It only takes an instant to change a life. That's exactly what Barbara Esrig learned in 1997, when the car she was driving was struck head-on by another vehicle.
The other driver had been trying to pass several cars at once and couldn't get back into the other lane. Esrig said everything around her seemed to slow down.
"There was this huge white explosion. And then there was silence," she said.
She suffered five cranial nerve paralyses in the crash, which also broke 164 bones.
"Everything was broken, except for my neck, my spine and my pelvis, and my hips," Esrig recalled. "So all the important ones, I didn't break. But everything else was kind of toast."
Hospital staff were doubtful that Esrig would survive, let alone recover.
"But I knew that I would," she said. "And this one doctor came in — he was a student and he was pretty freaked out."
At the time, Esrig had a patch over one eye and was breathing with the help of a respirator. She was nearly covered with tubes and gauze.
"But I was definitely alive inside," she said. "I knew exactly where I was."
Holding her chart, the young doctor talked about all the different things Esrig might never be able to do again. The list included things like talking, smelling — and tasting. So using a pair of chopsticks to point at an alphabet board next to her hospital bed, Esrig spelled out her response to the doctor: "Life is not worth living if you can't eat cannolis."
"Now put down the chart," she wrote, "and give me a hug."
That's what the doctor did. He later told Esrig that patients like her were the reason he went to medical school.
"From then on, I called him Dr. Cannoli," Esrig said. "He became this wonderful doctor, and we became friends."
That was exactly what she needed — to make a human connection.
It was important, Esrig said, "to have people show me that I was something other than a car accident, that I was something other than a diagnosis. That I was a whole human being."
Produced for Morning Edition by Katie Simon. The senior producer for StoryCorps is Michael Garofalo.