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Forever Changed drives home message

Mukwonago High School senior Megan Whitehouse screams her friend's name as senior Noah Sadler lays motionless, while MHS senior class members respond with mixed reaction to the mock accident on Sept. 25.

Mukwonago High School senior Megan Whitehouse screams her friend's name as senior Noah Sadler lays motionless, while MHS senior class members respond with mixed reaction to the mock accident on Sept. 25. Photo By Carol Spaeth-Bauer

Oct. 1, 2013

The night before she had slammed volleyballs across the net, but on Sept. 25, Megan Whitehouse sat bloodied, head in hands as her friend lay motionless across the hood of the car and sirens screamed in the distance.

Just a few months earlier, Noah Sadler slid into bases for the Mukwonago High School (MHS) baseball team, but that day, the medical examiner slid him into a body bag, onto a gurney and into the back of a van.

Sitting on bleachers, Noah's mom, Heather, kept telling herself the scene in front of her wasn't real. She had taken pictures as the Froedtert trauma nurses positioned Noah on the car, feet dangling through the windshield. She watched as nurses spread the bloody-looking syrup mixture on Noah as he lay face down on the hood of the car, and she knew it wasn't real, but the feeling of loss still was.

She kept saying "it's not real," but she knew it could be as she heard about so many kids making poor choices. It was a reality she wished on no one.

Harsh reality

The scene before MHS seniors last week unfolded in real time, much slower than the television-dramatized perception of fatal accidents. Emergency personnel secured the site, making it safe to avoid adding another victim to the scene. Moments before their classmates walked up to the crash, the five senior actors had been joking. But as screams and glass started flying, the incident became more than acting.

Megan thought it would be fun being one of the actors in the mock crash assembly, Forever Changed, a free program offered by Froedtert Hospital and the Medical College of Wisconsin. She didn't realize how crazy it would be until she was covered in syrup "blood," and the police were questioning her.

"I hope everyone watching it took out of it what can actually happen if you text and drive or drink and drive — like what the consequences can be," said Megan. "If it was real, I would have been the one who had done that to him (Noah) and to see him laying there ... it was weird for me."

Grant Gannon was the other driver, not wearing a seat belt, who portrayed what it was like to be texting and driving — and unable to react in time to avoid the drunken driver crossing the center line. The impact of his head hitting the windshield left his character a perpetual kindergartner. Sitting on the MHS stage later in a wheelchair with his arm in a cast, he hoped the presentation had an emotional impact on his classmates.

"I hope they will realize that this is what really happens," said Grant. "I hope they don't take it lightly, because we didn't."

With two broken legs, Matt Green would never play volleyball again, and his future would be uncertain. While he thought participating in the exercise would be interesting, it was scary because he knew it could happen.

"I hope everyone learns that drunk driving, distracted driving, is not the right thing to do," said Matt.

Samantha Gilbert played the most critical patient on the scene, with a broken neck that left her paralyzed from the neck down. As Flight for Life circled to land, MHS seniors couldn't believe the extent of the dramatization. Wheeling Samantha to the chopper, paramedics lifted her to what would have been Froedtert Hospital in an actual case.

"Everyone has heard of crashes happening," said Samantha. "You don't ever see it for real, and I think when you see it, it makes it more real and maybe they (classmates) will think about that before they get in the car if they have been drinking or pick up the phone if they are in the car driving."

After police took Megan away in handcuffs, and the rest of their friends were taken by ambulance or Flight, Noah still lay on the hood of the car. No one had paid any attention to him after police checked for a pulse. Now the medical examiner stepped in, studied the scene, took notes, and slipped Noah into a body bag.

Noah didn't step back onto the MHS stage later, like his injured friends. The only image of Noah his classmates received was in the slide show playing while his mom painstakingly read a letter to him of his childhood memories and the future he would never see. The last impression Noah left for his classmates was a tearful letter to his parents and friends, apologizing for the bad decision he made getting in the car of a drunken driver.

For Noah, acting the role was "tough," but "if it can help one kid to make the right decision, and save one life, that makes it all worth it right there," he said. While he always understood the concept of drunken driving, and texting and driving, it didn't hit home "until you are in that situation, until you are sitting in the car hearing your friends screaming" for help. "It gets to you," he said, simply.

"It's something you will never forget. It's something every time I get in a car you're going to double think about," said Noah. "Is this somewhere I should be or is this something that's going to get me in harm's way?"

Forever changed

What most people never see are the scenes at the hospital or after the crash, said Lisa Hass-Peters, a registered nurse at Froedtert Hospital who has been presenting the Forever Changed program to schools for about six years.

"This is the side you don't see. You don't get to see them in the orange jumpsuit. You don't get to see them with all their hardware," Hass-Peters said. "This is how all their lives have been forever changed."

Hass-Peters said texting has become a "societal epidemic." National highway statistics have shown a 12- to 20-percent increase in texting-related crashes. People using cell phones are six times more likely to be involved in a crash and four times more likely than someone driving under the influence.

"Texting has become the epidemic that has gone beyond alcohol," she stressed.

MHS teachers Sarah Dianich and Marilyn Toshner, who helped coordinate the event, hope the program leaves a timely message for students with homecoming celebrations this week, especially since texting has become so prominent.

"We felt it was a time for students to see what it really looks like, the kind of tragedy that can occur, when we don't make good decisions," explained Dianich.

Toshner agreed on the importance of having students understand the effects of their actions when they are behind the wheel.

"I think it's very important that they realize what they are doing and how they can change a family's life in a matter of 10 seconds," Toshner said.

Just one night this summer, a drunken driver changed Toshner's life and that of her family after being hit twice by the same drunken driver on I-94. Her children no longer want to sit in the car that was hit since it brought back memories, and for weeks didn't want to drive at night or on the expressway. Toshner is still going through physical therapy for injuries, and drives with extreme caution when it is dark since "I am not sure if a driver is going to come out of nowhere."

"So if the Forever Changed program makes even just one student think about not texting or responding to a text while driving, not drink and drive, or get into a car with someone who has been drinking, then this program was a success," added Toshner.

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