Holding onto hope

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While Nicole Lardner will never be who she was before, her family says she’s making huge strides after a car accident nearly took her life almost six months ago.

Nicole wasn’t like every other young women trying to make their way through life. Not only had she been a volunteer firefighter since she was in high school, but she had plans to continue to serve her community and had hopes to one day become a state police officer.

Courtesy of the Lardner family: With the support of her family, friends and the community, Nicole Lardner, center, is making strides in recovering from a severe brain injury she sustained from a car accident in October. Pictured with Nicole is her sister, Michelle, left, and her mother, Janice, right.

But on Oct. 9, 2013, her dreams were shattered after her car flipped end-over-end, leaving her in a coma and having to undergo months, if not years, of extensive rehabilitation.

Her family says Nicole must have just left her job as a guard at the Valencia County Detention Center in Los Lunas and was driving south on N.M. 304, south of Rio Communities. Her older sister, Michelle, said Nicole may have just gotten off work and was probably on her way to Rio Communities, where the family once lived.

“We don’t know if she was reminiscing and sad and just took a drive,” Michelle said. “I’m not sure if we’ll ever know what happened.”

The patriarch of the family, Tim Lardner, a business owner and community servant, passed away in September 2010 from an aggressive stomach cancer. Michelle said after her father’s death, her mother lost the family home that Tim had built in Rio Communities.

According to a Valencia County sheriff’s report, the 21-year-old Belen High School graduate was driving south on the highway when, for reasons unknown, drifted off the shoulder of the highway.

“It appears as if she over-corrected and ended up in the other lane a little bit,” her sister said. “She must have over-corrected again because her tire marks are burned into the road. You can see her tire marks for about 50 feet and then they go off the road.”

Michelle said her sister’s car flipped about six times, leaving her critically injured. When Michelle and their mother, Janice, went to the scene a few days later, they saw debris from Nicole’s car scattered about the length of a football field.

As emergency medical personnel arrived on scene about 2 p.m., they found Nicole unconscious with labored breathing. She was airlifted to the trauma unit at the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque, where she was treated for a number of injuries, including a collapsed lung, broken ribs and several breaks in her upper right arm.

But it was the severe brain injury that had her family and her doctors the most worried.

Nicole, who didn’t open her eyes at all for the first two weeks, was watched very closely. The doctors told the family during the first week that if she didn’t wake up by Day 5, then every day after that the chances became less likely that she would ever make a full recovery.

“We were just counting the days,” Michelle said. “We got to Day 9, then Day 10, she still wasn’t waking up. All we could think of was that she was never going to wake up. It was torture. We really had to grieve losing her.”

Michelle said the doctors told the family, which includes Nicole’s sister, Britney, and brother, Michael, that even if she did wake up, Nicole would never be the same.

“We literally lost the Nicole that we knew and it was just hard to imagine her laying in bed every day for the rest of her life,” her sister said. “I didn’t feel like she was with us.”

Nicole finally did open her eyes on Day 12, but just for a brief 30 seconds or so, and even though her eyes were open, Michelle says it was a fixed stare and there was no recognition.

“That was hard, because the next whole month or month and a half, there were periods that she would wake up, but it was like she wasn’t even there,” she said.

The brain injury Nicole sustained is a diffuse axonal injury, meaning that damage occurs over a more widespread area than in focal brain injury.

“The nerves throughout her brain are kind of like frayed rope,” Michelle said. “It’s kind of like Shaken Baby Syndrome from the jarring back and forth from the accident.”

After 30 days at UNM-H, Nicole was then transferred to a long-term acute facility, where, Michelle said, she got several infections, one right after another. But in the next facility, Health South in Albuquerque, Nicole made noticeable and great strides in her recovery.

Beginning in early January, Nicole began a new medication regiment to stimulate her brain, including Ritalin. Within 72 hours, she was waking up and even looking up.

“I remember that day when I walked into her room and I knew she recognized me,” Michelle said. “She just made amazing progress. She was recognizing us and she was starting to smile at us, blowing kisses and even giving us high fives.”

For the next seven weeks, Nicole had progressed so much that she was giving people “thumbs up,” she would thumb wrestle and was even playing tick-tack-toe.

But her recovery and rehabilitation was, and still is, far from over. In fact, it really has just begun. The right side of Nicole’s body is normal and strong, but the muscles on her left side are over-stimulated from her brain injury.

Michelle explained that when Nicole tries to concentrate, her sister’s arm will pull up really tight.

“They’ve described it that her signals are over firing in her leg and arm. It will interfere with things she’s trying to do,” Michelle said.

