GEARHART — Susan Workman thinks of her life in two phases.
“There was me before the crash and me after the crash,” she said.
Thirteen years ago, Workman and her husband, Brian, were traveling to Portland on U.S. Highway 26 when a drunken driver hit them. Her husband was killed instantly and she was taken by Life Flight Network to a Portland hospital, where she was treated for severe traumatic brain injuries, fractures in her back and a collapsed lung.
“The driver was being followed by three police cars, because two or three people had called in to 911 and said, ‘This guy can’t stay on the road,’” she said.
The driver slowed from 75 mph to 45 mph, she said, but rather than pulling over, he went into the oncoming lane. “So then as we were turning around the corner, he hit us head-on,” she said.
His blood alcohol content was 0.27%.
Workman has no memory of her monthlong stay in the hospital — the first week in a coma — before being transferred to Legacy Rehabilitation Institute of Oregon.
Her first memory came four to six weeks later.
“You know people say, they think you wake up from a coma ... It wasn’t like that,” she said. “I kept saying, ‘Where’s Brian?’ and they had to tell me over and over and over again, because I had no short-term memory.”
Workman, the youngest of three children, grew up in a hard-working family with a banker dad and stay-at-home mom in a small house in Cedar Hills.
She graduated from Sunset High School in Beaverton and attended Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, where she studied history.
Workman studied abroad in Vienna, Austria, and had a son, Jan, with a previous husband before moving back to the U.S. after the marriage dissolved.
She was working in the international banking division of U.S. Bank when she met Brian Workman. The two married, and her husband cared for Jan. “Brian was the only dad he ever knew,” she said.
The Workmans had purchased a 100-year-old house in Gearhart before the crash.
“Nothing had been done to it for 40 years, so we were here every weekend working on it,” she said. “We did most of the work ourselves.”
After the crash, Workman had to relearn how to walk, talk and perform basic daily functions.
“They would say, ‘Do you know how to brush your teeth?’ I would say sure, and then they’d hand me a toothbrush and I didn’t know how,” she said.
She described herself as “a very obedient child” during rehabilitation.
“If they told me, ‘Now we’re going to bounce this ball,’ I would bounce the ball,” she said. “If I couldn’t bounce the ball, I was like a baby. I’d try again. I can remember saying, ‘Why do I need to walk again? I’m 45 years old. Obviously I knew how to walk.’”
While recovery was frustrating, her emotional journey was harder.
“I can remember being in my hospital room, in my wheelchair, looking at a picture of my husband on the bedside table, and looking at it and bursting into tears and thinking, ‘Who am I?’”
Workman spent nine weeks doing outpatient rehabilitation at her sister’s before returning to her Portland home.
She took the opportunity to redefine herself.
“I thought, ‘Boom, it’s gone.’ Gosh — my husband, his life had purpose and meaning. He was an amazing teacher, businessman, son, husband, father and I was almost killed. What am I going to do with this life? It’s a gift. I’ve got to do something with it.”
A friend connected her to William Temple House, a Portland mental health, counseling and support organization. “The next thing I know I’m on the board and I’m president of the board,” she said.
She volunteered as a diversion speaker, talking to drivers charged with their first drunken-driving offense.
“I thought, if I can do this, and if one person, one person goes to AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) the next morning, or makes a choice not to drink and drive, maybe a life is saved and somebody doesn’t have to go through this,” she said.
In the years since, she reconnected with Ron Clark, a high school friend, at a class reunion.
They dated long distance. When Clark moved to Portland to help his mom, Workman offered him an extra bedroom until he got settled.
“That was 10 years ago,” Workman said.
Workman splits her time now between Gearhart and Portland. Her son, who was in the military and now works with churches, is married with five children and lives in Japan. Her family is planning a visit to Gearhart in December.
While she still has nerve damage to her right leg, she learned to drive again.
She said she doesn’t want admiration or pity.
“Believe me I am blessed. I’m a blond-haired, blue-eyed white woman with a house in Gearhart and a lovely condo in Portland, and I’m financially secure. That’s why I do the charitable work that I do. What if I was a single mom and worked paycheck to paycheck and something like this happened?
“You never know what life is going to throw at you, and you have a choice.
“Telling my story is not easy for me, it’s not fun,” Workman said. “A car is a weapon of mass destruction. Mass destruction was done to me: physically, mentally, emotionally. I had the resources to get through it. But a lot of people don’t.”