Aaron Brookens met the media wearing a T-shirt that read “Lucky” across the chest. He said he wished he had one that read “Blessed.” Brookens, 20, of Beloit, Wis., was seated in a wheelchair at VanMatre Health South Rehabilitation Hospital in Rockford, Ill., with walking casts on both ankles and tape holding together surgical scars on both knees. He talked about his experience after smashing his pickup into the rear end of a semitrailer truck at highway speed on Interstate 90 the night of April 18. He’d been using his cell phone to text his girlfriend while driving.

Aaron Brookens met the media wearing a T-shirt that read “Lucky” across the chest. He said he wished he had one that read “Blessed.”

Brookens, 20, of Beloit, Wis., was seated in a wheelchair at VanMatre Health South Rehabilitation Hospital in Rockford, Ill., with walking casts on both ankles and tape holding together surgical scars on both knees. He talked about his experience after smashing his pickup into the rear end of a semitrailer truck at highway speed on Interstate 90 the night of April 18.

He’d been using his cell phone to text his girlfriend while driving.

“I remember looking up and seeing the rectangle of a big, white semi,” said Brookens, who was driving home from visiting girlfriend Kelly Wedel at her apartment in Whitewater, Wis., when the accident happened. “There weren’t any screech marks before I hit it, so I didn’t even have time to get my foot on the brake. After that, I blacked out.”

Brookens said he thinks the accident was meant to happen. “It’s crazy,” he said. “I actually missed my exit for home, for some reason. I never miss that exit, ever. It’s the Avalon exit, and the accident happened right after the exit, so I can’t really explain that.”

Brookens, who can’t remember what his text to Wedel before the accident was, said he regained consciousness while workers were extricating him from his truck, passed out again while being flown to Rockford Memorial Hospital and came to again in the emergency room where, despite his legs being covered, “you could tell how they were all out of whack and stuff.”

Both of his femurs were broken, Brookens said, and the right leg had a compound fracture where the bone pierced the back of his leg through the hamstring.

“I have a wound about this big (holding up his hands to about the size of a tennis ball) in the back of my leg,” he said. “It’s just a gaping hole, and I have to have a wound vacuum in there. It’s like a sponge inside that is sucking those juices from the inside out. That’s very, very painful and they have to change it every other day.”

Brookens’ injuries also included a broken kneecap, broken left ankle, nerve damage to both of his lower legs, cuts on his arms and face, and lacerations to one kidney and his liver.

“I can’t feel my lower legs very much at all,” he said. “I can push my feet down, but I can’t pull them back up. They said it may come back and it may not. If it doesn’t, I’ll have to wear a brace the rest of my life.”

Brookens said he heard all of the usual warnings against texting while driving, “but you never think it’s going to happen to you until it does.

“I don’t remember what the conversation was that night at all, but I do remember that I had been texting and driving quite a bit previously — not just that day. I had just left her house and I was texting her already, so it was something that I was doing pretty regularly.”

He said he wanted to stress how really dangerous texting while driving is.

“I thought I had it all under control, obviously, and I know guys have tricks of holding it above your steering wheel, and I did that, too, but it all happened that fast and all of a sudden your life is changed. I was a pretty independent person, living pretty invincible and doing what I wanted and went to having people tell you what to do and trying to do everything you can to try to survive and heal.”

Brookens said rescue workers have told him they almost lost him when his vital signs dropped precipitously after they got him out of his truck.

“When I heard about that I thought about my relationship with God,” he said. “I’m so glad I didn’t die then, because I hadn’t been living the life I wanted to present to God. I felt like I hadn’t done my work here and now I feel like I have a call. I have an opportunity to do my work on Earth because I have this wonderful testimony.

“I look at that picture of my truck every day and I say to myself, ‘Thank God he was looking out for me because I wouldn’t have made it. I feel he has kept me here for a reason and I can get out there and tell my story.”

He said he plans on taking his message to schools whenever possible.

“I know that I will never ever be on my phone again while I’m driving,” he said. “I will always be a very attentive driver and I know I will have my hands on the wheel at 10 and 2 and I’m going to be checking the rearside and blindside mirrors all the time.”

Rockford Register Star staff writer Mike DeDoncker can be reached at 815-987-1382 or mdedoncker@rrstar.com.