March to recovery: A year after wreck, Victoria's spirit is intact

Sunday, November 28, 2010
Victoria, left, and her mother Kerry, still enjoy the posters and signs with get well wishes and encouraging messages made by her friends and classmates after her accident. (T-G Photo by Mary Reeves)

A year ago, Victoria Atwell sat down with her family for the usual, traditional Thanksgiving meal. She was a high school senior making great grades. She was the drum major for the award-winning Cascade High School marching band. She was only weeks away from her 18th birthday, months away from graduation, and she had plenty for which to give thanks at that family gathering.

She doesn't remember any of it.

Less than a month later, Victoria was severely injured in an accident on U.S. 231 North, the same one that took the life of her best friend, Brenda Golden.

"The accident was Dec. 18," said her mother, Kerry Kimmell. "She doesn't remember Thanksgiving. She can't remember the last few marching competitions -- and she was the drum major. She knew she was in an accident, but she didn't know who was driving."

The injuries Victoria suffered in the accident were devastating. Her left side was shattered with the exception of her arm, and she had a broken ankle, pelvis and hip, and had hairline fractures all along her leg. All of her ribs were broken.

Those fractures have healed for the most part. The injuries that were more frightening -- and are still being dealt with -- were the ones to her brain. Victoria had what is called "shearing" in her brainstem.

"It's like little hairline ruptures in the nerves. It wasn't severed, but it was really close," said Martin Rabbit at the time. She is engaged to Victoria's brother Kyle.

It was like having a stroke, said Kerry.

The brain damage made it harder for the doctors to know what to tell Victoria's worried family.

"Her prognosis was not good when we started," said Kerry. "And the doctors can't tell you what's going to happen from one patient to another."

Victoria spent months in the hospital, first at Vanderbilt, then at Shepherd Center, a rehabilitation facility in Atlanta. Kerry stayed with her all the time, running her photography business from her laptop.

Thankful for recovery

It has been a year of heartache and heartbreak, of injury and recovery, and of both physical and emotional pain. But there was still plenty of thanks to be given in Victoria's family this year.

"She's doing really well," said Kerry the day before Thanksgiving. "She'll tell you she's not making any progress, but she's making progress every week. The therapists say she will walk and talk again."

Victoria's cognitive abilities -- that part of the brain her mother calls "the smarts" -- are relatively undamaged.

"Cognitively, she is very bright, very intelligent," said her mother.

Victoria is being home schooled for the missing semester that was supposed to end with her graduation and she hopes to visit Cascade High School soon. She can even take a few steps with help and will be getting a special walker soon to continue that progress.

Tech talking

Victoria communicates with everyone, including her friend Sierra Cortner, through electronic media such as e-mail and Facebook. (T-G Photo by Mary Reeves)

While Victoria's gross motor skills are still rough, her fine motor skills are good enough that she can text from her cell phone and surf the internet on her iPad, which, like any other teenaged girl, she does constantly.

She sat nearby in her wheelchair (which she calls "Old Faithful") and listened closely as her mother spoke, occasionally "interrupting" with a text message to add something to the story. She has a wicked smile and the gleam of mischief in her eyes.

"Little things come back," said Kerry. "Each week, we see things we haven't seen for a while."

Physical therapy is a constant in their lives now, and not one Victoria is thrilled about. She's also having to wear a brace on her foot, which doesn't bother her, and another on her arm, which does. The muscle tone on the injured limbs has caused them to curl inward and the braces are training them how to relax again.

"She's supposed to wear the arm brace 8 hours a day," said Kerry. "We're working up to that."

Support all around

One of the reasons Victoria has progressed so well is that she didn't suffer any of the infections or other physical setbacks that so often plague injuries such as hers.

"She's been very lucky," said her mom.

The playful mischief that was obvious in Victoria's grin in this photo from before the accident is still there, along with a healthy dose of teenage attitude. She likes teasing her family and friends with e-mail and text messages. (Submitted photo)

Another reasons she's progressed so well is because of the support she's had from all around. Her brother Kyle, her father, Elmore Atwell, her mother, her stepfather, Dwane Kimmel -- they have all been joined by friends, classmates and neighbors to help Victoria take the next steps and reach the next goal.

"Our neighbors built the wheelchair ramp," said Kerry. "Her school friends come over and visit all the time. It's community. Until something like this happens, you really don't know what a wonderful thing that community is."

Some of those visitors who help Victoria along are Jeff and Vicki Golden, Brenda's parents.

"They come out every Sunday," said Kerry. "We only told her a few months ago about Brenda."

Victoria had started to ask questions about the wreck and who was driving and her family decided it was time for her to know.

"There were a lot of tears," said Kerry. "She still misses Brenda very much."

Victoria and her family had plenty to be thankful for this year -- and they hope for even more blessings in the future. Although Victoria will probably never completely recover from the horrific injuries she sustained, she has already come much farther than originally feared. Her mother sees college in her future, as well as walking and talking.

"Up until a few weeks ago, when you asked 'Victoria, are you okay?", she would always say, 'No,'" said Kerry. "Now, it's better. She's getting better and better. We're just waiting to see how far she can go."