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heathervandenberghe1

After her three-year-old daughter Elle was hit by a reckless driver, Heather fought to create Elle’s Law, an amendment that suspends the license of any driver who strikes a pedestrian while driving recklessly. Thankfully, after a series of harrowing surgeries, Elle has made a full recovery. Heather, who on top of it all, is a single mother of two and major fashion executive, shows us what it means to truly count your blessings.

I am in awe of what you have accomplished with Elle’s law. For those who don’t know your story, the frightening period of surgeries and miraculous recovery, please tell us about the event that changed your life forever and how you decided to change the law for children’s safety on the streets. 

I was in a business meeting, so I didn’t get the calls immediately.  But when I glanced down at my iPhone during a pause in conversation and saw that I had two messages – the first from the nanny, the second from my ex-husband – I knew something was terribly wrong.  The message from the nanny was hysterical, breathless: “Heather, something has happened to Elle,” my three-year old daughter, then click, the phone went dead. From my ex-husband: “Elle was in an accident. She is all right. Call me back.”

She wasn’t all right. Elle was on her way to her second week of pre-school when she was hit by a car.  She had just stepped off the curb and onto her scooter in the crosswalk, on the green light. The man who hit her was in a Ford Bronco driving parallel to her when he spotted a parking space on the street she was crossing.  Instead of circling the block, he reversed up the busy boulevard and through the crosswalk, the wrong way down a one-way street.  His car struck Elle at the base of her skull on the left side, and toppled her off the scooter, causing her to land on her right. The New York Post dramatically described the scene, saying, “her screams could be heard from 16 floors up in the neighboring building”. In the ER, the doctors said that the impact indicated a speed in excess of 20 mph.

In that quick, random moment of explosive recklessness, the driver, Jose, had changed our lives forever.

Elle suffered a stroke one day after the accident due to clots that had formed when her skull was fractured. The stroke destroyed 2/3 of the left side of her brain–an injury that would kill most adults. That morning she endured her first brain surgery—there would be 10 in total—and was placed in a medically induced coma for 2 weeks. During those days I sat by her bed every day, filled with every emotion from anger to hate and fear and self-pity and hope. I begged the universe to bring Elle back to me, whatever happens I can live with it, I promised, just let her live. It was during those darkest days that I learned that the man who hit her received nothing but a traffic ticket, as if he’d rolled a stop sign. Countless calls to the NYPD yielded the same phrase in response to my incredulous inquiry: The Law is the Law. Apparently, the law in New York state did not specify punishment for reckless drivers who harm pedestrians, unless they are drunk. I thought even then, that if I ever had the strength I would try to change the law, because I could not accept that the man who may have killed my daughter roamed free while she lay before me, half of her skull removed, tubes poking out from all over her body, breathing through a machine. It just wasn’t right.

Over the course of the next 4 months Elle would have a total of 9 surgeries and suffer 5 near-fatal infections. She was paralyzed on her right side. When she was released to a rehabilitation hospital in Westchester, I was forced to go back to work or risk losing my livelihood and the benefits that were generously covering over $2 million in medical bills. I rented a Zipcar every other night after work and drove to spend the evening with Elle until she fell asleep (her father and I alternated nights).  One of those nights I came home and was watching the TV news when I saw a story about a woman who was hit by a car in Brooklyn, and Mayor Bloomberg was on TV condemning the tragedy. I was curious, and a bit angry —why this accident? Why would the mayor suddenly pay attention?  That same week I was walking my older daughter Lila to school when we saw a car that looked like Jose’s and my hands started to shake.  When Lila asked what was wrong and I told her, she asked “but mommy didn’t the driver go to jail?”. I lied and said yes, because I did not want her to know that the man who nearly killed her sister was not penalized at all for what he had done. By the time we reached school that morning, I decided that I was going to change the law.

It took months of working with an amazing team of people who lent their support free of charge to make Elle’s Law a reality. While the penalty for reckless driving that injures a pedestrian is not nearly as tough as I would have liked, at least there is a law on the books in New York now that tackles this issue, and causes those drivers to lose their driving privileges for a period of time. Elle’s Law honors Elle, and hopefully will serve to save other lives.

On a personal note, how did Elle’s accident change the way you live your life?

