Photo by Jen Fariello
For 15-year-old Kapeka Aweau, Friday, March 10, 2000, was supposed to be the first day of the rest of her life. But things took an unexpected swerve, and nothing has been the same since.
For the first time in months, Aweau says, she was going on a "girls' night out." No big plans– drive around, listen to music, get an ice cream. Most of her friends at Monticello High School did that sort of thing every day.
Aweau, however, was a teen mom, who typically went straight home to Keene to be with her four-month-old son, Kai. Hanging out was a rare adventure.
After stopping at McDonald's, Aweau and her friends drove back to school. "I felt so great," she remembers, "like something different was going to come." Seven teenagers, out for fun, maybe a movie.
"My friend Holli Nash and I had time for ourselves. Alone time. That was probably the most cherished time in my life. Holli and I got a lot of things off our chest that only we two could relate to. We spoke some really meaningful words," she says.
Kapeka and Holli were in Holli's Mitsubishi, the third car in their group to pull away from Monticello High onto Route 20. "We were listening to 311," remembers Aweau.
They might have been on a natural high, but there were no drugs, no drinking involved, Aweau says. Holli, a licensed driver for only three months, wasn't going that fast– she figures 20 mph. Those curves near the high school are treacherous, though. When her car edged over the right shoulder, Holli pulled the steering wheel around– too hard, too fast. They veered across the center line. Holli tried to correct, hit a patch of gravel, skidded, and slammed head-on into a Nissan pickup going a then-legal 50 mph, according to police records. Athletes on the fields behind Monticello– including Aweau's brother– heard the crash. Another accident on Route 20, they all thought, and kept on playing.
Unlike Kapeka Aweau, Jason Coleman doesn't remember his accident.
Early Sunday morning, December 2, 2001, Coleman was driving from his home in Lovingston back to his dorm at Radford University, when his Honda Accord hit a tree and flipped over. He remembers waking up in the hospital and asking why his parents were there.
"We were awakened at four in the morning," says his father, Jay Coleman, "and got that phone call that all parents dread."
Jason had dislocated his ninth and tenth thoracic vertebrae, right in the small of his back, with severe spinal cord injury. "So we drove to Roanoke," says his father. "That was a tough drive. A lot of crying."
His son was a guy who had pushed the limit– snowboarding, skiing, ocean kayaking. He had played soccer in high school and college. So often had he banged up his tall, lean body that when Pegasus 'coptered him to UVA Hospital, the staff recognized him. Now Jason had no feeling or movement from the diaphragm down. When told of his injury, his first comment was, "I'm out of here."
"He didn't want to live," recalls his father. "We couldn't get any lower."
Thomas Finney's accident happened on Monday, April 15, 2002, midday. He had been up too late the night before, and now he was on his way to work. He blacked out at the wheel of his Toyota Tacoma and accelerated into the car in front of him. As his truck flipped, Finney flew out the window and 50 feet through the air, landing headfirst, some witnesses later told him. When his mother got the phone call, it was a déjà vu experience. Her older son, Eli, had suffered head injuries in a car accident six years before. "It brought the whole thing back up for me," she says. "I went into prayer mode."
Thomas Finney has snapshot memories. The ambulance EMT was the brother of a friend. He vomited as they hoisted him into Pegasus. He had a lightning-bolt gash across his skull and eight broken vertebrae: the atlas (top vertebra), six of seven cervical vertebrae, and the top thoracic vertebra– every bone but one in his neck. Amazingly, his spinal cord suffered no damage. No paralysis occurred. Doctors decided surgery would be risky. Finney was fitted with an immobilization halo, literally screwed into his temples and connected by rods to a vest, to hold his neck straight while it healed.
Kapeka, Jason, and Thomas– three Central Virginians under the age of 20 whose lives changed irreversibly when they survived life-threatening auto accidents. While our curiosity may linger on the accidents themselves, powerful stories come from these young people's transformations during the months and years after.
Thomas Finney's rapid healing defied predictions. Told he would wear the halo-vest for up to a year, he emerged from it in six weeks. His mother, Ocea Wilkes, a massage therapist at Keswick Club, believes fervently in alternative therapy. She tended him constantly, augmenting medical treatments with her own nutritional and spiritual regimen. Her efforts began the moment she saw Thomas on a stretcher, coming into the hospital for x-rays.
"I could feel my energy anchor and work with him," she says. "I was giving him the pep talk, saying, 'They do what they do, and we do what we do.'"
