After the love of her life drifted into a coma, doctors told Brandi Collins to make a list.
Her 40-year-old husband, Jason, had been critically injured in July after another driver ran a red light and hit him while he was riding his motorcycle near the couple’s home. If he did survive, she would have to reteach him everything – how to breathe, how to speak. He would not remember courting her as a teenager or their three children. She would need to explain his entire life to him.
One agonizing month later, Jason Collins opened his eyes.
“It was a miracle,” Brandi Collins said during an interview at the couple’s home in central Fresno. “He knew me. He loved me. My biggest fear was that I would have to teach him how to love me again. I’m not the same person I was 20 years ago. We’ve grown together, but if he didn’t remember that, how was I going to teach him to love me again?”
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Her husband, seated next to her, a few feet from a modest Christmas tree, interjected: “I remembered that I love you.”
The couple now faces a bittersweet Christmas.
Collins is grateful that her husband survived, but at great cost: Most of Jason’s left leg had to be amputated. His wrist, right leg, back and skull were fractured. The family has struggled to keep up with medical charges and monthly bills while Jason isn’t working. Private insurance and Medi-Cal have both refused to pay for a prosthetic leg for Jason, who has used a large, clunky wheelchair donated by a friend for months.
Aug. 22The date Jason Collins opened his eyes after being in a coma for a month
For Brandi, the struggle for justice has been even more frustrating.
The couple believes the driver who hit Jason, Curtis Lowe, was either high or drunk and left the accident scene after hitting him. The Fresno Police Department recommended four charges against him, including felony DUI resulting in gross bodily injury. However, the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office said the evidence doesn’t prove Lowe was drunk, and an odd law prohibits the office from prosecuting him.
Their troubles began in the early morning of July 18. Collins was riding his motorcycle near Shields Avenue and Fresno Street – just a few blocks from his home. His brother, Ryan McCarthy, had stayed over the night before and was at the corner when Collins was driving by.
McCarthy watched Lowe hit his brother. According to the police report, Lowe was traveling 38 to 43 mph and did not attempt to stop. Collins was thrown off his motorcycle and flew about 30 feet before hitting concrete near a canal. McCarthy and a passing Fresno Police Department crime-scene investigator rushed to save Collins from tumbling into the canal.
After the accident, Lowe left. He eventually returned to the intersection, but the amount of time that elapsed is under debate. The family said he was gone for nearly an hour, but prosecutors insist it was only a few minutes. Lowe borrowed a phone to call his girlfriend and tell her he had wrecked her parents’ car.
Collins has no memory of the crash. His five skull fractures caused his brain to swell. Because of the injury, Brandi Collins was not allowed to touch or speak to him for a week.
“The doctors said any stimuli at all could make him worse,” she said. “They couldn’t operate on his leg because the sensation would kill him.”
Ultimately, Collins made the difficult decision to have her husband’s left leg amputated above the knee. Infection had set in and threatened to spread to the rest of his body.
Fresno police Detective Jeremy Maffei conducted the investigation. He said that Lowe was cooperative and did not appear intoxicated when he arrived around 8:30 a.m. Lowe was not given a field sobriety test, but he consented to a blood test at the hospital. His blood-alcohol level was 0.01 – below the legal limit of 0.08 – but he also tested positive for marijuana.
Maffei said that this test result, as well as the evidence collected at the scene and testimony from McCarthy, led him to believe that Lowe was impaired by drugs and did in fact run the red light. He recommended three DUI-related charges and a citation for running a red light to the District Attorney’s Office.
However, the DA did not file charges.
Assistant District Attorney Jeff Dupras explained why: The drug test doesn’t mean that Lowe was high at the time of the accident. He could have smoked marijuana the night before or at some other time. Because he was well below the legal blood-alcohol limit, the prosecution would not be able to prove he was under the influence of a controlled substance at the time of the accident.
He took a whole leg from me. He damaged my friends and family for life.
Jason Collins on the lack of criminal charges filed against Curtis Lowe, the driver who hit him
Although Lowe appeared to have run a red light, that does not make him criminally liable for injuring Collins.
