Episode 16: Collateral Damage: Theresa’s Story 

Theresa Sareo: I often say that because I don’t remember any of it, the accident doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to the people who were on the corner with me. And they really were my angels. A lot of them—a lot of them ran away, I think, because it was so horrific, and a lot of them stayed to help me. And the ones that helped me literally saved my life.

Doug Gordon: Welcome to The War on Cars. So today’s episode is gonna be a little different. We’re gonna focus on the story of one person.

Aaron Naparstek: Yeah, we’re gonna hear from a survivor of traffic violence, Theresa Sareo. She’s gonna tell us from a personal perspective what it’s like to be injured by a driver the way that more than 59,000 people in New York City were last year. And that was up six percent from the previous year. Around the country, the number is about 4.5 million people injured by cars each year.

Sarah Goodyear: Yeah, which is incredible. And …

Aaron: It’s a crazy number.

Sarah: It’s a crazy number, and we don’t think about it a lot because we tend to always look at the number of fatalities—which is obviously really important, but that just completely glosses over this enormous, much larger number of people who are injured. And you might think of those people as collateral damage in the war on cars.

Doug: So here in New York, about 4,000 people a month are injured. A quarter of those are pedestrians and people on bikes. And a lot of times when you hear about these crashes, these injuries, they are described as “life-altering.”

Sarah: And what happened to Theresa was certainly life altering. So in this episode, we’re gonna hear her story, we’re gonna hear her tell her story.

Aaron: But first, as usual, let’s get some business out of the way. We need your support to keep The War on Cars going. And you can go to TheWaronCars.org, click “Donate” and contribute to our Patreon campaign. All the money you send us is going into production, and it’s allowing us to do more episodes like this where we go out on the street, we talk to people, we interview people, we can do more interesting production. So your funds are going to good use.

Doug: Right. And you will get stickers, t-shirts, access to special episodes. And we really, really appreciate everybody who has contributed. We cannot make this show happen without your contributions. Thank you.

Sarah: So now we’re gonna introduce you to Theresa Sareo. She’s a professional singer here in New York City. We were introduced by a mutual friend a few years ago, and almost right away, Theresa told me what happened to her back in 2002, how she almost died on a Manhattan street corner on what she thought was gonna be just another ordinary day.

Theresa Sareo: The night before, I had assembled a press kit to bring to a booking agent. When the following day came, which was June 11, 2002, apparently I took the press kit, I walked it over from where I live. And I originally was gonna mail it, but I decided it might be best to go in person and just have a handshake and make more of an impression. So I walked it over there and dropped it off, and I have a very, very faint memory of shaking someone’s hand. And then my next very faint memory is I was walking east back home on 34th Street.

Sarah: Theresa’s told this story, the story of June 11, 2002, many times. And she doesn’t remember that day; she’s pieced it together carefully from what others have told her. One piece of evidence she has is a pair of earrings, a crushed pair of earrings that she barely remembers buying just a few minutes before—before the crash happened, before her life changed forever.

Theresa Sareo: I got to the corner of Park Ave and 34th Street. I was on the north side of 34th at that point, and I crossed to the south side and was standing on the corner waiting to cross, which apparently with many, many other people who were there in front of me, so I wasn’t really anywhere near the curb.

Sarah: On that day, Theresa was a person who felt like the city belonged to her. She was trying to advance her career. She was thinking about how she was gonna book the next gig and get the next big break in her career as a singer.

Theresa Sareo: And there was a impaired driver of an SUV that was traveling northbound, and when he got to 34th Street, he decided he was going the wrong way so he attempted an illegal U-turn. And when he made the turn, a southbound taxicab was unable to stop in time and crashed into him. And then that crash veered him onto the corner where I was standing with many, many other people, and for some reason everyone else was able to get out of the way.

Sarah: Theresa was not able to get out of the way.

