On October 19, 2001, the lives of a Tremont family changed drastically when 18-year-old Kyle Stanley was in a car accident that nearly cost him his life.
A senior at Mount Desert Island High School at the time, he had been drinking. Stanley was a passenger in a car that took a corner too fast and flipped. Stanley was ejected through the windshield. His skull was fractured and his third and fifth vertebra broken. He had cerebral hematomas on both sides of his brain, two collapsed lungs, and a crushed aorta.
First, the doctors thought it would be a miracle if he survived. When he did, they thought it would be a miracle if he were to walk again, and if he were to regain normal cognitive functions.
Eleven years later, Stanley is married, has a solid work life, and he and his wife, Natalie, just had their first baby. They have a lovely home, and they’ve bought land for a future house that they plan to build themselves.
It’s been a long road. He’s one of the lucky ones, and he’s acutely aware that things might have been far different for himself and for his family.
Stanley says he wants to tell his story so that his own mistakes as a teen can serve as a cautionary tale to today’s kids.
Several weeks after the accident, Stanley woke up from a hospital-induced coma, with a halo on his head to support his neck, in the intensive care unit at Eastern Maine Medical Center.
“I thought I was in the Bangor mall,” he says. “My sister looked like someone else to me. She said, ‘Kyle, can you wriggle your ears?’ That’s something I’m able to do. I wriggled my ears, and she smiled. I remember that clearly. I was 195 pounds before, and over the course of the hospital stay, I went down to 130, which is deathly-looking for a guy like me, as tall and skinny as I am.”
When he woke up, he tried to pretend that he was okay and everything would be fine.
“I would smile every day and give people the thumbs-up,” he says. “But the reality of it sets in after the fact. What I worry about more than anything was that I was not comprehending how much it affected the people who loved me. I didn’t realize how big it was, because I was just here one day and there the next. I tried not to let it affect me. But it certainly took its toll on my mother and father.”
Everyone in his family suffered from a sense of huge emotional loss, he says. But today, they find joy in the moments they have together as a whole.
“One of the greatest things about being alive today is to realize that I can give my parents a grandchild and they won’t miss out on the rest of my growth and development and the future that I hold. That would all have been gone. It would have been a different world for my whole family. Though, still, it was different all the way along. It’s really tough on people to almost lose a child. It’s probably the scariest thing a person could go through. And I didn’t acknowledge that as much as I could have.”
During his hospital stay, he progressed swiftly through physical therapy, and through what was apparently his natural ability to heal quickly. He rebounded nearly 100 percent within the next year or two.
“I suppose, in every way possible, I was a miracle,” he says. “I was in the hospital for just under three months. As soon as I got out of the hospital, it was like taking baby steps to become the normal teenager that I wanted to be.”
Stanley is 29 now. He recalls that, in grammar school, he was interested in art and had a real talent for basketball. All of that came to a stop in high school, as he sought his place in the social scene. He believes he was an ordinary high school kid – discovering drink at age 16, successfully keeping it from his parents. He found the social, party life helped him feel accepted by others in school.
“I was trying to gain friends, and it just felt good,” he says. “I didn’t like being home alone. So when I started to drink and party, all of a sudden I had all kinds of friends, and that was the driving force for me. All of a sudden, I felt like I belonged somewhere. That’s where it starts for a lot of kids. At grammar school in Tremont, we were so pure. I didn’t want to drink. I thought cigarettes were a horrible thing, and all that changed so fast when we got to high school. It was shellshock.”
A lot of high school kids were, and continue to be, involved in the same scene, he says: “The percentages would just scare you.”
Stanley’s accident occurred the day of the homecoming football game. He left school early and went to see a supplier who would buy him alcohol in Bar Harbor. It’s not hard to find a supplier.
“It’s different for everybody,” he says. “I knew a lot of people. I grew up on the island. Even if you can’t find a supplier, you can usually replace vodka with water, if you chose to, in your parent’s cabinet, and they wouldn’t know it. There are many options. For some people, it’s acceptable. You see it a lot, so it becomes normal.”
Stanley went back to the school to serve a Friday detention, then went to the football game. He talked with some people, then drove around with a friend. When the car flipped, Stanley, who didn’t have on his seatbelt, went through the windshield. The police found some 50 beer cans spread across the road that night.
