Sgt. Lowell Russell reflects on success, setbacks, and painful progress on the two year anniversary of a nearly fatal 2012 crash.
(WBIR - Monroe County) Sgt. Lowell Russell with the Tennessee Highway Patrol plasters the walls of his Monroe County home with portraits, photographs, and plaques from meaningful moments in his life.
"I love pictures. When my grandmother died, we were going through her things and found all of these old photo albums. We never saw those great pictures until after she died. I promised myself that would never happen in my house. I have pictures everywhere," said Russell. "I've had a lot of good times over the years. Each one of these pictures has some sort of special memory."
WBIR viewers have several reasons to remember Lowell Russell through the years. There was the 2002 story about Russell's compassion and routine visits to a family whose child was killed in a crash he responded to. In 2011, Russell was thrust into the spotlight when the young U.S. Marine he helped raise, Frankie Watson, was killed in Afghanistan.
But the traumatic unforgettable moment that made Sgt. Russell a household name in East Tennessee was a fiery crash that critically injured the trooper on March 13, 2012. A truck driver fell asleep at the wheel and plowed into Russell's cruiser on the side of Interstate 40 in Knoxville.
The most memorable public moment in Russell's life is an event he cannot remember at all.
"I don't remember much of anything about the wreck. Over time some of that night has come back to me, but not the wreck. I remember the night it happened, I stopped on my way to Knoxville by the graveyard to visit Frankie's grave. Then I stopped by the Alcoa Police Department to visit a friend. I went on to work and don't remember much about the crash itself."
Lowell found out about the crash and the brave rescue by emergency workers when he woke up in the hospital with injuries that should have killed him.
"I'm really blessed to be here because basically what the doctors told me is I was decapitated, but my head didn't come off," said Russell. "My skull was dislocated from my spinal cord."
When Russell awoke in the hospital, his first question was whether anyone else was hurt in the crash. The second question he posed caused friends and family to fear he suffered major memory loss. Russell asked, "Where is Frankie?"
"I did not know how long I had been unconscious. When I asked the question, I remembered Frankie's death. That was just a case of me hoping his death had all been a bad dream while I was knocked out."
Russell was unable to speak during his time in the hospital due to severe neck and throat injuries. He struggled to scribble words on paper to communicate everything from messages of love, small talk, to requests for bathroom breaks. Russell saved a large stack of those written messages.
"I like keeping stuff just to keep memories of things. Maybe I'll turn it into a scrap book someday. Just something I can hold on to."
Russell laughs as he tries to decipher the "chicken scratches" on the papers he saved.
"My handwriting is not very well. This one says 'Call Cory [Lowell's brother], I need a haircut.' This one just says 'Oops,' so I don't know what I did there or who I was talking to. This one says 'Pee.' Don't show that one on television or my friend Stacey [Heatherly with THP] will never let me hear the end of it. There's another one that says 'I want some pics,' so I guess I was wanting some pictures from whoever I was talking to."
Text on a computer screen made Russell aware of just how much support he had in the community.
"When I first signed on to Facebook, that's when I realized how much people really care. I had thousands of messages and friend requests. I've had to create a new 'public figure' Facebook page because I reached the maximum amount of friends. I could not accept any more friend requests after 5,000. The new page I use is set up so people 'like' me instead of doing friend requests, so there is not a limit."
Russell says the constant messages of encouragement have helped him endure two years of success and setbacks in his therapy.
"Some days it's really frustrating because I'm not as quick as I used to be. Recovery is a lot longer than I ever would have imagined it to be. You get up every day and your endurance is so low, but you have to build up. It's like climbing a ladder, you just have to go one step at a time. It is not as fast as I would like it to be, but I'm getting there."
Lowell recently took more drastic measures with hopes of improving his chances at a greater long-term recovery. He flew to California and underwent risky surgery to remove the hardware that held his spine together after the crash. The pile of bolts and screws that helped support his spine was also limiting his movement and range of motion.
"A good friend of mine at the local newspaper down here in Monroe County said it looked like a bunch of lawnmower parts inside my neck," said Russell. "I was shocked. I had seen x-rays before, but I didn't know there was that much stuff in there. It will be another six weeks before I can begin rehab and another six months before we know if the surgery was successful or not."
Russell is hopeful some increased mobility will allow him to resume a more rigorous physical lifestyle that includes running and strength training.
"I used to run at least two or three miles before I went to work. I was active and have not been able to run or do anything like that since the crash. I just want to get back to a normal life and hopefully be able to go back to work someday. The Tennessee Highway Patrol has supported me so much through all of this. They check on me constantly and help me with anything I need. I'd like to be a Trooper again someday, but I'll be happy doing whatever they want me to do as long as I get to wear that uniform."
Lowell says if people remember him from this day forward for a horrific crash, that will be fine with him. However, that terrible event at 2:50 a.m. on March 13, 2012, is not what he wants to be the main thing people recall.
"Ultimately, I hope my work ethic is what they'll remember about me. And I hope people remember that God has got a plan for all of us and he never puts anything before us that we cannot overcome."
Lowell Russell does not remember the crash. He will never forget the impact of a compassionate community that helped carry him through two years of critical challenges.
"I'm so thankful for the people who prayed for me since the crash. If it weren't for all that, I wouldn't be here. And of course, the people who pulled me out of that car are my heroes."
Russell forgave the truck driver, Eric Lewis, who caused the crash after falling asleep at the wheel.
"I spoke at his sentencing and told the judge I did not think incarceration would accomplish anything. As long as everyone learns from this incident, I think we can all just move on. He was convicted and got a year of unsupervised probation, which was fine with me."
Russell has worked to keep the memory of Frankie Watson alive in his community. He spends his free time raising money for scholarships in Watson's name. The $1,000 grants go to high school students in Monroe County who are dedicated to serving their communities.
The second annual Frankie Watson Scholarship Benefit Ride is scheduled for April 5, 2014. You can find more details on the ride and how to donate to the scholarship fund at the event's Facebook page.