On Sept. 4, 2010, Tristan Nims was driving drunk down Mt. Baker Highway when he had an accident that would change his life forever. He has since turned his life around, talked to high-school students about the dangers of drinking and driving and has a story to share.
Q Walk through the events that led up to the accident. What happened that night?
A I was a bit of a partier that summer. It was the day before school started, and I went to a football game with some friends, and then afterwards- this is what people told me- but I went with some friends to a party over by Squalicum High School. I got drunk, somebody took away my keys, and then I got them back because I was worried about getting home.
So I was driving on the Mt. Baker Highway— fast. I fell asleep and my car rolled into a ditch, out of the ditch, and finally crashed when it hit a telephone pole. So, I’d say the worst injury—well not the worst, because I was pretty much dead—was that I had a traumatic brain injury.
What they described to me was that I got a shear brain injury, where one side of my brain went forward and one went back. All of those neurons ripped. I was in a coma for just about two months. A month and a half of heavy coma, where I can’t remember a thing, and a half a month of just little snippets and pictures.
When I woke up I couldn’t talk, I didn’t have a swallow reflex, I couldn’t eat, and my whole right side was paralyzed, because the left side of my brain was really damaged compared to my right. I just had to relearn how to do things and so I spent about a month in the hospital doing therapy. Getting more up to par.
I started on the wheelchair then moved onto the walker. I left [the hospital] in the walker, and I was pretty stubborn because I am a motivated person who does not like to just walk like an old man. So I started walking slow on my own. Got back up to speed. [I] went back to [Sehome High School for the] second semester and was able to graduate…June  with my class.
I gave a talk to the student body in April about not drinking and driving: either stay the night or make sure you have a [designated driver]. I started at Whatcom in July and had some work to do to catch up on classes, and I have been here ever since. I hope to graduate this summer.
One thing I should add is that the physical recovery took time, but it was quicker than the psychological recovery, because I am not the same as I was. I had a really bad short-term memory when I came out of the coma, which has improved a lot, but all of those neurons have to come back, and that is something I am still facing and will face for a couple more years. Well, really, for the rest of my life.
Q What was it like being in a coma? Did you have any out-of-body experiences?
A …I would have to say that I did not. I was just out of it for the majority of the coma, and when I wasn’t, I was just awake trying to figure out what was going on, so, no, I did not have any out-of-body experiences. I want to say- not to get really religious here- but I think that is what happens when you die. You just kind of go off on your way.
Q So are you religious now? Did that change your religious views?
A I was religious before the accident, but I believe that I am a miracle, I was lucky. Two big things that the doctors told me was that my physical health and just my age are the reason[s] why I was able to come back, because I was pretty healthy when I got in the accident. When you are under the age of 35, the neurons in your brain are going to replenish. If you got in the accident I did if you were 40, you would be in a wheelchair, maybe even inoperative.
I would say that I am not religious, I am agnostic now. I respect people’s views on religion. I believe the mission of people is to live the life that Jesus lived, just be a humanitarian and be selfless. That is the most important thing, but the whole God thing just draws me off.
Q What was it like to learn how to walk and talk again?
A Not having a swallow reflex was tough, so I had a feeding tube that they fed me cans of food with. Also, my lungs collapsed, so I had a breathing tube, and they kept me alive with a breathing machine and they drained all the fluid from my lungs. I would say the weirdest thing in the world- well the weirdest thing in my life- is to wake up, in a bed, you don’t know where you are, you can’t talk, you can’t move because half of your body is operable and the other half is not.
You are freaked out. I was in a hospital bed. You can’t just get up and go when you have all of these challenges. You have a lot of time to reflect about your life and what has transpired, and what mistakes you’ve made.
I think people need to go through reflection in their life. Stop and hold on for a minute, and think, “Wow.”
Q What was your parent’s reaction to the accident?
A That was no call anyone wants to get. The morning of the accident, my mom got a call [at] about 3 a.m. from the police department saying, “your son is pretty much dead, and there is a car accident on Mt. Baker Highway.” They were very supportive of me, and they were always at my bedside. Another thing the doctors said about my recovery is them just being there with me was helpful.
Q Has your life changed for the better [after the accident]?
A I would say that it put perspective on things. Most people take a lot of things for granted. Just walking, breathing, living. Having two legs, two feet, two arms, just to walk and do things, and when you don’t have that, you look at things differently. I still have problems with my right side, and that is something I will still have to face. I just feel that this experience has made me appreciate life and others.
Q What are some things that you still struggle with?
A Pretty much everything is positive, and it’s just things pertaining to memory [and] school. Riding my bike, I am fine with that, it is pretty much the same, but with schoolwork, it changes.
Q Do you regret that night, or do you think it has made you a better person?
A I don’t regret it at all. I feel that the person I was before the accident, that was the old Tristan. The old Tristan died in the accident that night, and the new Tristan was born when I came out of my coma, because I had a whole different set of values and I look at things differently.
I do not regret the accident. I think it would still have been a lesson if I had died. People [that knew me] would look at things differently, but the fact that I did survive…has given me insight that I would never have gotten before.
Q Do you have any plans to speak to young people about the dangers of drunk driving?
A: I did talk to the student body [at Sehome], but I feel like that is something that will have to come later for me, because my brain is still recovering. When you have college and working to deal with, it is a struggle. As of now, I would say no.
In the future, after I get done with my education, I will definitely share my story, educate youth. Hell, maybe even write a book. All I know is that what I have learned from this accident I definitely want to pass on to others.
Q What are some personal goals or aspirations you have for your future?
A I am very passionate about preserving the environment, and I enjoy the French language. … I see a lot of deep problems in this country. We are not as progressive as we should be. Bellingham is, but the United States as a whole, I don’t think so.
I would like to go to Africa, join the Peace Corps, go to a French-[speaking country], and get some immersion in the French language. Then I would love to go on in education, and get a Master’s in some European country, maybe end up in France, and I want to bike around Europe. That is on my bucket list for sure.
Before I do this stuff in Europe that I want to do, I want to bike from…B.C., [Canada] to Tijuana, Mexico, all along Highway 101 and back with my brother.
Q Is there anything you would like to say to the people who still drink and drive?
A …When you are drinking, it gives you this false sense of confidence, like “I can do anything.”
When you have that, you should not get behind the wheel. One error [and] you’re dead, someone is dead. You have the ability of going very fast, and it is very dangerous when you are under the influence.
If you are going to drink at a party, don’t have your keys, put your keys far away, have a [designated driver], stay the night, I don’t care, just don’t get behind the wheel, because too many people, too many innocent people die. If I had killed somebody, if someone was in my car, I would have to live with that, and [because I didn’t,] that is something that I am very thankful for.