Unstoppable: Berkeley cyclist’s miraculous recovery after crash that nearly killed her

From left to right: Lori Freedman, Ori Tzvieli, Ruby Freedman, Hannah Freedman, Nilofar Gardezi, Roxanne Crittenden (behind), Marty Mulvihill, Brendan Kersey-Wilson (behind), Lea Tillier, Clem Tillier, Scott Wilson (behind), Meg Schwarzman, Kristen Andersin, Oliver Wilson, Mike Wilson, Ginny Mommsen, Lisa Jongewaard, Sara Woolf, Heather Buckley, John Balmes.
Less than 10 months after the crash that nearly took her life, Meg Schwarzman (center, arm raised, holding her son Oliver) completed the 5K race during the recent half-marathon event in Berkeley. She had a huge team of supporters, some of whom are pictured here. (Hover over the photograph to see their names.) Credit: Mike Wilson

No one expected Meg Schwarzman to survive.

Authorities say a driver, high on medical marijuana, ran her over from behind as she pedaled home from work at UC Berkeley in early February. She was pinned under the car when medics arrived. The 43-year-old doctor and researcher had been dragged 60 feet through the intersection at Fulton Street and Bancroft Way. She wasn’t breathing and had severe injuries: significant internal blood loss from a lacerated liver, 20 broken ribs, multiple pelvic fractures, a broken collarbone and broken bones in her face.

Firefighters weren’t sure if Schwarzman was even alive. They lifted the car off her body and had just repositioned her when she suddenly took a gasping breath.

“It was a surviving-I’m-not-going-to-die kind of breath,” said Berkeley firefighter-paramedic Duncan Allard, one of the first on the scene. “It took everybody by surprise. Everybody thought there was no way she was going to be alive underneath that car.”


As they worked quickly to free her, then loaded her into an ambulance, Berkeley Fire Battalion Chief Bill Kehoe was looking for an ID in Schwarzman’s bag when he saw the breast pump.

“I realized then, and I said it: ‘I think she’s a brand new mother,'” recalled Kehoe. “We work just as hard no matter what, but you go into extra-drive when you see something like that. Emotionally it wreaks more havoc on you because I really didn’t think she was going to make it.”

The firefighters weren’t alone in their assessment. Police called for the Fatal Accident Investigation Team, which remained in the area for hours taking measurements and collecting evidence.

At their South Berkeley home, Schwarzman’s husband, Mike Wilson, was getting the couple’s 11-month-old son Oliver ready for bed and wondering why Meg wasn’t home. When police knocked on his door to tell him what happened, all signs pointed to heartbreak.

“From the sound of things, he was pretty sure I was dead,” Schwarzman said.


But she didn’t die.

Mike, Oliver and Meg Schwarzman after finishing the 5K race. Credit: Kelly Keller
Mike Wilson, 21-month-old Oliver and Meg Schwarzman after finishing the 5K race Sunday, Nov. 20. Credit: Kelly Keller

“Every little piece of the system we rely on to move efficiently to allow someone a chance of survival, it all worked for Meg,” said firefighter Allard. Allard was the ambulance driver who rushed Schwarzman to the hospital while another medic, David Gabriner, helped her breathe using a manually operated ventilator during the 13-minute journey. “We’re all very proud of what happened that day, but it really speaks to Meg’s inner spirit: Her desire to fight, and her love of her family and her life, that she’s here in the capacity that she’s here. It wasn’t meant to be. No one expected it to turn out the way it did.”

On a recent weekend, less than 10 months after the crash that nearly killed her, Schwarzman ran a 5K race as part of the annual Berkeley half-marathon. She had the support of 35 people who signed onto her team, including members of the Berkeley Fire Department. A special relationship has grown between BFD and Schwarzman’s family, prompting a celebratory dinner at the firehouse in March. Some members of the department — like Allard — have become family friends. And, during the 5K run, Schwarzman wore a Berkeley Fire T-shirt she got as a gift from the firefighters who responded to her call.

Schwarzman has sought out what she calls the “silver linings” all along the difficult path to healing. She has spoken about her recovery to medical residents and trauma surgeons to help improve patient care, at a gala to help raise money for Highland Hospital where the trauma team saved her life, and to cycling advocates in support of efforts to improve Berkeley’s bike infrastructure,

And she’s working with the Alameda County district attorney’s office to try to come up with a restorative justice resolution in the case against the driver who ran her down.


“My recovery has been basically miraculous: From the injuries I was spared, to the really miraculous rescue that Berkeley Fire pulled off, to my care at Highland,” Schwarzman said. “I didn’t have any complications during my recovery. At every turn I’ve done better than anybody expected.”

