The Harris family was coming back to South Florida from a Disney World vacation in June 2003 when a car crash changed their lives. A teen driver doing 80 mph on the Sawgrass Expressway in Davie clipped the back of the Harrises’ SUV, sending it flipping down an embankment and into a canal.
That day, an off-duty Miami Beach fire-rescue worker happened upon the scene, pulling over his car and running through the weedy median to help. He found Denise Harris, 38, facedown in the grass, not breathing. She had been ejected from the SUV along with her husband, Kevin, and their 5-year-old daughter, Alana. Their 7-year-old son, Taylor, got out on his own and made it to shore.
Chris Kirk, the off-duty medic, rolled Denise Harris and kept her airway open until other rescuers arrived. “She looked dead to me,” Kirk said later. “Then she took [a breath], and I felt a pulse, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, thank God, she’s alive.’ ”
The crash left Harris, now 50, paralyzed from the chest down and unable to walk. Kevin Harris, 58, is her primary caregiver. Although, after about 10 surgeries to repair the shattered hips and broken limbs he suffered in the wreck, he too has mobility limitations.
“My right leg is three inches shorter than my left leg from all the procedures,” Kevin Harris said. “It takes me about 20 minutes just to get up in the morning before I can check on Denise.”
While the immediate pains of the accident have subsided, the physical, emotional and financial scars remain for the Harrises.
If I fail, they fail. And I’ve never been this close to failing.
Kevin Harris, Pembroke Pines
The driver who hit them didn’t have insurance (the teen and three others in his car had minor injuries), and Kevin Harris said he’s had to sell the family’s home and other assets to keep up with medical bills and necessary equipment like vans and wheelchairs. He lost his jewelry-and-coin business and now is selling Dodges to make ends meet.
The family — Alana, 18, is a senior at Cooper City High; Taylor, 19, graduated last year and is looking toward military enlistment — shares a two-bedroom rental in Pembroke Pines. With Taylor in one bedroom and Alana and her mom sharing the other, Kevin Harris said he takes the floor, spending most nights sleeping on comforters.
“I know that puts a load on my kids, too, seeing me like that,” Kevin Harris said, his voice cracking. “I say to Alana, ‘It’s not going to be like this forever. You’re going to go to college and have a normal life again.’ ”
The state provides about $600 a month toward Denise Harris’ care as well as a $100 food card, her husband said. The other option is for her to receive in-patient care at a state-run facility, something Kevin Harris said he’s desperately trying to avoid.
“Through everything these past 12 years, all I’ve ever wanted to do is keep my family together and keep Denise with us,” he said. “If I fail, they fail. And I’ve never been this close to failing.”
The Harrises have kept in contact with Kirk, who paid a special surprise visit to Denise Harris’ 50th birthday party in July. He showed up in a wheelchair — recovering from a near-fatal paragliding accident he suffered in Colombia earlier this year that crushed his feet, legs and pelvis and broke his back.
At the party, someone mentioned that a GoFundMe page had been set up to help with Denise Harris’ medical bills. Kirk, who has a similar page for his substantial recovery debt, said he didn’t think twice about making a donation.
“When you come as close to death as I did in Colombia, you tend to look at things from a different angle,” said Kirk, 58, a U.S. Air Force veteran who retired from fire-rescue work and now works as a flight instructor. “I just feel fortunate to be here to be able to help Denise and Kevin and the kids.”
Kevin Harris called the birthday party “a happy day,” like the times his family went back to Disney World after the accident.
“The hardest part of all of this is that it couldn’t have happened to a sweeter, more loving person than Denise,” her husband said. “She never complains about anything. She still likes to keep her hair looking good. She’s the same person inside, and I don’t want to lose her.”