Hidden Damage

Some calamities begin with a letter, others with a phone call. An argument. A drink. A wrong turn. In the case of Sunserea McClelland, catastrophe comes at her from behind one snowy spring morning. She never sees it coming.

Seconds later, her whole world turns upside down. All changed, changed utterly. And she doesn't even know it yet.

On April 10, 1997, the 24-year-old assistant office manager is heading for work, snugly belted in her Mitsubishi Eclipse. Her sons, six-year-old Jaysun and five-year-old Josh, are in the car with her, bound for school and daycare. Coming down a hill on West Dakota Avenue, on the edge of the Green Mountain subdivision, McClelland sees a truck at the bottom of the hill fishtailing on the snow-slicked road as it heads toward her. She slows down, then stops.

Behind her, a Volkswagen Jetta driven by 46-year-old Lakewood resident Charles Goodwin fails to respond quickly enough to McClelland's braking maneuver. The Jetta rear-ends the Eclipse, at a speed later estimated to be under five miles an hour.

In the annals of Denver's traffic mayhem, the collision scarcely qualifies as a fender bender. There isn't much apparent damage to the bumper of either vehicle. The accident report is exactly one page long; Goodwin is cited for driving "too fast for conditions." None of the occupants of either car goes to the hospital that day. But even moments after the accident, there are signs that something is wrong with Sunserea McClelland.

Goodwin will later testify that the driver of the Eclipse kept asking, "What street is this?" It's an odd question, since McClelland is only a block from her apartment when the accident happens, on a street she drives all the time.

McClelland uses her cell phone to call her sister, Shannon Disheroon, and tells her about the collision. "She was in a panic and not making sense," Disheroon recalls. "She hung up on me. I called her back, and she hung up on me again."

McClelland doesn't remember much about the accident. She remembers Josh crying out, "Ow! My neck!" She remembers arguing with a paramedic about her correct age.

She does not remember going to a chiropractor that day, complaining not only of neck pain but of blurred vision, nausea and headaches -- classic symptoms of a closed-head injury. She does not remember calling her sister a few hours later to tell her she'd been in a crash, only to be reminded of the previous phone call, which she'd already forgotten that she'd made.

Almost everything that happened that day is a blank to her now, and has been for some time.

"I can still see some kids waiting for the bus, right before the accident," she says. "But other than that, I don't remember much. I just know I got hit."

A Simple Case

It is several weeks after the accident before McClelland realizes that something bad is happening to her. At first she's too busy to pay it any mind.

Named after an Apache maiden in a Jimmy Stewart Western, Sunserea grew up dreaming of a career in medicine. Her mother was a nurse, and Sunserea started volunteering in nursing homes and hospitals as a teenager. After she got to know some of the ambulance crews and their pulse-pounding, full-throttle approach to emergency work, she set her sights on becoming a paramedic.

The dream was sometimes elusive, yet she hung on to it. She dropped out of Edgewater's Jefferson High in her senior year to marry her boyfriend, Jay McClelland. The marriage produced two sons, but by 1994, Sunserea and her husband had separated. She got her GED and went looking for employment. At the time of the accident, she was working three jobs. Five days a week, she worked in the office of an auto-glass shop. Three mornings a week, she came in early and cleaned the shop.

And every other weekend, when their father took Jaysun and Josh, McClelland volunteered at Broomfield Emergency Ambulance as an assistant to the paramedics. She drove an ambulance, set up equipment, assisted with patients, took classes and certification programs, and grabbed as many shifts as she could get. Week by week, she was getting closer to becoming a full-fledged paramedic herself.

"We had one of the toughest training programs in the country, and she cleared it faster than anybody I'd ever had," says Larry Powell, McClelland's former supervisor at Broomfield. "It's an incredibly complex job, and she was great at it."

But McClelland never returns to Broomfield Ambulance after her car accident. Her days of checking a patient's vital signs while immobilizing his spine or driving a cardiac case through heavy traffic are over.