From tragedy, a lesson

Mother shares pain of losing son to drunken driver in hopes of saving others

By JULIE JOHNSON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Debbi Rath was not a natural public speaker. She was the kind of student whose palms sweated just thinking about reading out loud in class.

Paramedic Debbi Rath with a photo of her son Garrett Parnell, who was killed by a drunken driver.  She volunteers to speak about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse.  (Jeff Kan Lee / PD)

Paramedic Debbi Rath with a photo of her son Garrett Parnell, who was killed by a drunken driver. She volunteers to speak about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse. (Jeff Kan Lee / PD)

But everything changed when her 19-year-old son was struck and killed by a drunken driver in 2004.

“The person I was before that night, that person is gone,” said Rath, who has been a paramedic with American Medical Response/Sonoma Life Support since 1995.

She now speaks about the dangers of drunken driving before high school assemblies, health classes, first-responder training, chaplaincy groups and youth traffic classes.

She goes back to the most horrible moment in her life time and again, and hopes that telling her story will help at least one person decide to not drink and drive.

“I need to do something in his honor,” Rath said.

California Emergency Medical Services officials will honor Rath with a Community Service Award on Wednesday in San Francisco.

Her son, Michael Garrett Parnell, was helping a friend fix his disabled Jeep Wrangler on southbound Highway 101 on Feb. 26, 2004.

Most people knew Parnell by his middle name, Garrett. The Geyserville High grad was an auto enthusiast who worked in the parts department at Santa Rosa’s Manly Honda. Parnell got out of his car as a tow truck driver pulled up behind them, hazard lights flashing.

Approaching driver Antonio Garcia Miranda, 33, didn’t stop. He crashed into Parnell first, then the Jeep.

His friend called Rath and told her to come right away. He wouldn’t explain what happened.

Highway traffic was backed up when she got to the area.

“What I saw was the yellow CHP blanket over someone on the road, and I knew it was Garrett,” Rath said.

She jumped out of the car and ran toward the flashing lights.

“It felt like my body had been turned inside out,” Rath said. “It was absolutely the worst feeling in my entire life, a feeling I never want to feel again. Like the blood has been taken out of you.”

Rath’s son “died before he hit the ground,” she said. “He was hit from behind.”

The driver’s blood-alcohol level was 0.11 percent, above the legal 0.08 limit for driving, CHP officials determined. He served about half of a three-year sentence at San Quentin State Prison.

“I was really angry,” Rath said. “How could somebody be so stupid, get in a car and do that? I was angry that I lost my son over it.”

About a year later, a friend asked her to tell her son’s story at an event at Elsie Allen High School. The all-day program called Every 15 Minutes takes students through all the stages of a fatal accident from the paramedics arriving on the scene to the officers and grieving families.

“I was exhausted,” Rath said. She sobbed for hours afterward.

But then a CHP officer asked her to talk with young people required by court to attend a traffic program. And she was asked to talk with others at the Alive at 25 driving safety course.

She just kept saying yes.

Rath now shares her experience at Windsor High health classes and with trainees in both the Sonoma County chaplaincy program and the Santa Rosa Junior College EMT program.

Telling her story is grueling every time. But then Rath thinks about her outgoing, affable son who, at 6-foot-3, 240 pounds and with a size 15 shoe, was a “gentle giant. He’d walk into a room and before he’d leave he’d know everyone there.

“He gives me the strength to educate people to make the right choices,” Rath said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com.