For two weeks, Finney was on a glucose drip in the hospital. His mother fed drops of what she calls "super water" into his parched lips. Once he could eat, she made him formulas of raw egg, organic milk with colostrum, kefir, protein powder, and essential fatty acids, and tended him with a potpourri of mind-body techniques: kinesiology, kinergetics, neurological programming, energy balancing.
"I would etherically go into his field, and then I would surrogate," says Wilkes. "I was in this shamanic flow. I was using my energy– my chi– to feed Thomas. I wanted his body to go into repair mode."
Those were psychologically chaotic times for Finney. Crash flashbacks haunted him. Pain killers knocked him out. He lapsed into an eight-day-long psychotic break– medical staff at the Kluge Rehabilitation Center called it a "dissociated state of mind," says Finney– and he was transferred to Cumberland Hospital in New Kent for detoxification.
In the midst of it all, he dreamt that he had broken his neck many times, in many lifetimes, but this time, he was not going to die. He says he stood at the foot of the Buddha and became a special warrior.
Finney yearned for a non-pharmaceutical way to relieve his pain. That was when he connected with North Garden chiropractor Chadwick Hawk of the Virginia Institute of Chiropractic (who, in the interest of full disclosure, this reporter has seen).
Hawk describes a chiropractor's work as adjusting the body, especially the spine, so it can heal itself. Chiropractors claim that misaligned vertebrae cause "subluxation," an interruption in the flow of blood or nerve impulses up and down the spine. For decades, the American Medical Association deemed the whole notion quackery. But that was before 1987, when a federal judge ruled in Wilk v. AMA that the physicians' group unfairly maligned the practice of chiropractic.
While serious doubts remain, Thomas Finney firmly believes in the practice.
The medical plan, that his broken neck vertebrae would fuse back whole, had worked. But it wasn't enough.
"I could hold my head up without my collar," says Finney, "but I had no muscle movement. I couldn't turn my head either way. I could only give a little nod." After a year of chiropractic, he felt less pain. Moreover, he could look up and down, right and left.
But in April, the anniversary of his accident, Finney fell back into another episode of dissociation– talking to himself, seeming to others in a dream world, sometimes lashing out violently, throwing and breaking things. His mother was out of town at a conference, so Eli, his older brother, did what he could to calm him. Eli remembers that one day Thomas said nothing, just did Tai Chi for hours. The one person Thomas remembers seeing during the breakdown was Hawk, whom he credits as a calming influence. "I went from scared and weirded out to mellow," Finney says.
He looks out across the field where he, his mother, and his brother live in a rental house on a historic Shadwell farm.
"Look, there's your white deer," says his mother.
Thomas smiles. There in the distance is an albino deer– his totem animal, sign of the strength he has summoned through 15 months of healing. "It changed me a lot," says Finney of the accident. "It doesn't matter how old you are. You can die at any time."
"It has been a tremendous spiritual walk for all of us," says Jay Coleman, reflecting on how the 19 months since his son's accident have affirmed his family's born-again Christian faith.
Transferred into Health South for rehabilitation, Jason faced the fact that he would live life in a wheelchair. He suffered complete spinal cord injury: no sensation or movement in his lower body. Maybe his parents could see a blessing– "He still had his arms, he still had his brain, he was still Jason," his mother says– but Jason saw nothing to be thankful for. Then he met Zeppo.
Zeppo is a stocky, silky, black Labrador retriever, a service dog trained by Peggy Law of Service Dogs of Virginia.
"I have been looking for the right person for him," Law told Jason, "and you're the one." For two weeks, Jason and Zeppo worked eight hours a day, developing their tight-knit working relationship. Zeppo goes everywhere with Coleman. He opens doors. He turns lights on and off. He brings the phone and the keys to Jason. "And he's a babe magnet," adds Jason's father, as Jason beams.
Six months after his accident, Jason went back to work as a data entry assistant at PRA International. He had been prescribed pain-killers like oxycodone, but early on decided against them. He suffered from chronic pain, though, and a nurse recommended Hawk.
"Every time I went to him, he would make me feel one hundred percent better," says Coleman. "Things started happening. He would do something, and I would feel sensations through my legs– a little shot of feeling, more feeling than I had had before. When I told Chad I was getting tingles in my toes, he got so excited."
In December 2002, Jason Coleman and his parents, together with Kapeka Aweau and her son, traveled to Washington University's Spinal Cord Injury Program in St. Louis, famous for treating Christopher Reeve. For Jason's type of injury, though, the program had nothing to offer. Its activity-based methods require that muscles contract, and Jason's don't. The Coleman family came away believing that stem-cell research holds the greatest promise. "We know he's going to walk again," his mother says. "We have hope and faith– and Jason does sometimes, too."