Firefighter: “What we saw when we arrived was shocking”

Emergency personnel work the scene of a collision involving a motorist and a bicyclist on Fulton Street and Bancroft Way. Photo: David Yee
Emergency personnel used a hydraulic jack to free Schwarzman quickly after a driver ran her down in February. Photo: David Yee

Schwarzman doesn’t remember the crash or the days that immediately followed. But, through speaking with first responders, medical workers and family, she has put the pieces together. Schwarzman and her husband Mike Wilson sat down with Berkeleyside to reflect on how this year has unfolded.

One fact is certain: After the crash, time was precious. The trauma surgeon later told her, had it taken five minutes more to get to Highland, she wouldn’t have lived. In the ambulance, she was unresponsive and her breathing was weak.

Schwarzman was bleeding internally due to a severe liver laceration. Part of the organ had been completely severed. As a result, she was losing huge quantities of blood.

At the crash site, due to her unnatural position — “rolled up and folded in half” — first responders thought a spinal cord injury was likely. She was “sandwiched” beneath a sedan. Firefighter-paramedic Allard recalled: “You couldn’t believe there was enough room for her to even be underneath.”

He continued: “Everybody who arrived on scene assumed we were showing up to recover a body, not to transport a patient. What we saw when we arrived was shocking, even for us. And we see a lot of rough stuff.”

Allard said nine to 15 paramedics — because all Berkeley firefighters are also paramedics — were quickly working the call. Some happened to be nearby already, which cut down response time. It was an amazing stroke of luck.

Berkeley firefighters told Schwarzman they call their life-saving efforts at times like these “diesel therapy”: flooring the accelerator and getting to the trauma center as quickly as possible. Allard, who lives in Berkeley, is familiar with local routes. He used that knowledge to get Schwarzman to the hospital fast.

“We were breathing for her because she wasn’t breathing,” he recalled. Both of her lungs were collapsing and she had 20 broken ribs, making it difficult for Schwarzman to breathe as air and blood rushed into her pleural space.

“Once it’s a matter of saving a life, and time, it no longer becomes an emotional event,” he said. “You switch into ‘go mode’: All I knew was that we had minutes. The goal was, ‘How do I get from where we are on Fulton to Highland Hospital as quickly as humanly possible.’ So that was all I was really thinking about.”

Schwarzman credits Berkeley Fire for being so skilled and professional, and says the city is lucky to have a publicly-funded fire service with an average response time of about five minutes. Because other East Bay cities rely on private ambulance providers, Wilson said, their EMS response times will usually be longer, in some cases up to 10 minutes. That gap could easily have meant the difference between life and death for Meg.

“Berkeley Fire was on the scene within two minutes,” she said. “They jacked up the car and I was on my way to the hospital within four minutes. We got to Highland in 13 minutes. And those were life-saving minutes.” 

She said East Bay residents are also lucky to have a Level 1 trauma center like Highland. Without it, Schwarzman would have needed to be airlifted, which was time she didn’t have. Some think of Highland as a hospital of last resort, she noted. But its trauma resources are world class, and include 24-hour comprehensive surgical services, which are not typically available.

“It’s actually the best place to be taken,” Schwarzman said. “The fact that these services exist and are publicly funded is why I’m alive today.”

Berkeley Fire: “The highest quality of care you can get”

Megan Schwarzman at Highland Hospital. Photo: Courtesy of Alameda Health System Foundation
Meg Schwarzman at Highland Hospital. Photo: Mike Wilson

Wilson, who was a paramedic and a firefighter-paramedic for nine years, after being an EMT for four, described Berkeley’s response as “state of the art.” Because the call was described as a person being pinned under a vehicle, the city sent two engines, a ladder truck, two paramedic units and a battalion chief.

“That’s the highest quality of care you can get from emergency medical services, and it’s how it’s supposed to work,” Wilson said. He noted that, in all his time in the fire service, he’d never pulled anyone alive from under a car. It’s one of the worst-case crash scenarios firefighters face.

One tool that helped firefighters free Schwarzman so fast was a hydraulic jack, an idea from a relatively new hire who said the agency should put them on all the trucks because they are faster than other options.

“Things like that just feel like this incredible luck, since every minute counted in my extrication,” said Schwarzman.

In another fortunate move, she had just bought a new mountain biking helmet. It had a more protective build than a typical one and came down farther on the back of neck. She hadn’t bought the helmet for the neck shield, but for its visor to keep the sun from her eyes. After the crash, the helmet was mangled, cracked up the back in two places. Schwarzman said the gear likely saved her from brain injury.

