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He lost sight, leg and nearly his life to drunk driver. What he now tells students.

‘Walking miracle.’ Modesto DUI victim shares story

Manuel Russ lost his sight and a leg and suffered extensive other injuries in a DUI crash. He shares his story with high school students and in classes for convicted DUI offenders.
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Manuel Russ lost his sight and a leg and suffered extensive other injuries in a DUI crash. He shares his story with high school students and in classes for convicted DUI offenders.

“Major injury.”

In the reporting of vehicle collisions, it’s such a common term that its meaning gets diluted. A broken leg is a major injury, to be sure. Head or body trauma, too.

To some crash victims and their families, though, the words don’t come anywhere close to describing the physical and emotional damage suffered. It can be life changing, as Modesto resident Manuel Russ vividly showed Downey High School students Wednesday during an Every 15 Minutes DUI-prevention program.

As he stood up from his wheelchair to address teens, parents, staff and others in the auditorium, it was on one leg. The other ends 4 inches below the knee.

When he faced the crowd, his eyes saw nothing. No light, no shapes, only pitch black.

He suffered these injuries and more when struck about 4:30 a.m. Sept. 18 by a Ceres resident, Charysteena Urbina. The 24-year-old is charged with three felony counts related to driving under the influence and causing great bodily injury — with enhancements for prior offenses.

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Students portraying the living dead — lives lost to drunk drivers — sit on stage during the Every 15 Minutes DUI awareness and prevention assembly in the Downey High School auditorium on Wednesday, April 3, 2019. Deke Farrow jfarrow@modbee.com

Forty-two-year-old Russ, who’d been on his way to work as a truck driver, was in a coma between two and three weeks. He suffered a cracked skull and a brain bleed. Facial bones were broken. His jaw was wired shut, and he still faces additional surgery on it. He needs a full left shoulder replacement. He suffers seizures as a result of brain trauma.

For three months, doctors worked to save Russ’ lower left leg and foot, which was degloved in the crash, said his wife, Kim Reynosa. The femur of his partially amputated leg isn’t even half healed yet, she said. So while he’s due to receive his prosthetic leg April 16, there’s no expectation of when he’ll walk again.

The morning of the crash, it took 32 pints of blood just to stabilize Russ for surgery, Reynosa said. California Highway Patrol officers doubted he’d pull through, she said. “They were expecting to charge her with vehicular manslaughter.”

CHP officers still talk about the South Carpenter Road collision, how horrific it was, Modesto-area spokesman Officer Thomas Olsen said. “And we see a lot of collisions in this county. … That one stuck with our officers. He says he’s a walking miracle — he’s absolutely that.”

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As Russ faced the packed Downey auditorium Wednesday, Reynosa and four of their seven children sat in the front row. He began his presentation by asking audience members to close their eyes and try to recall: Did they say their farewells to siblings, children, parents that morning? Kiss them? Remember what they were wearing?

He remembers those things from the morning of the crash. It was one daughter’s birthday and he woke her to wish her a great day. His wife told him to be safe, and he said he always did.

Of the crash itself, he recalls nothing.

Urbina was driving north on Carpenter, approaching Hatch Road, when she allowed her Saturn to enter the southbound lane, CHP investigators said. She drove into the path of Russ’ southbound Chevy pickup and the vehicles struck head-on.

The Modesto Fire Department reported that it took about 45 minutes to extricate the two drivers. Urbina and her two passengers also suffered major injuries, the CHP reported.

In his presentation, Russ didn’t go into details of the crash. His injuries spoke for themselves. He just wanted to hold himself out as an illustration of the ramifications of bad decisions. “If my negative can become your positive, and we can change statistics together,” he told the audience, “then my job is done.”

On stage with him were participants in Downey’s Every 15 Minutes program, including junior Lawrence Harris, who portrayed the drunk driver who killed several friends. Harris knows Russ — he played football with one of his kids — and went over after the presentation, knelt down and hugged him.

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Lawrence Harris, a junior who portrayed the drunk driver during the Every 15 Minutes DUI awareness and prevention at Downey High this week, talks with Manuel Russ after an assembly in the school auditorium on Wednesday, April 3, 2019. Lawrence played on a football team with one of Russ’ daughters. Deke Farrow jfarrow@modbee.com

“As I was playing the role (shackled and in an orange jumpsuit, sitting next to a CHP officer), I was just on the other side of what he was on,” Harris said. “And as I was doing harm to others, right now when he was talking I just kind of thought about how he felt on the other side. If I was in his position, I would just probably give up because to me that stuff is hard to go through, and for him to keep pushing I thought was pretty amazing.”

Outside the auditorium, junior Chloe Swett said she was moved by Russ’ encouragement to families to appreciate every moment together, to take nothing for granted. James O’Halloran, a senior, called Russ a hero for going out and sharing his painful tale.

Olsen said it was Russ who approached the CHP about sharing his story, not vice versa. Russ also speaks in classes for DUI offenders. “He’s a religious man,” Olsen said. “He feels this was dealt to him and for whatever reason he needs to make a positive out of the negative that happened in his life, and I gave him that stage. We’re fortunate to have him, because he no doubt makes an impact on everyone he’s around.”

The DUI awareness program Every 15 Minutes was held at Beyer High School in Modesto on Tuesday and Wednesday, May 2-3.

As the Russ family gathered in front of the auditorium, next to the mock DUI scene used for Every 15 Minutes, there came from Coffee Road the screech of locked wheels and, a split second later, the crash of vehicles colliding. Russ immediately bowed his head into his hand, waiting to learn what had happened. “It sounded bad,” he said, and was relieved to hear it was a noninjury fender bender.

Reynosa spoke further about how the crash has left her family. Urbina had no insurance. Her husband’s supplemental security income from Social Security began Wednesday, but it comes too late to keep them from having to leave their home April 15, she said. The couple and their six children who live at home will be in motels until they can find a new place to live. A daughter set up a gofundme page, “Help Manuel to support his family,” at www.gofundme.com/help-support-the-russ-family.

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Manuel Russ is embraced by his 10-year-old daughter, Reyna, after he spoke at the Every 15 Minutes DUI awareness and prevention assembly in the Downey High School auditorium on Wednesday, April 3, 2019. Deke Farrow jfarrow@modbee.com

The worst thing the crash claimed was her husband’s eyesight, Reynosa said. “Our kids do cheer, football, competitive dance, and what hurts them the most and what hurts most about this whole thing was that my husband didn’t grow up with a mom and dad and he made it a point to be at every assembly, every game, every competition, and he says, ‘I would have lost both of my legs just to have my sight.’”

Russ chimed in at one point, “I was their biggest fan, their biggest supporter. I would miss work to go to their events.”

His wife continued. “She took that part of a father from him: watching them grow up, watching them compete. … He will be present for it, but no longer can see it.”

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