Some firefighters remember every crash they’re dispatched to, Fire and Rescue Lieut. Sean Purcell said. They’ve analyzed the wreck, thought up multiple plans to extricate victims from their cars, and tried to calm people on the most frightening day of their life.
So, when John Ross of Bethesda was heading up a food distribution event at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad and mentioned that a car crash lacerated his kidneys and tore apart his pelvis, rescue squad Vice President John Bentivoglio knew the date and time of the crash.
Bentivoglio also knew that the people who helped Ross that day were all inside the squad office.
The crash took place in December 2019. Ross was severely injured and nearly died.
As he recuperated, the coronavirus pandemic was in full force, laying bare economic disparities, even in the prosperous suburb around him.
Grateful to have survived, Ross started a food distribution program to help people who lost their jobs or no longer had access to school lunches. He randomly picked the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad as the site because the community trusts it.
Ross didn’t know that the team who pulled him from his car was from the rescue squad. At the official opening of the weekly food distribution in late September, he found out.
Bentivoglio asked if Ross would like to go inside and meet the people who saved his life.
The scene of the crash
The crash happened at Ryland Drive and Old Georgetown Road. Ross was about 90 seconds from his home. A moving van ran through the red light and T-boned Ross’ car, hitting his driver’s-side door, smashing it inwards.
The impact knocked Ross unconscious.
He next remembers waking up in Suburban Hospital. He kept repeating his wife’s name, Diana, and her cellphone number. A nurse dialed the number of his wife, Diana Ingraham, and put the phone to Ross’ ear.
“Hi, honey. I don’t feel so good,” Ross said to his wife of 33 years.
The reality was much worse. The crash broke his leg and pelvis in multiple places and badly damaged his internal organs.
“I was just feeling so bad,” Ross said in a recent interview. “The pain and the nausea — it’s just throwing up and I was bleeding and I was cloudy. My breathing was ragged because I also broke six ribs.”
As the hospital staff patched him up, Ross said, he had multiple brushes with death.
“I saw the light,” he said. “It was this big, bright light up in the upper right-hand corner. I was in this black, kind of floating, abyss. I knew something was pulling me toward it. I was going toward it and I didn’t want to go there. Every fiber of my being was just straining away from that light.”
Ross was in the hospital for a month, although not consecutively. He was first released after about two weeks, and went to Adventist HealthCare Rehabilitation to recuperate.
But the shock to his heart and lungs caused them to weep liquid, and on New Year’s Eve, his anniversary, he was rushed back to the hospital for emergency surgery. His left ventricle had collapsed from the pressure, so doctors put tubes into his heart sac to get the liquid out.
Recovery and a new narrative
The strain and challenge of recovering tested his mettle.
“When you come down to these experiences, sometimes you wonder how you’re going to respond to it, whether you really have it in you to fight with every morsel of your being to survive,” he said.
Ross is a writer and adventurer. Before the crash, he climbed the Alps and Mount Rainier. He went scuba diving in the oceans’ depths and wrote stories for Smithsonian Magazine and National Geographic.
But when he arrived home after the crash, he needed a walker to hobble to the front step and back.
Ross read through his old published stories, looking at clips of an article on scuba diving in Thailand that appeared in The New York Times. These adventures were his sustenance as he struggled through the pain and long recovery, he said.
He wasn’t sure he would ever again have the endurance for those trips. The crash fractured his ankle and both of the bones in his calf. Even though he has regained his ability to walk, his leg still swells and he wobbles.
He’s never steady on his own feet any more, Ross said.
But he described an internal stability he has gained since the crash. Ross acknowledged the cliché, but said he felt utter peace, having released any anger against the driver whose moving van hit him.
“We live in a world where pianos are falling out of the sky all around us all the time and sometimes you get clipped, or if you’re unlucky, you’re standing underneath one that hits,” Ross said. “It’s just kind of the way life is and I was unlucky.”
If he considered himself a victim, he said, he would be left with the unanswerable cosmic question of “why me?” Instead, he wanted to use the difficult experience to do good for others, Ross said.
He worked with local organizations and volunteers from his church, St. John’s Norwood Episcopal Church in Chevy Chase, to distribute hundreds of meals to people in the county. Each Friday during the fall, people come to the rescue squad building to pick up meals for the week.
At the distribution’s official opening, Bentivoglio took Ross inside to meet the team who saved him.
Purcell remembered the incident. He showed Ross the Jaws of Life the team used to pry off the side of the car. Purcell shared details from the 13 minutes it took the team to free Ross from the wreck and get him in an ambulance.
At each crash, a member of the rescue squad walks around the car once, sizes up the wreck and decides on a plan and a backup plan. The process is methodical, but it happens fast, Purcell said. If something doesn’t work, the crew scraps it and tries the next idea.
While the team removed the doors from Ross’ car, Purcell ducked his head inside the car to explain to Ross what they were doing.
When Purcell was 6, he was returning home from Chuck E. Cheese in a friend’s car. A drunk driver hit the car.
Purcell remembered being trapped in the backseat. The firefighters who cut him out of the car explained things to him as they were going. That helped ease his fear, Purcell said, and contributed to him wanting to be a firefighter.
“It was very rewarding to see somebody that was hurt as bad as John was be able to walk into the station not even a year later,” Purcell said. “You really don’t get to meet a lot of the people you help out.”
Since then, Purcell has introduced Ross to other members of the team who helped save him — paramedic Hannah Putt, Officer in Charge Andrew Swab, driver Martin Liddy, and Chief Edward Sherburne. Ross has thanked them, and was surprised to hear that no one ever thanks them.
Ross didn’t understand. “You guys are heroes,” he said. “The fact that I’m standing here and thanking you, it’s because you saved my life.”
He hopes to soon meet driver Mathew Bowles, the final member of the team. He wants to take the whole team out for lunch to show his gratitude. He realized he can’t just buy them pizza.
Ross called Adam Murphy, the general manager at Mon Ami Gabi, a French restaurant in downtown Bethesda, who was interested in the story and wanted to set up a nice meal.
Murphy offered to invite the chef to prepare a three-course meal for Ross and the rescue squad team.
Murphy’s interest in sponsoring the meal stems from watching his wife, a nurse, work throughout the pandemic. Additionally, he recalled his own experience volunteering in high school at the rescue squad.
The meal also has a larger significance, Murphy said. Though there is no way to thank every essential worker, he wanted to do something for the few he could reach.
“Everything that they’re all doing right now, you really can’t say thank you enough times,” Murphy said.