Learning to Live Again

By Beacon Staff

When Emily Berner regained consciousness, the confusion rushed in. The last thing she remembered was walking out the door in Kalispell, and now – where is she now?

She can’t move. She can’t speak. Soon, she finds out she’s in an assisted-living home in Tacoma. Tacoma?

“How did I get here,” the 18-year-old thought. “What the heck happened?”

When the Beacon last spoke with the Berner family, Emily was 18 and still in a mild-stage coma from a December 2011 car crash that left her with severe brain trauma, a broken pelvis, a shattered hip and a damaged liver and spleen.

She wasn’t driving the car on U.S. Highway 93, but took the brunt of the impact when it drifted into oncoming traffic.

Emily was immediately airlifted to Seattle to receive extensive treatment at Harborview Medical Center, where the head surgeon on her case told her parents, Tom and Inez Berner, that the longer Emily remained unconscious, the less likely she would ever climb out of the coma. The surgeon also said that if their daughter regained consciousness, she’d probably spend the rest of her life institutionalized.

Last February, Emily was able to open and close her hand to communicate, but the left side of her body was completely unresponsive. At that point, Tom and Inez thought those developments were miraculous.

So watching her walk across the physical therapy room at The Summit in Kalispell last week was nothing short of incredible.

Emily has made significant strides in her recovery in the past year. The 18-year-old who was essentially trapped inside her own body – not able to move or talk – is now a walking, talking, 19-year-old young woman, working out and ready to move into her own apartment.

“She’s a miracle,” Inez said as she watched Emily work with her physical therapist on rising from her hands and knees to sit in a chair.

That’s not to say Emily’s road to recovery has been easy. Walking is still difficult due to balance issues stemming from her brain injury, and there are little things that her brain has yet to remember how to do.

Once an avid swimmer, Emily’s brain can’t find the sequence to have her body blow bubbles underwater. She still sees in double vision, due to her brain’s inability to successfully overlap the images from each eye.

Her voice hasn’t quite come back yet, and she speaks in a measured, monotonous near-whisper. But her dad has noticed that she can hold a sound longer than she could before, and they have downloaded a voice program similar to those that singers use to warm up their vocal chords.

Another change is that Emily can’t produce a full laugh at the moment, but she can snicker.

“I know it’s just a matter of time,” Inez said.

Emily’s recovery process consists of daily body workouts, physical therapy and occupational therapy twice a week and horse therapy once a week.

“We don’t just sit around,” Inez said.
In order to build up her core muscles, Emily has completed countless sit-ups and push-ups, and spends at least half an hour a day on a recumbent bike. She uses her wheelchair like a pro.

When she was still at Tacoma Lutheran, Emily spent four hours in therapy every day, in addition to the “countless hours” Inez spent re-teaching her daughter how to use her body.

“She needs an award,” Tom said about Inez at the recent physical therapy appointment.

Tom can’t spend as much time with Emily and Inez as he would like, with work in North Dakota taking him away for two weeks at a time. But he and Inez are in a better place with Emily’s recovery; recovery is work for everybody, he said.

Emily doesn’t remember much from her early days in Tacoma, but Inez does. She watched her daughter go from a vibrant teen to a seemingly empty husk; some days were harder than others, she said.

Inez recalled Emily’s first shower at Tacoma Lutheran after the accident, the helplessness of her daughter’s limp body in the bathing seat, the pain that shot through Emily’s face due to the pelvic fractures.

“To see your daughter literally be a ragdoll in the shower …” she said, before trailing off.

Emily Berner completes a series of side planks while working on her core strength with physical therapist Laurie Hider at The Summit’s outpatient services in Kalispell. – Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

But the stubbornness that drives Emily seems to be a family trait. None of the Berners considered giving up. Inez had to quit all her other jobs and became Emily’s full-time caretaker as part of A Plus Health Care, receiving payment through the state to do so.

She spent nearly all her time with Emily after the wreck, and some days still bring tears.

“I try to be strong, but some days it’s hard,” Inez said.

Despite the extensive brain damage – known as brain shearing – Emily’s personality remains in tact from before the accident, her parents said.

This personality includes loving rap music and the warm summer months, and razzing them about typical issues a teenager might have, such as driving and learning to live on her own.

Emily is transitioning from her parents’ home to her own apartment. She had just started getting a taste of freedom from adolescence before the accident, before having to relearn to live her life all over again.

Now, her apartment is ADA accessible, clean, safe and secure, her parents said.

Like any mother and daughter, Inez and Emily can get on each other’s nerves due to close quarters. Emily has maintained her independent nature, Inez said, something Emily is open about.

She’s excited to move into her own place, smiling broadly when the subject comes up.

There are still aspects about her life that she needs some help with, Inez said, including cooking and showering. The tremors in her arms make cooking difficult, and while she has showering down, Inez is reluctant to leave her completely on her own just yet.

“It’s hard,” Inez said. “I don’t want her to get hurt on my dime. Not again.”

The memory of waking up in Tacoma is a scary one, Emily said, but she is moving past it. The left side of her body is moving, her neck and core are aligned again, and slowly her balance is returning.

She’s also getting back into her art. Before the accident, Emily was a sculptor, with several of her clay pieces cast in bronze. She’s making wire horses these days, because the wire is “more forgiving than clay.”

An odd aspect of her situation is the understanding that her body used to know how to do all of these things, Emily said.

“It’s more of a frustration,” she said, “because my mind knows how to do things but my body doesn’t.”

For her 20th birthday in April, Emily would like to be able to walk without someone holding on to her from behind. For her 21st birthday, she would like to walk without the assistance of a walker.

With the pace of her recovery thus far and her diamond-hard will, there is little doubt that she’ll accomplish these goals.

“I’m working really hard to get back to where I was,” Emily said. “And maybe even better.”

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.