Woman kept positive spirit after being hit by drunk driver
CHAMPAIGN — Diane Smith planned to put on music as soon as she got home.
Perhaps "Happy" by Pharrell Williams.
The next order of business: "Just sit out on the ramp on my big, wide porch and let that wind blow through my hair."
The 57-year-old Urbana woman has been away from her home for almost two years, recovering from injuries she suffered when a drunk driver hit her car on July 4, 2012, in northwest Champaign.
The lower half of her right leg was amputated, her left leg can't bend, she's been through more than a dozen surgeries, and she suffered the indignities of infections common in long-term care facilities.
Still, her face was barely large enough to contain her smile Friday as she said goodbye to Heartland Health Care Center, on East Springfield Avenue, Champaign, which had been her home since Aug. 14, 2012.
She said she got great care there.
Maybe it's because she was employed there as a secretary in the office for eight years, starting in 1997. Or it could have something to do with the fact that her lovable 74-year-old mother, Mary Perry, has been a licensed practical nurse there for 30 years.
The staff there surprised Smith and her family with fresh flowers and a cake that said "Good luck Diane" on Friday morning.
Sporting a bright red hairdo and a new pair of athletic shoes on her prosthesis and her lame left leg, Smith was definitely ready to roll.
With her mother and one of her daughters right behind her, Smith got out of her wheelchair and used a walker to make her way up the new ramp to her home in northeast Urbana.
"My heart is really beating," she said, as she sat down just inside the door, propping up her lame leg on a chair.
No looking back
Despite an over-the-top positive attitude, Smith admits she's had low spots in her recovery journey.
"It pops up in my head and I think about me going down the street and him hitting me. Then I think about I'm not going to be able to wear my shoes. I was a shoe fetish person." She also misses being able to drive.
"I also think about the guy that hit me. I wonder what he's doing and what he's thinking."
At the time of Andrew W. Lewis' sentencing in April 2013, Smith asked Judge John Kennedy for leniency, prompting Kennedy to comment that Smith had reminded him what mercy was. Still, the judge gave the 28-year-old Lewis 10 years in prison for his second DUI conviction.
Smith is practiced at pushing those dark thoughts aside.
"What's done is done and I cannot change that and I just have to go on with my life. I could have been gone, but I'm here. I can tell about it. I can joke about it. It's not about being mad at the world and mad at him," she said.
Before the crash, Smith worked as a home health care provider. She now receives disability and realizes employment is probably not in her future. But popcorn and movie nights with her eight grandchildren are.
"I'm not ever going to be alone," she said.
It's not hard to tell that Smith's outlook on life comes from her mother.
"Some good will come from something bad always," said Mary Perry, 74, of Champaign.
Perry is a faith-filled woman who is grateful for her daughter's experience and the people it has brought into their lives.
"I want to remember her doctors at Carle," said Perry, trying to name the many who treated Smith.
Same with the physical and occupational therapists at Heartland who worked with Smith several times a week.
"The therapy department there was really good to her, too," Perry said.
She's also very grateful to her Canaan Baptist Church family for their prayers and support.
Perry was planning to retire not long before her daughter was injured but decided to put it off when Smith came to Heartland.
"I just felt better being there seeing her," she said, adding she's now daydreaming again about retiring.
Perry said she also had down times during her child's convalescence.
"I did have two breakdowns. They call them meltdowns," she said.
One came a year ago when she saw the news of a 6-year-old girl who lost her leg in the Boston Marathon bombing. She wondered if that little girl could handle losing her leg the way her daughter had.
"I just pray for her family because I know how I was feeling and I could just imagine how they were feeling," Perry said.
Her second meltdown came when a crying Smith told her mother she felt like she was a burden.
"I told her: Don't ever feel like that. We're here to take care of you, and if you're unhappy, just speak up," said Perry, recalling that her daughter was born prematurely and weighed in at 4 pounds.
"I've not had any issues with her all her life," said the proud mother.
Smith's children also parrot her positive outlook.
"Through it all, God has sustained us. It happened. You can't hold a grudge forever. It takes too much energy," said Mary Howell, 36, Smith's youngest child.
"Her life is totally different and she is adjusting to it. Either you sit there and do nothing or you do something about it. She chose to do something about it. You can't just wallow around in your sorrow."
Howell said since the crash, she's seen her mother every day except for two when she was on a vacation. A mother of two, Howell said it was not a chore to visit.
"She didn't do this to herself. Someone else did this to her, so why should she have to go through this whole period alone?" she said.
Son James Oliver, 40, a custodian at the Champaign County courthouse, said his mother is still the happy-go-lucky mom that doted on him as the oldest of her three children.
Oliver said he initially felt hatred for Lewis but realizes now, in part because of his mother's forgiveness, that "young people make mistakes and he made a big mistake."
"As long as my mom is alive, well and breathing, I'm all good," he said.