Theresa Sareo: It was a split second thing, and he ended up pinning me to a three-foot-high metal post that is very often on the street corners to protect the fire hydrants. He pinned me to that post, and unfortunately, I don’t know how it happened because when I—and I’ve stood at this same post many times and I’m taller than the post, but the way he hit me, he crushed me against the post right exactly at my right hip, and it severed my leg at my hip joint on impact.

Aaron: This is like my nightmare, literally, that you’re just standing on a corner and then some—some driver just decides to do something insane, and then all of a sudden you or someone you know is just mangled or dead because of it.

Sarah: There’s this idea that you can protect yourself.

Aaron: Right.

Sarah: That, you know, “Oh, stay alert. Stay—you know, watch out.” And you can’t protect yourself from an SUV that’s going at a high rate of speed and going on to a—going on to a sidewalk. There’s nothing you can do about that.

Doug: That was just dumb luck. That’s all it is.

Sarah: Yeah.

Doug: I noticed that she talked about how that post—and she said that it was there to protect fire hydrants. I detected a little bit of, like, it’s there to protect infrastructure, an inanimate object, but there’s nothing to protect people from the same kind of consequence, which of course is a worse kind of consequence because it has this life-altering thing. A fire hydrant gets knocked over, it’s a mess for a few hours, and that’s it. But does she have any of that? Is that in there, or am I just reading that into it?

Sarah: I think you may be reading that into—into what she’s saying. I think that she’s come to really see it as yeah, it was just this—this act of chance. And of course, we couldn’t have—we couldn’t be protected from these things. That’s the reality, right?

Aaron: Well, but I mean, Doug does raise an interesting point, because you go to European cities and they have bollards, you know, these posts, these metal posts protecting street corners and sidewalks. And you walk around New York City, and really the only place you see bollards for the most part are around fire hydrants, in front of buildings that are considered, you know, security threats. We choose to protect stuff rather than people on the street.

Sarah: Yeah, that’s true.

Aaron: That is our choice. And there are US cities that do it otherwise. It can be done.

Theresa Sareo: So I was bleeding out. My femoral artery was completely severed and I was bleeding out onto the street. And if it wasn’t for the people who were brave and kind and compassionate enough to help me and sort of hold me together, and there was a couple of doctors who kind of took the lead. They just happened to be there, and they took the lead on it before the EMS folks arrived. There’s—I don’t see how I would have survived it. It was sort of, from what I’m told, it was a miracle I survived it at all, which is something 16 years later I’m always trying to wrap my head around, you know?

Sarah: So they took her to Bellevue, which is the city’s top trauma hospital. And they worked on her, and amazingly they kept her alive. They put her into an induced coma because she had to have so many surgeries, and she was in the coma for five or six days before they started bringing her out and she began to understand what had happened to her.

Theresa Sareo: My family was terrified to tell me because they knew I was gonna not handle it well. [laughs] So they asked the trauma director to tell me. And what he explained to me, how he said it was, you know, “You know you’ve been in this terrible accident, and we did everything we could do to try and save your leg, but we couldn’t do it. We had to amputate it.” So—and my brain just wasn’t able to handle that information at the time. And how I took it in was, “We’re still trying to save your leg.” And I guess it was later that night in the middle of the night, I guess I sort of figured it out, or maybe just kind of let the information compute. And I didn’t handle it well, from what I remember. And the staff called my then companion to come in, and I was very angry at the doctor. I threw all the anger at the doctor and was like, “He fucking lied to me! He told me he was gonna save it, and he lied and he lied.” And so that was—that was the initial, I guess, point of reality for me.

Aaron: Man.

Doug: I just can’t even imagine.

Sarah: Yeah, I mean, that’s the thing. Until this happens to you, you can’t imagine, I guess. And I’m glad I can’t imagine. But that anger—you know, the need to put that anger someplace is something that really—you know, that you’re angry at the doctor because, you know, you’re only beginning to understand what’s happened, and you have to be angry at somebody.

Doug: Yeah, she’s right. I mean, I just don’t think your brain can compute what has happened. I mean, certainly not if you’ve been in a—in a coma for all that time and completely unaware. But the trauma is just so great.