On the way to the Highland, Berkeley Fire spoke with hospital staff to prep them. When the ambulance pulled into the trauma bay, Schwarzman was intubated immediately. They took her straight into surgery to stop the bleeding. She was in a coma for five days.

Megan Schwarzman at Highland Hospital in the ICU. Photo: Courtesy of Alameda Health System Foundation
Meg Schwarzman at Highland Hospital in the ICU. Photo: Mike Wilson

Wilson recalled how his wife would sometimes “surface” and move around: “I would ask you, ‘If you can hear my voice, squeeze my hand or wiggle your toes.'”

Enough time has passed that Schwarzman can joke about this lost time, urging her husband to field a question from a visitor to which she did not know the answer.

“You may be better to address this,” she told him, before laughter took over, “because I was unconscious at the time.”

Ultimately, Schwarzman was at Highland for three weeks, including 10 days in the ICU. When she first awoke, she was intubated and couldn’t speak. She couldn’t recall whether her son had been with her during the crash, and needed to know if he was OK. She couldn’t write, because she had limited dexterity and her hands were swollen from all the trauma. Her sister, Caitlin, came up with an innovative approach to communication: a poster-sized, laminated sign with useful phrases, such as “I’m thirsty,” “I’m hot,” “yes,” “no” and “How’s Oliver?”

Later, Schwarzman and her sister used sign language finger spelling to communicate; they had learned it together as children. The poster and signing let Schwarzman express when she was having trouble breathing, when she was in pain. They let her ask about her son. 

“The ability to communicate when you’re otherwise that powerless is really significant,” Schwarzman said.

Acute rehab followed. In all, she had six surgeries to repair injuries to her abdomen, face and clavicle. There was also a skin graft. One more surgery is planned, in August, to remove hardware from her body.

Meg, Mike and Oliver at Highland Hospital. Photo: Courtesy of Alameda Health System Foundation
Meg, Mike and Oliver at Highland Hospital. Photo: Schwarzman family

These days, Schwarzman describes her complaints as pretty minor: the sensation in her face is “a little bit off,” she has some scarring, and she can’t carry a backpack due to the clavicle injury.

“You wouldn’t expect someone to emerge from that with only those complaints,” she said.

She also talks about the support she’s gotten from her family, friends and the community.

“Mike and I didn’t cook for four months because people brought food,” she said. “I’ve been on the receiving end of so much generosity. From the breast milk donations to the fact that people moved into our house and just took care of our lives and our baby for the month in the hospital.”

None of them were strangers, but they weren’t all close friends either. It was truly a community effort.

When recounting the journey of the past 10 months, Schwarzman doesn’t dwell much on what it took mentally or physically to come back from all the injuries, focusing instead on what else can be accomplished, on what the next goal is. She talks a lot about luck and gratitude, and about the proficiency and support of the people around her.

But Allard said Schwarzman’s own efforts cannot be overlooked. He and others who know what she has been through describe her story using words like “miracle” and “inspiring.” Allard says she lived because she made a “heroic decision” to fight for her family and her life.

“Everybody is just amazed at her success,” he said. “It’s why we work. It’s why we do what we do.”

For cyclist and firefighters who saved her, “it was a shared trauma”

Dinner at Berkeley Fire Station 2 in March. Photo: Courtesy
Dinner at Berkeley Fire Station 2 in March. Photo: Mike Wilson

Wilson recalled meeting some Berkeley firefighters in the Highland waiting room shortly after the crash. They wanted to know if Schwarzman would be all right.

In those early conversations, the firefighters also learned Wilson himself had been in the fire service, and that the couple had taken a birthing class from the wife of a Berkeley firefighter.

With Wilson’s background, there was an immediate bond that made communication about the crash, and its details that may have been shocking or overly graphic to people outside emergency medicine, easier than it might have been.

“There were all these layers of personal connection that deepened that sense of wanting to keep tabs and wanting to connect,” Wilson said.

The firefighter-paramedics, from stations 2 and 5, invited the Schwarzmans to dinner in March. It was a time to talk about the impacts of the crash, on both sides.

“The paramedic who breathed for me for 13 minutes made me a taco dinner,” Schwarzman said. “I think I expected to enjoy it, but I didn’t expect it to be as healing as it felt.”

She continued: “In a sense, it was a shared trauma. We went through it. It happened to us. But it also happened to them. They’re not meaningless events for the people who did the rescue.”

