Turning the Corner: From Grief to Change

By Lindsey Ganson


love New York City, and I love its 6,000 miles of streets. I grew up on these streets, so my memory overflows with asphalt and exhaust: my first kiss on a brownstone stoop, my first sip of beer under the Brooklyn Bridge, my first heartbreak at the 7th Heaven street fair. But these same streets nearly killed my father. On the sunny Monday morning of February 2, 2009, a driver speeding down Carroll Street hit my dad in a crosswalk. My sister and dozens of our neighbors watched as his head shattered the windshield and then his body flew through the air and slammed down on the asphalt.

I was already at work that morning when I started receiving call after call from an unknown 718 number. As Chief of Staff for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, I was used to emergencies. I picked up. It was a social worker from Lutheran Hospital in Sunset Park. His tone was firm but his voice was quivering. He told me there had been an “accident,” that my father had been hit by a car, and that I should come to the hospital immediately. As I rode in a taxi across the Brooklyn Bridge sobbing and shaking, I couldn’t understand what happened. Hit by a car? In the street? I was scared but still hopeful: How serious could it be?

When I arrived at the hospital, I was greeted by the social worker and rushed to a closet-sized windowless office with a small plaque outside that read “Family Counseling Room.” The social worker opened the door, and just as I crossed the threshold expecting to see reassurance and support in the faces of my family, the social worker told me my father was in emergency brain surgery. The doctors were removing half of his skull to relieve swelling of the brain, he said. I couldn’t understand the words. I couldn’t understand what was happening. I looked over at my 17-year-old sister and her friend, who had been walking with my father when he was struck. The two of them were crouched in the corner on the linoleum floor, eyes stuck open in shock. I heard short hard breaths as they both calmed tears. I saw red and clammy and hollow faces. Then I looked at my mother, seated on a small plastic chair, her head bowed in her hands, her body clenched. She didn’t look up, unable to make eye contact with me. My always uplifting and reassuring mother—usually found with a smile, an outstretched hand, and calming words through all of life’s disappointments and challenges—was completely silent. I was still not processing the words spoken by the social worker, but I was beginning to understand. We are all in this little room because they are about to tell us my father is dead.

hile he lay in a coma in intensive care, and we were desperate for information, I learned from the small screen of my BlackBerry that speed is the single most important factor in determining the severity of a crash. For every extra mile per hour of speed, the impact of a crash is more severe on the vehicle, the driver, the passengers, and especially pedestrians and bicyclists, who don’t have two tons of steel to shield them from an impact. As a result of the driver’s high speed, my father’s injuries were extensive.

I also soon learned that what happened to my father as he walked to work that day was not an “accident.” It was a preventable tragedy. A driver hits a pedestrian every hour in New York City. Including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and passengers, over 70,000 people are injured every year in crashes on our city’s streets. Shocking as the numbers are today, New York City’s streets were much more dangerous 20 years ago. Over the past six years the City’s expert engineers and planners have achieved a sharp reduction in deaths and serious injuries with small improvements to street design and enforcement. But my father wasn’t walking on a street with speed cameras or design elements proven to keep drivers moving responsibly. Only a fraction of city streets have such measures, and the NYPD has only scratched the surface when it comes to modernizing their enforcement and crash investigation practices.

My father spent a month in a coma in the intensive care unit at Lutheran Hospital, then three months at Mt. Sinai in a specialized inpatient rehabilitation center for traumatic brain injuries. He suffered through five difficult surgeries during those four months. Once he was back at home in Park Slope, our family came together to support him as he relearned the most basic tasks of life. Much of the recent years we had spent together were gone from his memory. Suddenly, it seemed my father and I were more like strangers who had become close enduring this experience together, rather than family members who had lived years of joy. As difficult as losing those memories was, even more difficult was watching my father struggle to remember what he had done the previous day or even the previous hour. I’d watch him stare blankly at a simple appliance, hold my breath during long pauses while he struggled to speak a word or clench my fists when what came out of his mouth was nonsense.