Aaron: I mean, imagine what it was like for the people, the other people on the street corner, too. It’s not even just one person who’s traumatized, although, like, obviously, you know, what happened to her is the worst thing, but there’s, like, dozens of other people who are just minding their own business, walking to work, getting lunch, whatever, and all of a sudden there’s a woman with just like an amputated leg, like, bleeding out on the corner in your—in your city, you know? And that’s like, that crazy thing that the kind of violence that can be inflicted by a car is always sort of shocking when you see it.

Sarah: So she’s a singer. Bellevue has, you know, it’s such an amazing hospital. They have an art therapy program, and because she was a singer, they hooked her up with an art therapist who encouraged her to use her singing as part of her recovery to make her stronger physically, and to, you know, sort of bring her back into touch with who she was. And then very shortly, very—just a couple, few weeks into her rehabilitation, she was still in the hospital, she’d been moved to a rehab ward, and her therapist suggested, you know, maybe you might want to talk to somebody else who’s just lost their leg, and you might be able to offer them something. And she was—she was really scared to do it because it was, like, her first time moving around the hospital. So she went to see this other patient.

Theresa Sareo: I remember being in this sort of panic attack until I got to her bedside, and she was so—she had such a big smile on her face, and she seemed so genuinely happy to see me. I think just relieving that feeling of isolation like, oh my God, I’m—what has happened to me, and I’m the only one going through this? It was also relieving for me to see her and to know I was three weeks ahead of her, and I was sort of an example of, well, I’m surviving this, you can survive this, too. And she asked me, she said, “I heard that you are a singer. My favorite song is “Amazing Grace. Would you mind singing a little bit of it for me?” And I wasn’t expecting that, and I looked at my art therapist and I was like, “I don’t even know if I have the strength to kind of get through—to get through a song.” And my therapist said, “Well, don’t worry about getting through the song. Just sing the first line.” And I thought, okay, I’ll give that a shot. So I started singing, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound.” And I got through the whole song, and I think right in that moment, my humanitarian work began.

Doug: So that’s amazing.

Sarah: She’s an amazing person. She’s—she’s an exceptional person, and I think, you know, like, this was—this is one of Theresa’s secrets to her recovery is that she was able so early in her recovery to turn to somebody else and start relating to that.

Aaron: I just always wonder what happens to the driver in these kinds of cases, too, you know? Like, did—was he punished in any way? Did he acknowledge fault in any way? Was he, like—you know, was there any sort of like, even just a kind of coming together to apologize or to express some kind of remorse with the victim?

Sarah: Well, in this case actually, the driver—the driver was punished. He was arrested and charged with, I think, second-degree assault.

Aaron: It’s pretty unusual.

Sarah: It’s very unusual.

Aaron: That’s because he was drunk?

Doug: That’s because he was impaired, right?

Sarah: He was impaired, but he did not actually meet the legal limit. He was just below the legal limit from my understanding. Theresa was only seven months out from the crash, and so she got herself there. She was still on crutches. She didn’t have a prosthesis.

Theresa Sareo: Well, I couldn’t look at him at that point. So seven months, I was still pretty much in the throes of recovery and rehab, and very thin and frail. And the DA’s office was pretty certain if they could get me on the stand, you know, it would be kind of a slam dunk for him, which ended up happening. So he was convicted and he got the maximum, which in New York State is seven years.

Sarah: Later, there was an article in New York magazine about the crash and about the case that gets into some of the details of what the driver’s feelings and so forth are about that, so we’ll put a link to that in the show notes.

Doug: Sarah, you said that when she went into the courtroom at that point, she was still on crutches. So we’re seven months into her recovery, but she’s still not recovered by any real sense of the word in terms of being able to get around the way she might have before. What was that process like for her from that point on, especially?