Nicole’s speech has even broken through a little bit, Michelle said. Nicole has been mouthing words for a while, but to get her to spontaneously say something, it’s coming in little spurts. Her first words were “Michelle” and “Mom,” spoken during one of her speech therapy sessions.

“We felt like we had her back,” Michelle said.

While Nicole was making progress at Health South, the Lardners found out that she was only allowed to stay at the only brain injury rehab in the state for a certain amount of time, and were forced to place her in a nursing home.

“I can’t even describe how horrific this facility was,” Michelle said of the nursing home. “She had fallen out of bed the first night she was there and we also witnessed one of their med techs taking a patient’s medication in the hallway.”

Suspecting that Nicole didn’t get her medication during her four-day stay in the nursing home, her family decided to take her to Mentis Neuro Rehab in El Paso, a facility specializing in long-term brain injuries.

While the family thought the hurdle was getting her accepted to the program, Mentis was happy to accept Nicole, saying she was the “perfect candidate” for their program. But when they arrived in El Paso, they were told the insurance company said the doctor didn’t request prior authorization, meaning that they were denying her coverage.

“We’ve been lost in the system and it’s almost every time we see an avenue, there’s roadblocks everywhere,” Michelle said. “What gets me so angry, we did everything the right way.”

But with the help of the community, the family was able to pay for two weeks at $800 a day for Nicole to stay. And even though the insurance company is still refusing to pay for her care, Michelle said Mentis is putting a case together, saying that if Nicole gets the intervention now, it would save the insurance company money because they would otherwise end up paying for her long-term care down the road.

On March 12, after the first two weeks, Mentis granted Nicole a two-week extension for free because the doctors and therapists see the potential in her recovery.

“We’re just looking at it as she’ll be there a month getting treatment she otherwise wouldn’t have received,” Michelle said last week. “But we’re still presented with the same problems. The worst case scenario is that she’ll have to go back into a nursing home until we can get to that 90 days. But in the meantime, we’re hoping every day. We’re fighting as hard as we can from all angles.”

Today, Nicole is fighting hard toward a full recovery. And while her long-term memory is mostly intact — she remembers everything until a year prior to the accident — she is having trouble with her short-term memory.

“It’s kind of like that movie ‘Groundhog Day,’ all new information is new,” Michelle says. “They always have to reorient her, telling her she’s in El Paso, she was in a car accident in October. She wakes up confused.”

When Nicole first arrived in El Paso, she could hold onto information for only two minutes and they’d have to tell her what happened every couple of minutes. Her short-term memory progressed to five minutes, and last week, her family received a report that she was holding onto information for 15 minutes.

From being able to maneuver her wheelchair down the hallway to being able to sit up in bed, Michelle says Nicole is working hard every day on getting better.

According to Nicole’s Facebook page, managed by Michelle, she spent Monday morning in the ER because her feeding tube came out.

“Her speech efforts have dwindled this past week, and continues to only be fed via tube,” it said. “Insurance has continuously rejected appeals to cover continued rehab. We also have no acceptance for re-admit to Health South or a rehab hospital in Las Cruces. At this point, we will be checking a skilled nursing facility on the west side of Albuquerque to see if it looks acceptable for transfer come Friday.”

But hope is not lost for Nicole or for her family.

“She’s taught me and my mom a lot because there are those days that we get frustrated,” she says. “But Nicole is very positive. Every time when we ask her how she’s doing, she’ll say “happy” or she’ll point to her little picture that says ‘happy.’

“The other way that I try to put it in perspective to people is that she’s very much like a toddler,” her sister says. “She’s just at that very sweet and innocent phase of her life. It’s like she’s starting from scratch.”

Even though Nicole will never be who she was before the accident, Michelle says no one knows where she’ll end up. But her family has high hopes for Nicole to hopefully be able to work again and even live on her own.

And while Nicole continues to make improvements on a daily basis, it’s the community’s support that has helped the Lardner family cope with this tragedy.

“There aren’t even words,” Michelle says about the outpouring of love the community has shown Nicole. “It’s been overwhelming in a good way. Just to know that people are praying for her … it’s been incredible. It’s really kept us afloat in the darkest times.

“I just want to let everyone know that we’re not even asking for more donations, because we’re strong believers that we’ve been provided with every single dollar that we need when we’ve needed it,” she says. “It’s humbling to realize that so many people do care and they want to do whatever they can to help.”

The Lardner family has created a website, www.teamnikki.org, to let people know who Nicole is and what she’s been through. A Facebook page, with more than 800 likes, provides daily updates on her progress.


-- Email the author at cgarcia@news-bulletin.com.