Barb Dabney wasn't supposed to cry - or laugh or speak or walk, or even wake up - after the events of April 30, 2005, in Las Vegas. Run over by a pickup truck moving about 35 mph, Dabney was never supposed to see her three children or three grandchildren again.
Turning 50 can be emotional. For Barb Dabney, hitting the half-century mark was just one of countless eye-moistening moments in the past 2 ½ years. A few days before Dabney turned 50 in September, friends, relatives and therapists threw a surprise birthday party at Professional Therapy Services in Morton. After a session of physical therapy, Dabney was greeted by loved ones, lunch, cake and gifts. "I can't believe you're all here," Dabney said, breaking into tears. Guests could have said the same thing. Dabney wasn't supposed to cry - or laugh or speak or walk, or even wake up - after the events of April 30, 2005, in Las Vegas. Run over by a pickup truck moving about 35 mph, Dabney was never supposed to see her three children or three grandchildren again. Although Dabney has experienced all of the low points typical of brain-injured patients - rapid mood swings, depression, angry outbursts and sometimes wishing she had died - her resilience has amazed many. Even as she goes through a divorce from her second husband, Randy, she continues to defy expectations. A crushing combination of physical damage and brain injuries, which have forever altered her personality, memory and cognitive function, mean her goals must be modest: walking unassisted, driving, maybe working a job. Getting around town with the help of a four-wheeled walker is "just short of miraculous given her injuries," according to family physician Dr. Phil Rossi. "She's a remarkable lady who I've had the opportunity to know before and after the accident," Rossi said. "To watch her go from a very lively younger lady to being extremely debilitated, and now fighting her way back, I think she's an inspiration for a lot of folks who know her. She did not give up. She's wanted to. I know she has on several occasions. But she's decided not to." Although her short-term memories usually are sketchy, Dabney recognizes her progress. "They didn't think I'd amount to anything," Dabney said of the grim medical prognosis in the weeks immediately after the accident. "They didn't think I would walk or talk again. I was more or less a vegetable." Tough Times Dabney has faced adversity before. Her first husband, Stan Lape, died of pancreatic cancer in 1989. He left behind three children: Travis Lape, who was 4 months old at the time and is now 18 years old; Matt Lape, now 20; and Amanda Phillips, now 28. Dabney remains in the Mackinaw home she shared with her first husband. She joined the work force after his death, last working for Kraft Foods. In 1997, she married Randy Dabney. The Dabneys traveled to Nevada in spring 2005 in an effort to work out a struggling marriage. Barb recalls little about April 29, 2005, and the early morning hours of April 30. She remembers leaving a party with friends after an argument with Randy. "I probably had too much to drink, but I don't remember that night," she said. Going back to her hotel room at about 2 a.m., Dabney ran across an eight-lane road. She made it to the final lane before a truck – whose driver didn’t slow but wasn't ticketed because Dabney failed to use a crosswalk -- struck her. Dabney was thrown 60 feet from the point of impact. Dabney was admitted to Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center in Las Vegas. She had multiple fractures in each leg and her pelvis, as well as a broken collarbone. She also had a collapsed lung and ruptures to her bladder and diaphragm. Because of extensive physical damage, as well as brain injuries, Dabney was kept alive with a ventilator and feeding tube. What happened in Vegas most definitely did not stay in Vegas. Dabney began a long series of hospital stays. On May 19, she was flown to OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria, where her sister, Marilyn Egolf, first noticed signs of awareness such as wiggling of toes in response to questions. But after moving to Kindred Hospital in Sycamore on June 10, Dabney appeared to be regressing. Doctors provided a grim long-term outlook, and the family considered letting Dabney "die with dignity," as several relatives recall one doctor stating it. The family gathered in Sycamore, near DeKalb, to discuss removing the feeding tube. "All her kids were out there bawling," Egolf said. "It was like a funeral, like they'd already made up their mind. I was a little upset. I thought, 'There's no way I'm going to let this happen.' " Although the family considered letting go, her children opted instead to send her to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. "Aunt Marilyn was up there just about every day seeing Mom," Travis Lape said. "She was able to see all the progression Mom was making, day by day. She really thought Mom was there. She kept telling us we need to keep hanging on because she knows Mom is in there and can hear us talking. "We kind of thought Aunt Marilyn maybe couldn't accept the fact. We thought she was just saying that because she didn't want to let go. Obviously, she was feeling something." The Turnaround Dabney was moved to RIC on July 21, 2005. She quickly began a turnaround. The family had seen signs that Dabney was paying attention. During a visit from her granddaughter Ashten, Dabney had a vacant look in her eyes. Ashten approached the bed and said, "Hi, Grandma." "My mom opened her eyes, big as quarters," said Phillips, Ashten's mom. "From that point on, you couldn't tell me something's not there." Still, Dabney had yet to speak. On Aug. 16, Matt Lape brought his daughter Jordyn to Chicago. Jordyn had been born six weeks earlier while Dabney was in a coma. Knowing their mother's fondness of babies, they hoped Jordyn's visit might trigger a more noticeable response. Egolf noticed her sister's eyes seemed to be bouncing back and forth between her son and her new grandchild. "I said, 'You know who this guy is, don't you?' " Egolf said. "She said, 'Matt.' That's the first time I heard her speak. I thought he was going to drop the baby. Everyone started bawling." Back at home, Travis