Ben Boettger/Peninsula Clarion Nicole Harmon reaches for a resistance band she will use in a rowing exercise, part of her physical therapy, on Thursday Dec. 10 at the Dena'ina Wellness Center in Kenai. Harmon's physical therapist Sabrina Royster said the exercise is "meant to help her brain re-educate the muscles of her arm to balance muscle contractions. "

Ben Boettger/Peninsula Clarion Nicole Harmon reaches for a resistance band she will use in a rowing exercise, part of her physical therapy, on Thursday Dec. 10 at the Dena'ina Wellness Center in Kenai. Harmon's physical therapist Sabrina Royster said the exercise is "meant to help her brain re-educate the muscles of her arm to balance muscle contractions. "

Writing a new chapter

Nicole Harmon was told she would die twice within the last 12 years.

Despite two extreme physical traumas, the 30-year-old Kenai woman has defied odds and surpassed her prognosis, taking on new challenges each day.

Harmon was hit by a tow truck two days before Christmas in 2003 after losing control driving on ice. Her face was ripped open, and a first responder at the scene had to shove her teeth back into her mouth, she said. Initially, doctors told her family there was a good chance she would not pull through, and had already sent a priest to her hospital room.

“I was panicking, because I was still down here,” said Phil Harmon, her father. “When I finally got up to Anchorage, which was a day later, they were saying she would never walk again.”

“Or eat,” Nicole added. “I’d be a vegetable.”

She had suffered traumatic brain and other damage, and still doesn’t remember the crash or parts of the following hospital stay.

Her family was pressured to put her in a facility and was warned a window for any kind of improvement would soon close. Her grandmother, Mary Lou Bottorff, refused and took her home instead.

“When we got her home, she couldn’t think, she couldn’t remember, couldn’t walk,” she said.

With a broken body and damaged brain, Nicole had an uphill climb to recovery. Against the odds, she improved greatly in the years following the accident.

She was out of a wheelchair, and even went back to high school to get her diploma in 2005. The crash happened when she was a senior in high school.

“She was ready to drive,” Bottorff said. “She was walking, she was thinking good.”

Then, four years ago, Nicole was sent back to square one when she had a seizure caused by pneumonia that damaged the entire left side of her body.

Even though her father and grandmother checked on her often, no one noticed the nocturnal seizure, they said.

Nicole was hospitalized again, and said her mind and body were more damaged by the seizure than the car crash. This time, doctors gave her a 5 percent survival rate, Bottorff said.

But again, Nicole surpassed recovery expectations.

“She does not fit in a box,” Bottorff said.

Nicole is once again out of a wheelchair. She wears athletic tape to keep her damaged muscles in the right positions.

“Now I can raise my (left) arm,” she said. “I’m teaching it to work.”

Some things are still hard. Television and the computer are preferable to books because the ability to focus for long periods of time is gone. Keeping up with the news and catching episodes of “Golden Girls” are some of Nicole’s favorite ways to relax, in addition to everyday chores and cleaning, she said.

Short term memory is still a struggle, though Bottorff said some days are better than others.

Living with a traumatic brain injury has also proved to be challenging in terms of maintaining relationships, Nicole said. Considered popular in high school, she said she now finds herself always responsible for being the one to reach out to old friends or family, many of whom she said stopped coming around after her accidents.

“They’re afraid of the unknown,” Bottorff said. “They don’t know.”

After a number of caretakers didn’t work out, Phil Harmon also left his job and signed on to do it for his daughter full-time.

Overall, though, Nicole said she wants to be seen as any other member of the community.

“I’m the same person,” she said. “I got hurt but that was so long ago. I’m the same person. Some things are still hard for me, but don’t run away from me.”

These days, she spends her time working toward goals, both in her recovery and life in general. She attends physical therapy at the Dena’ina Wellness Center twice a week, where she works to retrain her arm muscles and practices walking up and down flights of stairs.

Paul Carlson, a physical therapist at the center, said Nicole’s progress has been a bit of an inspiration to other departments at the center. He attributes a lot of that progress to her strong support system in her family, he said.

“I would say that it was, just through Nicole’s determination, which I think is pretty special,” Carlson said. “Also, just that she has people around her that love her.”

One thing Nicole’s family attributes in part to her success is the addition of natural supplements to the list of medications she is prescribed by doctors. She takes Lion’s Mane mushrooms, which her family said have been found to be good for the brain, in addition to turmeric, a spice.

The Harmons continue to fly to Anchorage for medical appointments, so practicing stairs doubles as a way to make traveling easier. The narrow steps leading into the airplanes she takes are difficult to climb because Nicole’s left leg automatically kicks out to the side as she does, she said.

When she climbs stairs, trainers walk right next to her so she has to bend her knee and teach it to work, she said.

Nicole Harmon also recently struck out on a more creative endeavor. She sat down to start writing her own book by hand, which she said she wants to reflect her journey so far.