Sarah: Well, so her injury was so severe she lost her leg, including her hip, okay? It’s a very unusual kind of injury. She finally got a prosthesis made for her, sort of strapped around her body because it had to attach to something, so it’s strapped around her torso. And it was so cumbersome, it was so difficult to use that she just—she pretty much thought about giving up trying to use it.

Theresa Sareo: When I first got my prosthesis, I couldn’t wear it. I was still in the throes of grief.

Sarah: So she had a physical therapist who pushed her and pushed her to try walking, and to walk into the world on that artificial leg.

Aaron: But it’s not just a physical problem, right? Like, I imagine that just walking out on the street would be incredibly psychologically difficult after this.

Sarah: Right. And she lives in midtown Manhattan. Like, she lives—her apartment is right next to the entrance to the Midtown Tunnel, so her physical therapist was like, “Okay, come on. We’re gonna—we’re gonna go out there.”

Theresa Sareo: He taught me how to walk on it, but then I couldn’t—I couldn’t cross the streets. I was terrified, obviously, to cross the street. And he very lovingly at the time, would take his weekends, and he would come from Long Island into Manhattan solely to teach me how to cross the street. So it was with his loving guidance that I built up the physical ability and the confidence to start crossing the streets and then the avenues. The option I remember him saying to me was, “Well, you either have to figure this out or you have to leave the city.” And I didn’t—I didn’t want this to defeat me to the point where I was gonna pick up and leave my life and move out of the city.

Sarah: So she got to where she could walk out into the street, but she was still really struggling. And then her story takes another turn, which is that she found herself identifying with a group of people, another group of people who had suffered catastrophic injuries, and those were soldiers who had been blown up by IEDs in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Theresa Sareo: My accident was nine months to the day after 9/11 on a beautiful Tuesday afternoon, and nine months before the Iraq War started. So really the timing and the nature of my injury was very influential as to what kind of happened through my recovery. I just remember it was about a year and a half later, CNN was doing interviews at Walter Reed at their PT, their physical therapy room. Like, I really—when I saw it, I remember sitting here in this chair and staring at my television and just being just stopped in my tracks because it was just the images were so powerful. And right at that moment I was like, I just—I just have to get to them somehow. I wanted to do what I was doing at Bellevue down there.

Sarah: I mean, you know, collateral damage. [laughs]

Doug: I mean, you know, we—our title of our podcast is tongue in cheek and it’s, you know, kind of a riff on ridiculous things that other people say. But this—the analogy to war, we talk about a war on cars, there is a war on people. That’s why we are doing what we’re doing here by talking about this and trying to change hopefully some minds. But there really is this just war on people, that the injury that she sustained is the same as someone who went off to fight a war. It’s awful. It’s terrible.

Sarah: Yeah. And it took years for her to get herself to Walter Reed to do what she wanted to do. But she persisted, and eventually she made it into the PT ward at Walter Reed herself.

Theresa Sareo: And we walked into the PT room, and it was just jam-packed full of blown-up kids, and I saw injuries that I never could even fathom. You know, I was just—and they were like, “Well just, you know, walk around and start talking to—to the guys and introduce yourself.” And I remember one of the physical therapists who was near me working with a soldier, looked at me and I guess knew my gait—I was on a prosthetic at that time. I had a short skirt on because I wanted the prosthesis to be seen. And I remember the physical therapist going, “Oh, look! There’s a woman with a hip disarticulation.” He could just tell by my gait what kind of amputation I had. And he was like, “You’re gonna—that’s a very rare sight to see a woman with a hip disarticulation.”

Theresa Sareo: I just started, you know, walking up to a couple of the guys and was like, “Hi, my name is Theresa. I’m a singer from New York, and I’m just really honored to meet you.” And that would—that would basically start it off, and they’d be like, “What happened to you?” And I would say  what happened to me, and then I’d say, “What happened to you?” And the dialog started, and it was a healing exchange for not just them, but I think—I think more so for me, really, to tell you the truth.

