Wednesday, May 13, 2009

15 surgeries later, Ryan student graduates

By Natalia Mielczarek • THE TENNESSEAN • May 13, 2009 Brittany Leedham’s right leg finally bent to 70 degrees on April 28, she wrote in her Internet journal. It took three people to make it happen. The day before, the Father Ryan High School senior went up and down a few stairs, a milestone she recorded in capital letters. Brittany’s next goal is to walk across the stage and back to her seat — most likely using a walker — to pick up her high school diploma. She hasn’t put one foot in front of the other independently and without pain since November. “Since day one, I’ve told them I’m going to walk at graduation,” said Brittany, who nearly died in a Nov. 29 car accident. Her boyfriend, Zachary Kerinuk, 19, who was driving, didn’t make it. “It’s important because after everything I’ve been through, I feel like I deserve to be like everybody else and walk. Graduation is like a finishing line.” Three weeks before the May 17 commencement with both of her legs bandaged up from the waist down to her toes, Brittany relied on a wheelchair to navigate the world. She also had begun practicing taking a few steps with a walker, she said. But to get there, Brittany has undergone 15 surgeries — one more left to go right after graduation — skin graphs and countless hours of painful therapy. The list of broken bones she sustained from the accident when the car wrapped around a tree is long: tibias and fibulas in both legs, both femurs, pelvic bone in two places, three fingers in her right hand and the C2 vertebra. Her left leg was “de-gloved,” which means that the muscles, tissue and skin were peeled off. Rods, plates and screws have held the legs together since, she said. Brittany spent two weeks in a trauma unit at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, she recalled. She was in critical condition upon arrival, according to police reports. She remained in an induced coma for five days to sleep through the pain. Brittany’s first clear memory was two weeks after the crash, she said, when she was told that she was the sole survivor. Then came four weeks in the trauma step-down unit, followed by four weeks at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt and four weeks at the Vanderbilt Stallworth Rehabilitation Hospital. But in addition to recovering physically, Brittany has been healing emotionally. “It’s getting better,” she said, her face turning serious. “I have good days and bad days, but the good days are finally starting to outnumber the bad days.” She missed more than three months of school and only returned to campus a few weeks ago to take three classes that separated her from the diploma: English, environmental science and college algebra and trigonometry. Her class schedule has been arranged around therapy sessions. But make no mistake, Brittany’s teachers say, she’s not getting any special treatment when it comes to academics. “She’s here, in the classroom, doing what she’s supposed to be doing,” said Tim Forbes, dean of campus ministry and spiritual life. “She will graduate not as a favor from the school. She fights for everything she has. She works with the same determination in swimming and in a classroom,” he said. Brittany is a member of the school’s swim team. While in the hospital and at a rehabilitation center, Brittany’s primary task was to be a patient, not a student. Since then, she’s had to cram a lot to catch up. “I’ve had to work a lot harder just to be able to get out of bed in the morning,” Brittany said. “The fact that they told me I could graduate with my peers kept pushing me. … I had to change so many things about my life.” She’s ‘stubborn’ Her return to school, as much as it was exciting, was frightening at the beginning, she said.“I was really scared to come back because I thought people would treat me differently, be more standoffish, but not at all. They even forget that I’m in a wheelchair. But my weekends before the accident were filled with social activities. Now, they’re dull.” Brittany’s post-graduation plans also have been scrapped. Her hope was to attend Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville and room with one of her best friends, Amber McKinney, also a graduating senior at Father Ryan High School.Amber said she was proud of her friend for coming such a long way — but not surprised.“It’s a miracle that she’s walking, but I’m not surprised. She’s always been stubborn,” she said, laughing. “But she’s a completely different person now, in a good way. She’s a lot stronger spiritually. Emotionally, she’s still a little unstable, but she’s getting through it. I’m proud of her.” Brittany is determined to start Middle Tennessee State University in the fall, closer to her Cane Ridge home. She isn’t ready yet to ponder the deeper meaning of the accident, she said. The experience, though, made her realize that what she wants to study in college is recreational therapy. Brittany wears three necklaces that she never takes off: a Chinese symbol for the ram, her sign in the Chinese horoscope; a silver heart that she got from Zachary’s parents while she was in the hospital, and a scratched-up cross that she had lost during the accident. The rescuers found it and returned it to her.“My faith is a whole lot stronger, and I’m a more determined person now,” Brittany said. “The minute my mama tells me: ‘No, Brittany, you can’t do it,’ I say: ‘Watch me.’ ”

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