Former Clara City, Minnesota, woman once described as 'best drunk driver' now advocate for MADD
May 20—UPPER SIOUX COMMUNITY
— Many of her friends told her she was "the best drunk driver."
Until she wasn't.
"I did not see the semi traveling at 60 miles per hour," Tara Griess, told an audience at the Toward Zero Deaths workshop for the southwest region of the state held May 11 at the Prairie's Edge Casino Resort.
Toward Zero Deaths
is a partnership of the state Departments of Public Safety, Health and Transportation to reduce roadway deaths.
Griess, formerly Lalim and now age 41, said she was drinking and driving with a friend on a warm Friday evening on Aug.12, 2011. They were en route from a bar in her hometown of Clara City to another to the south.
She had missed the county road where she should have turned, and was backtracking on a gravel road, music blaring in the car. She was looking west into the sun around 7 p.m. The semitractor driver saw her yield, but she pulled out and was T-boned at the intersection.
It was not far from her parents' home, and they heard the blaring sirens of squad cars, ambulances and fire trucks.
"Little did they know that it was me," said Griess. "My (car) seat squished me like a taco," she said.
She did not have a visible scratch, but by luck, one of the emergency responders was an off-duty respiratory therapist. When she told him her chest hurt and she could not breathe, he ascertained that she had fractured ribs and collapsed lungs and was in imminent danger.
An 80-miles-per-hour ambulance ride to Rice Memorial Hospital in Willmar was followed by an air ambulance flight to St. Cloud. She spent 28 days in an intensive care unit there. She was shocked back to life at one point. Her mother was there to witness as staff worked frantically to revive her.
Twenty-two of her 24 ribs had been fractured or shattered, some puncturing her lungs in that crash.
Her memory of that time in ICU is of a vision or dream she experienced during that "code blue" event. She said it was very, very dark, and she felt that God was giving her a choice. Her first was to hang out with friends, but she couldn't catch up with them and told them she couldn't join them, stating "my dad is here."
The next morning she woke up following a tracheotomy to find her father sitting in front of her. "He said I gave him the biggest smile ever," she said.
"I did not think I was an alcoholic because I didn't drink every day," said Griess while describing her path to addiction. She grew up in a loving home, followed the rules, and pursued her passion in high school and college. She loved basketball, and even had aspirations of playing professionally.
She had consumed some alcohol in seventh and eighth grades, but not in high school. Basketball was too important to her to risk violating the rules.
The MACCRAY graduate was recruited heavily for college, but Griess said she chose to go small. She attended North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton, North Dakota, for her first two years before transferring for her final two years to Mayville State University in Mayville, North Dakota.
She was a starter in basketball all four years. She followed the college rule: No drinking for 48 hours prior to games. "When Saturday night rolled around, it was party time," she said.
Griess said she largely followed that rule after graduation from college. Her college years had also led her to other substances, including marijuana, mushrooms at one point, and cocaine.
Said Griess: "I absolutely loved cocaine."
Her first brush with the law occurred when she was 18 and at a college party in Breckenridge, Minnesota. Some of the party goers jumped from a balcony to flee the police. It was basketball season. She and her friends stayed in the kitchen and received citations for minor in consumption.
Her second experience with the legal system came in 2004. She said her basketball coach helped get her a good lawyer. What should have been a driving under the influence conviction became one for careless driving instead.
Her third encounter with the law was different. After three months in the St. Cloud Hospital for her life-changing crash, she headed to a courtroom. She was convicted of criminal vehicular operation for the crash that also injured her passenger.
Her next encounter with law enforcement saved her life.
She was living north of Detroit Lakes and was drinking heavily again. It was 10:30 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 7, 2018, and she was barreling down the highway at 81 miles an hour just before an 'S' curve. The red lights of a squad car flashed in the nick of time.
"I call him my roadway angel," said Griess of the officer who arrested her. She later thanked him, too. She still has nightmares of her truck in the ditch, her body alongside it, had that officer not stopped her.
She still lives in the Detroit Lakes area and is now four years and five months sober. She began her journey of recovery after a weekend in jail for that final drunken driving arrest. She considers herself fortunate for the support she has had from family and friends.
She'll never play basketball again. She's had three surgeries for the rib injuries she suffered in that crash so close to her parents' home — one took 13 hours. She has six plates and 86 screws in her ribs today. Her lung capacity is 48 percent of her original capacity, and will never improve.
She has plenty of aches and pain, but she said her mental clarity is crystal clear. She feels the happiest and the healthiest that she ever has.
She also has a new passion. She wants to tell her story to young people and others so that they never make the mistake of getting behind the wheel while intoxicated. She is working today with Mothers Against Drunk Driving to tell her story.
"This isn't the end for me," she told her audience. "My story is going to go on and I am hoping to help others and share my story and live a long and healthy life."