My mother spent almost every day and every night of those four months in the hospital by my father’s side. When that horror ended, she began her new life of shuttling him between appointments with neurosurgeons, epilepsy specialists and speech and physical therapists. She was suffering cruel insomnia, but still worked to balance the demands of raising my sister with everything else. Once an energetic teenager, Blair began struggling with indefinable emotions and overwhelming guilt. She was there when dad was hit, and she was the one who walked over to the driver moments later to ask him not to shout, “It’s really bad,” into his phone within earshot of her father. After spending months reliving that reality, bouncing between a hospital and an empty house, my sister’s young spirit was nearly broken.

  My job as Chief of Staff to New York City’s water and sewer commissioner was no longer compatible with my life. Spending hours at the hospital is not an option when you are managing resources for nine million customers throughout New York State. A year after the crash, after taking a leave of absence to help while my father recovered from another difficult hospital stay, I decided to leave what I believed was my dream job.

learned about Transportation Alternatives while Googling phrases like “pedestrian struck” and “speeding enforcement” from hospital waiting rooms. As I prepared to begin my career again, I found an opening for the Safety Campaign Director there. I applied and was hired. My first day at the office in April 2010, I joined a community that’s 100,000-people strong, fighting to change the city’s streets. I met hundreds of people who understood the importance of justice for crash victims before I even had to mention what happened to me and my father and my family.

But soon, I was telling everyone—from Governor Cuomo’s aides to Council Member James Vacca to Assembly Member Vincent Abbate to TV news reporters to Manhattan Community Board 10’s transportation committee—my story. I had to. When I started as an advocate, I learned just how many of the safety improvements proposed by the Department of Transportation are modified, scaled back or even altogether rejected when reviewed by State and City elected officials and local community boards. To many politicians, these safety improvements are controversial because their offices hear from a handful of people about being inconvenienced by the changes. They rarely hear from people like my family and me whose lives were changed forever because safety improvements were not in place.

oday—a little over four years after that terrible day—my father still attends intensive therapy sessions twice a week and takes a fistful of medications twice a day. After such devastating injuries, I am thankful for the memories that have returned to him, and even more thankful for the new memories we have created. At my upcoming wedding in September, my father and I will dance to ‘Stand by Me’ because the night did come, the land was dark, the sky tumbled and fell, and we have stood by each other.

He has made an amazing recovery and continues to improve, despite warnings that progress in cases like his ends after the first year. His tireless effort and hours of hard work are inspiring, and they’ve led to change after change that’s worthy of celebration. But my father will never return to work, and he will never read or speak with the same ease.

Through all of the victories and setbacks, I learned how to project strength and hope, and to always be persistent; skills that have been indispensible as an advocate at Transportation Alternatives. I have also learned that I can’t trust the representatives we elect to public office to understand the scale of the violence and devastation that is caused by unenforced traffic laws, speeding drivers and dangerously wide streets. But I hope that I can trust you, my fellow New Yorkers, to join me in refusing to accept that 70,000 of us injured every year is an acceptable result of moving traffic. Many lives will be saved this year and many more debilitating traumatic brain injuries like my father’s will be prevented because people like you have the courage to transform a street, to stand up to politicians and to support what’s right.

My story is just one of over 10,000 stories of a pedestrian struck in a single year, and I am only one of hundreds of thousands of friends and family members who will suffer for the rest of their lives as a result of a loved one’s devastating injuries caused by a careless driver. Next time you are confronted with someone who hates bike lanes or gripes about a pedestrian plaza or tells you that there are pros and cons to street improvements, tell them my story. Tell them that New Yorkers who support building bike lanes, widening sidewalks and installing speed cameras are not out to inconvenience anyone. They are trying to keep New Yorkers safe. Assure them that if they’d been through what my father and my family have overcome, they’d be thankful for every small change and relieved by the big ones.

The bike lanes and pedestrian plazas and speed humps and planters that have appeared on our streets in the past six years aren’t just changes to make things easier or safer or greener for one group of people or another. They’re monuments to hard work, to perseverance, and to thousands upon thousands of New York families prevented from suffering.

Image Courtesy Andrew Hinderaker