Monroeville woman finds power to forgive driver who struck her vehicle

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Nettie Gibson was running early for work. It was unusual for her to be ahead of schedule, but at 8:15 a.m. on Aug. 10, 2011, the mental health counselor was already on her way to meet with a client.

She was only two miles from her Monroeville home when she was struck by a drunken driver on Fifth Avenue in East McKeesport.

The driver's blood alcohol level was .159.

Ms. Gibson, 32, saw a flash of silver, and then, "I remember screaming for help over and over again.

"I truly thought I was dying."

She was trapped inside her Ford Taurus for nearly an hour as emergency crews tried to extricate her. She almost lost her right foot, which was pinned between the dashboard and front seat.

She underwent 10 hours of emergency surgery to patch together her shattered body and will have her eighth surgery later this month. Even after extensive rehab, she will never be able to run again or even walk on an uneven surface. Because she lost two-thirds of her colon, she can only eat one meal a day, and still uses the bathroom 20 times.

She was fired from her job of 10 years, and shortly after she returned home her husband left.

Still, Ms. Gibson forgives the woman who hit her.

"It was a personal decision. Hatred and animosity can absorb someone, consume you," she said. "It's not my place to judge her. It was the right thing to do, and it gave me peace."

Last month -- after pleading guilty to aggravated assault while DUI, reckless driving, recklessly endangering another person and driving under the influence -- Eileen Gibson (no relation) appeared in court to be sentenced.

The 65-year-old woman from North Versailles, who had undergone open-heart surgery in July, stood before Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge David R. Cashman and tearfully apologized for her actions.

She said she could not remember what happened that morning.

The defendant turned to the gallery and told Nettie Gibson that if she could take her pain away and carry it herself, she would.

Her public defender, Emily McNally, argued to the court that the woman should not go to jail, based on her acceptance of responsibility, her lack of any criminal record, her remorse and her medical condition.

Her client had stopped drinking, voluntarily went to rehab and stopped driving.

But Judge Cashman, who has a reputation of being tough on DUI offenders, sentenced Eileen Gibson to eight to 16 months in the Allegheny County Jail. The penalty is in the middle of the recommended guideline range.

After Eileen Gibson was led away by sheriff's deputies, Nettie Gibson approached Ms. McNally in the hallway. She told the lawyer to tell her client that she forgave her.

"She looked so scared. I couldn't imagine how scared she would have to be," Nettie Gibson said. "That would just be a horrific feeling. I thought it would make it easier for her to know I've forgiven her."

Ms. McNally later filed a motion asking Judge Cashman to reconsider the sentence.

"I don't think there's anything the court system can do to punish her more than her own heart and own mind," the lawyer said.

But Assistant District Attorney Brian Catanzarite opposed the motion, saying that the victim still believed Eileen Gibson should have consequences for her actions.

"Death could have occurred," he said. "How she made it through her injuries is nothing short of a miracle."

When Nettie Gibson first arrived in the emergency room at UPMC Presbyterian, she begged a nurse to write a note for her to her son.

"I wanted him to know how much I loved him, how proud of him I was and that I was sorry I had to leave him," she recounted.

She was taken into surgery, and her family sat awaiting word on her condition.

Nettie Gibson's foot was so badly damaged that a surgeon told her mother she would be better off having it amputated. But he also said his oath as a physician required him to try to save it, and though her mother, Joanne Parson, gave permission for it to be amputated (and then passed out), he did save the foot.

Hours later, the family learned how extensive the injuries were.

Nettie Gibson had to have two-thirds of her colon and upper intestines removed -- another 1/8 of an inch -- and the doctors said she would be required to have an irreversible colostomy.

She lost her spleen and appendix and had a lacerated liver. She was cut open from her breast to pelvis and required 68 staples to be put back together. Her right heel was shattered and required four pins and cadaver bones. Her right arm was broken, requiring a plate and eight screws.

She remained in the hospital for nearly a month and went to a rehabilitation facility for another 24 days. When doctors removed her staples, the pain was so bad that Nettie Gibson broke her nurse's hand squeezing it.

While she was at the rehab center, her abdominal wound opened up, and she had to have it packed each day for five weeks.

