I’m a problem solver. It’s how I’m wired. Whether I’m involved in the issue or not, my brain works on solutions to any problem I see. It drives my wife nuts! Have you ever heard the marriage advice to husbands telling them to just listen and not try to solve the problem? Yeah, I don’t do that very well.

Most of the time, this is a good trait. It makes me a great problem solver! The problem comes in after the fact. My brain doesn’t like to let go of an issue after it’s too late to do anything about it. It keeps running scenarios and what-ifs.

The ultimate example came up yesterday. It is December 26, the day after Christmas. My wife and I are headed to my aunt & uncle’s house for an extended Christmas get-together. Our daughter went ahead, but we were running late since I was helping my son do a repair on his car. I got cleaned up, and we got in our car to drive to town for the festivities. Our son was following behind in his recently repaired vehicle.

crashWe were on the highway where the speed had just dropped to 50mph. A large 4×4 Dodge truck was approaching from the other direction. A Ford SUV was also approaching on a side street. The SUV didn’t stop at the stop sign and was hit in the driver’s side by the Dodge. I quickly hit my brakes and steered toward the shoulder. My wife and I helplessly watched the two tangled vehicles violently careen into the ditch in front of us. Soon after, our son proceeded through the debris on the road continuing toward his destination.

I requested that my wife dial 911 while I ran toward the wrecked vehicles to offer help. Three men quickly piled out of the Dodge and met me at the driver’s side of the Ford. There was a man in the driver’s seat who looked to be in his 70’s. He was unresponsive, but didn’t appear to be bloody. We grabbed on to the top of the mangled driver’s door and attempted to pull it open. We only succeeded in bending down the empty frame of the broken out window. I could only reach the man’s arm. I tried to feel for a pulse, but found none. I told the man closer to his head to try for a pulse on his neck. He was unable to find one. It was then that I saw a very frightened little lap dog peeking over the back seat from the very back of the SUV. He was obviously in shock.

The entire mess ended up in the front yard of a small house. The homeowner was standing on the front porch with a phone to her ear. Knowing she was on the phone with emergency services I told her to let them know there was no pulse. It was only a couple of minutes, but it felt like an eternity before we heard the sirens of the emergency vehicles. I felt completely helpless. There was no way for me to get in the vehicle to get to the man. He was trapped in the vehicle in an upright position. There was no way to administer CPR. I’ve been trained, I just had no way to exercise my training in this situation.

The EMTs arrived and went to work. I let them know that there was no pulse. The police arrived. I let them know what I had seen and let them know about the dog in the back. They called animal services and handed me a witness form to fill out. Before heading to my car to fill out the form I asked one of the EMTs standing nearby if they had found a pulse. He told me that they hadn’t.

I returned the completed form to the police officer and checked in with the EMT one more time. He said that the man was deceased. Their focus had shifted from rescue to recovery.

Before returning to my car I looked at the license plate of the SUV. It was a special plate that indicated the owner was a Navy Veteran. Judging by his age I suspected he was a Veteran of the Vietnam War.

When I got back in the car I filled my wife in on what I had seen and heard. We held hands and prayed for the family of the man who had just passed away before our eyes on the day after Christmas. The police officer helped us out of the traffic, and we went on to our family event. It was a bit surreal to be celebrating family and holiday after witnessing the death of an American Hero.

We left the party and headed back home. As it happened, we drove back through the scene of the accident two hours after emergency services arrived on scene. Everything had been cleaned up, but the police officers were just pulling out. It must have taken well over an hour for the EMTs to recover the Navy Vet’s body from the front seat of that SUV.

I want to stop here and note something. The EMTs arrived on scene extremely quickly. The police officers arrived about 30 seconds later. The scene was secured and emergency services started quickly and efficiently. I was very impressed by and proud of our first responders. They arrived quickly and responded professionally to a very difficult situation. They worked tirelessly retrieving the dead body of a Veteran from his mangled vehicle. They even took the time and care to rescue the distressed pet from the back of the vehicle.

