ILLINOIS MEDICAL DISTRICT — On Sunday evening, Sarah Knipple should have been accepting her roller derby championship ring and a slew of other awards for her impressive season with the Windy City Rollers.
Instead, Knipple, 30, lay in the trauma center at Stroger Hospital, as her wife, Carlie Lusk, anxiously paced a few feet away in a waiting room.
The women, both members of the Windy City Rollers, were injured in a head-on collision on their way to the awards night. A car slammed into their van while crossing the Chicago River, injuring four members of the team.
The crash broke Lusk's collar bone. Knipple's injuries were far worse, including a head injury that left her with bleeding on the brain.
"I was just terrified ... having my wife, unconscious in my lap bleeding from her head," said Lusk, 29. "It was just really terrifying."
They were just around the block from their annual "Black and Blue Ball," an award ceremony for their roller derby league at Reggie's Music Joint. A little more than a half-mile east on Cermak Road and a quick left onto State Street, and they would have been at the venue in the 2100 block of State Street.
They never made it. They were going over the river when the driver saw the lights of a 2007 Ford Crown Victoria racing toward them.
"They're going to hit us," the driver, Irene Kim, said to Maggie Follis sitting beside her.
The first thing Follis said she remembered was how bright the moon was right before the loud din of the two cars colliding. As the air bag deployed, she protected herself with her arm. That's why her wrist and ribs are now bruised.
The front panel crushed her legs, and she didn't feel the pain, and Follis said she was "lucky."
"I gladly would've taken some of their pain," she said, thinking of her friends in the back of the minivan.
Kim, who goes by the name Senorita Slam in the roller derby league, was driving. Earlier Sunday, Kim picked up Follis, aka Janicide Joplin, and they had sushi.
Later Sunday, they picked up Knipple and Lusk from their Little Village home and headed to the awards ceremony. Lusk, aka Baberaham Lincoln, was wearing her seat belt, and Knipple was not. Knipple had taken her seat belt off to wipe crumbs off her clothes.
Around 6:45 p.m., when the van and car collided head-on, Knipple was knocked unconscious. Her head lay in Lusk's lap as Lusk screamed her wife's name, Follis said.
"She's not awake! She's not breathing!" Lusk yelled from the back seat, Follis said
Follis looked in the back seat and didn't see Knipple. Her mind wandered to the worst scenario as she scanned outside the window. Follis rolled down the windows before hopping out the car. That's when she finally felt the sharp pain in her legs.
Then she saw Knipple laying unconscious in Lusk's lap. She warned Lusk not to move her, while a good Samaritan from the stopped traffic on the bridge called police.
Knipple was in shock when she regained consciousness minutes later in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. Follis fought with her the entire ride to keep her calm, telling her to "stay down" and explaining the paramedics were there to help.
"She didn't remember the accident," Follis said.
Meanwhile, Lusk headed to a different hospital in a separate ambulance.
"At that point, it really no longer mattered where we were going or what was happening. All that really mattered was that all of us ended up OK," Lusk said.
Knipple and Lusk have been participating in roller derby leagues for more than six years. Last year, the couple left their home and team in Milwaukee and moved to Chicago.
"There's a limited time when your body can do this sport, and [Knipple] is very good at it," Lusk said. "And [Knipple] wanted to play for a team that's world-ranked, and Windy City is the closest one to where we were."
So, they left the Brew City Bruisers, moved to Little Village and joined the Windy City Rollers. Lusk said Knipple is the better player, and she simply followed her to support her.
"I play too, and I love it, but I'm nowhere near as talented as she is," Lusk said.
The league appreciated Knipple's skills, too, awarding her the "Fury Leader of the Pack," the "All-Star Leader of the Pack" and "Windy City Rollers Leader of the Pack 2013" award at the awards ceremony they missed.
"She deserved them. She's the triple threat, jammer, blocker and leader of the track," said Follis of Knipple. "She's an overall leader on the track and off the track."
When Lusk was released early Monday, she went straight to Stroger Hospital, arriving around 3 a.m. She was in time to say goodnight to Knipple, as the hospital enforced strict visiting hours.
"They kick you out at eight... which was tough," she said of her visits Monday and Tuesday.
After saying goodnight, Lusk sat in the waiting room with her broken collar bone until 11 a.m. Monday.
Meanwhile, Knipple, a carrier of the blood disorder hemophilia, lay in the trauma center.
"That's why she's still here. They're monitoring her [because her blood doesn't clot]," Lusk said Wednesday afternoon as she sat alone in the seventh-floor waiting room at Stroger Hospital.
As she sat, her hoodie's empty sleeve dangled next to her because her arm was in the white sling. She stared away as Knipple laid too weak for visitors in a room a few doors down.
"She's already four days into the hospital, and they haven't given us a release date yet. It's going to be quite a financial burden," Lusk said. "We're really not looking so much toward the future, just what's happening, right now."
The broken collar bone left Lusk unable to work at least until the new year, and she fears the cost of medical bills "is going to be a lot," despite having insurance. Luckily, friends in the roller derby league have her back.
An online fundraiser created by two members of the Windy City Rollers went live Tuesday, raising more than $5,000 for all four victims of the crash.
"It's incredible. I'm just literally overwhelmed by the amount of people that have donated already," Lusk said admitting she didn't know most of the donors.
"It's just crazy. I mean [people] from leagues across the country are donating. That's sort of like the amazing thing about roller derby," she said. "We don't all know each other, and we're not all friends, necessarily, but we're all one big community and everyone is always there for everyone."