Lydia’s road to recovery

In All, News by Linda Givetash

This piece was also featured in: Waterloo Region Record
Published: Aug. 17, 2012 | [ WEB ] | [ PDF ]

TORONTO — Lydia Herrle is taking it one day at a time.

Sitting up on her bed at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital in Toronto, the 13-year-old has come a long way since the May 17 accident that left her in a coma. Now she is wide-eyed and alert. Her family is grateful for every small step she has made toward recovery.

“It’s been forward progress and we’re thankful for that,” said Michelle Herrle, Lydia’s mother.

Although Lydia still spends the bulk of the week at the rehabilitation hospital, her improved condition allowed her to come home for the first time last weekend and she will now go home every weekend.

Her family celebrates every improvement.

For Michelle and husband James, it’s a relief to have Lydia and their two sons all under one roof again.

“As soon as the door of the wheelchair transport van rolled open and James said, ‘Lydia, you’re home,’ she had a huge smile on her face and her eyes were wide,” said Michelle.

But Lydia still has a long way to go.

Waking up from a coma does not mean a return to her full self prior to the accident. Lydia is instead moving through cognitive levels between an unresponsive coma (level one) and complete functioning (level eight).

Just as some victims of brain injuries never progress past level one, not all recover to level eight.

The brain injuries Lydia sustained, after being hit by a truck as she stepped off a school bus in front of her Erb’s Road home, currently have her at level four — she gestures and smiles, but does not fully understand what is happening around her.

“Sometimes she even heads towards (level) five in terms of her awareness,” Michelle noted.

This is big improvement from a few weeks ago when she was still wavering between levels three and four with limited awareness or response to her surroundings.

For the first time, Michelle said she feels that Lydia is truly out of the coma.

“(Wednesday) felt like a turning point for us … It really was like the haze had lifted and she was bright and clear.”

When James left the rehabilitation centre for Waterloo on Thursday morning, Michelle said Lydia showed a true emotional response for the first time.

“There were great big tears,” she said. “It was heartbreaking and it was beautiful.”

As her brain heals, Lydia is also relearning basic functions from swallowing to pointing at what she wants.

To promote her recovery, Lydia receives intensive physical and cognitive therapy at Holland Bloorview every day with an occupational therapist, physiotherapist and speech language pathologist. Communication therapy started this week.

“On her wheelchair tray top, there’s a yes card and a no card and you can ask her questions of yes or no. Just yesterday it started that she would point to what she felt,” Michelle said.

“That’s been a real joy to see that because you long for a daughter you can interact with,” she said, adding that Lydia picked out her own outfit for the day.

Being able to communicate through pointing has been a big step because Lydia is still unable to speak.

“We’re just going to wait for that part, right Lydia? When you’re ready, you’ll talk,” Michelle said, brushing hair away from her daughter’s face.

The physical improvements have been huge as well. Although a tube is still used to feed fluids directly into Lydia’s stomach, she has begun eating puréed foods for all her meals and even has the strength to feed herself.

Fractures to her ribs, collarbone, skull and sternum are close to being almost healed without casts or surgery.

But as Lydia faces months to years of rehabilitation to regain her mobility, speech and cognition, with no certainty that she will ever be her former self again, Michelle said she is taking time to appreciate the small victories.

“It’s changed us in many ways. You celebrate more of the little things and everything isn’t set in stone as I thought maybe our plans and our hopes and our dreams for the future were,” she said.

Through all the hardships in the last three months, the family continues to find strength in their faith.

“It’s a faith journey for us, just the trust and the hope and the belief that we are held by God and there’s nothing that happens that’s outside of his sovereign care for us,” Michelle said.

The overwhelming community support from prayers to fundraisers has been heartening for the family as well.

“It’s a gift really to have so many people care about how she’s doing and cheering her on,” Michelle said.

While there is no guarantee how far Lydia will go in recovering from the brain injury, faith and community has encouraged the family to remain optimistic.

“The fact that Waterloo Oxford still says, ‘Lydia Herrle, We believe, Class of 2017,’ it’s beautiful and as she gets better I actually start to believe that she could go to high school,” Michelle said.

“I don’t know if she will, but at least it’s not a dream. It’s a potential possibility now.”

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Linda Givetash

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Linda Givetash is a Canadian-South African freelance journalist based in Vancouver, B.C. Her work has appeared in print, digital and broadcast media outlets around the globe.