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Reclaiming life after a catastrophic car crash: David St. Amant's story

Tracy Samilton
Michigan Radio

It's Star Wars Night at the Lansing Lugnuts stadium, so there's a big crowd. 

Kids and moms and dads and Lugnuts fans of all sorts line up, get their tickets scanned, snap a photo with a favorite Star Wars character, and then fill the stands to watch the game.

Standing at one of the entrances is a slender, smiling man wearing a straw cowboy hat, scanning tickets.  That's David St. Amant, age 32. 

You can tell there's something different about him from the way his head is bent slightly to one side, and his slow, deliberate speech.

Six Lugnuts games a month, rain or shine, David St. Amant is here. But unless you knew his story, you'd never guess what a mountain of an accomplishment this is.

Three years ago, St. Amant got this job – his first ever as an adult. Seven years ago he was still in a wheelchair. 

And 16 years ago, on May 30, 2003, “I was in a bad car accident,” says St. Amant. “About a week after my 16th birthday.”

Another driver going more than 60 miles an hour T-boned the car David was driving. It was very nearly fatal. He was air-lifted to a trauma center in Kalamazoo with a severe brain injury.

His mother is Linda St. Amant.

“So you walk in and you see your son hooked up to every tube imaginable,” she says, “and not responding to anything. And he didn't respond to anything for many months. He was in a three month coma.”

You have two choices, the social worker told David's family. You can let this tear you apart. Or you can choose to let it bring you closer.

They chose closer. David's new life became the whole family's new life.

David spent five months in the hospital and another five months in an intensive rehabilitation center.    Then outpatient – doctor's visits, speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy.

All to learn how to feed himself again and dress himself again and talk again.

The cost of all this medical treatment was staggering. It swiftly exceeded $580,000, the amount that triggered Michigan's catastrophic care fund to begin picking up the tab. But it got St. Amant to where he is now, instead of the skilled nursing center doctors originally told the family to expect.

Since his release from the rehab center, David has lived in the family home in Dansville, a rural town south of Lansing.

Linda St. Amant says she and her husband spent years restoring this big, 150 year old house. It's beautiful. 

They would have lost it, she's quite sure, if it weren't for the auto insurance covering David's health care costs.  

They did have to make some changes to the house after the accident. The former first-floor study is now David's bedroom, and a couple of doorways on the first floor had to be widened to make room for his wheelchair.

Credit Tracy Samilton / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Rehabilitation therapist Danielle Pyle works with David St. Amant on using his I-phone to keep track of medical appointments and other events.

On a June afternoon, David's getting a home visit from one of his rehab therapists, Danielle Pyle.

“You were so insightful today,” Pyle tells him. “You told me that you've realized the root of your anger outbursts actually isn't anger generally, it's fatigue.  And that is very, very common after a brain injury.”

David agrees, musing, “It's kind of strange that an injured mind has to work to do the natural things that most people do.”

David’s sister, Laura Doerr, says even with insurance paying most of David's health care bills, things could easily have fallen apart when their father was diagnosed with a rare cancer in 2010.

David can't be left alone, because he could fall, or do something dangerous.

So Doerr, her daughter and her husband all moved back to Michigan, and into the house as well. 

“So while Mom was driving back and forth to Mayo, and U of M, and all those other things, I was able to be here with David, so he wasn't alone,” she says in a shaky voice.

David's father died in 2011. The family copes as best it can.

Doerr has promised David that when his mom can no longer be his primary caregiver, she will take over, to make sure he can live at home.

Here, he's been able to wean himself from prescription medicines, which have bad side effects.  Here, he is understood and loved. 

“Even though it does present challenges daily, I wouldn't want it any other way,” says Doerr.

Sixteen years after the accident, David continues to improve his functioning. He has therapeutic horseback riding lessons. He loved music before the accident, and loved music after. He practices guitar, and goes to music therapy at Michigan State University.

The changes to Michigan's auto insurance law have given his mom Linda some new worries, though. The hourly payments to her, his primary caregiver, will be cut by about half. Payments to David's current health care providers will also be cut by about half. 

The provider cuts could eventually put some of them out of business. 

Linda also worries what will happen to people newly catastrophically injured under the new law. Michigan's old auto insurance system was there for her family, and it was a lifeline.

“You're thrust in this world and you have no idea what you're in for," she says. "But then when you start finding about the auto insurance and the help you're going to get, it gives you hope. It gives you more hope than fear. And I think without the auto no fault benefit, I think the fear's gonna be the predominant feeling.”

Starting next year, people can choose a lower amount of health care coverage for car accidents on their auto insurance, or stick with unlimited lifetime coverage.

But if they need it, that lifetime coverage may not get them the same level and quality of care as David's.  

The new law's mandated cuts to health care providers could force some out of the catastrophic care business. 

And here's the kicker: The law is supposed to give people choices for health care coverage for car accidents that will reduce part of their premiums, ranging from 10-45% for most people, depending on what they choose.

But right after the law was signed, an official with a Michigan insurance trade group told the Detroit Free Press there’s no guarantee that people's car insurance premiums would go down.

That's because other parts of the premiums could go up more than they’ll save on catastrophic coverage.

That leaves David St. Amant and his family asking: Then why did we do it?

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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