The glare of the afternoon sun, the unbuckled seat belt, the terrible timing. Like most car accidents, it was a horrible collection of circumstances that left Ashlee Johnston, now 17, in a coma and fighting for her life. It was Friday, Sept. 3, 2010 — just three days before Ashlee’s sweet 16.
The Moment That Changed Everything
On that day, Ashlee and four others were driving to a friend’s house when they collided with another car. With her seat belt lying useless beside her, Ashlee was thrown from the backseat on impact, and went into a coma immediately. In an instant, her life was put on pause.
After first being taken to Mercy Regional Health Center, she was life-flighted to Stormont-Vail in Topeka. The initial prognosis was dismal. And the injuries were almost too great for Ashlee’s parents, Chad and Angela Tierney, to believe.
“Her brain was swollen, her pelvis was shattered, her right eye was completely shut,” Angela said. Of all the injuries, the traumatic brain injury was the scariest. “The pupil was blown, which indicated there could have been brain-stem damage.”
Grasping for Hope
Angela would later find out that doctors had only given Ashlee a three-percent chance of survival. All Angela knew was that when she asked the nurses whether anyone ever woke up from that kind of coma, they simply said “no.” And the life they foresaw if Ashlee did beat those unbelievable odds…well, it was much different than the one she’s living today.
“They told me to anticipate 24/7 care,” Angela said. “They had me in contact with people who could help me get everything I’d need at home. But you know what? I thought, ‘I don’t care; I’ll feed her every day, I’ll do whatever.’ I was just so glad she was alive.”
Despite the daunting prognosis, Ashlee’s family kept hoping — first for her survival, then for her to wake up, and then for the bright future they had always imagined for her.
And, miraculously, on Oct. 28, 2010, after 55 days in a coma, Ashlee accomplished what her doctors had thought was almost impossible: She woke up. And she whispered five words that were the sweetest her mother ever heard: “Hi, Mom. I love you.”
Who knows what happened to Ashlee during that time while she lay sleeping. She certainly doesn’t. In fact, for a long time, her memories of the entire year before the accident were fuzzy at best. But ask Ashlee or anyone else in her family, and they will tell you that when she awakened, it was as a new person.
“She woke up so positive and grateful,” Angela remembered. “She wasn’t always like that.”
Ashlee, to that point, had been Angela and Chad’s difficult child — as she herself admits. She had been partying and pushing boundaries. She was desperately unhappy, and seeking happiness in things that simply weren’t providing it. The accident, for her, was a reboot — a clean slate.
“I am a completely different person. I just woke up with a new attitude,” Ashlee said. “I couldn’t be ‘woe is me’ because I felt so grateful to be alive.”
That gratitude and positive attitude go a long way with patients’ recoveries, according to Jenn Harrington, Ashlee’s speech language pathologist at Mercy.
“She doesn’t get frustrated,” Jenn said. “She will continue to try and try. She asks me for homework. She says, ‘This happened at home. What can I do differently?’ Her desire, her willpower, is probably 90 percent of her recovery; it really is.”
Strength in Numbers
And Ashlee needed every bit of her willpower. All told, she spent more than five months in four different hospitals. She endured surgeries on her pelvis, her jaw, and her right eye. And on top of the physical struggles, there were emotional ones, too. Angela had to quit working to stay with Ashlee full-time at a rehabilitation hospital in Lincoln, Neb. Plus, they were separated from Ashlee’s father, Chad, and her brothers, Cameron and Connor — all of whom stayed back in Manhattan. When Ashlee finally returned home in February 2011, her dad, a lieutenant at Fort Riley, was deployed to Afghanistan 10 days later.
Somehow, in spite of it all, they have kept their positivity and faith — partly due to the outpouring of support from medical staff, community members, and strangers alike. Friends organized a fundraiser, and sold T-shirts and bracelets to help sustain the family while Angela was unable to work. They dropped off food for the entire family, both at home and at the hospitals. And the family watched in awe as nearly 2,000 visitors from 20 countries checked Ashlee’s website for updates.
Uplifted by the unbelievable kindness, they put their trust in the “wonderful” medical teams that worked with Ashlee, including Mercy’s rehabilitation therapists.
“They’re great people,” Angela said.
The Road Back
Mercy’s Rehabilitation Services team works with patients who suffer from a variety of injuries. They help patients recover after anything from a blown-out knee to a stroke. For patients like Ashlee, with injuries to both her body and brain, they use a combination of therapies over many months.
Occupational therapist Jason Wollenberg helped Ashlee strengthen her eye through a variety of exercises.