Battalion Chief Kehoe said inviting the family to dinner was a way to celebrate a happy ending in a field that doesn’t often get the chance: “In our job, if there’s any positive outcome, we grasp at it and we try to hang on to that.”

Dinner at Berkeley Fire Station 2 in March; the Schwarzman family presented a plaque to firefighters to thank them. Photo: Courtesy
Dinner at Berkeley Fire Station 2 in March; the Schwarzman family presented a plaque to firefighters to thank them. Photo: Siobhan Cassidy

Kehoe recalled how that night, walking up to Schwarzman’s group of about a dozen people, he was struck that — less than two months later — he couldn’t pick Meg out of the crowd.

“I was looking for the person in the wheelchair, or someone with a walker,” he said.

Firefighter-paramedic Allard said he and Matt George, his partner, happened to be working that day and were getting off shift around dinner time. He recalled seeing Schwarzman, with her arm in a brace, walking into the station on her own.

“I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house,” he said. “People were just completely taken aback at the woman we saw walking into the firehouse compared to the day when we first saw her. And then she got up in the truck and went for a ride.”

He paused, then continued, quietly: “That was a good day.”

Kehoe recalled watching Schwarzman’s son climb all over her as she listed off her injuries from the crash. Because of the injuries, she couldn’t lift up her son. But he didn’t let that stop him from making his own way. Kehoe said he’d seen firefighters out of service for months with just a fraction of those injuries.

“I don’t know how she does it,” he said. “I honestly don’t.”

Battalion chief: “She was sort of unstoppable”

Dinner at Berkeley Fire Station 2 in March. Photo: Courtesy
Dinner at Berkeley Fire Station 2 in March. Photo: Mike Wilson

Recently, Kehoe recalled the night of the crash, when he heard that a woman was trapped under a vehicle. He’d been at Station 2, at Bancroft Way and Shattuck Avenue, talking with Deputy Fire Chief Donna McCracken.

“I don’t even remember saying goodbye to her. I just disappeared,” he said. “Because, in my heart, I felt like it was going to be…. You can hear it in the dispatcher’s voice.”

Calls often come in to dispatch as pin-ins, with a person being trapped, but regularly turn out not to be so serious once first responders arrive. In this case, dispatch got multiple calls, and confirmation came quickly that it was a life-threatening situation.

During dinner, Schwarzman told the firefighters she wanted to see the jack they used to free her. Had BFD not installed them in 2015, she knew her story could have been much different.

A BFD firefighter who had previously been a tow truck driver had pushed the agency to put hydraulic jacks on all its fire trucks. Instead of minutes, the jack works in seconds, and it doesn’t take up much room on the rig.

Kehoe described a fire truck as “like a giant toolbox” that can be used in all sorts of emergencies. When there’s an extrication call, to remove someone underneath a vehicle or a collapsed wall, there are many possible approaches. But a number of tools, such as those known as the “Jaws of Life,” take time to set up.

Schwarzman’s extrication took 20 seconds.

After she saw the jack, Kehoe said Schwarzman went on to ask, in her matter-of-fact way, “Then what did you guys do?”

“We all looked at you in shock,” was the answer.

“What next?” she asked.

“That’s when you took a breath, and we went crazy to work to keep you alive,” they said.

Kehoe, on the job 30 years, said usually, when someone is dragged that far and looks the way Schwarzman looked, “it’s a matter of pronouncement at the scene. But she was clearly not done.”

The plaque the Schwarzman family gave the Berkeley firefighters who saved Megan. Photo: Mike Wilson
The plaque the Schwarzman family gave the Berkeley firefighters who saved Meg. Photo: Mike Wilson

At one point during the night at the firehouse, Schwarzman’s group was looking at the ambulance that took her to the hospital, and the gurney she had been placed on during that ride.

“Just watching them process that, I think it was as important for them as it was for us to see: She’s up and walking around. If she had recovered that much in that short of time, she was sort of unstoppable,” said Kehoe. “She broke all the records, and all the rules and logic.”

He described Schwarzman as a “pretty tough person,” adding: “This woman is way stronger than I will ever be.”

Kehoe said he doesn’t know how many people he’s seen die over the years. Those experiences can take their toll.

“Once you see that first really horrible call or tragic fatality — a college student or a young kid — you become a member of a club you can’t un-join,” he said. But this call was different.

“I remember coming back to the station and thinking, ‘That’s not going to end well. I don’t know if I can eat dinner,'” he said. “It was expected to be up there with one of my worst calls, and it ended up being one of the most positive outcomes for me that I will remember for my entire career.”