I am way more easy going than I ever was before. Having faced the worst situation I could imagine in my life, it is hard to get upset about little things anymore. I am happier, more carefree. I don’t plan as much—I used to plan my life in steps (1 year plan, 5 years, 10 years) and you know what? Nothing ever goes as planned. In the hospital I could not even plan a week ahead. Every day I would wake up and ask God to just get me through the next 17 hours. Now I can plan about 2 weeks out, but even that’s a stretch.

What did a typical day look like for you–I know you did some tag-teaming with your ex so that you could make sure you had time with both girls?

The good thing about being divorced in a situation like this is that we were never at the hospital at the same time, except when changing shifts. This way one parent was able to dedicate time to our older daughter Lila, while the other one was with Elle. When Elle was in the hospital I would get up and take Lila to school, then walk to the hospital to be there at 830am. I’d stay all day and Nicolas would arrive anywhere between 8-10pm and stay the night. We learned when the girls were babies that he needs far less sleep than I do, so he could handle the night shift. Also, the girls were living with me primarily and it made Lila feel safe that her nighttime and morning routine stayed pretty much the same. On weekends we each took a 24-hour hospital shift so the other one could have a full day with Lila. Looking back now, I don’t know how I did it—I’m exhausted just reading this paragraph.

At what point did you decided to quick your job at LVMH.

Elle came home in the summertime and returned to school in mid-September. In her 2nd week of school she had her first seizure; I was getting her ready for school and was due to catch a plane to Hawaii for our annual budget presentation – as SVP of Marketing and Communication for Louis Vuitton North America these budget meetings were mandatory. I secured an appointment with the head of pediatric neurology for Friday morning, and Nicolas assured me that he would take care of everything when I went on this trip. Friday morning I called from Hawaii to ask how the doctor appointment went, and he said that he thought school was more important right now so I could take her to the doctor when I got back. I was 12 hours away and there was nothing I could do to get Elle to the doctor. I was powerless.

Two hours later I presented my budget and then sat down for lunch with my boss from Paris who was complaining about how our team had handled Fashion Night Out. It seemed like he was always complaining. I looked at him and saw his mouth moving but all I could hear was “waa waa waa waa” like in the Charlie Brown TV specials. I just wanted to be home. By the time lunch was over I asked for a leave of absence, knowing I had no intention of going back, and 2 months later I officially left what was once my dream job for good. I never looked back.

What does a typical day look like for you when you have the kids and when you don’t, now that Elle is well? We like the details of drop off, meals…

I have the kids most weekdays. I get up at 7:15, actually usually Elle comes and wakes me up even earlier and I beg for more sleep and let her watch TV. At some point she wakes her sister, who also begs for more sleep. When I do wake up, I quickly check my emails and answer the ones that are time sensitive. Then I rally to make breakfast, which on a good day will be like a restaurant where everyone gets what they want, but on most days consists of Eggo waffles or cereal. Friday morning is chocolate chip pancakes. Now that I am back at work (it was so much easier when I wasn’t working!), I shower and get dressed, then we hop in a cab and take Lila to school, then drop Elle off at her school (we could walk the route but that would require leaving 15 minutes earlier which we never seem to achieve). Usually I can’t get it together to be all dressed and pulled together for work and also make the 8:15am school drop off, so I walk home and get dressed then take a cab to work and get to the office by about 9-9:30. I return calls and do emails in the car. I try to get home one day a week to have dinner with the girls, but they like to eat early so I’m usually home by 7pm for dessert, games and bathtime. Lila and I are in the middle of an ongoing backgammon tournament, and we call Elle the Magic Roller because she always rolls double 6’s. Lila has locked Elle in on her team, so she has won the past few games. I am half tempted to start up a morning tournament but I think that might be overkill.

What does a typical weekend look like when you have the kids. I love that you and your ex have an amicable relationship and that you are able to share your weekend house. How does that work? 

Yes, I say that my kids have a home in Southampton and I have a share. When Nicolas and I split 5 years ago we wanted to sell the house but the real estate market was a mess and we could not get the price we wanted. Since Elle’s recovery he and I get along well enough that we decided it was good for the girls to have a place outside the city to spend their weekends, so we decided to share the house. The general rule is, he who has the kids has the use of the house and the car.  The housekeeper comes after each weekend and changes out the master bedroom sheets (he has a set, I have a set). We also share a car, which he parks at his place in Brooklyn because he has free parking, so whenever I want to use it we need to sort out how to get it to me in Manhattan. But somehow it always works.

