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Taking life back — one baby step at a time

SHARE Taking life back — one baby step at a time

I've ventured into Super Bowl locker rooms. I've seen a college football coach throwing chairs against a wall. I've met Navy Seals and fighter pilots. I talked to Red Auerbach when he was in a bad mood. I know a former Army Ranger who worked behind enemy lines in Vietnam. I was once threatened by an NBA star.

But the toughest person I can think of at the moment is a teenage girl who struggles just to negotiate stairs.

Jamie Curtis bounced off two cars and lived to tell about it. Since then, she's taken more falls than Cosmo Kramer and picked herself up again.

She has the bruises and scrapes on her legs to prove it. She's cried her eyes out at night after another frustrating day of rehab and come back for more the next.

I wrote about Jamie 2 1/2 years ago after she was struck by a car one morning in front of her high school, a blindside hit at 40 miles per hour. She ricocheted off the car's windshield, flew 25 feet and crashed into a parked car, her head striking both vehicles. It broke her leg, pelvis, sacrum and the wiring to her brain. For weeks afterward, her eyes were open, but no one was home behind them, and people wondered if she would ever come back.

Well, she came back, literally one baby step at a time. "She's definitely a miracle," says Jamie's mother, Cheryl.

Jamie graduated with her class last spring. During graduation ceremonies, she was given two standing ovations.

Much of the old Jamie has returned, but her recovery will continue for several more years. Her vision and depth perception are poor, which is why she repeatedly falls down stairs. She loses her balance easily, which makes simple activities like hiking and bowling formidable. Even shaving her legs or applying mascara is a challenge.

She's had four surgeries on her eyes in an attempt to realign them. She had to have her femur rebroken and reset. She battled the depression that usually accompanies brain injuries. She has lost some function on one side (right) of her body. Her right hand shakes. She has to practice writing her name daily. Rehab is a grueling six hours a day.

Jamie is still trying to recover her eyesight, her motor skills, her short-term memory, her vocabulary, her life as she knew it. Her friends are going off to college; she's going to rehab. They continued with their lives; she had to start over.

"My life is therapy and eating," she says. "If I had friends, I would be happier about things. I'm really lonely."

Doctors said if she survived the first 72 hours, she would be a vegetable. "She was flat-line zero comatose," says Cheryl. Then she began tracking movement with her eyes. Eventually, she was able to breathe on her own, then sit up. For 10 weeks she didn't talk. When she wanted to go outside, she drew the sun. Like an infant, she had to learn to walk and talk. She crawled, then she progressed to a walker. Finally, one day she said "yes," and a few days later she began talking in a limited way while her scrambled brain struggled to find words.

"She is mad," says Cheryl. "She realizes what she lost. She pushes herself so she can have a normal life. She wants to get married and have children and go to school like the other kids."

Jamie has her moments of silent desperation, times when she comes into her parents' room at night and climbs into bed with them and cries so hard she can't breathe.

"My parents have been through it all," says Jamie. "All my mom does is help me. It's changed all our lives."

Doug Robinson's column runs on Tuesdays. E-mail drob@desnews.com