One minute, you're driving down the road, enjoying the holiday break, looking forward to your final semester of college and your upcoming wedding. The next minute, you're wondering if the oncoming driver who has suddenly rifted over the centerline will adjust in time to avoid a head-on collision.
"I could see (the driver) was crossing over into our lane," said Levi Windingstad, describing the Christmas Day 2012 crash that changed his life. "We were coming around a curve, and they think she fell asleep. She kept coming across the line, and I waited to see what would happen. She kept coming into my lane, so I went into hers. She woke up and cranked the wheel. It felt like someone had a scope on you and you couldn't get out of the scope. It just happened so fast."
Windingstad's car was in the shop, and he was driving a friend's Jeep a little before 11 a.m. His father, David, was in the passenger seat. The driver of the other vehicle, 62-year-old Janet Scoblic from Eagan, died two days later. Windingstad has a broken left wrist, a broken jaw and a broken right ankle. He has temporary screws in his wrist, permanent screws in his ankle, and a plate in his jaw, which was broken vertically and in two other places. His mouth is wired shut, and he lost several teeth. His father suffered a broken clavicle.
He is in a wheelchair while he recovers and also uses a walker. He's been applying for graduate schools in pursuit of a geoarchaeology degree and has had some trouble writing letters of intent, which accompany the application.
"(The letters are) about why they should accept you, what you want to do, your goals and such. Because of the accident, it's been hard to write them. I haven't gotten to the root of why. My psyche changed a little bit. I still have drive, but it's hard to be completely driven now when you're so reliant on others. My limitations frustrate me. I'm a very independent person and like to do things on my own," he said.
He also has more empathy for students with disabilities who are in a wheelchair.
"People don't recognize me," he said. "They'll see me in the hall, and do a double take and go 'whoa.' You're used to looking at someone here, at eye level.
"Everyone should almost do this (spend time in a wheelchair). Getting ready takes six times as long. So many little things you take for granted."
Windingstad is 26. He took a couple of years off after high school graduation. The Morris native started out as a music major but changed to environmental science. That became his passion. He'll marry Bethany Jones, a nurse at the Avera Heart Hospital in Sioux Falls, on May 25.
He's in good spirits but is a bit more introspective.
"It's hard not to," he said. "I talked about this with my pastor. He asked me if I thought it affected the way I look at life. I was involved in something where someone lost a life. How can you look at life the same after that? Your life was spared, theirs was not."
He goes back to see orthopedic and oral surgeons on Feb. 11 and will have a better idea then how he's recovering. He's involved with some movement and motion therapy now.
"I love the outdoors and doing research outdoors. I should be able to get back physically," he said. "Everyone has been so helpful, and the faculty have been awesome. It's been a challenge, but I think it will be a strengthening thing in the end. Family-wise, friend-wise, you realize how much people care for you. I can't begin to list all the people to thank."
He turned 26 last November, and thus was ineligible for coverage on his parents' health policy. He recently was notified that, through a grant application filled out by a St. Cloud social worker, that costs associated with his hospital stay will be covered. He's on the hook for other bills associated with the accident, though.
"I was going to try and skim those four or five months without insurance. That's a lesson learned. Don't do that," he said.
Graduation is just a few months away, "and I hope to have some temporary teeth in by then," he said with a chuckle. Wedding plans are going well, and he hopes to be able to continue his improvement in the classroom.
"I wasn't a good student when I started. I went from zero-something to the dean's list. My advice would be find passion, and follow it. This is where you set yourself up for discovery. Find something that interests you, develop it, don't be scared and don't limit yourself. A liberal arts education is a good curriculum to go through. One of my favorite classes, outside of my major, has been rural and regional literature with Dave Pichaske. Who would have guessed that?" he said.
The road back is a slow one, and Windingstad looks forward - albeit with a new perspective - to his future.