MVFF37: Documentary highlights survival, resilience after head-on collision on Golden Gate Bridge
1 Oct 2014
For some, the traffic snarl that resulted from a near-fatal head-on collision on the Golden Gate Bridge the afternoon of May 21, 2008, may have been an annoyance. For those who witnessed the accident, it may have been a horrific memory for a short time.
But for Dr. Grace Dammann, her longtime partner Nancy (Fu) Schroeder and their teenaged daughter Sabrina, the crash sent them on a radically different lifelong journey — one of survival, resilience, commitment, compassion, healing, love, acceptance and hope.
Their story is the subject of the documentary "States of Grace" by San Francisco filmmakers Helen S. Cohen and Mark Lipman, that gets its world premiere at the 37th Mill Valley Film Festival that begins today and runs through Oct. 12.
Dr. Grace Dammann, co-founder one of the first HIV/AIDs clinics for the poor, is the subject of a documentary, 'States of Grace,' which chronicles her adjustment after surviving a head-on collision on the Golden Gate Bridge. (Courtesy of Helen S. Cohen and Mark Lipman)
A cofounder of one of the first HIV/AIDs clinics for the poor at San Francisco's Laguna Honda Hospital, for which she was honored by the Dalai Lama, Dammann was driving her Honda CRV with Sabrina, then 14, and their dog when they were struck by a driver who passed out at the wheel and swerved into the northbound lane — the second crossover accident on the bridge within two months.
A moveable median barrier is slated to be installed on the bridge in January.
Miraculously, they all survived but Dammann, the most critically injured, was in a coma for seven weeks. While her body was shattered and severely disabled, she woke up as sharp as ever. That presented Schroeder, the abiding abbess at Green Gulch Farm in Muir Beach, where they had lived for 20 years, with a dilemma. The two had long stopped being romantic partners, but agreed to stay together to co-parent a wheelchair-bound Sabrina, Isabel Allende's step-granddaughter, whom they adopted as an infant — born drug addicted and with cerebral palsy, and not expected to live long.
After 12 surgeries while hospitalized for a year, Dammann was ready to go home. Suddenly, Schroeder was facing life as a full-time caregiver not only to their daughter, but also to her partner.
"Love, it's something more about devotion," Schroeder says in the documentary. She agreed to be Dammann's caretaker for five years, the period the filmmakers capture.
Cohen, who's known Dammann for more than 25 years, and Lipman realized her story was an important one. Many families, whether through illness, accident or age, switch roles from caregiver to care receiver or vice versa. But it was Sabrina who first planted the idea of making a film about her, and Dammann said yes.
'States of Grace' filmmakers Helen S. Cohen and Mark Lipman chat with Grace Dammann at her home at Green Gulch Farm in Muir Beach. (Courtesy of Helen S. Cohen and Mark Lipman)
"I think she appreciated us around to document what she was going through. It gave her an opportunity to reflect on her own experience and kind of go through it with us as witnesses," Cohen says. "There was something so powerful about the experience of watching what she was going through, and the way she was going through it — her spirit, her resilience, her philosophical perspective."
That said, Cohen admits they had no idea how hard things were going to get for Grace, especially as she faced yet another surgery that ultimately failed, or how long it was going to take her to become somewhat independent — if that was even going to happen.
"Just witnessing what Grace was going through was heartbreaking," Cohen says.
It was tough for Dammann to see it, too, she admits.
"In some ways it was kind of horrifying because I hadn't really looked at my body. I've been inhabiting it, but I hadn't really had to look at it," Dammann, 67, says. "I felt very much like a mother about my own body, which is a very interesting feeling to have, meaning I felt tremendous compassion for the little thing that had been squished. Very few people get the opportunity that the filming gave me, which is the opportunity to witness themselves, so at that level it was gift to me."
BJ Miller, executive director of the Zen Hospice Project, calls the documentary "a beautifully honest movie that neither pities nor panders" and that asks us to "revisit what is essential about being human."
The film ends with Dammann back at Laguna Honda, this time as the first wheelchair-bound physician leading the hospital's pain clinic. A year later, she is still there — "I've got street cred," she says — as well as continuing her training to be a Zen Buddhist priest.
She isn't angry or bitter.
"I wouldn't wish this on anybody, but this is what my life has been like the past six years and it's been a fine life," she says. "And there's a fullness to it that's never happened before. At some point, the accident won't be the main point of my life."
In the documentary, Dammann draws on her Buddhist practice in accepting what is. "Nothing lasts forever, including great pain, great loss, great sickness, great helplessness," she observes. There's a certain relief in knowing that.
She believes the film may help others grapple with life's vagaries.
"Savor everything that life brings you because anything can change in the drop of a hat," she says. "But I'm not sad about that as much as wondrous about that. Life itself is wonderful."