocked off and filled with fire engines, police cars and ambulances. News helicopters circled in the sky.

Susan had multiple broken bones, brain damage, and massive internal bleeding that immediately threatened her life. To rescue her, emergency crews first needed to somehow extract the car from under the bus, then cut the roof off the car. All the while, Susan was waving her one free arm, desperately reaching for help. "I'm dying! Help me! God, help me!" she cried.

Doug Segal's new book, Struck: A Husband’s Memoir of Trauma and Triumph, is a heartwarming, insightful, and courageously honest chronicle of that day and the long recovery that followed.

Doug and Susan spoke with from their home in Hollywood, California.

Miracle of Survival The lead doctor said that he'd never seen such a bad neck fracture that didn't have disastrous consequences. Six years later, Susan is 95 percent recovered.

Susan: It's a crazy miracle. People die from falling down the steps. The bus was nearly on my face.

Though I was unconscious for much of it, I have vivid thoughts of my father and grandmother there to help. My grandmother was a sweet Russian immigrant who used to tell me, "Suzallah, you're beautiful." She was confidence-building at a time when nobody thought about things like that.

So as the bus crushed against me, my entire body was injured – but nothing happened to my face. My grandmother was there protecting it. And my father lifted the bus off me. This experience is very real to me, deep in there. I think about it all the time.

Helping Hand The recovery process was painstaking and incremental. At one point, Susan said, "Maybe it would have been better if I'd died." What prompted that thought?

Susan: The amount of recovery was daunting, like exercising to an unimaginable degree. It was so much work just to lift my hand. I learned to measure progress not in days, but in weeks and months.

Doug: I think it was more than that. The thoughts about death came from a place of being a burden on me and the family. Susan felt if she was going to be a burden on everyone to take care of her, maybe it would be better if she just didn't survive.

Susan: I thought, "Oh my gosh, am I going to be in a wheelchair and need to be fed?" I hated that part. I want to be independent. I'm helping you, you're not helping me. I don't need help.

Doug: We learned that at some point, we all need help.

Marriage Boost In the book, Doug reveals that before the accident, he'd harbored an occasional fantasy of becoming a widower who "meets someone new, experiences the excitement of a blossoming relationship, and has a fresh start" in marriage. Given Doug's relentless devotion to Susan's welfare, Struck feels like a love story. In the end, did the accident provide that "fresh start"?

Doug: The accident was not an epiphany as much as a reminder of how deeply I love Susan. It reminded me of things I may have taken for granted.

In any relationship, in any marriage, there are annoyances and aggravations that come up. When the accident happened, I thought: If this is the end, will I forever feel guilty for all the unkind, unloving, petty, argumentative, impatient things I'd said and done?

Just because there are challenges doesn't mean it's a bad marriage. I think it's validating for people to read that someone else has the same dark thoughts. It makes them feel like, "Okay, maybe my dark thoughts are actually human. Working through things is normal and healthy. Just like this person found light and love through the dark thoughts, I can, too."

Bigger Picture Susan has lifelong scars, pain and mobility issues. All things considered, if you could do it over again, would you choose to have never had the accident?

Susan: I think about that when I look up at the stars. From a purely "health" perspective, I wouldn't want it because of continuing injuries. Right now my foot is numb and some parts in the morning don't work right. It's something that never leaves you.

Yet of course, good things have come out of it. Did my beautiful husband's writing get noticed? Sure. Do we have a story to tell? Yes. I didn't think it'd be a "getting-hit-by-a-bus" story, but are there some fascinating things? Absolutely. There's sadness in having this the rest of my life, but there's a lot of love in it, too. So although I wish the pain wasn't everlasting, I would say the pain is somehow worth the good that came out.

Doug: The most powerful feedback I got from my original emails was that it was helping others go through their own challenges. So if we can help other people get through their stuff, then yes, it starts to make it worth it.

Excerpt from Struck:

I'm not sure, even given the choice, whether I'd want to live without life's heavy weights. The greater the pain we allow ourselves to feel, the greater the joy we can experience in return, spiking up and down like the EKG of a heart. Limit the pain and we limit the joy, compressing the lines closer and closer, flatter and flatter. Without the up-and-down spikes of life's heartaches and elations, like an EKG in flatline, we cease to live.

Meaning of Life Susan, you survived the unsurvivable. Doctors inserted titanium rods and metal plates to hold your broken bones, and for the neck injury your head was in a metal halo, held into place with two-inch screws drilled into your skull. Lying there with the halo, I imagine you'd pondered the meaning of life.

Susan: Many people have asked: "What are you going to do now? What is God's plan for you? You must be saved for something. You must be here for a bigger reason." That used to drive me crazy, because I thought: Yah, what am I going to do? Solve world peace? Solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? Because I was hit by a bus, do I have that ability? I wish.

So I think: What's wrong with what I was doing before? I've always tried to set a good example for my children, to live a healthy life, to be a good person. I had good friends and a good marriage. I was living the best life I knew how. Can I be better? I'll try. Can I do more? I'll try. Could I give more to others? Yes. Could I be more grateful? Yes.

Doug: In my estimation, Susan didn't live with a lot of regrets, and then have to go correct those regrets. She was happy with the life she had and just wanted to return to that.

We all face challenges in life. Everybody’s got their bus.

Susan: I think my main contribution is to spread the message that we all face challenges in life. Everybody’s got their bus. But you can survive something like this – if you're healthy, think positive thoughts, and have a loving, supportive community surrounding you. That makes all the difference.

Community Support Within hours of the accident, friends had sprung into action preparing meals, organizing carpools for your two children, and showered you with an outpouring of love, support, compassion and prayer. How important was this?

Susan: The way I got better was through humor, love of community, love of family, and positive thinking. Those are the reasons I'm here.

