Please allow me to express my Christmas Day appreciation for San Antonio’s 4,000 first responders. That might take some by surprise given the strong position I have taken on curbing union health care and pension costs in the now-suspended collective bargaining negotiations.

This public thank-you letter isn’t about contracts or negotiations. It’s about recognizing the people trained to protect us, and my gratitude for them being there to protect me when I needed them.

Given everything else our first responders face, a car wreck with no fatalities is hardly news to most, but it certainly gave me a renewed appreciation for life and good health.

This story starts a few minutes after 8 a.m.,Tuesday morning, Dec. 8, as I made my way to the Rivard Report’s downtown offices from our home on East Arsenal Street. Suddenly my windshield filled with a fast-moving SUV exiting the H-E-B South Flores Market parking lot and turning south. In the split-second before the crash, I remember thinking, “It’s too late,” even as my foot instinctively reached for the brakes.

A horrific tearing of metal and the shotgun blast of an airbag exploding in my face were the last things I remember.

A man’s voice broke the silence: “His car is on fire!” It sounded like someone faraway, but I later learned it was Cody Presley, a security guard working for H-E-B who was the first to reach the accident scene. People were shouting in strange, distant echoes. My legs wouldn’t move, both frozen with sciatica, a symptom of disk damage to my lower spine I had not experienced after surgery a decade earlier.

Sirens sounded and then I heard someone else say, “That’s just the car wiring burning.” A firefighter dressed in blue opened the driver’s door and then was inside the car, shutting off the ignition and wrestling with my  seat belt.  I could see an ambulance and other EMS workers standing by.

He asked if I was okay and if I knew what day it was. To my surprise and embarrassment, I didn’t know what day it was. He asked me my name, I think, and after a pause, I got that right. As he asked me more simple questions, I asked to go back to the first question.

“Tuesday,” I told him.

He asked if anything felt broken, and I said no, and then he helped ease my legs out of the car. After a few minutes, he and another EMS responder helped me stand up and lean against my car. I felt wobbly and dizzy and then I felt my oldest son, Nicolas, embracing me, which made me filled me with relief and gratitude. I later learned that police or firefighters had called Monika, my wife, and found her and Nicolas around the corner having coffee with her 84-year-old mother, Hilde Maeckle. I had just left them, I thought. Were they in the accident, too?

“An SUV hit me. Where is the car that hit me?” I asked my son as I started to look around at the street scene, a mix of mayhem and rubber-necking but no other vehicle. Nicolas pointed toward the parking lot where police had directed the SUV’s driver, her vehicle still functioning. I saw a man I recognized talking to her and then turn to wave at me. I waved back. I couldn’t remember any names, but I knew I knew him. Big city, small town.

“I went over and checked on her,” Nicolas told me. “She is okay, physically, but I think she’s in shock.”

Fast forward to the Nix Hospital emergency room. Monika was telling someone, yes, we could pay the $200 co-payment. A nurse then gave me an injection for pain and wheeled me into another building and up an elevator for a CAT scan. I knew I’d be visiting my former neurosurgeon to assess the impact of the crash on my spine. Readers who have battled sciatica know what an invisible and debilitating challenge it can be.

That’s my car — that was my car –in the photograph. I remember the day I bought it, driving to an outdoor gathering of fellow cyclists, expecting the attention a new car always seems to attract. An Englishman on our team took one look and sneered: “Look at that, would you now? I’ve bought shoes in better designed boxes.”

I loved that little car and our 98,000 miles of shared adventures.

It’s easy to see now why athletes think they can go right back in the game after a concussion.  I was back at work in two days, even hosting a holiday happy hour three days after the accident, although I was sore all over, my ears were ringing loudly and I was having to work to keep my balance. There was some short-term memory loss. I missed a long-scheduled breakfast, and when I asked another person about our meeting earlier that week, she gently explained that we hadn’t actually met.

I do wonder if first responders with their rich package of taxpayer-paid benefits face the same issues as us: paying the $200 co-pay in the ER before being treated. My neurosurgeon wouldn’t see me until Jan. 14, nearly a month after the crash. The office person for my family doctor informed me that he does not see patients for accident-related matters. I was pretty sure I had suffered a concussion, I told her, and needed a referral to a hearing specialist.

“I’m sorry, but the doctor does not see patients for accident-related matters or injuries,” she said. “He doesn’t make referrals for accident-related matters, either.”

That left me searching for a new family physician, one with a deeper embrace of his or her Hippocratic Oath.

As the days passed and I improved, more than one friend asked if I had taken the opportunity at the crash scene to ask the first responders if they were reading my coverage of the collective bargaining talks, which was good for a laugh.

Two weeks later, most of my concussion symptoms seem to be gone, and I am left with a quiet appreciation for our first responders. Most people don’t have the opportunity to say thank you in such a public way. I hope the first responders who came to my aid and all their fellow first responders throughout the city know that the people they help everyday would gladly join me in saying thank you publicly if they could. I’m doing it for them, and for myself and my grateful family in this season of giving.

Thank you, San Antonio Fire Department responders (with apologies for missing ranks):

Brian Clark
Joel Fox
Scott  Calame
Jesse Guerra
Mario Nerio
Zachary Wenzell

Thank you, San Antonio Police Department responders:

Officer Gabriel Gallegos
Officer Modesto Gutierrez

Thank you, H-E-B South Flores Market security officer:

Cody Presley

Thank you Nix Hospital Emergency Room staff.

Featured image: Robert Rivard’s 2006 Scion Xb after his accident on Dec. 8, 2015. Photo by Monika Maeckle.

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Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.