Above is the Uber in which Celeste Downey was riding on Feb. 4, when a drunk driver hit her side of the car.

“I’ve always been—and I kind of hate to say it, a mother figure with my friends—but people perceive me that way at work, so I guess I am,” says Celeste Downey.

Or perhaps better put, the voice of reason when people have had too much to drink, the friend who begs friends not to drive while intoxicated.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve paid for people to cab home without expecting anything in return,” says Downey, a bartender at Against the Grain and a whiskey guardian at Angel’s Envy Distillery. After a close friend was killed by an underage drunk driver several years ago, she resolved to prevent it as best she could by “hiding people’s keys from them or have them sleep at my house.

Celeste Downer and her daughter, Lydia O'Renick.
Celeste Downer and her daughter, Lydia O’Renick.

“That’s why it’s so difficult to understand why this happened to me.”

Early on the morning of Feb. 4, Downey left a bar and headed for home in the front passenger seat of a hired Uber car. As the late-model Honda she rode in entered the intersection of Main St. and Wenzel St., a drunk driver in a car coming from the opposite direction T-boned the Honda on Downey’s side of the vehicle. Its door was crushed inward 2 feet, necessitating emergency responders cut Downey from the wreckage. (The Uber driver was not seriously injured.)

Within 20 minutes, she was out of the car and at University Hospital, where the trauma team determined she had a broken femur, a fractured hip and clavicle, plus an array of cuts and bruises. Emergency surgery was required to repair the femur, which included the installation of a titanium rod into its center.

Uninjured, the drunk driver was taken to jail. (Downey’s lawyer requested she not discuss many details of the accident.)

After five days in the hospital, Downey was discharged and sent home to recover. Unable to walk for weeks and with medical bills adding up, for now, to $250,000, Downey is entering physical therapy and still trying to take it all in. She’ll have plenty of time to consider the events of that night, as it’s likely she’ll not return to work for four to six months.

Downey's broken right femur x-rayed after the crash.
Downey’s broken right femur x-rayed after the crash.

“Saying don’t do it, don’t drive drunk, isn’t working,” Downey said. In the days just following the accident, she became privately angry as she lay in her hospital bed thinking about it. Then the thought occurred to her, “it could be one of my friends who did this to me. … The whole thing … woke me up to a lot of stuff.”

Such as the fact that she’s still alive, will recover and to continue being as mother of her 6-year-old daughter, Lydia O’Renick. That her boyfriend and countless others have visited and moved to support her financially: a GoFundMe page has been set up to raise funds; and APRON, a local non-profit that helps restaurant workers facing health-related crises like Downey’s, is covering several of her monthly expenses.

APRON approved a grant for a sum of money that will cover my rent, phone, car insurance, my daughter in childcare—it’s a lot,” Downey said. She has medical insurance, but she’s not certain yet what it will cover. Of the friend who launched the GoFundMe page, “her goal was to raise $1,000, but in 48 hours, there was $1,700 given by 12 different people. … People have signed up for a meal train, bringing me dinner every night since I can’t cook for myself.  I don’t know how many times I’ve cried over people’s generosity.”

And over the needlessness of the accident. Downey said she understands why, in the past, that people were reluctant to call a traditional taxi—“it was expensive and took forever to get one”—but with services like Uber and Lyft, drivers are more numerous, meaning fares and wait times are far lower. Still, she adds, there’s ultimately no excuse for driving drunk.

“Getting an Uber is easy, just a couple of clicks of a button on my phone, and about $7 to get home from any place in Louisville,” she said. “Seven dollars. That’s it. If you don’t have $7, don’t go out drinking.”

Eat Drink Talk will follow Downey’s progress with follow-up stories. In the meantime, if you want to help financially, visit the GoFundMe and APRON links above.

* Eat Drink Talk is a supporter of APRON. We encourage you to join us in this cause.

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Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned award-winning food, spirits and travel writer. In his 25-year career, he has edited and written for multiple national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. He is a feature writer for Edible Louisville & The Bluegrass, Whisky Magazine, WhiskeyWash.com and The Bourbon Review. The author of two books, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and the "Home Distiller's Guide to Spirits," he also serves as a ghostwriter for multiple clients.

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