When Nettie Gibson first returned to her two-story home from rehab, she was determined to go upstairs to her bedroom.

"I knew they wouldn't let me," she said.

So while an occupational and physical therapist from the rehab center were evaluating the bathroom to work up a home plan, Nettie Gibson crawled up the steps.

"I plotted it at rehab for days to see how it was going to work out," she said.

Although she lived out of her living room for a few months, she was able to start sleeping in her bedroom around Christmas.

Still, she said, she falls down the steps frequently.

Last month, she fell in her kitchen and broke four bones in her foot.

She has gotten stuck in her own bathtub and sometimes has to cut her pants off because her foot hurts too badly to remove them.

She prefers skirts.

Nettie Gibson must use either crutches, a walker or a knee walker to get around.

"It's the little stupid things -- like taking him for a walk," she said, pointing to Dude, the family dog. "It's everyday stuff that frustrates me, because little things become such a big job."

It takes her at least two hours to get ready to leave the house in the morning.

On Sept. 24, she will have another surgery, as doctors continue to try to make it possible for her to put weight on her right foot, which now has the ankle fused.

She continues to have an upbeat attitude despite her daily struggles.

She looks forward to being able to wear regular shoes and having more stamina. She jokes that one of the worst parts of the crash is having to go 28 days without washing her hair.

"My personality is, I'll make fun of myself," she said. "That hasn't changed. It's just who I am."

Two weeks after Nettie Gibson returned home from rehab, her husband left her, she told the court. About a month after that, Mercy Behavioral Health System/Pittsburgh Mercy fired her, saying it could no longer keep her position open.

She had worked there for 10 years.

"I loved my job," she said.

Mercy denied workers' compensation from the crash, and there is litigation pending in the matter.

"While it's not appropriate for us to divulge the details surrounding any employee's separation from our organization, I can assure you that Pittsburgh Mercy Health System complies with all federal, state, and local employment laws," said Diana Siard, director of human resources. "We wish Ms. Gibson all the best in her recovery."

After losing her job, Ms. Gibson received $1,200 per month in long-term disability, but that wasn't enough to cover her COBRA insurance or her monthly mortgage -- let alone food for her 13-year-old son, Dominic, who stands 6 feet 1 inch tall and is a rabid football player.

As far as any insurance payment from the crash, Eileen Gibson carried just the mandatory state minimum, which meant that Nettie Gibson received $15,000 -- with $5,000 of that going to legal fees.

"I had reached my breaking point," she said.

In late April, Nettie Gibson asked her friend to take her to a walk-in crisis center, where she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. She started going to mental health therapy for nine hours each week, on top of the seven hours per week she attended physical therapy.

After a couple of months, she began to feel better emotionally, although she still has nightmares in which she needs help and no one comes.

Her son continues to have nightmares in which his mother dies.

"He can't even find peace while he sleeps," she said.

Judge Cashman chose not to reduce Eileen Gibson's sentence, and she remains at the Allegheny County Jail.

Nettie Gibson applauded that decision, saying that even though she forgives the woman, she still wants her son to know that there are consequences for bad actions.

"Eileen was a stranger. She plays a significant role in my life for how it's going to be from now on," Nettie Gibson said.

Ms. Parson also feels sympathy for Eileen Gibson.

"But this is my daughter, and she's in a prison of her own and will be forever. And so is my grandson," she said.

Still, Ms. Parson believes there is a greater good to come from it.

"I know God is going to use this somehow to make her life really matter," she said. "She didn't go through this for naught. She will rise above it, and so will Dominic."

Although she still sometimes gets mad, Nettie Gibson said it doesn't help her.

"You have two ways to look at it: What [...] did I do to deserve this? Or, there's got to be a bigger plan. This had to happen for a reason."

Since the crash, Nettie Gibson has become a speaker for Mothers Against Drunk Driving and speaks regularly to repeat DUI offenders in three counties.

That has helped her.

So, too, has her approach to life.

"I try not to take anything for granted now. I just try to appreciate what it is," she said. "I do realize I could have been gone. Each day is a gift."

Transportation - neigh_east

Paula Reed Ward: or 412-263-2620.


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