Meanwhile, Jason is bringing his sports life back up to speed. He drives an ATV in the Nelson County hillsides; he kayaks on the Outer Banks. He hit the expert slopes at Wintergreen on his second day on an adaptive ski and will be a ski instructor next season. While college is training him for information management, he dreams of opening a sports club for people with spinal cord injuries and finding other ways to give to others.
This spring Coleman visited Harlem on an "urban immersion" mission trip. He could look an alcoholic straight in the eye and say, "See what happened to me?" Already on a spiritual path when the accident happened, he believes it "jumped me way far ahead" in the process.
"This whole situation has made me stronger," says Coleman. "The little bumps in the road seem minuscule. Every once in a while, something will hit me like a ton of bricks, but I get over it in a day."
"I remember everything before and after," says Kapeka Aweau. "Everything except the impact itself. I remember hands flying in the air."
Friends in front watched the accident in their rear-view mirrors. Cars stopped. People came to the rescue: a woman named Mrs. Dudley. Rob Garland, photography instructor at Monticello High, called 911.
"It seemed like hours, days, years, before the ambulance arrived," remembers Aweau. Mrs. Dudley reached in and held her hand. "I kept saying over and over again, 'Don't let me die – I've got a baby. I've got a baby.'"
Aweau remembers trying to lift her head, feeling it just wobble. Mrs. Dudley helped hold it up. "She was what helped me through," the young woman says.
"I would open my eyes and hear this loud ringing. Then I would doze off for seconds. I thought about the things that were not done, not said, that had been done that I wished I could take back. Family and friends, family and friends."
She looked over at Holli, unconscious in the driver's seat. "I couldn't even help myself, so I couldn't help her," she says. As rescue squad workers pulled her friend out of the car, Aweau later learned, Holli Nash's blood pressure dropped precipitously, and she died soon after. "She went with no pain," says Aweau today. "She left the world looking just as beautiful as she was all 16 years. I thank God for that."
Patricia Branscome, Aweau's mother, got a phone call at work from her younger daughter, Hannah. There had been an accident. Kapeka was in the hospital, but she could talk.
"That's when I knew it was bad," says Branscome, a hospice nurse, who arrived at the University Hospital emergency room to find it already crowded with kids. Doctors at first thought she was Holli Nash's mother, and she sensed the terrible news they needed to deliver. In a treatment room, she stood at Kapeka's side for only minutes before watching her daughter being wheeled away.
"She was right there, and she was coherent," remembers Branscome. "She was initially quadriplegic. There was a lot of internal bleeding. She had one collapsed lung. The potential for abdominal injury was great, because of the impact on her whole right side. They shut those big doors, and I could hear her moaning through them. I lay down and sang her songs through the crack under the door."
Most seriously, Aweau had broken her lowest cervical and her top thoracic vertebrae, where the neck joins the body. The disk between had jammed into the spinal cord. UVA neurosurgeons Mark Shaffrey and John Jane Jr. grafted tissue from Aweau's hip to help the disk regenerate. Working through her chest, they strengthened that section of her spine with a metal plate. Other injuries required attention later: five broken ribs, a crushed pelvis, both arms broken, a broken thumb.
Aweau spent nine days in Pediatric Intensive Care where machines kept her breathing. She slept on an air bed to minimize pressure. What sensations she had made her skin feel like plastic, but her mother's touch made her "magically feel better."
She left intensive care wearing a stiff neck collar. Her arms stuck out in casts, her elbows at right angles. "I didn't get bathed for weeks and weeks, but all that didn't matter," she says. Her father flew in from Hawaii, and family members brought Kai in for daily visits. "He did very well without his mama," says Aweau. "I didn't do so well."
On Sundays, says Branscome, "there was this energy, like sparks in the air, a stirring in the air that you could feel inside of you. Churches were remembering her in prayer."
The community poured out support for Aweau. Roy Chilson, a schoolmate's parent, established a charitable fund. Chilson, Rob Garland, and Kapeka's best friends organized an all-school dance that raised $9,000. Brown Motors provided a car at cost. Mattresses, furniture, carpentry, renovations– Aweau's world was redesigned for her needs, thanks to generosity of people who knew her, and many who didn't.
She had gone into surgery a quadriplegic, but she regained upper body movement– a medical miracle in itself. From her waist down, though, Aweau was paralyzed, destined to live in a wheelchair the rest of her life.