“Go Meg, go”

Megan Schwarzman, when she decided to run the Berkeley 5K, told BFD: "I can't see running it without you guys." Good friends also kept her going throughout the race. From left, Donna McCracken, Meg Schwarzman, Kristen Anderson and Lisa Jongeward. Photo: Clem Tillier
Meg Schwarzman, when she decided to run the Berkeley 5K, told BFD: “I can’t see running it without you guys.” Good friends also kept her going throughout the race. From left, Donna McCracken, Meg Schwarzman, Kristen Anderson and Lisa Jongeward. Photo: Clem Tillier

A month or so after the dinner, Schwarzman got in touch with BFD to say she planned to run the 5K in Berkeley’s half-marathon event in November. In her email, she wrote, “I can’t see running it without you guys,” and said she planned to wear her Berkeley Fire shirt in the race.

She figured the race would be an informal way to celebrate her recovery, and give her motivation to train and get her strength back. When she was in the hospital, she lost 20 pounds: “a ton of muscle mass” she had built through climbing and backpacking and having been “really physically active before I got run over.”

Dozens of family and friends, including four Berkeley firefighters, signed up as part of her team.

She had been told, after her initial success with recovery, she could start running within 7-8 months. Schwarzman did it in six. (That’s how long doctors first said she might spend in the hospital.) Eventually, she was able to get what began as a more than 13-minute mile down to 10 minutes and 20 seconds.

When she started training in August, she couldn’t run to the end of the block. She ran her first 5K in early September, choosing a route that was flat. Knowing the Berkeley race had a hill, she spent the next month-and-a-half working up to the incline, and getting her time down.

Undeterred by the rain, friends all along the race route urged Schwarzman on, chanting "Go Meg, go." From left to right: Sanjay, Ella Ruth and Ashley Connell Melwani, and Peter and Soren Therkelsen. Photo: Mike Wilson
Undeterred by the rain, friends all along the race route urged Schwarzman on, chanting “Go Meg, go.” From left to right: Sanjay, Ella Ruth and Ashley Connell Melwani, and Peter and Soren Therkelsen. Photo: Mike Wilson

Schwarzman had run before, but never competitively. Her training routine for the race included four days a week at the gym, three days of physical therapy, and a run on the weekend.

“I have never had to work so hard physically to get back into shape ever before,” said Schwarzman. “I’ve never lost so much muscle. I was just coming from so far behind.”

Meg Schwarzman and friends at the finish line. From left, Kristen Anderson, Schwarzman, Lisa Jongewaard and John Balmes. Photo: Kelly Keller
Meg Schwarzman and friends at the finish line. From left, Kristen Anderson, Schwarzman, Lisa Jongewaard and John Balmes. Photo: Kelly Keller

Next year, she’s thinking she might run the 10K. She’s still working with a physical therapist on her gait, but described the race as an important milestone and “an accomplishment” nonetheless.

“It really took pretty hard work from August until now to be able to run that distance,” she said a few days after the Berkeley 5K. “It seemed like a way to celebrate with the strong community of friends and family who made my recovery possible. I liked the idea of doing this together in a way that celebrated how far I’ve come.”

People along the route rang cowbells to cheer on the runners, and there was the challenge of getting up to the top of the hill. Two runner friends stayed with her throughout, “though they could have jetted out ahead,” Schwarzman said. They were with her when she crossed the finish line. And there were friends all along the way, chanting “Go Meg, go.”

Her husband, Mike, also ran in the race, pushing 30-pound Oliver in a stroller until he asked to be carried in the last mile.

Schwarzman recalled one moment along the way when the weather shifted and rain that had been lighter suddenly became more intense: “It just let loose and poured,” she said.

Firefighter-paramedic Matthew George (left) and Deputy Chief Donna McCracken (right) of the Berkeley Fire Department with Mike, Meg and Oliver. Meg is wearing the Berkeley Fire T-shirt BFD gave her during dinner at Station 2 in March. Photo: Scott Wilson
Firefighter-paramedic Matthew George (left) and Deputy Chief Donna McCracken (right) of the Berkeley Fire Department with Mike, Meg and Oliver. Meg is wearing the Berkeley Fire T-shirt BFD gave her during dinner at Station 2 in March. Photo: Scott Wilson

Deputy Fire Chief Donna McCracken was at the station the day Meg’s call came in, and heard about it when the crew came back. She recalled the breast pump found at the scene, and the impression it made: “We can be pretty good at being didactic and clinical and tactical, and just move through the incident, but some things catch us and stick in our minds.”

