“I Owe It To My Family To Prove That I Can Succeed”
Three years ago, Jimmy Anderson went golfing with his best friend on a summer day in California. In the evening, he hopped in the car with his parents and his little brother, his only sibling, and the Anderson family drove off for dinner. Now, he recalls the tragedy that happened next.
On August 24, 2010, just days before his 24th birthday and his third year at UW Law School, a drunk driver blew a stop sign in a van going nearly 70 miles per hour in Patterson, California, Jimmy’s hometown, smashing into the Andersons’ SUV. Two days later, Jimmy woke up from a drug-induced coma.
His wife, Ashley, was there when he woke up. “She had to tell me that I was paralyzed from the neck down and that my family had passed away,” Jimmy said.
Upon impact, the Andersons’ car had flipped, rolled, and railed against a palm tree. Jimmy was in the back seat with his brother, who was about to enter high school. Firefighters used the jaws of life to extricate Jimmy from the wreckage. But his family couldn’t be saved. The drunk driver was also killed.
Now twenty-six, Jimmy recently graduated from law school and is preparing for a career as a Wisconsin lawyer. And Jimmy will be the first one to convince you that he’s going to succeed, despite his physical limitations.
Although he regained some movement below the neck, he’s a quadriplegic with limited use of his arms and hands. It takes him longer to do things physically, but his mind is ready for the rigors of law.
“I owe it to my family to prove that I can succeed,” said Jimmy. “Because of that, I know I will be
more motivated than most to do a good job.”
Those who know Jimmy are equally confident. Mike Hall, director of student life at UW Law School, says Jimmy has all the right tools to accomplish his goals as a lawyer.
“Aside from an extremely engaging personality and a strong work ethic, he’s incredibly bright,” said Hall, noting that Jimmy remains well versed in sports and politics, in addition to his legal studies.
“He’s got the drive, and his success since returning is remarkable,” Hall said. “I can’t imagine going through law school with the complications he has to face every day. But he does it.”
Jimmy Anderson now tells his story to high school students, OWI offenders, and other groups to high light the impact that drunk driving can have on individuals, families and communities.
He speaks after high school “mock crashes,” during which police and firefighters simulate a real crash caused by a drunk driver, using actual 911 calls and cars wrecked by DUI-related accidents.
“The high school kids sort of bear through it, then I tell my story. I’m young, and my brother was about to be in high school, so I think I get across to them.”
In cooperation with the district attorney’s office, he speaks to OWI offenders, hoping his story will resonate and make a difference. And he speaks out on toughening laws against drunk drivers.
“I’m glad that my story can hopefully help people. I’m glad I get the opportunity to keep doing more. If I can get at least one person to stop committing drunk driving-related offenses, or reach out to one kid, it will be worth it,” Jimmy said.
Jimmy grew up in Patterson, southwest of Modesto in the central valley. When he was 16, he met Ashley while working at an ice cream shop in the next town over. Both attended college at California State-Monterey Bay, graduating in 2008 before choosing UW-Madison for advanced degrees. Ashley, who earned a degree in environmental science, was headed to graduate school for cell and molecular biology. Jimmy chose law school.
Two years down, in 2010, the couple saved up to visit their families back home before Jimmy’s final year in law school. They did not return to Wisconsin the same, their lives altered by a drunk driver who registered a blood-alcohol level well over California’s legal limit.
Jimmy spent almost three weeks in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) in Modesto, and doctors surgically fused numerous vertebrae located in the spinal column of his neck, which was severely broken. Once medically stabilized, he was transferred to UW Hospital, and spent another week in the ICU before undergoing seven weeks in rehabilitation.
“My wife stayed with me every night, in a little cot in my room. We learned how life was gonna be,” Jimmy said.
Jimmy counts himself lucky.
“I was able to get off the respirator. I was able to breathe on my own. It gives me the chance to live my life as independently as possible.”
After a year off, he re-entered law school in August 2011, starting with a part-time schedule. He moved to full-time in spring and will finish up with final exams this month.
He’s able to write, type, feed himself, and perform other tasks with his fingers on one hand, assisted by a Tinodesis splint that allows him to pinch with wrist movement. He also uses voice recognition software, which interprets spoken words to produce text for study outlines and other documents.
Through the UW’s McBurney Disability Resource Center, the law school electronically scanned Jimmy’s texts, which allows him to navigate pages more quickly and use other tools. The UW Law School community, including several student associations, raised nearly $5,000 to help Jimmy’s recovery.
“The hardest part has been learning to ask for help. I was so independent before, and now I need a bit of help with everything,” Jimmy said. “But I’ve learned that there’s a real kindness in people, and everybody is always willing to lend a helping hand.”
Jimmy says Mike Hall made his transition back easier. “Whether it’s coordinating note takers or making sure classrooms are accessible, he is always there to help me.”
John Giftos and Roisin Bell, now partners at Bell Giftos LLC in Madison, visited Jimmy and kept him busy before his return to law school. Formerly attorneys at Michael Best & Friedrich, Giftos and Bell met Jimmy when he worked there as a summer associate in 2009.
“They wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to just sit there, or let the accident control my life,” Jimmy said. “When they moved firms, they gave me work, helped me keep my mind fresh and ready for when I went back to law school. They helped me understand that I was still able to do this, that could still be a lawyer, that the accident wasn’t going to hold me back.”
Determined not to let the accident control his life, Jimmy is demanding the same from his wife, Ashley. Before the accident, she earned her graduate degree and voiced an interest in veterinary school.
“After the accident, I asked her how the applications were coming. She said, ‘I’m not doing that now.’
I was like, that’s bullshit. We can’t let this dictate our lives. I kept bugging her, and she finally submitted her applications. Now she’s starting her second year of vet school at the UW.”
Ashley’s love for animals is evident at home, Jimmy says. The couple has two dogs, two cats, two rabbits, and a gecko. “She loves animals, and I love having them around,” he says.
Soon Jimmy will be applying for his first job as a lawyer. He’s interested in civil litigation (he did civil litigation work as a law clerk with Michael Best), particularly medical malpractice defense. And he’ll remind prospective employers about his drive to succeed.
“I was writing a cover letter recently. And I write about the accident, not as a way to garner sympathy, because that’s not what I want. What I want is to show that I can overcome any obstacle.”
He’s also ready for a fight.
“I have a competitive streak in me, so I enjoy the back and forth that goes on in all aspects of litigation,” he said. “I think having someone on the other side challenges me to be better.”This article originally appeared in the December 5, 2012 issue of WisBar InsideTrack, a bimonthly publication of the State Bar of Wisconsin, and is reprinted with permission.