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AMAZING GRACE

When Barry and Mary-Lynne Girvan set off from Moncton for a day trip to Wolfville, Nova Scotia in June, the last thing they expected was to receive a call from the RCMP. Their daughter, Grace had been in a serious accident and was unresponsive. Almost to their destination, they turned back for the drive to Horizon's The Moncton Hospital, hoping Grace wouldn't die before they got there.

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Mary-Lynne and Barry Girvan live on Indian Mountain, near Moncton, where they raised Grace, their only child. After Grace left home to attend university in Halifax, the couple adjusted to the new reality of an empty nest.

Vacations and small trips together helped with the transition. On Saturday June 29, 2019, the pair and two other couples, travelled toward Wolfville, Nova Scotia for a bus tour of a winery there.

Grace, an English and creative writing student and aspiring teacher, was home from the University of King's College. She had a few errands to run and would pick up her friend at the bus station.

A BIT ABOUT GRACE

Mary-Lynne describes Grace as funny, loud and into sports. She played volleyball in high school until several shoulder dislocations led her to consider other activities --- just being outdoors was one of them.

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She had plenty of summer job offers but her love of the outdoors led her to work with a landscaping company. Barry would drop her off every morning at 7 a.m. and she worked mowing lawns and moving sod until 5 p.m. It was hard work, but a job she loved.

Barry and Mary-Lynne left early that fateful Saturday morning. By 10 am, they were close to Wolfville when Grace contacted her mom on her cell. Had Mary-Lynne fed the dog? She had, and the two exchanged brief pleasantries before ending the call.

"WE NEED TO HELP THIS PERSON!"

Grace left her parents' home in her dad's 2002 Ford Ranger for the 20-minute drive to Moncton. While driving down the Gorge Road with its uneven, washboard-like surface, witnesses believe Grace was startled after hitting one of the bumps. She overcorrected, striking the soft shoulder, causing the vehicle to flip three times and land on its wheels.

A man Grace's family later knew as David was traveling in the opposite direction with his fiancée. They saw the cloud of dust and gravel as the Ford Ranger struck the shoulder and catapulted through the air.

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Another motorist also stopped, fearful of what he might find in the vehicle. David wasted no time.

"We need to help this person, whoever it is," David said.

When they approached the vehicle and discovered a badly injured young woman, they tore open the passenger door and undid her seatbelt. David held Grace to ensure she could breathe until paramedics arrived.

As paramedics raced her to Horizon's The Moncton Hospital, Grace was on the precipice of death.

MISSED CALLS

Outside Wolfville, the Girvans and their friends were anticipating an enjoyable day at the winery. Mary-Lynne noticed she had two missed calls and a voicemail. She couldn't imagine who would be trying to reach her.

"Mary-Lynne, this is Constable Underhill," the unfamiliar voice stated. "Please call me back."

She found the courage to return the call and brace for the potentially ominous news.

"Your daughter has been in an accident," said Constable Underhill. "She's unresponsive."

Her worst fears realized, Mary-Lynne repeated the news to Barry, adding, "you need to call the hospital right way!"

It would be a long and unsettled drive back to Moncton. All Mary-Lynne could do was wait and somehow try to communicate a mother's love to her precious child.

"I kept saying to Grace in my head, 'Please don't go. It's not your time to go. Please don't go."

Barry's call to Horizon confirmed they were working on Grace. Another 90 minutes passed with no update.

Finally, Barry received a call from the hospital. The news was bleak. Grace had suffered severe brain trauma, her neck was broken, several of her ribs were broken and she had suffered a collapsed lung.

50/50 CHANCE OF SURVIVAL

Devastated, Barry asked "what are her chances of survival?"

"Mr. Girvan, her chances are at best 50/50," came the reply. "How far are you from the hospital?"

With several minutes before they would be at Grace's side, Barry and Mary-Lynne wondered if they would ever see their daughter alive again.

Upon arrival, the Girvans dashed to the Emergency Department where ER physicians worked on Grace. Soon, she was whisked upstairs for a CT scan to determine the full extent of her injuries. The couple waited in the family room with extended family, while Grace was wheeled to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU).

Neurosurgeon Dr. Charbel Fawaz explained Grace's brain injury as "diffused, affecting both hemispheres," meaning it was so widespread, there was no focal area or clot on which to operate.

