Life was good for Ashley Hampton before the night of Sept. 12, 2014.
The Kern Valley resident was driving on rural Highway 178 near Onyx in her brand new Fiat 500, making her way to Ridgecrest Regional Hospital to begin her first day as a certified nursing assistant, the job she’d always wanted.
But she never made it to her first day of work.
“As I was driving on the curved road, I saw blue lights going toward me, and then I heard a ‘bam!’” said Hampton, 23. “I flipped twice, but I don’t remember the flips. And then I started screaming for help.”
In an instant, a drunken driver had changed her life.
As Hampton lay trapped in her crumbled car, residents living down the road arrived first. Alvaro David Quinonez heard her cries for help.
“She was pinned in there, bleeding pretty badly,” he said. “At first, I didn’t think she was going to make it. We just tried to keep her calm.”
Quinonez checked on the other driver, too, but it was clear she had died, he said. Neighbors and passersby managed to roll Hampton’s car on its wheels.
When firefighters and paramedics arrived, they put oxygen on her and used the Jaws of Life to free her. Before being airlifted to the hospital, she remembers giving a thumbs-up to first responders before going to sleep.
Hampton woke up three days and five surgeries later. She suffered a broken foot, wrist, femur and pelvis, a splintered back, and bruised kidneys and lungs that would end up leaving her on a ventilator for seven days.
Hampton’s mother, Sheree Martin, received the call at 1:30 a.m. and made the difficult drive to Kern Medical Center from her Kern Valley home.
“She looked horrible. Her body was tremendously broken,” Martin said. “I’m sure she had angels around her that night or else she wouldn’t be here.”
Authorities told Martin the other driver was under the influence at the time of the crash. Later, the family was told she was three times over the legal limit.
At the hospital, Hampton had a few setbacks, including pneumonia that kept her for an additional 12 days. The injuries would leave her bedridden for four months.
Today, Hampton has trouble walking, uses a cane and a wheelchair for long trips. She has physical therapy several times per week in Bakersfield, and the medical bills keep piling up. She also has panic attacks.
But, it’s not just Hampton suffering. Her brother, for example, feels guilty; he told her to go to work early that night. Martin wishes she would have told her daughter to take the larger family car to work. There are also the mental injuries and the questions that will remain unanswered.
“I ask every day, ‘Why?’” Hampton said. “Why did she have to get in that car? Why did she have to drink and drive? Why didn’t someone stop her?”
In 2014, the California Highway Patrol gave nearly 2,200 citations for driving under the influence in Bakersfield. CHP officers in Kern County also noted 312 collisions, 422 injuries and 14 fatalities – all involving DUI.
It’s an epidemic, said Carla Pearson, victim advocate for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Kern County. Those involved in the nonprofit help victims manage the court process, present to DUI offenders and speak at local schools – all to end drunken driving.
So when Pearson heard that Hampton wanted to help as well, she was all for it.
“Her story is important,” Pearson said. “She has suffered a great deal, physically and mentally.
“To go through all of that schooling for nursing and have it taken away, it’s awful. She can’t just start over.”
Hampton has already presented at local high schools. She also spoke to first offenders about her experience.
“I tell them to not drink and drive and to make good choices, or else your life and the lives of others are put in danger,” Hampton said. “It can all be taken away from you and your family in an instant.”
Martin said her daughter, before the crash, would never have spoken in front of a crowd. But she’s passionate about it, and courageous, too.
Hampton also participated in the annual “Walk Like MADD & MADD Dash” 5K in September that helps raise money for the fight to end drunken driving in Kern County. She will continue to speak about her experience in hopes of raising awareness, she said.
— Jorge Barrientos is the director of marketing and public relations for Chain Cohn Stiles and a member of the planning committee for the annual “Walk Like MADD & MADD Dash” 5K.