Though the writing is physically challenging and takes a long time to do, Nicole said the goal is to be able to share her story with others who might be going through a similar situation.

“There are plenty of people with brain injuries, and since I understand it and I’ve experienced it … why not?” she said.

 

Reach Megan Pacer at megan.pacer@peninsulaclarion.com.

Ben Boettger/Peninsula Clarion Nicole Harmon (left) descends a staircase with the help of physical therapist assistant Sabrina Royster on Thursday, Dec. 10 at the Denai'ina Wellness Center in Kenai.

Ben Boettger/Peninsula Clarion Nicole Harmon (left) descends a staircase with the help of physical therapist assistant Sabrina Royster on Thursday, Dec. 10 at the Denai’ina Wellness Center in Kenai.

Photo by Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion  Nicole Harmon watches her grandmother Mary Lou Bottorff on Wednesday Dec. 9, 2015 as the two talk to a reporter about Harmon's recovery following a 2003 car accident and seizure in 2011. Despite the challenges, Harmon has graduated high school and is working toward several recovery and life goals.

Photo by Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion Nicole Harmon watches her grandmother Mary Lou Bottorff on Wednesday Dec. 9, 2015 as the two talk to a reporter about Harmon’s recovery following a 2003 car accident and seizure in 2011. Despite the challenges, Harmon has graduated high school and is working toward several recovery and life goals.

Photo by Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion Nicole Harmon fiddled with a cross that belonged to her mother during an interview about her life following two traumatic events, one a car accident the other a sudden and catastrophic stroke.

Photo by Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion Nicole Harmon fiddled with a cross that belonged to her mother during an interview about her life following two traumatic events, one a car accident the other a sudden and catastrophic stroke.

Photo by Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion Nicole Harmon, of Kenai, is recovering after a 2003 car accident and 2011 stroke that left her physically disabled and with the lingering effects of a traumatic brain injury.

Photo by Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion Nicole Harmon, of Kenai, is recovering after a 2003 car accident and 2011 stroke that left her physically disabled and with the lingering effects of a traumatic brain injury.

Photo by Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion Nicole Harmon is handwriting a book about her life as she reflects on the traumatic events - first a 2003 car accident, then a 2011 stroke - that resulted in her partial paralyzation and traumatic brain injury.

Photo by Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion Nicole Harmon is handwriting a book about her life as she reflects on the traumatic events – first a 2003 car accident, then a 2011 stroke – that resulted in her partial paralyzation and traumatic brain injury.

More in News

Vehicles are unleaded at the Seward Harbor after being moved from Lowell Point on Sunday, May 22, 2022 in Seward, Alaska. (Photo courtesy Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management)
Lowell Point barge services move 110-plus cars to Seward

The services were covered by the Kenai Peninsula Borough and ended Monday

Anglers fish on the Kenai River on Tuesday, June 29, 2021 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O'Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Watershed Forum receives matching grant from Conoco

The Kenai Watershed Forum was given a grant from ConocoPhillips to fund… Continue reading

A beach on the eastern side of Cook Inlet is photographed at Clam Gulch, Alaska, in June 2019. The Alaska Board of Fisheries is implementing new shellfish regulations in Cook Inlet. (Peninsula Clarion file)
Fish and Game closes East Cook Inlet razor clam fisheries

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has closed the Cook Inlet… Continue reading

Anastasia Scollon (left) and Willow King (right) stand in The Goods + Sustainable Grocery and Where it’s At mindful food and drink on Monday, May 16, 2022 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Sustainable shopping finds new home in Soldotna

The Collective used to operate out of Cook Inletkeeper’s Community Action Studio

The Alaska State Capitol is seen on Wednesday, April 6, 2022. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)
Legislature modernizes 40-year-old definition of consent in sexual assault cases

‘Alaska took a gargantuan step forward in updating our laws,’ says deputy attorney general

Project stakeholders cut a ribbon at the Nikiski Shelter of Hope on Friday, May 20, 2022, in Nikiski, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Stakeholders celebrate opening of Nikiski shelter

The shelter officially opened last December

Peter Segall / Juneau Empire
Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks with reporters Thursday about the state’s budget at the Alaska State Capitol. Dunleavy said lawmakers had sent a complete budget, and that there was no need for a special session.
Dunleavy: No need for special session

Governor calls budget “complete”

A magnet promoting the Alaska Reads Act released sits atop a stack of Alaskan-authored and Alaska-centric books. Lawmakers passed the Alaska Reads Act on the last day of the legislative session, but several members of the House of Representatives were upset with the bill, and the way it was passed. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)
In last-minute move, Legislature passes early reading overhaul

Rural lawmakers push back on Alaska Reads Act

Graduates wait to receive diplomas during Connections Homeschool’s commencement ceremony on Thursday, May 19, 2022, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Connections honors more than 100 graduates

The home-school program held a ceremony Thursday in Soldotna

Most Read