Entertainment

06.20.14

The Crash and Churn of Lawrence O’Donnell

In an exclusive interview, the MSNBC anchor Lawrence O’Donnell reveals how he survived a head-on car crash, and why afterwards he cut himself off from the negative litany of the news cycle.

“What a stupid way to die,” Lawrence O’Donnell thought to himself.        

A split-second earlier, the host of MSNBC’s 10 p.m. program, The Last Word, had been gazing down at a map on his iPhone, following the progress of his taxi, a Chevy van, as he and his older brother Michael rode to dinner on the resort island of Tortola. It was around 7:45 p.m., Saturday, April 12, the start of what promised to be a lovely vacation in the British Virgin Islands with his big brother, a Boston lawyer.        

The vacation didn’t happen. Instead, O’Donnell, 62, underwent a life-altering crucible that he’s still trying to make sense of, while figuring out how to explain it to viewers when he returns to his show on Monday night after two-and-a-half months off the air.         

A former Senate staffer who subscribes to the truism that politics ain’t beanbag while displaying a decidedly jaundiced view of America’s fearless leaders, O’Donnell has a well-earned reputation for bared fangs and sharp claws (just ask some of his on-camera victims, like Herman Cain, Eric Cantor or Anthony Weiner). But after his brush with death, O’Donnell describes himself as newly empathetic, freshly sensitized to the world around him, and determined, more than ever, to accentuate the positive.        

“‘Lucky to be alive’—what does that mean? It’s a cliché,” he tells me.  “But because it’s a cliché, it is so profoundly true that it should rule most of the emotions of our day. Our day should begin with ‘Lucky to be alive.’ You should feel that feeling in the middle of the day, even after you have that argument with your boss. Guess what? You’re still lucky to be alive.”  

It’s hard to see how O’Donnell could feel otherwise since the events of last April in Tortola. It was already very dark outside as the van threaded its way along a busy mountain road, the island’s main artery, doing 30 miles an hour. Michael O’Donnell was seated behind Lawrence in the third row of seats. Lawrence was right behind the driver. Neither man wore a seatbelt. Although Tortola observes British traffic rules, with vehicles driving in the left lane, their van was configured for American roads, with the steering column on the left-hand side.

O’Donnell barely had time to look up from his iPhone when they were hit head-on by an oncoming car. 

“I have no idea what speed the other car was doing—he was probably the fastest driver on the island at that moment,” O’Donnell tells me in his first detailed interview about the incident. “He was out of control and jumped the lane…I was just overwhelmed by the noise of this crash, and all I could see was the light of the radio in the center of the dashboard, that was coming closer and closer—because the vehicle was getting crushed. It seemed like it was going on forever.”

Here O’Donnell pauses. At several points during his narrative, he has to stop to regain his composure. It’s as if he’s reliving his ordeal.

“When something happens that is such a shocking experience, your brain slows it down. Your brain tries to examine--What is this? What do I have to do? What is going on?”

“When something happens that is such a shocking experience, your brain slows it down,” he continues. “Your brain tries to examine—What is this? What do I have to do? What is going on? And this crash felt like it went on for 20 seconds, which is impossible, but it might have gone on for a few.

“The vehicles hit and we continued to roll down the road, kind of Indianapolis 500-style. It felt like we were in a roll-over, but the van was upright when it was all done. Watching that radio come closer and closer and that dashboard get crushed, I had what seemed an extremely long time to think about dying in this taxicab, and to think about my daughter [20-year-old Elizabeth, from his former marriage to actress Kathryn Harrold]. Then suddenly the radio stopped moving.”

O’Donnell was wedged in, leaning on his right side and trapped by the driver’s seat, unable to extricate himself but apparently not seriously injured—at least that’s what he believed at first.

The taxi driver was miraculously unscathed, as was the driver of the other vehicle, a drunken islander who, because of superficial bleeding that he sustained when his airbag deployed, was rushed off to the hospital in the first ambulance to the scene. Lawrence attributes the drivers’ good luck to the fact that they were in American cars on British roads, with their seats on the outside edge of the collision, and thus spared the full brunt of the impact. Michael O’Donnell was not so fortunate.

“The second the noise stopped I saw that my brother had somehow been flipped ahead of me to the front,” Lawrence says. “He immediately and correctly self-diagnosed himself as having a broken femur. He was absolutely right and in a tremendous amount of pain.”

Lawrence, though immobile, quickly took charge, telling his brother to give him his wallet and his keys, thinking that he would be the aggressive patient advocate supervising Michael’s medical care once they got to the hospital.

