January 21st, 2016.
I was a senior at Rutgers, living at home and commuting to school.
It was a Thursday morning and I didn’t have class.
I had been feeling under the weather, my body was pretty run-down and it had been a planned “off day” from the gym. It was the perfect recipe for a lazy day at home. But for some reason 21-year-old (type AAA) Joe thought it’d be a good idea to go to the gym anyway.
So I got my stuff together, threw on my heavy winter coat and headed out the door. I remember feeling the cold air hit my face as I briskly walked down the driveway to my car. I grabbed my keys from my right pant pocket and unlocked the door of my 2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited Edition. I tossed my backpack onto the passenger side seat and hopped in the car. I closed the door, put the key in the ignition and turned up the volume on the radio.
Out of habit I reached across my body with my right arm and grabbed the seatbelt.
It was about 10:30am and the streets of Westfield, NJ were quiet, the sky was overcast and the day had a gloomy feel. As I had done hundreds of times before, I put the car in drive and began on the five-minute trek to the gym. I remember nearing the first of two stop lights on the route, seeing it turn yellow and consciously making the decision to slow down and stop.
I could have made the light, but something made me stop.
After a few quiet and cold minutes spent stopped at the red light I continued on my way (at the speed limit) towards the gym. Less than 20 seconds later I was approaching the next intersection.
As I had done so many times before I drove towards the intersection not thinking anything. I didn’t have a stop sign and I couldn’t see much of the intersecting road as it was lined with parked cars. Based on my past experience and the rules of the road, I had no reason to be worried. But as I neared the intersection, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the car. It was barreling (through a stop sign) towards me from the left at what must have been in excess of 40mph.
It was too late.
I didn’t know what to do but my body reacted. My foot slammed the brake pedal with more force than I thought possible. My knuckles lost color as my hands gripped the steering wheel with all my might. Every fiber in my body tensed and my eyes shut closed as my seatbelt snapped tight at initial impact.
The violent sound of metal crunching stung my ears.
My heart sunk deep down in my chest as I experienced the most visceral and gut-wrenching sense of despair that I had ever known. I remember wanting to scream, but I didn’t. I vividly remember opening my eyes and seeing the outside world begin to turn upside down. The air bags deployed and smoke filled the interior of the car – permeating through my nostrils and fogging my vision. Continuing to roll I heard glass shatter and the crackle of the metal roof scraping the cold, hard pavement. The car continued to roll and I continued to grip the steering wheel with every ounce of strength I could muster. One and a half revolutions later and I noticed the rolling had stopped – the underside of my car came crashing into the post of a stop sign.
As the car rolled I came to the grave realization that my body was along for the ride. I had never felt this utterly helpless.
Eyes wide open, breathing heavy and heart pounding I realized I was alive. The driver’s side of my car was facing the sky and I was suspended by my seatbelt. Unsure of what exactly had happened and what might come next, my body was in full on fight-or-flight mode. I frantically attempted to un-buckle myself from my seat and kick open the door with my foot. Unable to defy the laws of gravity I was stuck in my seat until a man who was driving behind me jumped up onto the side of my car and helped me out.
Once free, I scrambled away from my car to the safety of the sidewalk and that’s when I felt it. Sure, the unthinkable amount adrenaline coursing through my veins may have played a (major) role, but I was exhilarated – I felt alive – I felt indestructible. I moved around, my hands felt for pain and my eyes scanned for blood. But I found nothing. I was completely unscathed.
I had never felt so alive. I had never felt so grateful.
Every now and then you’ll hear stories about how someone’s “life flashed before their eyes” during a near-death experience. As is the case with the large majority of people who have never had such an experience, the idea of “life flashing before our eyes” can be hard to truly grasp. My crash gave me a unique insight into this phenomenon and hopefully my account will do it justice.
The entire crash, from initial impact to complete stop, probably only lasted a few seconds at the most, but in that moment…
Time slowed and reality warped.
In what felt like an eternity I saw and felt my entire life. I saw my family and felt their love. I was surrounded by my friends and all of the memories we had made. I realized my biggest mistakes and felt a deep desire to right all of my wrongs. Not only did I see my past but I also experienced my future. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t see specific details or specific events, but I felt deep down in my core all that was to come – the bad, the good, the struggle, the accomplishment and most of all, the positive impact I could have.
All in the few seconds that these thoughts, emotions, memories and feelings flooded my mind, spirit and body, I felt tremendous loss.
I thought that I was going to die.
After the crash I stood on the sidewalk staring in disbelief at what used to be a car and I felt truly blessed by the grace of God. It was at that moment that I realized what was most important in my life.
See, as my life flashed before my eyes I didn’t think about the small stuff. I didn’t care about the assignments I had for school. I didn’t care about how many people followed me on Instagram. I didn’t care about what I was going to eat for dinner.
Instead, I thought about all of the things that meant the most to me – my family and friends, their love and the positive impact that I had the potential to have on the lives of others. When my life flashed before my eyes, I didn’t remember specific interactions or conversations.
Instead, in my near-death experience I remembered how the people in my life made me feel and how much I would miss them. I thought about what I could have done better and I thought about how much I wanted to make others feel loved.
To this day I think I know there was a reason for January 21st, 2016.
There was a reason I decided to go to the gym.
There was a reason that I drove down that road.
There was a reason I chose to not to make that yellow light.
There was a reason why I got hit.
There was a reason why I walked away unharmed.
There is no doubt in my mind that God was watching over me that day.
While objectively I was in danger – I don’t think I really was. I think that this happened by design – a not so gentle reminder that I’m on this earth for a reason. I realize what a tremendously positive influence I have the potential to have on every single person that crosses my path and that’s not something that I will ever take for granted. I’m here to make a difference and that’s a big responsibility.
If you’ve been reading my posts or you follow me on Instagram you know I love quotes, so here you go…
“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” Mother Theresa
If there’s anything that this experience taught me, it’s to be grateful every single day for all of the blessings in my life – never to take anything for granted. It made me realize what’s important and the tremendous positive impact that we all have the potential to create.
So go ahead and reach out.
Make someone feel good.
Make someone feel loved.
Make someone’s day.
Thank you so much for reading,
Joe Rinaldi, PT, DPT