received a stunning phone call. In her barely audible, scratchy voice, his mom said, "Hi, Travis." Dabney's words were met with silence. "My eyes filled with tears and I couldn't even speak," Travis said. "I couldn't even try to describe how happy I was." Improvements continued. Dabney moved closer to home, to Hopedale Hospital, on Oct. 4, 2005, then quickly on to Snyder Village in Metamora. On Dec. 4, 2005, she came home. Homecoming Living in her home of 27 years is important, but arriving there was only an initial step toward recovery. Days are filled with trips to the doctor, to a psychiatrist and to physical and speech therapy. The community raised nearly $40,000 to cover medical expenses upon Dabney's arrival home. Now, medical care is covered by Medicare. Once confined to a wheelchair, Dabney journeys a few blocks from home using a walker. She has rods in both lower legs and her coordination and balance are compromised. Brain injuries leave Dabney relearning how to swallow. Food must be cut into small pieces, and many items are off-limits. Dabney has difficulty swallowing food properly, sometimes leading food fragments into her lungs. That causes coughing and makes her scratchy voice even more difficult to hear. Because eating creates a choking sensation, proper calorie intake is a constant struggle. Speech pathologist Vicki Winn of Professional Therapy Services said speech exercises actually are secondary. Winn spends much of her sessions with Dabney on swallowing exercises, pill prescriptions, dietary issues and other "cognitive retraining" issues. Some moments, Dabney quickly cracks a joke within the context of a conversation. Other times, an elementary task leaves her stymied. "If you take this pill at 8 a.m. and you need to take it again 12 hours later, when do you need to take the next pill?" Winn asked during one visit to the house. Dabney hesitated, thought carefully and finally answered, "8 p.m.?" Ask about something from her children's youth and there's an instant, accurate answer. "I heard a neurologist describe your memory as concrete," Winn said. "What you poured yesterday is still fluid and kind of wobbling around, and what you poured 20 years is hard and locked in there. It can be confusing: How come she can't remember what happened yesterday when she can remember what happened 20 years ago? "Some of it is memory, and some of it is actually the ability to solve a problem. She ran out of a medication and she didn't know what to do about that. She has real ready access to a physician right in Mackinaw, and if the physician is not in the office she can always call the nurse. She just went several days without that medication because she couldn't figure out exactly how to renew the prescription." Winn's job is to stimulate brain function, then to help Dabney compensate for what has been lost by coming up with organizational systems - such as putting pills in dosage boxes, or taking detailed notes. "Because of the amount of time that has gone on since the injury, I think where she is now is probably where she's going to be as far as brain function," Dr. Rossi said. "This is probably where she's going to be long-term." Emotional Roller Coaster As is typical with brain injuries, the biggest toll on the family has been emotional. Phillips said her mom was once her best friend, but now she feels more like she's on the opposite end of the parent-child relationship. Afraid to discuss her own problems because they pale in comparison, Phillips weathered a year when Dabney lashed out verbally and occasionally physically. "It's like having your best friend ripped out from under you," Phillips said. "We were really close before the accident. She's getting better now, but basically she would have the mentality of a 7- or 8-year-old. Because of her brain injury, it made her a very angry person. Anybody can understand that it's very difficult for her to deal with, but it's tough for us. "She was more frustrated, but she would take it out on the ones closest to her. That was very, very hard. To have your mother screaming at you that she hates you and she wants you out of her life, when all you're trying to do is help, it's a difficult situation to deal with." Medical professionals close to Dabney said her children will face hard work in restoring relationships with their mother. "With a head injury you get some personality changes that occur and mood disorders, depression - things the patient has no control over, unfortunately," Rossi said. "She will never be totally normal from the standpoint of her walking or her personality or mood," he added. "I don't think that'll ever be normal, but it can get to a point where it's functional and she can carry on reasonably well in life with some help." Travis, an Illinois Central College freshman, is the last child at home. When he leaves to attend a four-year university, Dabney will be living alone. Egolf, who drives Dabney to most of her appointments, wishes Dabney's children were more involved day-to-day but concedes they face difficulties. "Brain-injured people need so much support," Egolf said. "It can be tough because they get frustrated and come down on you. You have to imagine yourself in that chair or behind that walker, unable to do the things you like." Dabney hopes to exchange her walker for a cane before eventually walking unassisted. With the walker, she can make short strolls to places such as church, the post office and grocery store. Sometimes, she takes a few short steps without aid before feeling off-balance. She talks of one day driving and working again, but it is unclear how likely she is to meet those long-term goals. At her worst moments, Dabney wondered why she held on. "She has talked to me some nights about, 'I should have just died,' " her sister said. Grandchildren Austen, 6, Jordyn, 2, and Xander, 1, provide motivation. "I know it's going to get better, but it's a long road," Dabney said. "When Jordyn was 1, I told them I would walk (unassisted) before her - but she's walking before me," Dabney said. "Now it's Xander - he's not walking yet. "I keep going because of the kids, and I want to see my grandkids. That means a lot to me." Ryan Ori can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.