“I had double vision 24/7 until the eye surgery in July 2011. So with Jason, it was about trying to see things as one image,” Ashlee explained. “Jason is the best. He’s great, and he’s hilarious.”
Part two of her rehab at Mercy was about rebuilding her physical strength. She and physical therapist Amy Wright worked on the treadmill, stretching, jumping, lifting weights, the leg press — you name it, they did it.
It was the part, Ashlee says, that was the most challenging.
“PT was pretty hard for me. Amy’s a stickler, but that’s good; she challenges me,” Ashlee said. “Jumping was a big deal. When I first started, I just thought, ‘There’s no way I’ll ever be able to do this.’”
But she proved herself wrong.
“Amy’s tough, but that’s how Ashlee got so far,” Angela said. “Amy made Ashlee do things she didn’t think she could do. At first, she couldn’t even jump off the ground, because her left leg was so weak from surgery. When she finished physical therapy, she could jump up on a step, and jump over things. It was amazing to see.”
In fact, after nearly six months of incredibly hard work, Ashlee wrapped up her physical therapy and occupational therapy. After spending hours together every week, she talks about Jason and Amy like old friends, commenting on their humor, their personalities. She even misses those appointments, tough though they were.
“My experience with Mercy has been really good. It’s been fun — and it’s been rewarding,” Ashlee said.
State of Mind
Meanwhile, Ashlee’s work with speech therapist Jenn Harrington continues. Though Ashlee came out of her coma with her speech skills intact, some of her cognitive abilities suffered as a result of the traumatic brain injury (TBI). Jenn’s role was to help Ashlee retrain her mind in things like attention span, memory, and problem solving — which are commonly impacted by TBI.
“Speech therapists do everything from the neck up,” Jenn said. “We do talking, swallowing, cognition, orientation, memory. Right now, what Ashlee and I are working on is her initiation for tasks.
“When I first saw Ashlee, I tried to get her to complete a high-level test where she had to schedule activities for a day. She was given a list of eight things she had to get done, and a time schedule. She read it, she wrote down one thing on the schedule, and then sat there for probably 10 minutes. She looked at me and said, ‘I could sit here all day and not do anything more. I have no idea where to start.’ She couldn’t process it; it was too much information for her.”
Over the past eight months, they’ve done plenty of practical exercises to rebuild those skills. They fill out logic puzzles. They go to Kmart to shop for ingredients to make brownies. They talk through directions to get somewhere in town. And they do a lot of it with distractions — like the radio — in place to build up Ashlee’s ability to focus. To say Ashlee has come a long way would be an understatement.
“At the beginning, we were working on just being able to process through one thing and sustain attention to complete a simple task.The puzzles she does now are difficult for me! I send her home with it, and her mom says, ‘I don’t know how you expect her to do this,’” Jenn said with a laugh.
“Her progress is incredible. It’s unbelievable, actually. She’s a great girl — a lucky girl.”
Like Ashlee’s bonds with Jason and Amy, her relationship with Jenn is one that revolves around high expectations, and lots of respect.
“I love Jenn. She has so much personality,” Ashlee said. “She’s not a pushover — and she doesn’t treat me any differently because of the accident.”
When asked what she has learned from this lifeupending journey, Ashlee’s first response is quick and simple:
“I have my seat belt on before the car even starts.”
She’s hoping to get the chance to tell her story at area schools — to get other kids to think twice about leaving their seat belts unbuckled.
“The accident woke me up, and it also changed a lot of other people. I’ve had a lot of people tell me they wear their seat belt because of me, which is pretty cool,” she said. “I just want people to wear their seat belts. It’s ignorant not to; it could save your life.”
Beyond those sage words, Ashlee and her mom see nothing but good lessons coming from what many would consider a tragedy.
“I’ve learned to never underestimate myself,” Ashlee said. “People can do things they never thought they could do.”
And now she’s able to look ahead, to the future that her family, her therapists, and even strangers had hoped and prayed for.
“I want to write a book about my experience. I want to get married. I want to have kids. College,” Ashlee rattles off in quick succession. “I think I want to be a nurse, because I’ve become so close to so many nurses. They are the ones that got me through a lot of it.”
And while most parents would worry more about their child after a trauma like the one Ashlee faced, Angela finally feels like she can breathe easy.
“I worried about her a lot before the accident. I don’t worry about Ashlee anymore. She’s changed so much in a good way,” Angela said. “I’d like her to be whatever she wants to be. I’m just her cheerleader.”
“People say what happened was a tragedy. It wasn’t,” Ashlee said, with an unmistakable ring of certainty. “It’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”