“It’s a weird quirk in the law,” Dupras said. “If you commit a traffic infraction and kill someone, it can be misdemeanor manslaughter. But if the person doesn’t die, it’s just a traffic accident – there’s no criminal liability.”
Dupras said it was unfortunate the District Attorney’s Office couldn’t do what the family wanted, but it is obligated to follow the law as it is written.
“It’s a horrible tragedy,” he said.
The District Attorney’s Office has been in constant contact with the Collins family, Dupras said. Several attorneys have suggested they pursue a civil case and consider legal action if Collins’ private insurance company didn’t cover medical costs – including a prosthetic leg.
The family has filed a civil suit against Lowe, but Collins said the maximum amount he could be awarded is $15,000. His private insurance will likely take this settlement to help cover his mounting medical bills, Collins added.
Maffei said the office’s decision not to file charges was frustrating.
“It does happen quite a bit,” Maffei said. “We write a lot of reports and submit them to the DA. That’s just how the process goes sometimes.”
Brandi Collins is still upset with the result, but she said the family decided last week to move on and focus on the healing process.
“He (Lowe) will get his in the end,” she said. “He will have to meet his maker and answer for what he’s done.”
The Bee was unable to reach Lowe for comment.
The recovery process has been difficult.
Collins was only a week into a new job as a mechanic when the July accident occurred. He didn’t receive his first disability check until December. His wife is also disabled – she suffered a debilitating stroke due to Type 1 diabetes nine years ago and has been unable to work. The family struggled to pay the mortgage on their home, which they purchased in April.
“We’ve been surviving on the generosity of others,” Brandi Collins said.
Family members and friends have donated their time and money since the accident. They built plywood ramps to help Jason get in and out of his home. They paid for Collins’ daughter, 17-year-old Cheyanne, to take her senior pictures and order her cap and gown.
Brandi credits her children for serving as the family’s foundation during this difficult time. Her oldest, 19-year-old Alexander, is his father’s main caregiver. He is the only one strong enough to help Jason get in and out of cars. Alexander also works nights – contributing what he can to pay the family’s bills.
15Brandi Collins’ age when she first met Jason
If Alexander is not around, Brandi must keep either Cheyanne or 14-year-old Gage out of school if Jason needs to be taken to the doctor’s office or physical therapy. She just isn’t strong enough to help with his wheelchair, she said.
Through it all, the children have not complained about having to care for two disabled parents, Brandi Collins said. They also understand that things like Christmas presents and family trips will be sparse this year.
Jason has needed a lot of help. His right leg – which the family jokingly calls “his good leg” – required reconstructive surgery that rendered him completely immobile for a month. His rib and wrist fractures have healed, but his back still aches. He has difficulty finishing sentences and remembering some things. Doctors believe he won’t have his full brain function back for another year or two.
He also experiences phantom limb pains, which he describes as “feeling like his leg is smashed and trapped under our bed.” He hates being in a wheelchair and wants more than anything to return to work.
Sometimes he just rolls around the house in circles looking for something to do.
Brandi Collins on how inactivity has bothered her husband during his recovery
That might yet happen.
Paul Geiger, CEO of Geiger Prosthetics and Orthotics in Visalia, learned of Collins’ story from an employee. He met with Collins this week to fit him for a prosthetic leg.
“This guy got a bad deal,” Geiger said. “I told him, ‘I am going to make you a leg, and it’s not going to cost you a dime. I don’t care if I get paid or not.’ ”
Geiger said the leg will be ready by mid-January. He will also help Collins learn to use the new leg, which can be difficult. Below-the-knee amputees typically exert about 10 percent more energy to walk, but Jason and other above-the-knee amputees usually expend 60 percent more.
Once he begins using it, Collins’ leg will change shape. Geiger said he will continue to modify and pad the leg until it sets comfortably.
“It will probably be about eight months before he is totally ready to go,” Geiger said.
Although their journey is far from over, Brandi Collins knows her family and friends have the strength to get through the recovery process.
“You never know how strong you can be until you have to be,” she said. “And we never realized how much of an impact we had on other people’s lives. All of our friends have stepped up for us.”
How to help
The family has set up a GoFundMe account to help pay for Jason Collins’ expenses.