Michael “is a very tough guy and a real stoic,” his brother says. “He’s a military veteran and was the tough guy of my neighborhood when I was growing up, so I was really worried about him. I didn’t know I was also injured. So when they leaned into the taxi and asked how many injured are there, I said, ‘One.’ ” O’Donnell softly cries at the memory.

The emergency medical technicians pulled Michael out of the van, cut off his trousers to assess the damage, and carried him on a stretcher to a second ambulance. “That’s when I tried to pull myself out of the taxicab, and I find that I’ve got something that’s really bad on my left hip,” Lawrence says. “I’ve got a real problem. After a couple of attempts, I realize, ‘Oh, I can’t move.’”

He had a broken hip, fractured in several places as he was crushed against the driver’s seat. He had also suffered several knife-like flesh wounds on his legs. But if he positioned himself a certain way, he found he could avoid excruciating agony. 

“I think I need an ambulance, too,” he told one of Tortola’s first responders, who explained that he’d have to wait till one of the other ambulances returned; there were only two available on the island. It would likely be a long wait because the accident had caused an island-wide traffic jam. So O’Donnell looked around for the iPhone he’d just been holding; it had flown out of his hands on impact. He had to get in touch with his colleagues at MSNBC.

“It was so dark. I couldn’t see anything,” he says. “But then I looked down at my left foot and I happened to see an outline of an iPhone. For reasons I still don’t understand the floor was covered in about five inches of water, and the phone was under water. And I just reached down beside my left foot—which is something I cannot do to this day, by the way—picked up the phone, which was soaking wet, did that slide thing, punched in the code, and it was on.”

Within a few minutes, he was texting with various MSNBC producers, and within the hour—even before the ambulance arrived—MSNBC President Phil Griffin and Griffin’s boss, Patricia Fili-Krushel, chairman of the NBC Universal News Group, were arranging for separate private jets to medevac O’Donnell and his brother back to the United States—Lawrence to New York and Michael to Boston—and had lined up Dr. David Helfet, a renowned orthopedic trauma surgeon at Manhattan’s Hospital for Special Surgery, to operate on Lawrence.

The brothers arrived at their respective destinations at midnight Sunday. Michael was in the OR the following morning and Lawrence went under the knife on Tuesday, April 15, for a meticulous repair of his shattered hip using surgical nails; the flesh wounds were more challenging to treat and didn’t close up and begin healing in earnest until last week, O’Donnell says.

He lived for two weeks on the ward, having never spent a single night in a hospital up until that time. After being released, he stayed for a month in New York, mostly indoors, trying to get used to his crutches. On May 20, he finally boarded a plane back home to Los Angeles, where he has been undergoing daily physical therapy and making incremental improvement—at a faster clip than his brother, who was more grievously injured and is several years his senior. 

This past week, in what he describes as a “miraculous” development, O’Donnell started using only a single crutch, to prop up his left side, and his wounds have healed to the point where he can start relearning to walk in the swimming pool at his physical therapy center in Santa Monica.

Through it all, O’Donnell has noticed several profound changes in himself and the way he experiences daily life.

“When I left New York, I was in an SUV on the way to JFK, and as it emerged from the tunnel and got up to 50 miles per hour I was terrified, completely terrified, because I know that anything can happen at any minute,” he says. “I know it with a very intense and present sensation. It’s isn’t theoretical to me. It’s very real.”

In addition, for much of his recovery, O’Donnell discovered that it was best not to expose himself to newspapers or television, or media of any kind, lest he have to digest bad news that would set him back psychologically; he was a quivering mass of raw nerve endings and no longer possessed the ordinary human defense mechanisms that prevent most of us in the modern world from feeling too deeply the tragedies of others. That is, O’Donnell found that his optimal state was to live in the cultural equivalent of a sensory deprivation tank.

“I couldn’t bear any negative news,” he says. “When I started to hear some negative stuff about what was happening with my brother, I listened to it and went ‘OK’ and hung up and tried to get it out of my head. I just wanted to isolate myself completely from any negative information of any kind. So when I first turned on the TV after several weeks, I saw there was some crazy guy in Nevada and all these people aiming rifles at cops because they don’t want to pay for the land. I consumed about 39 seconds of that and I turned if off, because I didn’t want to consume all the ugliness.”

He adds: “I became one of those people who I’ve met from time to time who say they don’t watch the news. Too many bad stories. I never understood those people. Now I get them completely.”

O’Donnell acknowledges that his new aversion to negativity is not necessarily helpful to someone who anchors a nightly news and opinion program on cable television. “One thing I really want to do, as an experiment,” he says, “is have a segment every night that I will call ‘And now for the good news!’”

It might just work.