Local man perseveres in face of adversity

Friday, January 28, 2011
Douglas James Van Orden Jr., above, travels in Lewisburg in a motorized wheelchair and follows rules of the road as if he were a pedestrian and/or a bicyclist. Below, Van Orden shows that he can stand, but walking is very difficult for him.

A Marshall County man with severe injuries from a one-car crash eight years ago is doing his best on the road to recovery and re-entry into daily life, including his travels in town on a motorized wheelchair.

Douglas James Van Orden Jr., 41, of Lewisburg spoke openly last week about what happened to him just before and in the years after his Saturn slammed into a tree just off the Belfast-Farmington Road on Feb. 28, 2003.

"It was a combination of drunkenness and aggravation - being mad," Van Orden said. "I don't remember two months before and two months after the crash."

His personal story could be the subject of a sad country music song, but his voluntary assertions about his past behavior, current attitude and limitations are living proof of a typical warning from police.

"Don't even get behind the wheel even though you think you can handle it," he said during an interview on Lewisburg's public square. "Alcohol and vehicles don't mix.

"I'm just thankful and lucky that it was just me involved," Van Orden continued. "I'd want to kill myself if I killed somebody else."

He speaks with difficulty. He had a tracheotomy because of the crash.

"It messed up my voice," Van Orden said.

Vertebrae were damaged. He can stand, but he walks like a penguin.

There are no long strides for Van Orden.

He gets $1,249 per month in disability payments. He collects recyclable materials and sells the scrap; much of it from dumpsters. His gross last week was $47. Before the wreck, he worked at what's frequently called Heil-Quaker, the now-closed HVAC plant.

As for his Jazzy-brand scooter-chair, he says, "It's a car, but it's smaller. It gives you independence."

With a top speed of 5 mph, his Jazzy goes up to five miles on a full charge. He goes to the Sav-A-Lot grocery, Wal-Mart, Dollar Tree and the H&S No.2 pharmacy.

A Lewisburg police officer "pulled me over ... because a bunch of people called them (dispatchers) saying I was blocking traffic," Van Orden said. But he got some helpful words from the police, he said: "As long as you travel as if it was a bicycle, it's OK."

Police Lt. Rebekah Mitchell confirmed Van Orden's point, acknowledging his use of a motorized wheelchair is similar to a pedestrian's right to walk on a public right of way within the law. Police also recognize that some streets don't have sidewalks and some sidewalks aren't suitable for travel on a motorized wheelchair.

The Jazzy, Van Orden said, "is not good in bad weather. I've got stuck in the grass. It makes a big muddy mess...

"I've lived here since 1983 and there are no new sidewalks, except for on the bypass, but it's been built for 20 years," Van Orden said, suggesting more sidewalks be built.

Van Orden was trying to rebuild his relationship with his ex-wife on that night in February 2003. They went to a bar or two.

"The car was wrecked so bad, they had to cut me out of the car."

He was taken to Marshall Medical Center and then airlifted to Vanderbilt University Medical center. Within a month, he was transferred to NHC Lewisburg.

"When my insurance ran out, they put me in Vanderbilt Stallworth" Rehabilitation Hospital where he stayed about a year before being released, Van Orden said. He went to Pennsylvania to stay with his parents and returned here because of his children.

Then he lost his son.

Douglas Van Orden III, 16, drowned in the Duck River on June 25, 2009, between a Henry Horton State Park boat ramp and the Nashville Highway bridge over the river, officials said. Park rangers recovered the teen's body at 9:22 p.m. He entered the river from the north side shore. He was with a cousin and younger brother when he waded too far from the shore. Van Orden didn't know how to swim and the river current pulled him in.

"My son would have never drowned if I wasn't in this chair," he said. "June is a bad month for me."

His mother died in June five years after his wreck.

"But I keep going on to get back to where I was," he said. "You can't ever give up on the hope of getting better. That's what keeps me going."

Van Orden is a 1989 graduate of Marshall County High School.