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.