When I have the kids we often stay in NYC so they can have playdates, go to birthday parties, see friends. Sometimes we go to Southampton, like last weekend when we swam in the morning and went to the pumpkin patch and apple picking in the afternoons. I’d made plans to see some of their friends but the girls wanted to be alone with me, and I confess I was glad that they did. When I work all week I really cherish the time when it’s just the 3 of us.

Tell us about the period of time that you took off and what your criteria were for a new job? I know there were a lot of jobs you turned down before you were ready to come back. 

I have never needed sleep as much as I did when I first left my job. I became a napper. I took the girls to school, to playdates, took Elle to therapy and Lila to ice skating in Central Park. I worked on a book, and went to Washington DC to start lobbying to take Elle’s Law national. I loved every minute of it. After a year I knew I would have to go back to work for financial reasons, but I was also ready to go back, even though I knew this time I would do it differently. The girls were old enough that they had their own friends and schedules; Elle’s health was stable. I created a list of what I liked in my last job and what I didn’t like, also what I was missing. I came up with 5 things I would look for in my next opportunity—work-life balance being the most important. Having reached a professional level I was very comfortable with, I no longer cared about my career, what I wanted was a good job. I wanted to work for an American company, with nice people. Luckily I had the luxury of being recruited by several top brands, but there was only one that had all 5 criteria. When I met Tommy Hilfiger I knew I wanted to work for him—in the first 20 minutes of our interview all we talked about were our families. Finally, he said, so tell me your story? I liked him immediately.

You have said Elle is your hero. Tell us about both of your kids, how you all got through this together. 

Elle is my hero.  Lila is my rock.  Had it not been for Lila, I never would have gotten through those darkest days — I had to be strong for her, to protect her and to keep her life as close to normal as I could. The two girls love each other so much – I have never seen two kids who are so close. When Elle was in the hospital she asked for Lila every day, and Lila kept asking to see Elle.  We waited until Elle was in better physical shape before we let Lila visit, which was over 3 weeks after the accident.  When they finally saw each other for the first time the looks on their faces made me cry — joy and pain and love and sadness all in one glance.  Lila was with Elle every step of her recovery, and continues to protect and care for her even today. When Elle had a seizure last month, Lila caught her before she fell to the ground.

What are your guilty pleasures?

Really bad television, and really good television. Chocolate chip cookie dough. Margaritas.

What is your best advice to divorcing/recently divorced moms?

I would say to let yourself feel the pain, because pretending it isn’t there only makes it worse. With every tragedy I have been through—my brother’s death at age 17, my divorce, Elle’s accident—I lived the pain intensely and then I let it go and moved on. When you have kids it is tougher to move on because you have to see your ex on a regular basis, but if you can put the past behind you and get along with him, it will be better for the kids. Sometimes my kids will try the ploy,  “at daddy’s house I get to do it….” and I have to remind them that I am not a rookie—I’m a child of divorce myself. Sometimes I’ll say “good, let’s call daddy” and they know I will because they know we talk all the time. He and I  even agree on crime and punishment (biting gets your mouth washed out with soap, hitting lands you in the naughty corner, etc)—sometimes we talk about those things when we know the girls can hear us so they get the message that we are on the same page. My parents didn’t figure that out until I was a teenager, and by then it was too late. I’m starting early.

What are your mantras?

Believe in everything. Good decisions come from good options.

 

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Comments (4)

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  1. Posted by: jsohn

    i am in awe reading about ms vandenberghe.
    few people could prevail through through such terrible circumstances with her strength and focus.

    thank you for elle’s law.

  2. Posted by: Terry

    What an amazing story! You inspire me.

  3. As a monther to three daughters (one who now drives) I commend you on your story and your many newly defined successes. Thank you!

  4. Posted by: foteini

    amazing story!!!
    it made me cry and then it made me smile!!!
    elle is a cutie-pie and so is her sister!!!
    Heather i admire you!

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