“I made a lot of missed judgments and mistakes that night,” he says. “I had made similar bad decisions before, but this time I nearly lost my life.”
The accident set him back developmentally. At a time when he was supposed to be figuring out where to go in life, he was instead forced to focus on long-term recovery.
“At 18 years old, you want to be thinking about your future. I was thinking about that day,” he says. “So I slowed down in ways that are hard to explain. I had to regroup. It took time.”
Still, he returned to a school routine, taking classes through the internet to get credit, and graduating with his class. He started classes at Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor, but didn’t follow through on his hopes to earn an early childhood education degree. Instead, he fell in love with the woman who would become his wife, Natalie, and they began their life together. Natalie finished her studies in radiology and now works at Maine Coast Memorial Hospital in Ellsworth. Today, Stanley and his father run a baking soda-blasting company cleaning boat hulls. When the season is out, he does summer barge work for Captain Wid Minctons, owner of C/V Charles Bradley. He’ll continue in the carpentry business this winter with his father.
“I realized, Okay, I lived through something that could have killed me. I need to do something with my life. I realized, I’ve got this second chance in life. There was all this positive movement, but I couldn’t follow through with it very well,” he says. “When you look at it all, I’m just fortunate that I’m here. I’ve found reason for life, I’ve found enjoyment in everything, I’ve found the want and the will to work, to achieve things, to be studious, to be me. It’s taken a long time to get there. There have been a lot of setbacks. But every negative thing that has happened in my life, including this near-death experience, has taught me so much, and I have benefited positively in so many different ways.”
But he doesn’t want the lesson to stop there. As a member of the community, and especially now, as a parent, he hopes that others will learn from his mistakes.
“You’ve got to enjoy every day, live in the now,” he says. “Life is wonderful. People take it lightly. They don’t realize how big a deal life is, and the opportunities we have. Especially as kids, we don’t realize what we’re getting into. We forget how important it is to follow the basics of safety. There’s a lot to be missed if you die in a car at 16 or 18 years old.”
This is the message that he wants to tell today’s high school kids.
“I really don’t want this message to be so much about me, but about the entire MDI community and about how we should be educated enough to take care of one another,” he says. “There are reasons all around us that, if we pay attention to them, we can grow stronger as an island community.”
Stanley cites at least eight other MDI children who died in car accidents within roughly the past decade.
“We remember, from MDI High School, the accident injuring Jonathan Griffin in 1998. A scary moment, although, fortunately, he survived,” Stanley says.
He recalls Josh Sprague, a Bar Harbor teen who died in a car accident one morning when on Route 2 near the high school. Josh was an MDI graduate who spent much of his spare time playing basketball at the Y with friends. Stanley was a freshman in high school when Josh died.
Clint Chernoski, of Southwest Harbor, also died in a car accident when Stanley was in high school, as did soon after John Dow.
Chelsea Rae Ordway, 16, died unexpectedly in a car crash on Feb. 27, 2001. A junior at MDI, she enjoyed music and attending concerts and being on the internet.
Kelley Seavey, 17, and Nichole Jacobs, 16, both of Tremont, died in a single-vehicle accident in May 2001. Kelley’s younger sister was also in the wreck, and survived, with severe injuries. Kelley was a cheerleader at the high school and would have graduated the next month. Nichole was an enthusiastic joy to be around and the life of her family.
There was Blaine “Bubba” Thomas Alley, 17, who died on Aug. 10, 2005, in a car crash in Town Hill. Blaine was an incoming senior at MDI High School and was looking forward to the carpentry program at The Boggy Brook Vocational School.
Michael Alan Lewis, 16, died in a car crash on August 19, 2009. Michael enjoyed being outdoors. His passion was riding four-wheelers, snowmobiles, and racing his dirt bike with friends. What he enjoyed most was putting a smile on everyone’s face.
“Although it is impossible to prevent many accidents, a lot of these situations could have been different with better decision-making, like not driving too fast, remembering to wear seatbelts, not talking or texting on cellphones, not acting young and bulletproof,” Stanley says. “There’s no one to blame. It’s just so unfortunate, these examples, how they happened and how they have traumatically impacted the lives of their loved ones, and the communities that raised them.”
Kelly and Nichole were from his hometown of Tremont.