McCracken said she signed up for the race because she’s a runner and also wanted a way to show Schwarzman all the support she has from BFD.

McCracken said having that “post-event connection” — such as when members of the department went to Ireland after last year’s deadly balcony collapse — is a way for first responders to deal with some of the emotional toll of the job.

“Connecting with her husband and her family, they see that, yep, the child still has a healthy mom,” McCracken said. “This family will continue on.”

Now, the Schwarzmans refer to the crew, informally around the house, as “our paramedics.” Allard’s 12-year-old daughter has also started babysitting Oliver, who is now approaching 2. 

One time, there was a structure fire nearby and several of the firefighters on scene were the ones who responded to Schwarzman’s crash. And when a pedestrian got hit right outside Schwarzman’s front door, the same crew responded. (The pedestrian was not hurt.) In both instances, the family made a point to pay a visit, say hello and catch up after the emergency was done.

Feedback could help future trauma victims and their families

Throughout the year, Schwarzman has found ways to use her story for the benefit of others. In July, she was invited to a conference at Highland where trauma surgeons and residents review a case that resulted in an unexpected death or non-fatal complications to see what they can learn. 

In a twist, the chief resident chose Schwarzman’s case as one where everything had gone right. But conference-goers didn’t know that at first. The presentation started with a description of the crash and ambulance journey, and a look at her x-rays and early assessments. Attendees were quizzed about what they would have done.

Eventually, the chief resident announced Schwarzman was actually alive — and with them in the room. Everyone burst into applause.

“It was really an amazing hour and a half. They wanted all of our feedback, things that were successful and things they could do better,” Schwarzman said, to help future patients and their families. She was impressed that the hospital wasn’t just open to their ideas, but was actively soliciting them.

Meg Schwarzman, with husband Mike Wilson and their 11-month-old son, Oliver. Photo: Schwarzman family
Before the crash: Meg Schwarzman, with husband Mike Wilson and their son, Oliver. Photo: Schwarzman family

Much of the feedback involved how the hospital greets the family of trauma victims. Wilson recalled the disorientation of arriving at Highland with Oliver, who was crying, and not knowing where his wife was or what state she was in. There was no one charged with communicating that information to him.

“It was pretty traumatic for him,” Schwarzman said, before turning to look at her husband as they sat at a small table in their backyard on a brisk fall day. “One of the things that still brings me to tears is what you went through.”

Said Wilson: “I assumed you were not alive. I was preparing myself to receive that news.”

One of the attending physicians at the conference said that, if Target can have a “greeter,” Highland could do the same.

The pair also explained that Wilson could have used more information and more predictability to the updates about Schwarzman’s condition. He said perhaps 20 physicians were at times working to save and care for his wife, but what they were doing had not been regularly communicated.

And one of Highland’s residents, upon hearing of the poster Schwarzman’s sister created before Meg could talk or write, planned to take it on as a project the hospital might put into place for other patients in the ICU who can’t communicate.

“I used up every bit of my physical and emotional reserve to survive”

Meg Schwarzman with Oliver in March 2015. Photo: Meg Schwarzman
Meg Schwarzman with Oliver in March 2015. Photo: Meg Schwarzman

Schwarzman said she was surprised to see the residents were much more interested in the non-medical aspects of her experience: her emotional recovery from the trauma of the crash.

By April, she said, she could walk and feed herself, but still struggled with a profound sense of disorientation.

“We all move through the day with certain expectations,” Schwarzman said. “You leave the house in the morning and come home and see your people. When that basic assumption gets so thoroughly blown out of the water, you lose faith. You feel like you have no basis for anything.”

Sometimes, rocking Oliver, she would think, “I almost missed this, and he almost didn’t have a mom.”

Wilson said his feelings of gratitude about his wife’s survival were at times overwhelmed by anger and frustration, which lasted for months. It’s been a challenge to find their footing in this new reality, Schwarzman said, to get to a place that feels less brittle, less unhinged.

“I felt like I used up every bit of my physical and emotional reserve to survive, and then I was left at rock bottom. To get through the day, you need resilience. I couldn’t get through the slightest thing,” said Schwarzman.

One of the biggest challenges has been to re-learn how to live in the world knowing how vulnerable we all are at any moment: “I can’t rebuild some kind of denial. And it’s a long process, and it’s, like, not done.”

The couple turned to a trauma therapist to help work through the issues, and Schwarzman said she also leaned on a longstanding Zen Buddhist practice. Some of the central ideas of the philosophy relate to compassion, impermanence, and the experience of suffering as central to life.