Sarah: Yeah. And so she actually wrote a song. It’s called “Through a Soldier’s Eyes.” It’s inspired by those conversations. She ended up performing it in front of military audiences all over the country, I think all over the world. You know, it actually just led her into a new part of her life, her identification with those—with those soldiers.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Theresa Sareo: [singing] Through a soldier’s eyes, you’ll see a place you’ll never have to go. And feel a loss you’ll never have to know. For just one moment through a soldier’s eye. Through a soldier’s eyes …]

Sarah: Theresa is living in the same apartment near the Midtown Tunnel where she lived when she was hit by that driver. And she’s still crossing 34th Street on a regular basis, because it’s right there, and she has to deal with that. She’s still singing, she’s still out there gigging and doing it. She’s—she’s really—you know, she’s kept on living her life.

Theresa Sareo: You know, I survived the music industry, and I had been living in the city, you know, several years before the accident. [laughs] So in many ways, I had a lot of survivor resources. [laughs] I know I wasn’t a young kid, you know, when it happened. I was a full grown adult, and at least I thank God that I had a real sense of self and I had a fighting spirit, I think, to begin with. I really do believe that everything I went through in my life up until that moment was to prepare me for that moment. I’ve always had a love for this city, and I built my life here, and I built my career here, and I—I wasn’t willing to give that up yet.

Aaron: I love that. Surviving the music industry is what prepared her for, like, traumatic war injury.

Sarah: [laughs] Yeah.

Doug: Or just living in New York City and surviving living here got her ready for just really the most awful thing that could happen. I mean, it’s amazing that she has that perspective on it.

Sarah: But, you know, it’s still ongoing. And she talks about that.

Theresa Sareo: It’s like losing a limb is a death. It really is that you’re losing the—it’s a death of a part of you, a physical part of you. It’s a death of your able-bodied life. I do feel part of me has died and gone on the other side, you know, before the rest of me. [laughs] In fact, before I got discharged, I asked what happened to my limb. The doctor was like, “Well, I think it might still be downstairs in the morgue,” because there was a trial coming and blah, blah, blah. He said, “Do you want me to check?” And I said yes. So a couple days later, he came back and said, “Yeah, it’s still—it’s still here.” He said, “What are your thoughts on it?” I said, “Is it possible to have it cremated?” The thought of it just being, you know, incinerated and gone forever was breaking my heart. And my doctor was so very kind, and a couple of months later, he actually—he had it cremated for me and gave it to me, and it’s in a box on the top of my bureau there with my cat and some—some memorabilia from my parents’ coffins. [laughs]

Doug: I’m just trying to get my head around that they had to keep the leg as, like, evidence for the trial.

Aaron: Right.

Doug: As if a woman who walked into a room without a leg, like, “Ma’am, are you sure you’ve lost your leg?”

Sarah: [laughs]

Doug: I mean, like, what? You know, I don’t mean to be like …

Sarah: I don’t know.

Doug: You know, but that’s so fascinating to me that that was one of the reasons that—thankfully for her, for her process, that it was kept so that she could go through that process of having it cremated and having that peace, for that finality for her.

Sarah: Yeah. And—you know, and somehow she has come out of this, and if you ever get to meet her, she’s just like a person who just radiates life. And, you know, maybe it’s one of those things where when you have a brush with death, it makes you more alive than other people. And she’s managed to hold on to that for all this time.

Theresa Sareo: Even in the moment of tragedy, there’s miracles happening, and you have to open your heart up to let those miracles in and say yes to life. And I think as a New Yorker, we sort of are built that way. We get up every day and do that. [laughs] We walk out the door and say, “I’m taking on whatever comes,” you know?

Aaron: Oh, that’s pretty good.

Doug: Yeah, she’s—she’s remarkable.