“Their accident had a big impact on everyone who knew these girls when they died,” he says. “Clint came from next-door Southwest Harbor. His loss was also very hard to accept. Josh died when I was a freshman in high school. It also rattled the entire school and community. I didn’t know Josh, and I didn’t realize the effect it would have on me.
Generation after generation, we’ve all lost friends in high school. It seems as though you can talk with someone who lost friends in car accidents 40 years ago in high school as well. People who live on Swan’s Island lost friends of high school age on Swan’s Island; you can’t even drive that fast out there. Generation after generation, we all raise our kids and we try to raise them right, but we forget. And next thing you know, things get serious. They did for me. And when I went through this accident, I recall all my friends wearing their seatbelts and telling other people, ‘Wear your seatbelt.’ And it lasted for three months and then it just faded away. And then Clint died. And all Clint’s friends were saying, ‘Wear your seatbelts.’ And then they forget after a short period of time.”
Stanley was a dear friend of Clint Chernoski’s sister.
“I watched her family break down after his death. It was scary,” he says.
He has also seen the terrible grief suffered by John Dow’s parents.
“They miss their son,” he says. “I feel terrible about it. It’s hard to not consider their pain when I see them, but it’s something I’m fortunate I don’t have to worry about for my parents. I couldn’t imagine what that would have been like for them. My heart continues to go out to my peers mentioned, and everyone affected with their loss. I have done a great deal of thinking about them. It has never been easy to understand.”
The worst thing a community can do, he says, is to forget the lessons learned. He wants people to remember these kids, who have taught life’s most important lesson – to experience life itself.
“People have died in high school for years. And it’s probably going to continue to happen. But we don’t want it to, so how do we prevent that? I think it’s by remembering that these things happened,” he says. “By verbalizing the fact that we’ve lost children, verbalizing the fact that your child mean the world to you – tell them that you love them more than anything else out there, and please just do mom and dad that one favor and be responsible, do what you know inside is right.”
Parents, friends, family, neighbors, and members of the schools and community must act together to make sure that children coming into driving age have safe vehicles, wear their seatbelts, and drive and act responsibly, he says.
“These are things that all parents want. It’s simple, right? But we get caught up in daily life, and the important things, like wearing your seatbelt, which would save your life, gets overshadowed by other stuff,” he says. “We take things for granted. The seatbelt thing – you’re ‘not going to crash’ necessarily on the ride to the store, so you don’t wear your seatbelt. But what if you did crash? Everybody around you is affected, and their whole world changes. That’s my message. Things do happen, when you least expect it. We don’t want to fail at something so obvious and so simple as paying attention and wearing seatbelts.”
And he wants high school-age kids, for generations to come, to remember what’s truly important in life – and that is, to resist terrible influences that can rob them of life.
“What you’re doing in high school does not define who you are as a person,” he says. “Kids in grammar school look at life differently than kids in high school. They go from being pure, in a way, to experimenting in growing up, which involves a lot of negatives. Believe it or not, the perspective changes for a high schooler crossing into the next chapter in life, too. To become an adult, you may have to go through some negative experiences, but that doesn’t define who you are, who you always were. But you can ruin your life by trying to be something that you’re not in high school, by joining that scene, by having those friends. You would be impressing friends that are likely gone as soon as you graduate. You want to enjoy yourself at high school age, but don’t let it change who you are as a person.”
The drive to experiment, to look at the world in different ways, is part of the human experience, he says. And it’s prevalent during high school years, when the world gets bigger, when there are more personalities and more options – and a need to be accepted.
“I would say to kids, Trust yourself and trust what’s right. Be you and love who you are and take care of your mind and your body. You only get one chance. Don’t destroy it before you find your calling in this world, as I did. I nearly lost what I could not see ahead of me. I would have never found my future as a husband and a father. I would have never found myself as a confident and happy man. I nearly took the joys and promises of my continued growth through life away from my entire family. But it’s only because I could not see past the importance of social acceptance at the ages of 16, 17, and 18. I stopped listening to what I knew was right, and instead I put myself in dangerous situations. With this new school year, we all as parents and kids need to pay attention.”
He adds, “Let’s enjoy one another just a little bit longer. Let’s enjoy this incredible earth for all it’s given us. We shall all continue to marvel in our human ability. So let’s safely enjoy our wonderful lives on MDI.”