When she spoke to the physicians at Highland, Schwarzman said this sparked their curiosity.

“Talking about suffering and compassion, it’s what they were seeking. It’s what they kept asking to hear more about,” she said.

A family day hike to the base of Mt. Conness in the Sierra Nevada on Aug. 2, six months to the day after Schwarzman's crash in Berkeley. Photo: Mike Wilson
A family day hike to the base of Mt. Conness in the Sierra Nevada on Aug. 2, six months to the day after Schwarzman’s crash in Berkeley. Photo: Mike Wilson

Another huge challenge the family faced while in the ICU was the sudden separation of baby Oliver, then 11 months, from his nursing mother.

Wilson said the nurses at Highland made sure to integrate the family into the complex routine of treating his wife, and found ways, even in intensive care, to get Oliver in to see Meg. (Those under 15 were not technically allowed to be there.)

Schwarzman’s first visit with her son wasn’t easy. But she had been in the hospital nine days, and the nurses “figured out it was really critical for all of us” to bring them together. The nurses were able to orchestrate a 20-minute gap between infusions and treatments, when Meg could be as free of lines and tubes as possible to see her son.

Before the crash, she had never spent a night away from him. When he came into her hospital room, the visits were bittersweet. She wasn’t strong enough to hold her baby. And, at the end of the visit, someone would carry him outside. Schwarzman would watch as her son would wave “bye bye.”

“I’m supposed to be the one leaving with him, not him visiting me and then leaving,” she said. “It just felt all wrong.”

She wasn’t able to hold Oliver for quite some time, due to her surgical wounds and the muscle mass she lost in the hospital.

“It was brutal,” she said, noting even with five pelvic fractures, an open wound on her belly, and broken bones in her face, “still the harder thing was my separation from Oliver, harder by far than any pain I had, which was a lot.”

A family day hike to the base of Mt. Conness in the Sierra Nevada on Aug. 2, six months to the day after Schwarzman's crash in Berkeley. Photo: Mike Wilson
A family day hike to the base of Mt. Conness in the Sierra Nevada on Aug. 2, six months to the day after Schwarzman’s crash in Berkeley. Photo: Mike Wilson

A hope for restorative justice

Despite everything she’s been through, Schwarzman says she doesn’t have a lot of anger toward the driver who ran her over. She has been urging the district attorney’s office to take a restorative justice approach to the case, as opposed to a prison sentence.

Photo: Berwick Haynes
Photo: Berwick Haynes

The driver, 48-year-old Berwick Haynes, could face up to six years in prison if the traditional process unfolds.

“I don’t see what good that would accomplish,” she said. She said the driver had no priors, and that a process that let them meet each other and share experiences “could be really healing.” Another piece of restorative justice includes a requirement that the offender do meaningful actions to address the hurt he’s caused his victim and the community. In this instance, hypothetically, that might include a requirement to help educate youth or other motorists about the dangers of driving while high.

Haynes is from Berkeley, according to his Facebook page, which is no longer visible, but lived in Sunnyvale at the time of the crash. He was released on bail shortly after his arrest prior to being charged in May, and is set for a pretrial hearing in January on suspicion of DUI causing great bodily injury.

At the time of the crash, Haynes had a professional website for his successful Bay Area theater career. That has since been taken down. And no updates have been posted since February on a broadwayworld.com page listing many of the shows in which he has performed.

In early February, Haynes had been part of a cast preparing for “Bridges,” a world premiere at the Berkeley Playhouse. He was replaced immediately after his arrest, nine days before the show was to open on Feb. 11.

What does still appear online, in addition to the many articles in the local press chronicling the charge the actor faces, is a shaky video of Haynes, backed by a band, singing civil rights anthem “Lift every voice and sing” during a church celebration for Black History Month in February. The recording was made in the weeks after the Berkeley crash.

“Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,” he sings. “Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.”

Berkeleyside has been unable to reach Haynes for comment.

Schwarzman has never spoken to Haynes, but she said she has read the police report about the crash. Berkeleyside obtained the same document through a Public Records Act request.

A witness statement describes how Haynes had been driving around aimlessly before rehearsal, after smoking marijuana with his husband in People’s Park, when the crash took place. Haynes had bought medical marijuana from the Berkeley Patients Group dispensary shortly before the crash.

Haynes also admitted to smoking marijuana at the Berkeley Marina earlier in the day, at 3:30 p.m. He appeared high to police and “performed poorly” on a sobriety test. Police found marijuana and drug paraphernalia in the car, which smelled strongly of burnt pot. Also in the vehicle were empty plastic “BPG House Blend” canisters.

