ANKENY — Chelsie Zender says she remembers very little about her car accident Dec. 17, 2005, in Minneapolis.
Zender, 21 and a 2002 West High graduate, was a student at Minneapolis Community and Technical College at the time. She said she was driving that evening when another vehicle, allegedly fleeing from the police, ran a stoplight and slammed into her car. The left side of her body hit the side of the car, and the right side of her brain was damaged when it was jostled inside her skull.
The accident left her in a coma for three weeks and has caused her to endure a slow recovery process at On With Life, a brain injury rehabilitation center in Ankeny that she has called home since Jan. 16.
Her father, Vic Zender of Iowa City, said her daughter emerging from the coma was different than what people see in the movies.
“She didn’t realize she had been in an accident,” he said.
Dale Reiman of Iowa City endured what he calls “a double-edge sword” on Dec. 26, 2005. That day, his wife, Mary Alice, was killed in a two-car crash along Highway 965. His daughter Moriah, now 24 and a 2000 West High graduate, was a passenger in the car. She suffered a traumatic brain injury that has left her in and out of a coma since then. She also is recovering at On With Life.
“It’s really frustrating to watch her,” Reiman said. “It’s been a blessing to get her in there. It’s the right place for her.”
Moriah Reiman and Chelsea Zender are among the estimated 1.4 million Americans who sustained a traumatic brain injury last year, according to the Brain Injury Association of America. Their conditions and struggles were recognized last month by the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives and will be again at the University of Iowa this week with UI’s Brain Awareness Week.
Zender said the left side of her body remains numb, and she hobbles around the rehab facility on a cane. She said it has been a difficult adjustment as she considered herself an independent person before the accident. However, she said she is now able to do personal hygiene tasks such as brushing her teeth and putting on makeup.
“It’s very hard for me to call people for help,” she said. “I feel I should be able to do that myself. But I’m getting back to that point.”
Finding out how to help a person recover from a traumatic brain injury is difficult as well. Vic Zender said he found out about On With Life from a friend who had a stroke last year. The 26-bed residential facility was filled, but Chelsie got in when three new beds were added.
Her days are filled with physical and speech therapy to bring her to the point she was at before the accident. John Nuhn, director of case management at On With Life, said the therapy is customized to what the person’s current function is, including any psychological issues the person may have. The treatment also is designed to help doctors and therapists determine the extent of the brain injury, which can be difficult to diagnose, Nuhn said.
“As time goes by, we’re able to see what (the severity of the injury) is,” he said. “You can’t give them a pill. You have to give them time.”
Zender takes a music therapy class designed to help her work on balance. On this day, she moved around to Will Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy With It” while two therapists supported her. She also recently started refilling bird feeders around the facility as part of her physical therapy. She said it all has helped progress to the point of looking ahead to going home in the next month.
“Rock on,” she said with enthusiasm. “It’s Zender and Ollinger blood.”
Nuhn said he credits Zender’s parents, Vic and Donna Zender, as well as her friends with helping with the recovery process.
“Chelsie would not be where she is without her parents,” Nuhn said. “We need the family more than they need us. We need to educate the family … so they can continue their rehab.”
Moriah Reiman remains, for the most part, immobile, her father said. He said On With Life staff members work with her regularly, dressing her every day and doing therapy to encourage more movement from her. She has responded with some eye movements, he said.
“They treat her like she can hear her,” Dale Reiman said. “They play music and do things with bells.”
Zender said she still wishes the accident never happened.
“I keep thinking it’s a dream and I’ll wake up and shake it off and go back to (school),” she said.
In the meantime, Zender and her family have much to look forward to. At the end of April, she may get to go home to Iowa City, where she will continue her rehabilitation.
“I hope to clean Dad’s garage and work in Mom’s garden,” she said. “Using both arms, it’ll be a good thing.”
Donna Zender said she has had her own highs and lows while helping her daughter recover. She remembers Chelsie’s first words after she woke up from her coma.
“I heard this little voice on the other end say, ‘Hi, Mom,'” Donna Zender said. “It was this most inspirational thing to me. We have had this extremely emotional roller coaster, not knowing if your daughter is going to be the same person as she was before.”
Despite the conditions, both families are hopeful their daughters will one day make a full recovery. Reiman said he is hopeful Moriah will achieve her dreams.
“Probably her biggest goal in life was to be a mom someday,” he said. “We’d like some quality of life. If that’s in a chair, so be it.”
The man who hit Zender’s car, Myron Williams, is scheduled to be sentenced April 26 to a possible five years of prison after pleading guilty to criminal vehicle operation and fleeing a peace officer, according to the clerk’s office of the Fourth Judicial District Court of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Zender said she might attend the sentencing to present her victim statement, though she is not satisfied with the prison sentence that Williams is likely to receive.
“Five years is certainly not long enough,” she said.
Above all else, however, she said she hopes to remain the same person and inspire other people who are in similar situations. She hopes to become a teacher, having applied to San Francisco State University.
“Wanting to inspire others inspires me to get better,” Zender said. “When they get injured, stay positive. Being negative toward the world will make their recovery tougher. Not having a positive attitude will not help them get better.”