NRHS grad survives near-death experience after an accident

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 6, 2004

Suffolk News-Herald

Last May 25, Laura Vann strolled out of a tanning salon and hopped into her new 2004 Honda Civic. It was three days before Nansemond River’s senior prom, and the Lady Warrior couldn’t wait to dance the night away at the Chesapeake Conference Center, then plan her graduation party for a few weeks later.

But as Laura turned onto Bennett’s Pasture Road, heading for her Driver home, her car struck another car, and spun around. Another driver jumped out of his car and rushed to help, and Laura told him to call her parents. She doesn’t remember what happened next.

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Her mother Tracey recalls getting a phone call at Bennett’s Creek Nursery. She called her husband James at the Vann home, and the two rushed to the scene, just as Laura was loaded into an ambulance. She was taken to Obici Hospital, and found to have a broken leg and a multitude of scrapes and bruises, but nothing life-threatening. A procedure failed to locate any internal bleeding, and the three breathed a sigh of relief.

Two days later, Laura went into surgery to have rods and screws put into her injured leg. She was put under anesthesia, and, as a precaution, taken to the intensive care unit.

Her parents headed home, confident that Laura would be there with them in a few days. But at about 2:30 that morning, the doctor called the Vanns to alert them that Laura hadn’t woken up after the surgery.

He told them to sit by the phone. Half an hour later, it rang with the news that no parent should ever hear: their daughter’s blood pressure had bottomed out. Her heart rate had accelerated. An embolism had formed near the broken bone and moved toward Laura’s heart. A hole in one of the valves (a birth defect that had previously gone undetected) had allowed it to pass through to her brain, where it had burst.

Laura was in a coma, and her systems were shutting down. She was placed on a ventilator and given a tracheotomy to help her breathe, and a chest tube to fix a collapsed lung.

The Vanns called their neighbors and everyone at their church, Portsmouth First Pentecostal. They asked everyone they could find to pray for Laura. The news found its way to Nansemond River, and Laura’s friends and teachers didn’t know what to do.

&uot;I told them she had been in a car accident, and that they needed to keep her in their thoughts,&uot; said drama/music teacher Joleen Miller, who directed Laura in a school production of &uot;Grease,&uot; in the spring and watched her sing &uot;It’s Raining on Prom Night,&uot; at the school’s spring concert the week before the accident. &uot;I told them to pray, pray, pray – even if they didn’t, I told them to start.&uot;

Principal Thomas McLemore watched the students take Miller’s advice. &uot;There was a lot of prayer,&uot; he said. &uot;The kids were leaning on each other. They were good about comforting each other.&uot; At the prom on Friday night, Laura’s friends wore stars in her honor – she has a star-shaped tattoo on her leg.

The Vann’s neighbor Lisa Nowalski spread the word among the neighbors, putting out fliers and going door-to-door. &uot;Everyone knew about the accident, but not everyone knew that it was Laura,&uot; Nowalski said. &uot;It felt like God was telling me to do it.&uot; She helped raise over $1,700 for the Vann family.

Over the next few days, Laura, now at Norfolk General, was surrounded by her friends and family, who filled her room with balloons, cards, and memorabilia from her favorite film, &uot;The Wizard of Oz.&uot; Miller brought three posters signed by her classmates, and sang her &uot;Somewhere Over the Rainbow.&uot;

But nothing seemed to work. Laura swelled to nearly three times her normal size, as fluids from her failing systems leaked into her body. She suffered several strokes and seizures, and the doctors told James and Tracey that Laura might not ever recover fully – or at all. Eight days after the accident, the Vanns met with the hospital’s ethics team, which discussed the possibility of organ donation, the parents recalled. James and Tracey arranged to meet with them again five days later, which would be a Tuesday.

That Saturday morning, Tracey remembers walking into her daughter’s room and glanced at her face. Then she realized that Laura was looking back.

Tracey and the nurses moved objects in front of Laura’s eyes, and she was able to follow them. She couldn’t talk, but she mouthed that she loved her mom. Miller came to see one of her favorite students, and asked if she recognized her. Laura’s head slowly nodded up and down, and Miller wiped away her tears of joy.

On June 15, Laura was moved out of the intensive care unit. That night, her high school classmates graduated. When it came time for the V’s, McLemore called out Laura’s name, and the crowd applauded. In the audience, her friend Courtney Brannon tried to keep her own emotions under control.

&uot;I was thinking, ‘Don’t cry!’&uot; Brannon said. &uot;You never expect this to happen to someone you know. We’ve been through so much, and I was sad because she couldn’t be there with me.&uot;

Meanwhile, Laura continued to improve, speaking for the first time in nearly two weeks. She told her parents and friends how much they meant to her, and asked them to thank the man that had helped her just after the accident. Then she talked about being disappointed about missing prom and her graduation. Well, maybe there was something they could do. Perhaps James, Tracey, McLemore, Miller, Courtney, the Norfolk General staff and the rest of Laura’s friends and family could do to bring a special welcome back to someone that they’d almost lost.

Last week, Laura dressed in the traditional red gown and mortarboard of female Nansemond River graduates. She was wheeled to a large room, where a crowd of her many loved ones was waiting. McLemore stepped forward, holding the diploma he’d been unable to give her at the first ceremony.

&uot;By the power vested in me by the state of Virginia and the commonwealth of Virginia,&uot; he said in a wobbly voice. &uot;I now pronounce you a high school graduate.&uot; To show that she truly had graduated, Laura moved her tassel from the left to right of her hat, and then wiped her own watery eyes. The crowd erupted in an ovation of claps, cheers, and tears, and crowded around the new graduate for hugs and photos.

&uot;I felt so excited and privileged when I found out they were going to do that,&uot; Laura said later in her room, her voice still low and slow from her injuries (doctors estimate that her cognitive abilities are 90 percent recovered). &uot;I don’t even really feel like I’ve been in an accident, but I felt like I’d missed a lot. I just want to go home so bad.&uot; She’s scheduled to do so later this week, and hopes to attend TCC Portsmouth in the fall.

&uot;I was so happy that they all came,&uot; she said. &uot;I couldn’t believe that all my friends were here. I felt overcome with emotion.&uot;

Laura put on her inflated cast, and James handed her a walker. She ambled over to a nearby room, where her friends were chewing on pizza and bantering as if they were spending a Saturday night at Pizza Hut. Outside, Tracey watched her daughter take a few more special steps back toward being the normal, healthy, happy teenager she once was.

&uot;It’s a miracle,&uot; she said softly. &uot;She’s a miracle.&uot;