“We where [sic] driving around because we where [sic] early and we where [sic] wasting time,” Haynes’ husband, Lonnie Sears, told BPD.

“That’s the hardest line of the police report to read,” Schwarzman said.

Haynes told police he had stopped for the red light at Fulton and Bancroft right before the crash. When the light turned green, according to the report, he drove forward and “then felt ‘bumps’ from the front area of his vehicle. He said he did not know what the bumps were. He said he tried to stop but the vehicle began … going into a skid.”

Haynes had no idea what he had done, according to witness statements.

“I was the one who told Berwick that we had just hit the bicyclist,” Sears reportedly told police. “Berwick was not aware until I told him that he had just hit someone.”

Wilson: “You want anything positive that can to come out of something like this”

This year, Schwarzman and Wilson have worked with Bike East Bay to advocate for the creation of a bike lane on Fulton Street near the crash site. They had just become members of the organization in January, though they had been longtime members of a similar group in San Francisco, where they had lived previously. Both were regular, longtime bike commuters, Wilson into downtown Oakland and Schwarzman up to the UC Berkeley campus. She sometimes had her son with her on the ride.

Bike East Bay reached out to the family soon after the crash to see if they would like to share their story as part of advocacy efforts for a “protected” bike lane, one that’s separated from vehicle traffic in various ways. The group had already been pushing the city for one on Fulton, but progress stalled.

“Early on, you want anything positive that can to come out of something like this,” Wilson said.

The couple credits Bike East Bay with doing the hard work to figure out how to make the lane a reality. But Wilson also spoke passionately to the Berkeley City Council in the months after the crash.

The new bike lane on Fulton Street in Berkeley. Photo: Kent Chen
The protected bike lane on Fulton Street in Berkeley (file photo). Photo: Kent Chen

Ultimately, the city’s response was “amazing,” said Wilson and Schwarzman. The lane opened in May, and the couple said they thought it may have set a record for the speediest planning process for a bike lane, or possibly “a record, ever, for the city taking action and doing something.”

Fulton Street was also the first protected bike lane in Berkeley. But Dave Campbell of Bike East Bay said it definitely won’t be the last: “Fulton Street’s lane was a game-changer. Now, every new bikeway will be measured against this one.”

He continued: “Megan’s story is what made Fulton Street happen.”

Campbell said it was the facts of the crash and Schwarzman’s unexpected recovery, as well as the support she got from friends, family and community, that helped city officials feel that fast action was needed, and that it was time to rethink the city’s approach to “complete streets” for all users — not just motorists.

Campbell said Berkeley, like many cities, needs to do more to coordinate projects so repaving happens along with infrastructure improvements for cyclists, pedestrians and transit riders. But he said what happened with Fulton should pave the way for changes like that.

A partial statement from the police report. Source: BPD
A partial statement from the police report. Source: BPD

Wilson described the new lane on Fulton as “a proof of concept” he believes will encourage the city to create more protected lanes. Former District 4 Councilman Jesse Arreguín, now Berkeley’s mayor, has promoted the approach, and said as much when the lane opened, noting that “every bike lane in Berkeley should be like this bike lane,” Campbell recalled.

Projects are already in the works on Bancroft Way and, next year, on Hearst Avenue that take “complete streets” precepts into account. Campbell said Milvia Street downtown is another bikeway the advocacy group hopes will benefit.

Schwarzman said she still isn’t biking, and isn’t sure if she ever will again around traffic. But she describes herself as “a total supporter” of the creation of safer bike lanes. Wilson does ride, but only on side streets that are established bike routes and more protected.

Two more blocks need to be painted to link up the Fulton Street lane to another bike route at Dwight Way, but the green lane that’s there now is a definite step in the right direction, Schwarzman said.

“Hopefully now no one else will be hurt where I was nearly killed,” she said.

Learn more

Mary Flynn created a video about Meg Schwarzman’s story, and particularly her time recovering at Highland Hospital, for the Alameda Health System Foundation. The video was played at a fundraiser in May where Schwarzman spoke in support of Highland’s new Acute Care Tower. The tower opened in April.

Related:
Bike lane opens by near-fatal crash site; police say driver was high (05.12.16)
2 Berkeley officials call for Fulton Street bike lane (03.15.16)
Advocates: Berkeley must extend bike lane on Fulton (02.11.16)
Hope, gratitude after near-deadly collision in Berkeley (02.05.16)
Update: Driver arrested, cyclist critical after crash (02.02.16)

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