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Back from the Brink

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Reason to cheer after head injury

Every noon, Becky Dedo’s wristwatch alarm goes off, and for a second, the former beauty queen looks a little baffled. Then she pulls out her Day-Timer and reads the entry: EAT LUNCH. “If I don’t remind myself, I forget to eat,” she says. Or, for that matter, to brush her teeth or to wear shoes—preferably a pair that matches.

Unlike most of us, Dedo has a good excuse for her absentmindedness. Five years ago, the West Palm Beach, Fla., native, then 25, had two bachelor’s degrees, a job as an events organizer at Walt Disney World and a great guy. “I thought I was indestructible,” she says. Instead, on Jan. 5, 2001, while moonlighting as a high school cheer-leading coach, her students begged her to do a stunt. “I figured the only way to shut them up was to do one,” she recalls. “That’s the last thing I remember.”

Standing on the upturned palms of a male partner, Dedo completed two difficult twists, but on a third attempt she slipped—and fell head first to the ground. Witnesses told her the sound “was like a bowling ball hitting the floor,” says Dedo. The impact opened a hole in her skull the size of a tennis ball. She was rushed unconscious to a hospital, where a team of neurosurgeons, fighting to alleviate the critical swelling in Dedo’s brain, decided to take an extraordinary risk: They removed her entire right anterior temporal lobe—a quarter of Dedo’s brain and the area responsible for short-term memory, emotion and impulse control.

Dedo remained in a coma for eight days following the 20-hour operation. Finally, on Jan. 13, she opened her eyes. “It was like waking up in Jell-O,” she says. “I knew things weren’t right, but I didn’t know how.” Two months later she was released from the hospital. Her injury cost her the ability to pick up on subtleties of emotion in others, from sarcasm to sadness. That has made life difficult: She split with her fiancé and with some of her friends. “I try very hard not to snap and say horrible things to people,” she says, “but sometimes I slip up.” For that, she can be forgiven. It was only this Memorial Day, in fact—five years into her recovery—that doctors were finally able to fine-tune her medication enough to stop the violent seizures that have plagued her since her fall. “I could have one tomorrow,” she says evenly. “But I don’t have them now.”

Still, all things considered, “it’s a wonder that Becky’s even alive,” says her neuropsychologist Larry Schutz. “With her injuries, it’s miraculous she survived, let alone being able to function in society.” Or to have founded a self-help group for people with brain injuries. “Did you know every 15 seconds someone has a head injury in the United States?” she says earnestly. Then she catches herself. “Statistics I can remember,” she says. “Appointments? Not so much.”

“Janae’s been hit by lightning, and she’s not breathing.”

When Gerlyn Kinser dropped off her 13-year-old daughter Janae Montes at softball practice this past June, a thunderstorm was looming on the horizon. As Kinser got back to work at a car dealership, she heard “a boom that sounded like a bomb.” Then her cell phone rang. “Gerlyn, get over here,” said a friend. “Janae’s been hit by lightning, and she’s not breathing.”

Montes was hit directly on the head by the bolt. The force and heat melted her socks, shredded her clothes and sent her shoes flying. “Her eyes were turning blue and her lips too,” says Sonya McCune, who ran to give Montes CPR. “You could smell the burnt flesh on her.”

The impact was life-threatening. The lightning scorched her chest and stomach and caused neurological damage and partial paralysis. But over the next seven weeks at the Children’s Hospital in Denver, she regained her ability to speak and struggled through grueling rounds of physical therapy, sometimes yelling at her balky limbs: “Come on, Betty! Come on, Susan!” It was Montes’s upbeat attitude that aided her recovery, says her rehab doctor Joyce Oleszek: “Thirteen years old, dealing with tragedy and a lot of pain, and bringing humor in. It was just great to see.”

Montes walks stiffly, has hearing loss and fears storms. But “she’s back to her old self,” says sister Stefanie. “Ornery. Funny. And loud.”

‘I’d rather be an inch and a half shorter than six feet under’

Leave it to other guys to show off their tattoos. Denver Haslam pulls up his shirt to display the two-foot-long scar that winds from his left chest to his back and serves as a souvenir of his close encounter with death. “It reminds me every day,” he says, “to be happy.”

In February 2003 Haslam, then a 23-year-old technology project manager, was finishing a day’s skiing with friends in Colorado when he decided to jump on the highest lift for a fast final downhill. Heading down the slope, he rounded a corner and plunged over a 30-foot cliff. “I remember saying, ‘This is going to hurt,'” he recalls. “Then I hit it”—a tree, at 50 mph.

Four hours later at St. Anthony Central Hospital in Denver, doctors surveyed the damage: Haslam had broken every rib, his kidneys, lungs and liver failed, and there was massive bleeding. “Had every piece of his treatment not gone right, he would not be with us,” says surgeon Charlie Mains. “It was as bad as it gets.”

Though Haslam also suffered head injuries, the ski helmet he was wearing saved his life. Sedated in a coma-like state, he suffered one setback after another. But thanks in part to an experimental drug that helped his blood to clot, after two months Haslam was well enough to begin physical rehab. He’s missing three ribs and lost height due to spinal compression, so he’s not all the man he used to be. But he’s back on skis. “I’d rather be an inch and a half shorter than six feet under,” he says. “It’s all perspective.”

She survived the wreck that killed her parents

The Gomez family of Antioch, Calif., always looked forward to their annual road trip to Disneyland. But on their way home in May 2001, a small pickup going 85 mph ran a stop sign and hit the driver’s side of their van, pushing it 150 feet into an open field. When rescue workers peeled open the wreck, they found parents Gilbert and Danielle Gomez dead, three family members injured and 11-year-old daughter Marcella with her life hanging in the balance.

At Oakland’s Children’s Hospital, doctors discovered that Marcella had suffered a partial tearing of her brain stem, an often lethal injury of the fibers connecting the brain to the spine. “Usually victims die, are paralyzed or spend years in a coma,” says pediatric rehab specialist Dr. Elaine Pico.

Not Marcella. Despite the fact that their patient remained in a coma for four months, physical therapists exercised her limbs for three hours a day. In September Dr. Pico was making her rounds when she spoke to Gomez. “I said, ‘Hi, Marcella.’ And she nodded back to me. I ran out to the nursing station, calling for everyone to come see. I was elated!”

But difficult times lay ahead for Marcella, perhaps the toughest being the day when, still unable to speak, she was told what had happened to her parents. “I explained that Mom and Dad had been hurt and that they didn’t make it,” says her grandmother Diana Douglas, who was also injured in the crash. “She cried for the first time at that point. It was the only noise she could make.”

On Oct. 3, just a month after regaining consciousness, Marcella left the hospital, aided only by a walker but still not talking. “I came home, and everyone was here—my aunt, uncle, my grandma,” she says. “I was happy, crying in my heart and thinking, ‘Thank you, Lord.'” Today she does special exercises for her legs and right hand, which has a slight tremor. But she’s also able to play an occasional game of basketball, go swimming and ride her bike—and chat with her girlfriends on her cell phone. “Her talking is a little soft, and her walk is off. But she’s like the old Marcella,” says her grandmother. “Open, loving, full of tenacity. And almost always smiling.”