WASHINGTON – The last words Melissa Cullen remembered hearing from her father was “hang on,” as he tried to avoid the gold car that had crossed the center lane and was heading straight for their car.
Cullen was seriously injured and her father, Marvin B. Parks Jr., was killed just days before Christmas in the crash that was caused by a sleep- deprived driver.
Now, the Quantico, Md., woman is trying to put her life back together. Part of her healing comes from educating people about the dangers of groggy driving. So Cullen was in Washington on Tuesday to tell her heart-wrenching tale as a panelist at “Sleep Awareness Week,” sponsored by the National Sleep Foundation.
“It’s time for us to really wake up and take a look at our lives and make the changes that we need to,” said Cullen.
“I have dozed off at the wheel before. I’m no better than the person who hit us,” she said. “But I pulled off the road” to get rest.
Scientific experts, congressmen, and others who have been affected by sleep deprivation joined Cullen Tuesday to warn about the dangers of sleep deprivation. They also launched several NSF initiatives, including a toll-free hotline, to educate individuals about the importance of getting at least eight hours of sleep daily.
“Most Americans voluntarily reduce sleep time to spend more time on the job or recreating,” said James Walsh, National Sleep Foundation vice president. But an NSF study found that women and people between ages 18-29 suffer most.
Basic abilities that are compromised due to sleepiness include concentrating, handling stress, solving problems, listening, and relating to others, Walsh said.
Cullen’s story began four days before Christmas, when her father took her for a drive to Delaware to decorate her mother’s grave. She said it was a particularly special time for them because she and her 74-year-old dad were getting to know each other again, after he had cared for her terminally ill mother for several years.
But her joy was torn away in a matter of seconds when a gold car crossed the center lane near the intersection of Route 20 and Route 9 in Delaware, hitting them head on.
Cullen woke up in the hospital with serious head injuries, a broken shoulder, elbow, nose and foot and severely impaired vision. Her father died that day, after “many attempts to put his injured body back together,” Cullen said.
Cullen, 37, a student teacher at Delmar Elementary School in Salisbury wiped the tears from her eyes Tuesday, took a deep breath, and continued her story.
“Police concluded that the shift worker [who hit us] had only three hours of sleep in a 24-hour period,” she said. “I fail to see the difference between driving drowsy and driving drunk.”
If the 39-year-old driver had been drinking, she probably would be in prison right now, Cullen said, but she “only received a $115 fine, and two points on her driving record.”
Cullen said she does not harbor any bitterness toward the other driver, even though the woman never contacted her to express remorse.
“It’s a shame we had to meet this way,” Cullen said. “Maybe under different circumstances, we would have been friends.”
The accident has forever altered her thinking about sleep and driving. “I certainly won’t be driving alone to the beach this summer,” she said.
She lamented her father’s death saying, “it’s such an injustice the way he was taken away.” But at least Cullen has not been alone during her grieving: She has a husband, a 3-year-old son and neighbors who brought her meals three days a week while she was in a wheelchair.
“It’s getting better,” Cullen said. “Now I’ve got the big step coming up. I’m actually going to have to get behind the wheel.”