By Collin Johnson
Health and Research News Service

PEARL, Miss.—When Clinton Police Sgt. Creston Berch writes a traffic citation for an unbuckled safety belt or—like today—gives a speech to a room full of teenagers about driving safety, it’s not just business. It’s very personal.

Five years ago, Berch and his partner were late for a training exercise and were speeding on Interstate 20 trying to make up for lost time, he said. They weren’t wearing seat belts.

As Berch tells the story to students in the allied health vo-tech class at Hinds Community College, he speaks with true conviction. When Berch’s partner lost control of the vehicle, it careened across three lanes of traffic and across the median where it was struck head-on by another car. His partner died instantly. Berch was left with a severe brain and spinal cord injury.

After more than 18 months of rehabilitative therapy at Methodist Rehabilitation Center in Jackson, Berch was able to walk again. But he’s quick to tell the teens, he was lucky.

His story is a part of Think First, an injury prevention program sponsored by MRC that is aimed at young children and teenagers. Think First is a national program that tries to prevent spinal cord, brain and other traumatic injuries by focusing on bicycle, automobile, firearm, boat, swimming and diving safety. MRC organizes and staffs the central Mississippi chapter of Think First.

“Think First speakers volunteer their time to encourage others to wear safety belts when driving, helmets when riding bicycles and motorcycles and to think about what they’re doing before they get into any potentially dangerous situation,” said Lauren Fairburn, MRC’s Think First coordinator. “We want to work closely with schools and other health care professionals to do all we can to prevent traumatic, often life-changing injuries.”

That Berch is once again one of the best traffic officers on the Clinton police force, almost always writing the most traffic citations, is just one example of how much his job means to him and how thankful he is that he can still perform it.

“May 22, 1994 is a day I don’t remember, but I’ll never forget it,” said Berch. “I live with it every day because I didn’t take two seconds to put on a seat belt. It is very important to me that people, especially young children and teenagers understand that being safe is the most important thing they can do.” Berch’s point wasn’t lost on the teenagers assembled.

“His story and how he was hurt was eye-opening,” said Jarod Smith, 17, of Florence. “I really got into it. I’m going to remember what he said here today.”

Michelle Jenkins, 17, of Brandon said she took the message to heart. “I think Americans need to practice safe driving. I mean, you’ve got to at least wear a seat belt.” Jenkins said she sees her friends showing off in their cars all the time and worries about them. “It’s stupid. What’s the point of showing off your car if you’re going to wreck it? Sgt. Berch and his partner were policeman and they still had a wreck. You’ve got to be smart and think about what you’re doing.”

“Students are very responsive when they meet our speakers,” said Fairburn. “They really seem to understand the message and we hope they learn to think first about safety and injury prevention.”

Telling his story is another form of therapy for Berch. He hopes that it helps prevent similar injuries from happening to others. “If I pull someone over in Clinton for speeding, I will write them a ticket and if they don’t have their seat belt on, I’m going to have a talk with them. If it helps one kid, if I can prevent one kid from having an accident like mine, then it’s all worth it to me.”

Each year an estimated 500,000 people sustain brain and spinal cord injuries in the United States. The most frequent causes of these injuries are motor vehicle crashes, falls, athletic activities, especially diving, and violence. Children and teens are at high-risk for these devastating injuries, many of which are preventable.

Think First speakers, including accident victims like Berch, physical therapists, paramedics and physicians, are available to speak to assemblies at elementary and high schools in central Mississippi. Call 601-364-3451 for more information about Think First.