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Within Moments, A Family Of 4 Became A Family Of 2

Alcohol-Related Crashes Have Killed, Injured Thousands In Wisconsin

By
Jake and Lauren Szeflinski
Jake Szeflinski sits next to his baby sister Lauren. Photo courtesy of Szeflinski family

On the afternoon of Jan. 25, 2002, Kathy Szeflinski drove down Interstate 43 in Ozaukee County.

Her 5-month-old daughter, Lauren, dozed in her car seat. Her son Jake, who would turn 5 in two days, counted trucks on the highway until he became drowsy.

She remembers him saying, “Mom, I think I want to take a snooze. Do you mind if I take a snooze?”

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Szeflinski told Jake to nod off, which he did.

“In my head, he was asleep,” Szeflinski said. “And that’s important to me because he couldn’t see what was coming.”

Szeflinski’s family of four would become a family of two by the end of the day.

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Earlier that morning, she’d taken Jake to his five-year checkup.

“We were getting ready to go and I said, ‘Who do you want to take you?’ And he said, ‘Well, why don’t we all just go as a family?’ Like, you know, how sweet is that?” the mother recalled.

So they went together: Szeflinski, her husband Bill, Jake and baby Lauren.

Kathy remembers holding Jake — lanky-legged and sniffling — in her arms as he got a few shots.

Afterward, Kathy dropped her husband off at home before taking the children to her friend’s house for lunch in Port Washington. Kathy said Jake seemed disappointed to see his dad go, and held up his hand in a still, sad wave.

“Thank goodness we did” drop Bill off, Kathy said. “Because one of us wouldn’t be here.”

On the drive back from Port Washington to their home in South Milwaukee, Kathy looked in the rearview mirror. She saw Jake, sitting on the passenger side next to Lauren’s backward-facing car seat, close his eyes, nodding off to sleep like his baby sister.

Up ahead, Kathy saw a car driving toward her. It was in the median. Then, it was in her lane.

She realized she couldn’t merge right. She thought: “Do I stop? Do I play chicken? What do I do?”

She turned into the ditch, into — she thought — safety. But the other car swerved back into the median. It T-boned Kathy‘s car, on the passenger side.

The driver, Wallace Stenzel, had two martinis that afternoon. His blood alcohol was 0.10, just over Wisconsin’s legal limit of 0.08.

By the end of that year, 8,992 alcohol-related crashes would occur in Wisconsin, injuring 6,570 and killing 292, according to the state Department of Transportation.

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‘He Didn’t Suffer’

An ambulance took Jake to Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital in Ozaukee. Kathy followed in another ambulance with Lauren. She said the ambulance driver told her to decide whether she wanted to donate her children’s organs.

“That’s when I knew it wasn’t good,” Kathy said.

At the hospital, she found Jake lying on a table, wearing one shoe, his hand ice-cold.

The doctor told her Jake died instantly. When Bill arrived, she didn’t know what to say.

“I felt helpless. I said to him, ‘He didn’t suffer,’” she said.

In another room, doctors decided to transfer Lauren to the children’s hospital. Bill stayed with Jake and Kathy went with Lauren in the helicopter.

“As we’re flying over the city, all I could think of is, ‘Jake would love to be in this helicopter for the right reasons,’” Kathy said.

When they landed, Lauren was rushed in for another procedure. But eventually, doctors said it wasn’t working and they asked if Kathy wanted to be with Lauren while she died.

Kathy remembers the room as a sea of yellow and blue scrubs, the life-supporting machines beeping rhythmically.

“No one was saying a word,” she said. She could see the hospital staff’s eyes above their masks: “Just sadness.”

A nurse then stepped out of the crowd.

“She said, ‘You know, it’s OK. Come on up. She can hear you. Talk to her,’” Kathy said. “And I did. I would always rub her little head and then I was holding her hand and rubbing her head, and I said, ‘It’s OK, Lauren. I’m sorry I couldn’t save you. Go home and be with your brother.’”

The beeping stopped.

To Kathy, Lauren looked like a porcelain doll.

“She was perfect, but her little brain was all shook up,” Kathy said. “I’m holding my little baby daughter, and she’s dead, she felt like 100 pounds.”

Kathy’s husband Bill arrived and Kathy simply asked if he’d like to hold her.

“And of course, he cried and sat down and held her and rocked her,” she said.

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