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‘He was hit by a tractor–trailer:’ the Cavalier family reflects on accident

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Cavalier

Jack Cavalier

Barbara Cavalier almost hung up the phone.

The call came on a Sunday evening in the midst of the 2012 campaign season, and political ads had flooded the lines for weeks.

But she paused, and waited to hear what the caller on the other end had to say: “We have Mr. Cavalier loaded in an ambulance headed to Mary Washington.”

The caller couldn’t say if her husband was OK.

Barbara hurried to the hospital with her oldest son, Andrew. Part of Interstate 95 was shut down—because of Cavalier’s accident—so the pair traveled on U.S. 1.

“It was quite, I don’t know what the words are, life-changing,” Barbara said recently, recalling the night that forever changed their family.

Jack Cavalier, a three-term Stafford County supervisor, had been struck by a tractor–trailer on the side of the interstate that Sunday evening, Sept. 23, 2012.

The outlook wasn’t good.

After a call from the fire chief, several of Cavalier’s fellow board members and the county administrator also rushed to the hospital—beating the Cavaliers to the ER.

Jack Cavalier survived, and though his body was beaten up pretty badly during the ordeal, he’s doing well.

“One thing I’ll never forget is that after we got a report from the doctors in the emergency room, Paul [Milde] and Gary [Snellings] and I were standing there, and he was asking about the next meeting,” said County Administrator Anthony Romanello. They told Cavalier they’d take care of it.

“That always impressed me; he was already thinking about county business an hour after getting hit by a truck.”

EXCITED FOR 2014

Jack Cavalier, 55, was first elected to represent the Griffis–Widewater District in 1999. At that time, he promised to better manage residential growth, aggressively recruit businesses, increase recreational facilities and improve the appearance of the U.S. 1 corridor.

After two terms, he lost an election bid in 2007, but regained the seat in 2012.

The board has selected him as its chairman three times over the years, including this year.

Cavalier is excited for what 2014 holds, particularly the celebrations for the county’s 350th anniversary. Goals for the year include working on infrastructure needs and seeing projects completed, including the recreation center at Embrey Mill.

“That one is something I’m glad is finally coming to fruition,” Cavalier said during an interview last month at his Aquia Harbour home. He also plans to schedule regular meetings for school and county leaders.

After a year’s worth of leave due to his extensive injuries, Cavalier, a longtime engineer with the Defense Department, retired at the end of October. He had worked for the federal government for 30 years.

“I never have had the luck of being a full-time supervisor,” said Cavalier.

Now he will. He’s looking forward to the free time allowed by retirement, much of which he’ll fill with county business.

Cavalier’s also considering finding the right part-time job—locally, though, because he doesn’t want to commute far again.

“DATE IN INFAMY”

The Steelers game didn’t end how Cavalier had hoped it would on that fall day in 2012.

His team lost to the Raiders in the final minutes during that clash, and he was upset.

The Cavaliers and their son had been watching at their home on Coast Guard Drive, like they typically do on Sundays. Their other two children, Meredith and Matthew, weren’t home.

“He just wanted to get out of here for a while,” Jack’s wife said about his response to the football game loss.

Jack, who calls the 23rd “a date in infamy,” decided to pick up dessert at Gary’s Ice Cream on U.S. 1. But first, he wanted to check his ailing 1997 Chevrolet Suburban, which keeps “chugging along” after more than 200,000 miles of service. It had been leaking coolant, and he wanted to get it up to highway speeds to see if everything was OK.

But he didn’t make it to Gary’s.

A clunking sound convinced Jack to pull onto the shoulder of I–95 south, near exit 143. His reasoning was that he was close enough to an exit and could walk to get help, if necessary.

“That’s kind of the last thing I remember,” Cavalier said. “It’s all a blur to me.”

People who have near-death experiences sometimes report seeing a white light. Cavalier wonders if he saw the headlights of the truck that hit him.

The big rig’s driver swerved to avoid hitting Cavalier, who state police said had stumbled or somehow ended up in the right travel lane. The driver wasn’t charged; pedestrians aren’t supposed to be on the interstate, said state police spokeswoman Corinne Gellar.

Over the course of 2012 in Stafford, 12 pedestrians were injured and one died, according to records kept by the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. Across the state, 1,862 pedestrians were injured in vehicle accidents that year.

Cavalier’s body bounced off the front cab of the semi and was pushed to the front of his vehicle and to the right shoulder.

The driver immediately stopped to call 911, and a first responder with the rescue squad recognized Cavalier.

Cavalier wasn’t too cognizant, he said, but he remembers a paramedic asking if he wanted them to call his wife.

That’s when Barbara got the life-changing call.

“Right at that moment you’re thrown into a panic,” she said.

Once in the car, she and her son couldn’t remember which hospital to go to, but automatically drove to Mary Washington in Fredericksburg.

Romanello and three county supervisors were already there. “For someone to tell you he was hit by a tractor–trailer… I just thought he was gone, that was the first thing that happened,” Barbara said.

Matthew Cavalier was in Manassas, and Meredith was at the University of Virginia. Her friend drove her to Fredericksburg, but, panicked, was going too fast. A state trooper let them go, but advised Meredith she wasn’t helping her dad at all.

Meanwhile, Barbara said she waited 45 minutes in the emergency room without knowing anything.

“It was like a movie, the surgeon was walking toward us, pulled off his cap, and it was just so eerie looking at him,” Barbara said. “I just figured he was coming to tell me Jack was gone.”

Even though his physical injuries were horrible, there was no internal damage. While she was visiting with her husband, doctors started to staple the back of his head together.

The doctor said the family could view it as a really bad night, or a really good night.

“It’s really good. It could have been so, so awful,” said Barbara.

“LIKE A MUMMY”

The supervisor remembers waking up and feeling something being poured on his head—alcohol to prep for the stitches in the crack across the back of his skull.

“I was in so much pain,” Cavalier recalled. “There was a lot of trauma to my body.”

The hit left him with a compound fracture of his left femur, a shattered left elbow, a right leg that was broken below the knee and five broken ribs.

“I was pretty much like a mummy,” Cavalier said about his first days at Mary Washington Hospital.

At one point, he looked down and saw a bar screwed onto the outside of his leg. He was thankful that his leg was still there.

He stayed at HealthSouth for four weeks, receiving lots of attention from some of the older ladies there. He couldn’t put weight on his legs, and Barbara said he was “too broken” to bring home yet.

Then, physical therapy began, a taxing three hours per day. The Fredericksburg facility was a nice place to recuperate, he said, complimenting staff there.

On Oct. 25, he came home to his two-story brick house, at the top of a steep driveway, in a wheelchair.

The family set up a hospital bed in the den and a ramp over the few steps at the front door.

Recovery continued, and then he was up on his feet with a walker, then a cane, and then could walk unassisted.

He recently joined a nearby gym, where he’s using elliptical machines and bikes to get back in shape.

Barbara, an 18-year assistant principal in Prince William County, said her husband still tries to do things he shouldn’t—like shovel snow off the sidewalk—and she has to put her foot down.

Most pain is lessening, except in his ribs, where it’s just a gnawing, constant irritation. He’s learned to tolerate it, though.

In the spring, he hopes his left arm will have enough strength to play golf again.

All told, Cavalier had just four surgeries.

After one on his arm, he woke up and didn’t see his appendage. A nerve blocker meant he had no feeling, and briefly, he thought his arm was gone. But, to his relief, it was just hanging above with a drip line.

“It’s been a long road to recovery in the end,” said Cavalier. “This is much better than the alternative.”

And the old Suburban? It was just a connection issue, and it’s still chugging along.

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