fbpx

Beyond the Legal Limit

Surviving a Collision with a Drunk Driver

Pat Henman

A searingly honest memoir of a mother and daughter who survived a head-on collision with a drunk driver and their determination to rebuild a meaningful life.

On a sunny Sunday afternoon in June 2013, performer and singer Pat Henman, was driving home on the highway with her 19-year-old daughter, Maia, when they were struck head-on by a drunk driver. Pat and Maia’s injuries were too complicated and life-threatening for the small hospital in Cranbrook, and they were flown to Calgary. Pat was revived four times, and her family was told to prepare for the worst. Maia had multiple breaks of all four limbs and the doctors had to induce her into a coma for more than a week. Both women spent months in the hospital recovering and undergoing major surgery. Pat had nineteen surgeries in the first week alone and Maia, a first-year university student, was left permanently disabled. This was the beginning of a long and painful struggle for their entire family.

But as Pat and Maia were rehabilitating and trying to adapt to new routines, the family’s life became engulfed in the confusing world of insurance settlements, a criminal trial against the impaired driver, and a broken legal system. Pat writes candidly about the accident and their family’s ongoing struggle in a powerful memoir demanding justice not just for her family, but for all victims.

Among the grief and anguish is a story of resilience, and recovery. Pat, whose vocal cords were damaged from the breathing tubes and was left with a permanent broken shoulder, was told she was unlikely to ever perform again. But with determination and retraining in her late fifties, she has slowly returned to her passion—the stage. Beyond the Legal Limit is the story of how love, community support and the compassion of many, including strangers, can be the path to survival.

Beyond the Legal Limit is a skillfully told account of a life-altering car crash and its harrowing aftermath. The reader is given a bedside seat for a vivid and relentless journey through the medical system before witnessing the legal aftermath that threatened to re-victimize both Pat and her daughter Maia. A raw and personal account, this memoir poses important questions about how we do justice and should be required reading for every medical and legal professional.

—Katy Hutchison, author of Walking After Midnight: One Woman’s Journey Through Murder, Justice and Forgiveness


Beyond the Legal Limit is one of the most honest, gripping, heartbreaking—and yet life-affirming—books you’ll read this year. Pat is an accomplished Canadian actor and director with a wicked sense of humour. One sunny day in June of 2013, she and her daughter Maia were driving home to Nelson, B.C., and were hit head-on by a serial drunk driver.

The accident was catastrophic. The fact that they lived through it is extraordinary.

Pat tells her story with grace and humour and unfailing humanity. Her road to recovery was brutal and miraculous. I defy anyone to read this book and not fall in love with Pat and her family — or to read this book without raging at what she and Maia endured in their recovery and in the court system.

Beyond the Legal Limit is a page-turner, and should be required reading for anyone who’s ever gotten behind the wheel after drinking.”

—Barbra Leslie, author of Cracked


“When Pat Henman and her daughter Maia were struck by a drunk driver their injuries were cataclysmic. Pat wasn’t expected to survive. Instead—incredibly—she lived. Beyond the Legal Limit is the story of how that happened and it’s compelling—the out of body experience of near death, and then the shock and agony of returning to a body vastly traumatized. It’s the story of how a person who suddenly can’t move, or eat, or read retains her selfhood and identity. It’s a psychological journey through immense change and anger. It’s about being the victim of a vile crime and reconciling that reality with justice. It’s a journey toward acceptance. And ultimately it’s an astonishing story of recovery and family and love.”

—Brent Bambury, host of CBC Day 6


“Pat Henman provides an unflinching and brutally honest account of the impact that impaired driving can have on the human body. But the deeper story here is the strength of the human spirit; Pat didn’t just survive her catastrophic injuries, she is living in spite of them. She is inspirational to so many people as she also holds her experience up as a stark warning about the human cost of impaired driving. The harsh reality is that Pat’s experience is sadly far too common. Impaired driving remains one of the leading causes of criminal death in Canada and injures tens of thousands of people every year. Maybe if every driver in Canada read Beyond the Legal Limit, we could eliminate impaired driving completely.”

—Steve Sullivan, Director of Victim Services, MADD Canada


“What does the bottom line resemble when your life has been shattered by an act of violence? Pat draws the reader into a journey nothing could have prepared her for. Every day, on average, 4 Canadians are killed and 175 are injured in impaired-related crashes. Not every victim or survivor has the opportunity or the strength to tell their story.

For victims of crime, justice is elusive as they battle with systems and institutions whose priorities are balanced against their interests. Pat’s story is a grueling account of how victims and survivors blindly enter an arena of competing systematic priorities hoping for the scales to be balanced, needing to have their voices heard, and having their sense of justice shattered.

Pat offers a moving account of loss and grief, determination, and resiliency as we are drawn into an experience you have no control over.”

