To get an idea of just how close Ron Kirk came to dying, look at the 6 inches that separate the former Dallas mayor’s bicep and his face. There’s now a jagged 4-by-4-inch scar about halfway up his left arm, a trace of the nearly 90 stitches that he needed after being gored by a metal ladder that crashed through the windshield of his C-Class Mercedes in 2010.
“More than anything, I remember the sound,” Kirk says. “This must be what it sounds like to get hit by a roadside bomb.”
Kirk was the U.S. trade ambassador at the time of the accident. He was in town to see his daughter graduate from Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. He was driving west on I-30, near Belt Line Road, headed to tour Cowboys Stadium before getting lunch with a friend. His father-in-law was in the passenger’s seat. Going at least 60 mph, he saw a shiny object on the road get whipped up by the tires of an 18-wheeler in front of him. The ladder ricocheted off the median and came through his windshield with such force that it sheared off at least three of the metal rungs on its way into his arm. That sound he remembers was so disorienting that he kept driving even after he’d been hit, not realizing what had happened.
Dr. Michael S. Truitt got the emergency call at Methodist Dallas Medical Center’s trauma unit. It was classified as “motor vehicle crash with possible impalement.” “I went, ‘Huh,’ ” Truitt says. “That can mean any number of things.”
The emergency crew had a similar reaction. Kirk says that at the accident scene, he looked to his left and saw a black bag on a gurney. The first responder looked startled to see a man sitting in the car, still alive, staring back at him.
“I thought he was almost apologetic,” Kirk says. “He said, ‘We’re sorry, but we’ve never transported anybody to the emergency room on a deal like this.’ ”
The wound was deep. Truitt remembers seeing the muscle, and the cut was only about a half-inch from an artery. But, remarkably, there wasn’t any critical damage.
“A trauma between being a minor injury versus a severe, life-threatening injury is a game of inches,” Truitt says. “We see that over and over again.”
At the hospital, Kirk was coherent, frequently announcing that he needed a car and that there was no way he was going to miss the graduation. He was on the phone, too, telling his secretary to call the Secret Service and have them stay in D.C. Chances were, he wasn’t going to make a planned trip to Southeast Asia. He didn’t.
In fact, Truitt remembers asking Kirk’s daughter to take his phone away. Then President Obama called. “You’re not allowed to talk to him while we’re sewing you up,” Truitt told Kirk. “You’re going to have to have somebody else talk to him.”
Kirk was anesthetized and doesn’t remember his conversation with the president, just that the White House called. Nor does he remember what he talked to Truitt about while he was on the operating table. But the surgeon does. He says he told Kirk about his own 3-year-old daughter in an effort to move the focus away from the gaping wound he was closing on the arm. Truitt says Kirk mentioned his own daughter growing up, getting ready to graduate.
He never doubted that he’d make the ceremony that night. And while his arm was bandaged under his suit, Kirk did make it. His toast afterward, however, wasn’t as eloquent as he felt it was at the time.
“I thought it was a tearful, incredible performance,” he says, laughing. “But apparently I was just babbling along.”