When Jeanne Kitayama and her husband Paul Wheeler were in a car accident in 1991, they had to deal with trauma and recovery. But Kitayama says it also opened her eyes to what it’s like to be on the receiving end of the Haines community’s overwhelming support.
When the accident happened, Kitayama and Wheeler were driving home and came across a porcupine in the road. Kitayama was driving, and she swerved to avoid hitting it. The car flipped over and rolled, throwing Kitayama out of the vehicle.
“Being the person involved in [an accident,] I think our bodies just black out, so I don’t remember very much at all,” Kitayama said. “So I just had glimpses. I had a glimpse when we were being put in the truck, a glimpse at the clinic, a glimpse in the medavac to Seattle.”
She remembers waking up in the Seattle hospital emergency room, and seeing Kermoian’s face, ‘leaning over with her big smile.’
Kermoian says when she found out about the accident, she didn’t think twice, she had to go see her.
“I remember leaning over and saying ‘hi Jeanne, I’m here.”
“We always said you had a hundred-watt smile,” Kitayama said. “Another time later on at the hospital when I was upset, you leaned over and I know I looked horrible and you said ‘you look beautiful!”
Kitayama’s neck was broken and she had other wounds, including one to her head. She says she was in the hospital for about a month. Kermoian stayed with her for much of that time. Back home, Kermoian’s husband, Kip, helped plan a community fundraiser to alleviate some of Kitayama’s medical expenses.
“That’s one of the wonderful things about living in our small community of Haines, Alaska, that when someone needs help people jump in there, it doesn’t matter if you don’t know them very well or not. People are very willing to give,” Kermoian said.
“And that’s why I wanted to do this story,” Kitayama said. “It seems like everybody gets so angry about politics but when someone needs help, the community’s there for them.”
“Political lines don’t matter, petty arguments don’t matter, the whole town comes together,” Kermoian added.
Kiayama said leaving the hospital, she had a neck brace and felt ‘like a freak.’ But when she landed in Haines, she felt safe, because everyone already knew her story and what happened to her.
“I guess I can’t put it in words, what it feels like to have so much [support] coming towards you,” she said. “One thing is, everybody would say ‘oh you’re so lucky it wasn’t worse.’ And we’d always feel like, well we’re not lucky we had a car accident. But we’re lucky to live in Haines.”
This interview was produced by KHNS’s Emily Files with the Juneau and Haines Public Libraries and StoryCorps. StoryCorps is a national nonprofit whose mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share and preserve the stories of our lives. More information at storycorps.org.
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