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Published October 07, 2012, 11:30 PM

Forgiveness in the face of unspeakable pain: Survivors, victims of drunken driving work for better future

FARGO - One of the first things Vince Ulstad wanted to know was if the other driver was OK.

Deadly decisions

The Forum is devoting a four-part series to the issue of drunken driving in North Dakota

Friday: The extent of the problem

Saturday: Laws and lawmakers

Sunday: A look at offenders

Today: Survivors and victims work for change

FARGO - One of the first things Vince Ulstad wanted to know was if the other driver was OK.

Ulstad woke up in a hospital and didn’t remember how he got there. He didn’t know he’d been in a crash five weeks earlier – a bad one – until someone told him what happened.

It was June 2009. Ulstad, from Fargo, was leaving a work project in Steele, N.D., and heading back home on Interstate 94.

Meanwhile, a 54-year-old local man was heading the other direction. He had been drinking, and got on the highway via an off-ramp at a nearby exit. His blood alcohol content was later determined to be 0.25 percent. He had a wife and three children.

As he approached Ulstad, he was driving west in an eastbound lane.

Both Ulstad and the other driver were in full-size pickups, both traveling at full interstate speeds. Ulstad was passing a semi and didn’t see the other car until moments before they collided.

Paramedics arriving on the scene assumed there were no survivors because of the extent of the wreck. When they pulled Ulstad, bloodied and screaming, from his vehicle, the left side of his body was mangled, and the steering wheel was bent from where his head had hit it through the airbag.

The doctors didn’t expect him to last the night. His organs had already started to shut down, and it took five days and 55 units of donated blood – enough to fill more than five human bodies – before he stopped bleeding. He needed a metal coil in his leg and reconstructive surgery on his face and skull.

Even after he stabilized, the doctors never expected him to wake up or regain most of his cognitive abilities. When he did, the world around him was pitch black: The crash and the blood loss had crippled his optic nerve. He was totally and permanently blind.

Ulstad didn’t know the other driver was dead or that he’d been drinking. When he found out, he had moments of profound anger, cursing the man who had taken his sight and nearly his life.

Over time, that faded. The resentment gave way to acceptance, and finally to two qualities victims of drinking and driving seem to have in abundance: forgiveness and a determination to make a difference.

Seeking meaning from senselessness

Ulstad is one of the members of Fargo’s victim impact panel. Organized by the Safe Communities Coalition of the Red River Valley, it’s a collection of speakers who talk about impaired driving to people convicted of doing so.

It’s a club with grim membership requirements: All of the speakers have first-hand experience with serious crashes, and most have lost loved ones to drunken drivers.

“It’s not a group you want to be a part of,” said Karen Eisenhardt, who lost her 15-year-old daughter, Leah, to a drunken driver.

Like her fellow speakers, she became involved with the panel because she didn’t want the tragedy to be in vain.

“I guess I decided that for Leah’s sake, I had to put my energy into it,” she said. “Something good has to come out of something this bad.”

Among victims of drinking and driving, that’s a common sentiment. The horrific, apparently random nature of the tragedy opens their eyes to a problem they believe they can help solve.

Eisenhardt, a former school teacher, started speaking to her students about drinking and driving a few months after Leah died. She’s been trying to educate people about the issue and push for law changes ever since.

Ulstad has made public service announcements and lent himself to awareness events whenever possible.

“It’s just so senseless, and it’s so preventable,” he said.

Lynn Mickelson, whose daughter and granddaughter were killed by a drunken driver in a crash outside of Jamestown in July, has gone the same route, throwing himself into public appearances as he lobbies for stricter laws.

“If we can prevent one accident, one life from being taken, that would be worth it,” he said.

‘Jenny forgave him’

Like Ulstad, Mickelson at first was angry at the driver, Wyatt Klein of Jamestown. That has given way to empathy for the family Klein left behind, including a young son.

It’s another commonality among victims and survivors: a striking capacity for compassion toward those who have caused them immeasurable pain.

For Mickelson and Ulstad, the driver in question was dead. Ulstad acknowledged that might help dissipate the ill will.

But the same is true for many survivors in cases where the offender was far luckier than the victim.

Eisenhardt never wanted the driver who killed her daughter, a doctor, to lose his medical license. She thought it was too much work to lose over one mistake, even a deadly one.

She wanted him to get treatment for his alcoholism. But every time she ran into him at a restaurant, until the day he died, he was still drinking.

Renee Loehr, who lost two of her sisters and her brother to a drunken driver nearly 40 years ago, said she has a hard time wishing harsh punishments upon offenders.

“If the driver who killed my three siblings would have lived and went to prison, would that have made me feel better? No. Would that have brought them back? No,” said Loehr, who also speaks on the impact panel.

She said she sees many of them as victims of alcoholism and addiction.

“It’s not that these are bad people,” she said. “I have sympathy for people who are in that situation. You have to learn from your mistakes, and you have to take responsibility for your actions.”

Judy Bradow, another impact panel speaker, tried to give that chance to the driver who 19 years ago killed her daughter, Jenny.

Jenny was 21 and going into her senior year of college. The driver was 23. He had been drinking at a party he was throwing to celebrate the end of his probation for a previous drunken driving conviction.

He went out for cigarettes, drunk, and broadsided Jenny’s car, killing her. He walked away unharmed, called his friends from a nearby convenience store, told them he was having car trouble and got a ride home. He continued partying for another two and a half hours before the police tracked him down.

When Bradow walked into the courtroom, “I really expected to see a monster,” she said.

Instead, she saw a human being. And after hearing about the inhumane things that were likely to happen to him in prison, she pushed for a plea bargain that sent him home under strict probation.

He broke it and was incarcerated anyway, but she doesn’t regret giving him a second chance.

“We were just hoping that this would rehabilitate him,” she said. “We knew in our hearts that Jenny forgave him the minute he hit her.”

Coleen Morlock was expecting a monster, too. Her mother was killed in 2004 by an 18-year-old man who had been drinking and using methamphetamine.

In the courtroom, though, he looked like a scared kid, and she couldn’t hold on to the anger.

“You get to the point where it’s so exhausting getting so angry,” said Morlock, another member of the impact panel.

She met him before his sentencing. He said he was sorry. She believed him. They cried together.

She kept in touch with him while he was in jail. He said he wanted to turn his life around.

He, too, has since been arrested, most recently for drinking and driving. He’ll be released next August. She still hopes it’s not too late for him.

In his talk on the impact panel, Vince Ulstad describes the crash that blinded him. He talks about the sensation of voices coming from the blackness, and asks the audience to close their eyes and imagine his world.

He talks about the song “Blind Man in the Bleachers” and how he never got to see his son play college football.

And he tells the audience – all of them there because they made a mistake, all of whom were lucky to end up in a jail cell, not a morgue – that it’s not too late for them, either.

“As long as any of us can still draw a breath,” he said, “we can change.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502