By Claudia Glenn Dowling
March 26, 2001 12:00 PM

When Cynthia Jay-Brennan fed $27 into a slot machine at Las Vegas’s Desert Inn casino on Jan. 27,2000, the estimated odds of her winning that day’s Megabucks jackpot—$34,959,458—were 7 million to one. But fate hadn’t finished with the former cocktail waitress, who now believes she won history’s biggest slot payout for a reason: so she could pay her soon-to-be-astronomical medical bills. “You can be on top of the world one minute, and then all of a sudden you’re paralyzed,” says Jay-Brennan, 38, who learned that lesson tragically just six weeks after her windfall.

Last March 11, Jay-Brennan was on a girls’ night out with her older sister Lela, 45. Cindy, as her family calls her, was driving. She had just quit her job at the Monte Carlo resort and married her boyfriend of one year, bartender Terry Brennan, 45. The couple were planning to buy a new car, enjoy a belated honeymoon at the beach, have kids. “The last thing I remember was telling Lela how happy I was,” says Jay-Brennan. But at 10:17 p.m. she stopped at a red light, and her luck changed before the light did.

Clark Morse was heading home from a bar, investigators say, when he barreled into the intersection at more than 50 mph. His Ford Explorer rear-ended Jay-Bren-nan’s Camaro, crushing it against the car in front of her. Lela died at the scene; Cindy’s fifth vertebra was smashed, her spinal cord severed. Morse, 58, who had been arrested 15 times for drunk driving, had just completed a court-mandated rehab program. His blood alcohol level was later found to be almost twice that allowed by Nevada law, and he was driving his mother’s car without her permission—or a license. He jumped out and ran, but police quickly traced the SUV to the nearby trailer where he lived with his mother. Morse had minor facial injuries but never admitted to authorities that he’d been driving the crash car. As the cruiser taking him to the station passed the five-car pileup, he told an officer it looked like “one hell of an accident.”

Two weeks ago, just before the first anniversary of the crash, Morse went to trial. The defense claimed that with an IQ of 70 he wasn’t responsible for his actions. Yet though Morse was unemployed at the time of the accident, he had worked for five years as a stagehand at the Las Vegas Convention Center and before that as a groundskeeper. He was estranged from his ex-wife and three grown children. The prosecution was unimpressed by the claim of incompetence: “He’s been married, has grandkids, maintained jobs,” notes Chief Deputy District Attorney Gary Booker. “Now you want to argue that he should be treated differently than everyone else?”

The courtroom fell silent when Jay-Brennan took the stand in her wheelchair and could not raise her hand to be sworn in. She told the court that she was paralyzed from her upper chest to her toes. “It’s not easy to get up there and say, ‘My bowels don’t work,’ ” says Jay-Brennan. “It’s a personal thing.” But her four minutes of testimony had the effect she hoped for: The jury convicted Morse of drunk driving, driving without a license and leaving the scene of an accident. At his sentencing on April 20 he faces up to 145 years in prison. Nonetheless, says Terry Brennan, “it’s a hollow victory. When we wake up tomorrow, Cindy’s still paralyzed and Lela’s still dead.”

Brennan’s life has changed utterly as well. He was working a party when the manager told him Cindy was in the trauma unit. During his wife’s four-month hospitalization—first in Las Vegas’s University Medical Center and then in Denver’s Craig Hospital, recommended by the Christopher Reeve foundation—he rarely left her side. At first she was in excruciating pain, and all he could do was try to make her more comfortable. But as the pain subsided, so did her hope of recovery. Doctors told her, “You’re not going to walk again.”

Brennan moved the couple’s belongings from their townhouse into a ranch-style house with wheelchair accessibility, and Jay-Brennan came home last July. “In sickness and in health,” she says, “my husband is wonderful.” He shops, cooks, feeds her, cleans, does laundry and wakes up four times a night to turn her so that her skin doesn’t break down. An aide dresses her in the morning and puts her to bed at night. “We’re trying to separate the husband-wife relationship from the patient-caregiver relationship,” explains Brennan. Cindy’s cheerfulness, he says, makes it easier for everyone to deal with her disabilities: “When I start to get really down myself, I say, ‘If she can do it for another day, I can.’ ”

While he is at work, others take over. The fifth of nine children of Anna Fitzgerald (who owned a sheet-glass business with her second husband) and California painting contractor Harold Jay, Cindy is reaping the harvest of her own generosity: After her win, she set up a trust for her family and gave each member $10,000. Says her mother: “It’s our time to give back to her.” Terry’s mother and stepfather, retirees Jerry and Joan Beirne, also help out. But Cindy still misses her big sister Lela. “I can’t pick up the phone and call her,” she says sadly.

Jay-Brennan is disappointed that the man who made that call impossible has never apologized—and she hopes the jury will lock him up for life. “I don’t wish him bad,” she says of Morse. “I just want him off the street.” Her sister got a death sentence, she points out, and “I’m in this chair, in this prison, forever.” But she works to lighten her own sentence, spending weekdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at a rehabilitation center called Help Them Walk Again. Therapy has improved her overall health and helped her gain some movement in her arms. She is hooked up to machines that stimulate muscles electronically to keep them from atrophying, on the remote chance that she may someday be able to use them. “I hope I’m going to be a miracle,” she says, “or that a cure’s going to come one day real quick.” She knows the odds are against her. But then, she has beaten them before.

Claudia Glenn Dowling

Mary Green in Las Vegas