—Celine Lee, survivor of violent crime and Chairperson of the Pacific Region Victim Advisory Council

Prologue

A warm sunny Sunday afternoon. My 19-year-old daughter and I drive from Calgary, Alberta, to our home in Nelson, British Columbia. It is an eight-hour drive through the visually spectacular Rockies and Banff National Park, past Radium and Fairmont Hot Springs, through several small rural areas like Skookumchuck and Wasa.

Four hours into our trip home, a Ford Escape SUV hits us head-on. The front end of my Toyota Corolla is gone. The engine is on our laps.

At least that is what I am told.

When I awake from the long coma, I have no voice, or memory of why I am here. I try to speak, to ask why I am in a hospital room, but the verbal sound doesn’t exist for me. Where did my voice go? Why can’t I move? My head is fuzzy. I notice machines buzzing next to my numb body. Everything is so loud. Are those nurses, or maybe doctors, running around the room? I see my husband’s face in front of me. Larry is so close I can feel his breath and the warmth from his skin. He is saying something to me. I can’t understand.

Then I remember. I was in our car with Maia, driving home from Calgary.

Maia, I think. Where is Maia?

June 9, 2013

I woke up early Sunday morning on my niece Tiffany’s living room sofa, where I had slept the last three nights. At fifty-four, I was thinking I was getting too old to be sleeping on couches. Tiffany lives in Calgary. Her mother—my sister Jeannie—was visiting from Nova Scotia with her husband, Harry. I smiled, recalling all the laughs we had shared over the past few days.

I lay there daydreaming, my thoughts turning to the long drive back to Nelson with my daughter later that day. I could see the sun peeking through the slit in the curtains. It was still early morning, but the sun was already bright. I had checked the weather on my iPhone the night before, happy to discover it would be a warm and cloudless day.

Maia and I had arrived in Calgary on Thursday from our home in British Columbia.  She was staying with her boyfriend on campus at the university they both attended. I had met him for the first time the night before at dinner. He had an easy manner, goofing around with Maia on the couch, making her smile. I liked him right away.

Within minutes of waking up, I could hear people shuffling about upstairs. There was a houseful of family staying at Tiffany’s that weekend. I was over the moon visiting with them; I missed my siblings and their kids a lot.

Breakfast was a flurry of activity, and to add to the merriment, Jeannie’s oldest daughter Vanessa, and her one-year-old son Lincoln, joined us. His big blue eyes and blond hair, inherited from his mother, reminded me of my son Liam at that age. There was so much laughter and loud voices—typical of the Henman family—as we prepared a feast of bacon and eggs, the smell of coffee rising from our mugs.

After our meal, I asked Jeannie if she would return with me to an import store we had checked out the day before while shopping for Tiffany’s wedding dress. There was a footstool I wanted to buy before I left for home.

We arrived at the cramped shop full of brass trinkets, colourful pillows and blankets, lamps, and a mixed array of furniture. I went straight to the back corner where the ottoman had been the day before. The red faux leather box was still there. I touched it, admiring the texture, then popped the lid off, thrilled to discover I could stash magazines and books. The cashier got me a new one from the back, still in its box. I carried it out to the car, depositing it into the trunk.

I drove Jeannie back to Tiffany’s, retrieved my luggage, and carried it out to the car, preparing to leave and pick up Maia.  Upon opening the trunk, an ugly multi-legged brown beetle around two inches long crawled out of the footstool box. I froze, wondering what to do. I couldn’t put my clothes in there, and I wasn’t going to drive home knowing this cockroach-looking creature was free to roam my car.

Leaving my suitcase in the parking lot, I ran back to Tiffany’s to ask for help. Jeannie and Tiffany came out with me, laughing at my fear of bugs. Their smiles turned to wide-mouthed astonishment when they saw it.

“Please kill it; I can’t,” I said, looking at both of the ladies who were bending over, staring into my trunk at the foreign insect. Tiffany ran back to her house, retrieved a hammer, and returned to do the job.

I was sad to leave everyone that Sunday afternoon, but after many hugs and goodbyes, I reluctantly left for the university residence where Maia was waiting for me.

We decided that this dazzling day provided the perfect opportunity to stop at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. I had always wanted to take a course in theatre directing there, or enroll in a residency for creative writing, but the opportunity never arose. At least, stopping for a stroll, I could experience the visual beauty I had heard so much about, in hopes that I would still study or create something there in the future.

After our walk through the centre’s grounds, it was time to grab a bite to eat, knowing we wouldn’t find a decent place again until the Fairmont Hot Springs.

Banff, Alberta is gorgeous but busy in June. We drove up and down the streets, me driving, Maia looking for an empty parking spot, but could not find a single one close to downtown. Everywhere we looked, there were cars and people. If it is this busy in June, July and August must be insane, I thought. Finally, at the edge of town, Maia spotted one, so we quickly pulled in before someone else did.