"With spinal cord injury, they say that after a year and a half, what you have is what you get," says Aweau nearly 40 months after her accident. "I'm walking proof that that's a load of bull," she says, even though she still spends most of her time in a wheelchair. Now and then she arches her back and lifts up out of the seat, or she bends her knee and holds a leg close to her chest. "Movement, movement, movement," she says, reciting Reeve's mantra.
Aweau's week revolves around rehabilitation: aquatherapy, weightlifting, swimming, hand-bicycling. Every day she practices walking with a brace. "It is hard, very hard. It's all arm strength," she says.
And every day she spends an hour in a standing frame. "I feel awful while I'm in it, but I know I have to do it," says Aweau. "I have to strengthen my bones for the day that I will walk again. I think of it as a baby learning how to do all these things." In other ways, though, Aweau says she feels like a hundred-year-old woman.
"Pain is a constant factor in her life," her mother says. Like Finney and Coleman, Aweau was prescribed pain-killers, but even as doctors upped the dosage, the pills seemed less potent. She tried electroshock therapy. Then a nurse at Kluge Rehab suggested Hawk (who helped find some of this story's interviewees).
In his office, her mother helped lift her up on her right side, and Hawk applied a swift thrust with the palm of his hand to her atlas vertebra, right behind her ear. "It was like two years of stress and tension and frustration just melted away," remembers Hawk. As he recalls, when she got off the table, Aweau said, "I don't believe it, Mom. I don't hurt."
That first adjustment targeted the upper cervical region, where nerves pass through to the brain and brain stem, informing respiration, diaphragm control, and proprioception, the body's spatial sense. "If we remove the subluxation in that area, then the human body starts to heal itself," says Hawk.
Hawk begins by scanning a new patient's spine electronically. In Aweau's case, he says, the scan indicated slight muscular activity.
"It was very low," says Hawk, "but when we see activity, we know there's a chance for improvement." In the 15 months since Aweau has been receiving chiropractic treatments, she has gained some sensation in her lower body. She can feel hot and cold, she feels crude touch, and she has "two-point discrimination" she can tell whether one or two fingers are touching her. She has an occasional involuntary jerk or tremor. All indicate increased nerve functions.
Hot debates may erupt over whether such patient improvement should be credited to doctors, nature, or to chiropractic. But Aweau's mother credits Hawk: "Of everything we have done, he has made the most difference."
Since she has been wheelchair-bound, music means more to Aweau. "The first time I went to an Aerosmith concert, Steven Tyler, the lead singer, came off the stage and made a beeline to me," she beams. "He came up to me and said 'Thank you," then he started singing a song to me. That was just the beginning of it all."
Aweau has always had a passion for music. In addition to Aerosmith, she likes 311– the music playing at the time of crash– as well as Incubus. But Fuel is her passion.
"People know me for being the Fuel girl," says Aweau. She has befriended Brett Scallions, Fuel's lead singer, who makes sure she gets a front-row spot and a backstage pass to their concerts. At one of them last year, she was sitting in front in her wheelchair, legs crossed, when she smacked her knee– and her leg jumped, a reflex reaction that hadn't happened since the accident.
"I started crying," recalls Aweau. "Later that night, I told the band, and they all had tears in their eyes. I really do owe so much to the music."
At Washington University, Aweau's prospects were brighter than Jason Coleman's. "My doctor was amazed by the progress that I had made already, nervewise," she says. "She found some voluntary muscle movement that we didn't know about. She asked me to be part of the research, but it would cost a lot."
The Washington University program includes an experimental technique called functional electrical stimulation. Electrodes implanted in non-functioning muscles model nerve stimuli from the brain, which might ultimately reinvigorate spinal cord cells that are still intact. But, says Aweau, the process costs $1,000 a day. To bring the machine home could cost $20,000.
All these families have had to gauge the price of miraculous medical help. Coleman and Aweau each paid $300 for an hour-long evaluation in St. Louis. Aweau and Hawk have begun to put their heads together, seeing if there might be a better way. They are hoping that her personality, his expertise, and their friends might synergize into a nationally– even internationally– significant organization to help people with spinal cord injuries.
"The vision is to be able to create a foundation to support chiropractic care for spinal cord injury patients from around the country at little to no charge," says Hawk. Because chiropractic care is considered medically questionable, insurance covers it minimally, if at all.
"Always expect a miracle," says Hawk. He's talking about his own optimistic approach to treating patients– the middle-aged man with lower back pain, the elderly woman with osteoporosis, or the young woman, wheelchair-bound from the age of 15. A spinal cord injury foundation is a dream right now. But as Hawk says, "Kapeka and I both expect a miracle."