Sarah: And it’s—what’s wonderful is that she’s really given that back. And I think there’s many, many people who have, you know, gone through losses of their own who she’s been able to give them some comfort. And she started doing that like I said, like, three weeks after it happened. And she’s done it again, right, by telling us her story and by allowing us to use it here. And, you know, we just want to say a huge thank you to Theresa, because that’s really generous to go back and go through that traumatic experience again. And the show notes will link to her website. She has a website that has a lot of her music on there. And, you know, she does gigs around New York. If you want to see her perform, you can definitely do it. So thank you, Theresa.

Doug: Yeah. And you know what? Send us emails if you want to reach out to her and just say thanks, because I’m sure there are a lot of people who are listening for whom hearing that story was very helpful, whether they’ve gone through their own trauma of this sort or not. So, you know, I just—I want to thank Theresa for sharing that with us. It couldn’t have been easy.

Aaron: What’s our takeaway from Theresa’s story and what we got from it?

Sarah: I really wanted to do this story because, you know, I think rightly so, we keep this podcast really light and we joke around a lot and we try not to get into the policy weeds, but underneath it, we all, we, the three of us know that it’s really a matter of life and death, and people are dying out there, and they’re being—their lives are being totally, irrevocably altered by the willingness of our policymakers to allow our city to be completely dominated by these vehicles.

Aaron: So not by e-scooters.

Sarah: [laughs]

Doug: No.

Aaron: Because literally, that’s what …

Doug: Right. That’s what we’re all focused on. I mean, you know, on that note, I use a lot of humor in my advocacy because I find, first of all, it’s just who I am, that when I see something that’s absurd, like a person saying, you know, the threat of e-scooters is gonna kill all these people. And, you know, you can hammer that person back with facts, but facts kind of get you nowhere. And sometimes just ridicule and laughter and humor can make your point in a much better and more effective way.

Doug: But I never lose sight of the fact, like you’re saying, that this is a real life-or-death issue that we’re involved in here, and that I’ve met lots of people who’ve lost children, who’ve lost loved ones, who’ve been injured themselves. But I think for all advocates maybe, and for me personally, the lesson is, like, you do have to strike that balance, that we need to really just always stay focused on, like, what is at stake here. And that it’s people’s lives, it’s the quality of their life, it’s whether they go on living or not, too. There’s that piece of it.

Aaron: Maybe tangential, but I was struck by the way that her story shows how the city takes and the city gives. You know, the city—you know, it feels like she was attacked by the city in this weird way. She’s just standing on a corner, and all of a sudden she’s lying there bleeding, you know, to death with no leg. But then there’s a couple of doctors nearby who somehow—they must have, like, thrown a tourniquet on her and stopped the bleeding and got her to a hospital quickly. And in the end, you know, she’s this real survivor. And probably the fact that she lives in this crazy, dense urban place, you know, that’s what hurt her because well, we allow cars in that place, which makes no sense, but also that there were all these people around to help her, you know? And it’s a—it is this—there’s something about this story that is also a story of the city to me, and what’s kind of horrible about it and what’s great about it.

Doug: So thank you everyone for listening to this episode of The War on Cars.

Aaron: Don’t forget, you can help people find us by rating and reviewing us on Apple Podcasts. We appreciate all the ratings and reviews so far.

Sarah: And you can help us to continue to produce this show and produce more content where we get out and hear more people’s stories by supporting us on Patreon. You can go to TheWaronCars.org, and click “Donate” to find out how.

Doug: Special thanks to Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, and also to the law office of Vaccaro and White here in New York City.

Aaron: You can get in touch with us by emailing us at TheWaronCars(@)gmail.com, or tweet us @TheWaronCars.

Sarah: This episode of The War on Cars was recorded by Josh Wilcox at Brooklyn Podcasting Studio and was produced by me.

Aaron: All right, Sarah’s a producer now!

Sarah: [laughs] Yeah! Our music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. Our logo is by Dani Finkel of Crucial D Designs. I’m Sarah Goodyear.

Doug: I’m Doug Gordon.

Aaron: I’m Aaron Naparstek, and this is The War on Cars.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Theresa Sareo: [singing] Told through a soldier’s eyes. Through a soldier’s eyes.]