We didn’t stop to look in shops; we were on a mission for food. We headed for the main street. The first restaurant we came to was closed. Strange for a sunny Sunday afternoon in a tourist town. The second was packed. The next was in a hotel and too high end; we were running out of choices. We only wanted a quick bite and then get back on the road. In the distance, about two blocks further, we could see the golden arches.

We turned to each other, a sigh of resignation echoing between us, and after exchanging a few unflattering comments about what the meal could do to us, we agreed McDonalds was the most convenient place.

Within thirty minutes, we were gliding west along the same highway we had travelled three days earlier going east, once again admiring the view. The bears and the deer were plentiful. Mamma grizzlies with their cubs hung close to the highway, munching on bushes and berries. Tourists outside their cars snapped photos of the animals, not thinking about the consequences if one of the large bears decided to charge. We had some bear sense, having lived eleven years in the Yukon where grizzlies were commonplace. We were content watching from our car window, thank you.

As we stood at the gas pumps in the village of Radium, the sound of a loud explosion at the edge of the town caused us to jump. A vast cloud of dark smoke rose in the air no more than half a kilometre from where we stood at the pumps. As we drove towards it on our way out of town, the smell of smoke, mixed with whatever chemical that had been released into the air, was overwhelming. Being nosey, as I am, I suggested we stop and see if we could find out what had happened. There was a group of people outside the burning building watching the flames. We  spoke with a local who was on a side road outside the long, and, I assumed, white structure. He told us we were watching the Ritz Motel go down in flames. The rumour was a gas leak had caused the explosion. Some of the folks hanging around were more than likely motel guests, their belongings still in their rooms.

The smell was sickening, and the air was getting thicker, so we departed quickly. We could hear fire truck sirens blazing behind us, and we saw more first responders coming at us as we drove west. Our drive home was becoming a little more interesting than the drive to Alberta had been. Years later, I read online that the motel burnt to the ground, but no one was hurt.

Thirty minutes or so further on, we stopped for one last quick bathroom break and leg stretch at the Fairmont Hot Springs. We parked in the dirt lot next to the hotel and walked down to the natural hot spring that sits just below the resort. The familiar polished and glossy folding hillside of rock, laden with minerals that surrounded the steaming hot water, emitted a dense fog of sulphur that stung our noses with the smell of rotten egg. We have always loved visiting the hot springs, stink or no stink. We didn’t have our suits that day, so we didn’t go into the pools. After a few minutes, we made our way back to the car.

Once in the parking lot, Maia asked to drive. I passed her the keys, happy to relax in the passenger seat. Maia was an excellent driver, very attentive to the rules of the road, and I always felt comfortable with her in the driver seat. At nineteen, she was a responsible and determined young woman, a high achiever, finishing high school before most of her classmates. In September, she would return to her second year at the University of Calgary, studying to be a high school English teacher. Maia had always been a planner; she knew what she wanted, and she was on her way to making it happen. Today she planned on getting back to Nelson safely.

The road was becoming curvy, with potholes randomly appearing in the pavement as we travelled towards Skookumchuck, B.C.  I remember looking out over the vast, empty landscape under a clear blue sky, wondering if Larry would have dinner waiting for us.

And then, nothing.

We don’t always know what will happen from day to day, minute to minute. How much control do we have over our own lives? I am confident the owners of the Ritz Motel or the people staying there had no idea they would be standing outside their rooms watching their belongings burn inside. I witnessed it, not knowing the cause of the fire or if anyone was still inside. I moved on: I was on my own journey that day.

What happened to us made no sense. There were very few cars on the road. It was late afternoon on a Sunday, at dinnertime. People were in their houses, cooking or watching TV. Kids were playing in yards, waiting to be called in for the night. Maia and I were thinking about family, home, and food. There were no vehicles behind or in front of us, but there was one SUV at the top of the hill, coming towards us.

The SUV crossed over the yellow line and into our lane. We were driving the speed limit. There was no way of telling how fast the SUV was going, but it was coming at us at high speed. If we swerved to the right, we would have driven into a cement barrier, and the SUV would likely hit us anyway; if we turned to the left, the SUV would still hit us.

You make decisions based on the here and now. Sometimes I think to myself, what if we had stayed longer at the hot springs or in Radium to watch the fire? Would that have changed our fate that day? Would the SUV have crossed the line at the same moment it did? Perhaps we would just be arriving at Fairmont for that quick stroll.  Five minutes could make all the difference in the world. Everything can change in the blink of an eye.


Book Launch with special guests
March 6, 2021
4 pm (PST) / 8 pm (AST)
Buy a signed copy of the book from our bookstore partners!
Special thanks to Otter Books in Nelson, BC, and Bookmark in Halifax, NS.