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Car Crashes

For Monique Porsandeh, Life Brought to a Halt by a Reckless Driver

On an average day in San Francisco, three people are injured by drivers. But only a small portion of these crashes are reported in the media. Of those that do get ink, most reports are just a blurb of very basic information -- whether the person suffered "life-threatening" or "non-life threatening" injuries, whether the driver "cooperated" with police. Rarely are stories told about the victims whose lives were left shattered in the wake of the crash.

On February 24, a reckless driver plowed through two pedestrians as they crossed Fillmore and Green Streets in the Marina District at about 2 a.m. The headlines appeared in early March: "Two pedestrians struck, injured on Fillmore Street," and "SFPD seeking damaged Honda Accord in double hit-and-run."

Four months later, I discovered that the victim in that crash was Monique Porsandeh, whom I grew up attending grade school with in Southern California but hadn't kept in touch with. Porsandeh, I learned, was undergoing intensive physical therapy to regain basic physical abilities like standing and walking, while struggling to foot the bill for tens of thousands of dollars in medical care. She says she doesn't remember the first two weeks after she was hospitalized.

The night of the crash, Porsandeh's life as a graduate neuroscience researcher at UC Berkeley came to a sudden halt. "I still feel strangely disconnected from the accident... and that's hard because there's a gap in my life," she wrote in an email from a physical rehab center in Santa Barbara, where she was moved to be closer to her family in Ventura County. She said she still lacked the energy to talk extensively for a phone interview in addition to her physical therapy.

Though finding the driver might help bring her a sense of closure, "I don't harbor any anger or lingering resentment for whoever did this," Porsandeh said. "I just want to meet him or her, and look them in the eye, because I don't understand how someone could hit me and left me in the street to die."

Police determined that the driver had been going roughly 40 mph westbound on the wrong side of Green -- a neighborhood street -- when he or she ran the stop sign where Porsandeh and her friend were crossing, hitting them both. The driver sped off, leaving Porsandeh with a shattered pelvis and leg, several broken vertebrae and other bones, as well as traumatic brain injury and neurological damage. The other victim suffered only minor injuries. A nearby witness called 911.

"This driver changed the course of Monique's life in an instant," said Sunny Lai, a close friend. Lai and other friends from the International House -- the UC Berkeley student residence where Porsandeh lived -- organized a rally on Saturday, where a few dozen supporters marched through the Marina to bring attention to the need for safer streets and to bring the driver to justice.

"I can't really imagine what [the driver was] thinking, if they were thinking," said Amit Deutsch, also a friend of Porsandeh's from the I-House.

If found, the driver who hit Porsandeh will face "felony hit-and-run charges and lesser charges of speeding and failing to drive with due caution when a pedestrian is in the road," SFPD Sergeant Dennis Toomer told Mercury News.

"It's just common decency to stop and render aid to someone who has been struck by a vehicle," Toomer said. "What else can you say? It's an egregious crime."

But Mahendra Prasad, who organized the Saturday rally, noted that drivers rarely face legal consequences for killing pedestrians in the Bay Area, as the Center for Investigative Reporting confirmed in April.

Porsandeh said she "was really surprised and disappointed to find out how few protections there are for victims of hit-and-run accidents, and how rarely the drivers get prosecuted, even when there's irrefutable evidence of what they did. I hope that at least some increased awareness of these types of crimes comes out of my ordeal."

With an estimated 1,000 pedestrians injured in San Francisco last year -- 19 of whom were killed -- "the facts are alarming, devastating, and demand action by our city," said Zack Marks, chair of the SF Pedestrian Safety Advisory Committee, who at the rally called for greater police enforcement against dangerous driving. "The status quo is deadly, and simply unacceptable."

Photo: Aaron Bialick

"Most people have no idea how frequent tragedies like this are," said Elizabeth Stampe, executive director of Walk SF, who said police should raise awareness of traffic injuries by making pertinent information more readily available to the media. She noted that the SFPD's daily crime summaries sent out to the press don't typically include pedestrian injuries. "SFPD should treat traffic crimes like they treat other crimes -- sharing information with the media, and targeting the most dangerous places and behaviors," she said.

Porsandeh, whose rehabilitation includes restoring neurological functions and rebuilding muscle mass lost from spending four months in a bed and wheelchair, was only able to walk without personal assistance last week, and still relies on a walker. Still, she said she hopes to return to work in September. "My work was a very significant part of my life," she said. "I really enjoyed my job at UC Berkeley and my research on decision making in adolescents, often working until late at night, or on the weekends."

Her recovery, however, "has taken more time and work than any full time job I've ever had," she said. "There are a lot of problems that have resulted from this traumatic accident, such as all the surgeries, physical pain, emotional pain and confusion, and the fact that I'm completely dependent on others for almost everything. But a lot of good things have come out of it too. I'm using this experience as a chance to form good new habits, and to learn to use my body in a more efficient way."

Lai describes Porsandeh's crash at the intersection of Fillmore and Green Streets where it happened. Photo: Aaron Bialick

Lai, Porsandeh's friend and former roommate, helped launch an online fundraising campaign to help pay her medical bills. As of today, $17,440 has been raised, with a goal of $50,000. Lai noted that the cost of Porsandeh's bills would have been a much heavier burden had she not had health insurance.

"I didn't really realize how many people's lives I had touched until something like this happens," Porsandeh said. "It's been a unique, positive, and truly humbling experience, and I am so grateful for everything that my friends and family have done for me."

In a recent visit with Porsandeh, Lai said she "sensed positivity and acceptance in her attitude, which is in stark contrast to where she was at the beginning of her recovery. She was actually in a very dark place, coming to realization with what happened." Lai was the first to visit Porsandeh in the hospital along with Neelofer Karimyar, who met Porsandeh in high school and lives in San Francisco.

Karimyar said her "life was turned upside down" after Porsandeh's crash.

"It was so upsetting to watch her struggle and re-learn that this accident happened for the first few weeks," she said. "But I knew, at the end of the day, how strong she was and that she was going to come out of it."

Anyone with information about the hit-and-run crash can contact SFPD at (415) 575-4444 or text TIP411 and begin the message with SFPD. The suspect's car is described as a 2008-2012 dark Honda Accord which was damaged on its right front headlight, hood, windshield, and fender on February 24.

A passing police cruiser began escorting the marchers, blocking cross traffic at intersections while they crossed. Photo: Aaron Bialick
Photo: Aaron Bialick
Lai and Porsandeh earlier this month.

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