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"She's young, and obviously we will do everything we can," Dr. Fawaz told Grace's concerned parents.  "But given the context and the extent of the injury, we have concerns for her life for the next 48 to 72 hours."

"I'M GOING TO BE MYSELF AGAIN"

Would she survive? Would she be the same exuberant and humorous young woman who called her mom on the phone that morning? Grace, in an induced coma, was surrounded by family around the clock. They talked to Grace. They waited. They prayed.

When the critical period ended, Dr. Fawaz ordered another CT scan. The results showed progress.

"After a few days in the ICU we were able to wean off the respirator, which is always the first step," said Dr. Fawaz. "Then you can start having some contact, some wakefulness, some interaction."

With the crisis of death behind her, work began supporting Grace's return to as normal a life as possible.

"What we say in rehab is 'most physicians add years to life; we add life to years," said Dr. Jeff Pike, Physiatrist and Medical Director of the Neuro-Rehab Program at Horizon's The Moncton Hospital.

He tested Grace's cognition by asking her to talk about herself. She was able to tell him her age, that she was a university student and her area of study. Then he moved her to rehab.

Grace had to relearn how to stand, to walk with assistance and then walk alone. She had to learn how to speak, read and write again. And little by little, Grace continued to improve.

"I'm going to be myself," Mary-Lynne remembered Grace saying. "I'm going to be 100% myself again."

BOOK CLUB

Learning to read and write again seemed more gruelling for Grace than the heavy lifting her summer landscaping job required.

She works with Speech-Language Pathologist Montgomery Boone. Close in age, the two have established a comfortable rapport. Montgomery describes Grace as a "bright, determined, engaging, optimistic person" with a great sense of humour.

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"She usually cracks me up at least a couple of times per session" said Montgomery. "She is an active person with many talents and interests."

Three weeks after her accident, the two worked on overcoming Grace's aphasia. Caused by brain injuries, it can include difficulties with understanding what others are saying, speaking, reading, and/or writing.

They started a book club where they read a chapter and then meet to discuss on Fridays. Montgomery's goal is for Grace to be reading and writing at university level and return to classes in September 2020.

She is succeeding, and it has had a profound impact on narrowing Grace's career niche.

"Relearning how to read and write has changed how I want to teach," said Grace. "Now I want to help other kids who have a hard time learning to read and write, to be able to do that the way I had to learn the second time."

The accident and recovery time have had other unexpected outcomes. Both Mary-Lynn and Grace believe it brought the family closer together and has made Grace even more positive.

"It gave me more time to spend with family and not worry about school and just go to see friends and enjoy my life," Grace said. "Knowing I can take on what happened to me and still succeed and do exactly what I was planning on doing is really helping me be happier."

DON'T GIVE UP

She is grateful she can still read and walk and talk. She never felt sorry for herself or cried, instead asking herself, 'what do I need to do to succeed?'

For anyone in rehabilitation following a trauma, that's the attitude she advises.

"Don't give up," she said. "Be confident in the little things that you can do right for now until you get better and you progress."

Dr. Fawaz describes Grace's recovery a "best-case scenario and a success story," aided by her great attitude and fierce determination.

Dr. Pike agrees but cautions 80 per cent of the recovery is typically early, with the final 20 per cent taking from two to five years. He is confident Grace has what it takes, based on her eager and cooperative approach to rehab.

"She did everything she was supposed to do with few troubles and difficulties that we often see in brain-injured patients," he said. "She has a lot of qualities that will work well for her in the long run."

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Montgomery is impressed with Grace's improvements and agrees her healthy perspective and hopeful outlook are contributing factors.

"I was surprised and very excited about how quickly and dramatically she progressed," Montgomery said. "Not everybody experiences the same path of recovery that Grace has, and although I know it hasn't been easy, I would certainly describe it as 'amazing'."

Friends and family often comment that there are no obvious signs of the trauma she suffered, many of whom were beside her through her unexpected patient journey. Grace credits their presence and the care and kindness she experienced at The Moncton Hospital as instrumental to her recovery.

"The hospital staff was so very, very helpful, so kind," she said. "There was always a nurse there to talk with me or make jokes or make me feel like I wasn't alone."

As she continues to improve, she is hesitant to say whether it's changed her at all. Grace is grateful for her amazing recovery, and to be the Grace she was.

"I feel like myself again," she said.

 

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