Doug: It was a two-way street. I'd send an update, and the next morning have a hundred emails in response telling me how moved they were by our circumstance; how it had made other husbands look at their own marriages; how others cherished and valued their families more; how people were forwarding my emails to friends who were also going through difficult times and found comfort through our situation; how people from all around the world, from every religion, were praying for us. That was exactly where I got my strength to continue. What struck you the most about people's reaction?

Doug: So many people asked, "What can I do to help?" I'd tell them: "Send positive thoughts, send love, send healing energy," and they'd respond, "Sure, I'll do that. But do you need a meal?" The meal was a tangible way to show they care. "Here's a gift" or "Here's a meal" is a safer way of expressing love. Handing over a casserole is less vulnerable than showing up and verbalizing, "Wow, I love you." For me, I don't need the physical object. The showing up to be there with us, that's what you give me.

Susan: The accident gave people an opportunity to be loving and show that side. Maybe we don't give others enough opportunity to do that. I'm convinced that so many people caring is why I'm alive today.

Doug: Because the accident was so public in the news and in our community, it was easier than suffering silently through a private trauma, where people don't know to come forward and say, "What can I do for you?" People really do care, and that was a really wonderful validation through all this. As divided as we can be, especially today, in moments of crisis and adversity, people put aside that stuff and the goodness of people's hearts come out.

Supporting Characters I understand the total hospital bill was $7.5 million. Did you ever hear anything from the truck driver that caused this?

Doug: A friend of mine was at a convention for the construction industry and saw a former colleague who seemed really down. My friend said, "What's going on? You seem upset." The man said, "A few months ago I was involved in a horrible accident. My truck rolled into Hollywood Boulevard and people were badly injured. It's been really hard for me." When my friend told him that Susan survived, he was greatly relieved. Why didn't he ever contact you?

Doug: Apparently because his insurance company and lawyers told him not to, since that is legally admitting fault. That's the sad thing. We get in the way of people's humanity, and they have to live without ever being able to say, "Hey, I'm really sorry. I know it's impacted you terribly, and I feel horrible about that." It doesn't allow them to gain forgiveness, which is important in allowing people to move on.

Susan: One of the coolest parts of this whole experience is when an ICU nurse came running over to me in the supermarket parking lot: "Aren't you the one hit by the bus!?" There was great beauty in seeing her excitement when I say, "Yes, it's me, and here I am!"

Doug: Emergency personnel often don't get to hear the end of the story. We met one fireman who said, "I cut the roof off the car. I didn't know whether you lived or not. After I cut the roof and pull out a body, I never know what happens."

He rescued Susan from the crumpled wreckage and figured she'd never make it. Now he sees her standing there with life and humor, it makes him feel like, "Okay, I had a good day."

Celebrate Life There's an expression: "Live life to the fullest today because tomorrow you may get hit by a bus." Has the accident changed your daily outlook?

Doug: Susan never saw herself as a victim. A physical therapist who came to our house had never met Susan but had reviewed her medical records. With her list of injuries, he expected to find someone writhing in pain, curled into a ball unable to move, perhaps even unable to communicate. So when he walked in and found a cheery, energetic Susan, he looked confused, like he had walked into the wrong home. He double-checked his clipboard, "Wait, you're the one who was hit by the bus, right?"

Susan: People would expect me to be so hurt and so down. Their reactions were very revealing. I could tell who was really in my corner, and others whose anxieties and fears came through when they'd see me.

Doug: At the beginning, many of our friends were like, "How different is she going to be? She had such a spirit of life. Is that now zapped from her?" It's often true that a traumatic event changes people. What's remarkable with Susan is that it didn't beat her down.

Doug: At our High Holiday services, there's a part where the rabbi says, "Anyone with something to celebrate, please come up." So people get up and say they had a grandchild or got a new job. The year after the accident, I said to Susan and said, "You've got to go up." She was reluctant but agreed. When it was her turn, she uttered, "I'm alive?" The whole room roared in applause.

Susan: It was just an honest reaction. People still come up to me about that moment, because I think it validated living. Simply living. That is the greatest gift we have. We just don't recognize it.

Doug: Also, it had a little question mark of inflection at the end, like, "I don't have a new baby or a new job. But I have everything because I'm alive. Do I need more than that?" What will you be thinking at the High Holidays this year?

Susan: When we're sitting in services, it's a reconnection. We're lucky to have each other in that moment. I love that we're sitting together as a community praying. To me, that is more Godly than almost anything else.

And when we get to that emotional part of the service (Nesaneh Tokef), I always think, "Who shall live and who shall die? Who by fire, who by water... and who shall get hit by a bus."

Excerpt from Struck:

When I was in college and living in New York City, there was a news story about someone who got hit in the head and killed by a brick that fell off of a construction site. With all the scaffolding I walked under on a daily basis, that easily could have been my brick, my head. Living in fear of that is surely unhealthy and can be debilitating, but there's a balance to be found knowing that, even though it's unlikely, it's still a possibility. An awareness of all the random acts of tragedy that populate today's world demands a sense of appreciation and gratefulness when they don't fall upon us.

Last year, Susan and I planned a trip to take the kids to Paris. A week before we were set to leave, the terrorist attack at the Bataclan theater occurred. We were nervous about going but ultimately decided not to cancel.

In the London airport, while we were transferring to our flight to Paris, we began a conversation with two women. When they asked us where we were going, we hesitantly said, "Paris." They looked at us and with lilting accents, said, "We have to live for today because you never know… tomorrow you might get hit by a bus."

Please pray for Susan's full recovery – Sara Blima bat Leah.

Struck is available on Amazon and at local bookstores.

Look for Doug and Susan on the Today Show, October 2, 2018.

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