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After crash abroad, Mass. student strives to heal

Monday - 3/11/2013, 1:16pm  ET

In this Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012 photo, Meg Theriault is helped with a helmet by her mother, Deb Theriault, left, as she talks with her family about the logistics of her daily life recovering from a traumatic brain injury at their home in Salisbury, Mass. It was the first time at home for Meg since being involved in a multi-fatal minivan accident in New Zealand, May 12, 2012, that killed three Boston University students. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

BRIDGET MURPHY
Associated Press

BOSTON (AP) -- Meg Theriault didn't look in a mirror for two months. When she did, a stranger met her gaze.

Most of her hair was gone, but that wasn't the worst of it: There was a dent on the left side of her head. A chunk of her skull was missing.

Meg's parents told her there had been an accident, that she bumped her head. But that was two hospitals and a long plane ride ago.

Whatever had happened to her, she didn't remember any of it. And photos posted around her Boston hospital room of a 21-year-old coed, her chestnut hair flowing below her shoulders, looked like a different person.

Now Meg's two front teeth were cracked into peaks. Her boy-short hair was matted beneath a black hockey helmet. It protected her brain, but made her face break out in blemishes.

She could remember her semester abroad in Australia -- even if some details of traveling in the Outback, scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef and bungee jumping in the rainforest were coming back slowly. But she couldn't remember New Zealand, and the last days of her foreign adventure. Something had broken and her mind wasn't filling in the blanks.

Her parents, Todd and Deb Theriault, were there by her hospital bed in New Zealand after she came out of her coma.

"I love you, Meg," Todd had whispered.

"I love you," she answered.

Another month would pass before Meg smiled. She was still hospitalized, but back home in Massachusetts.

Her parents had hope, but doctors warned Meg might never be Meg again, the Boston University student who'd been on track to finish school and land an accounting job in the next year. Two months after the accident, connections to her brain were still scrambled.

The business major couldn't remember multiplication tables. She mistook a doctor at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston for her sixth-grade teacher. She looked forward to reuniting with a dog that hadn't lived with her family for years.

Meg wobbled as she learned to walk. Therapy filled her days, including speech and reading exercises. She had to practice spooning up her food, and how to bathe and dress herself.

But if Meg didn't understand where she had been, she knew where she wanted to be.

"It's just like being in school," a therapist said one day when she faltered during a drill.

"That's good," Meg said.

Because whatever it took, she wanted to be back at BU for her senior year.

___

She was the first victim they reached in the road.

"Meg, are you OK?"

Her classmate Dustin Holstein didn't get an answer. Deep, fast draws of air were all he heard. It was the kind of breathing, he would say later, "where it's like you're on the verge of dying."

It was the morning of May 12, 2012. Steam from a volcano in the distance curled into a cloudless sky in New Zealand's countryside.

The BU students -- 16 of them in two minivans -- had been headed to Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a trek through volcanic terrain with a view of the peak portrayed as Mount Doom in the "Lord of the Rings" movie trilogy.

Police said it seemed the single-vehicle crash happened after the minivan drifted to the roadside.

Stephen Houseman, the student who was driving, would say later the van began shaking and he couldn't control it. Police said he tried to correct course before the van rolled several times.

Students Austin Brashears, Roch Jauberty and Daniela Lekhno also landed in the road. Friends covered their faces with sleeping bags or blankets before the first fire truck arrived.

Meg was luckier -- but far from lucky. Dustin pushed his friend's hair from her face as American pop star Adam Levine's voice streamed from the stereo inside the wreck. Blood leaked from a laceration on her chin. Skin had ripped off her right arm, baring part of the muscle.

But the worst damage was on the inside. Her skull had fractured. Blood was clotting on her brain.

A helicopter flew her to a hospital, where surgeons removed part of her skull to relieve the pressure from her swelling brain and purge the clot.

Meg had been due back in Boston in a few days. She'd sent ahead an early Mother's Day bouquet of lilies, tulips and roses, promising a celebration when she got home.

Instead, her parents had boarded a flight to New Zealand. Mother's Day melted away as they prayed their daughter wouldn't die.

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