My wife and I returned home a little shell-shocked. We watched a little TV in an effort to reset our brains so that we could go to sleep. Eventually my wife drifted off, but my brain started playing the “what if” game. I was reminded of the Dustin Hoffman character in “Rainman.” Throughout most of the movie his brain tortured him with the Abbott & Costello routine “Who’s on First?” He kept repeating it to himself while his brain tried to solve the puzzle. This is what my brain did to me for most of the night. As in the movie, it was futile. There was no solution.


What I learned is that there are different kinds of “what-ifs.”

The first “what-if” is the kind that we have no control over. What if we had left the house two seconds earlier? We would have been involved in the accident instead of witnessing it. Two seconds. That’s all it would have taken. As it was we braked hard to avoid the SUV as it was pushed sideways toward the ditch. What if our son had decided to go ahead of us instead of following? He would have likely driven faster than we did. He could have been involved. We could have watched in horror as his little car was crushed by the two larger vehicles. What if the SUV had rolled instead of staying on its wheels? It almost rolled. It tipped up on its right wheels as it was pushed by the large truck. If it had rolled we could not have avoided being crushed by it. All of these things were out of our control. Circumstances determined exactly when we left our house, determined that our son followed instead of leading us, and kept that SUV on its wheels. No amount of decision-making or critical thinking skills could have changed these facts.

The second “what-if” is the kind we think we have control over. What if I had gone around to the passenger side of the vehicle, broken out the window, opened the door, and began administering chest compressions to the man where he was trapped in his vehicle? What if I had broken out the driver’s side rear window, opened the door, reclined the driver’s seat, and began administering chest compressions to the man? Could I have revived him? These are very difficult to deal with. The reality is that the EMTs arrived very quickly. I watched what they did. They are professionals. They are trained for and experience this type of thing frequently. They did not do the things I just mentioned. They did bring in special tools to attempt to revive them man where he sat. They were unable to do any better than I did. The man was dead. My “what-ifs” were fruitless.

The third kind of “what-if” is the one that bugs me the most. I found the man’s cell phone beside his vehicle on the ground. It was an old flip phone. It was open. It was powered on. What if I had navigated to his recent calls and called back whoever he had talked to last? It was the holidays. It’s very likely that his last call was with a loved one. He could have been in a call at the time of the accident for all I know. Someone he loved could have heard the accident and not known the outcome. They may not have even known where he was. A simple call from me could have provided a loved one the opportunity to respond. This is a “what-if” that could have made a difference…maybe.

So, what are we to make of this? Can we learn from this experience? Are there things we can apply to our lives, our relationships, our business transactions? I think so.

First, we can’t control what we can’t control. No amount of hindsight can change the circumstances surrounding the event. In reality we had no control over when we left the house, whether our son followed or led, or whether or not the SUV rolled. Those things happened the way they happened. I choose to believe that God was in control of those things as a part of His plan to keep my family safe.

Second, sometimes our best efforts or intentions still come up short. I could have broken out a window and made a heroic effort to re-start that Veteran’s heart. The reality is that it wouldn’t have changed the outcome. The professionals were unable to achieve success with all of their tools and training. My brain wants to believe I could have made a difference, but the reality is that I was helpless in that situation.

Third, sometimes you never know. I don’t know if I could have contacted a loved one with his phone. I don’t know if it would have made a difference to them to hear from me during the recovery of his body from the SUV. I don’t even know if he had anyone in this world to contact. I probably should have attempted to contact someone with his phone instead of laying it in the seat next to his body. Now I’ll never know.

The final thing I think there is to learn is this: Hindsight is 20/20. We’ve all heard this. It means with the benefit of knowing all that we know after an event, we can more easily decide what we should have done. It’s just like watching a football game and yelling at the quarterback for not passing the ball to the guy who was obviously open in the end zone. It’s easy to see with all the camera angles provided by the sports broadcast, but he has several large yelling monsters trying to rub his nose in the turf. He missed the opportunity because he couldn’t see it in hi-res like we did.

The best we can do is review the replays in our mind and attempt to learn from them. For me I try to rest in the faith that God is watching my family and protecting us from circumstances that might place us in harm’s way. I re-evaluate whether or not the CPR and first responder training I’ve had in the past is sufficient to prepare me for the next possibility. And, I renew in my mind the importance of placing myself in the shoes of others.

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