ABC 57 Exclusive: Teen comes out of vegetative state after car accident

NEW CARLISLE, Ind. A New Prairie High School Senior is out of a vegetative state after she was seriously injured in a car accident on August 2, 2011.

Lauren Pokuta, 17, of New Carlisle, was driving home from work with her best friend when they were struck by another car just blocks from Pokuta's home. The car had five New Prairie High School students in it. All seven teens were taken to the hospital, all were released from the hospital that night, except Lauren.

"We don't know how the accident happened, we don't know if they pulled out and they didn't see the car coming or what," Lauren's dad Michael said.

ABC 57 News has been in contact with Michael and Tonja Pokuta since October about getting together for an interview. March 16th, 2012, the couple sat down with ABC 57's Brian Dorman for their first ever sit down interview since the accident. The Pokuta's invited Brian to their home to share their journey that started on that day, August 2nd.

"She was not scheduled to work that day. Her and her friend had been upset they hadn't worked together so her friend said just give them a call and see if they need an extra person," Tonja explained.

The girls worked at Hollister clothing store at the outlet mall in Michigan City. Lauren's friend called and the manager told them to come in.

"She headed out the door and as always I said, I love you, be careful, see ya later and that was it. I don't know if she answered me back that day." 

Tonja had no way of knowing that just hours from that moment their life was forever going to be changed.

Lauren's older sister, Brynne Poluta, 19, got the first phone call about Lauren's accident. She immediately called her mom who was driving home from the movies with her friends. Lauren's dad, Michael was more than three hours away on business in Cadillac, Michigan at the time.

Lauren was airlifted from the scene of the crash to Memorial Hospital in South Bend. Tonja recalled what it was like to see Lauren for the first time in the hospital, "She had a huge left eye. It was purple and blue and probably ten times the normal size." 

Michael jumped in adding, "It was ten times the normal size, it looked like a baseball sticking out, but the rest of her looked just fine." 

But things weren't fine, internally Lauren was badly injured including her worst injury to her brain stem.

"When they started to explain to me some of the things that they thought might be wrong it didn't match what I was looking at, that was the hardest part I think," Tonja said.

"I was afraid she wasn't going to make it," Michael added.

The first week it was touch and go, at any minute they knew they could get the news that Lauren died.

"We knew it was serious and severe. When the hospital Chaplin comes in to say prayers with us and give her last rights it's pretty serious," said Michael.

But Lauren pulled through that first week and even started to breathe over the ventilator. When she started to breathe on her own, her parents said that was the turning point. They were optimistic then that Lauren was going to pull through this, but had no idea what her recovery was going to look like.

Meanwhile news outlets like ABC 57 News were airing the story of the crash all week, seven New Prairie High School students injured in a two vehicle crash, one student continues to fight to stay alive. The news coverage the Pokuta's said had family, friends and even long lost friends coming out of the woodwork to support the family during those difficult first weeks.

"I was in a little denial, that what was going on was actually going on. I mean, I knew some of the possibilities but I didn't want to go there." 

Lauren was in a coma for 23 days when she woke up her family was devastated to discover that Lauren was literally trapped in her body. The Pokuta's found themselves in a tough spot, they had Lauren still but the news was bad. Lauren was medically in a vegetative state. (explanation of vegetative state click here) Lauren was not able to move, talk, or acknowledge/respond to those around her. In fact, all Lauren could do was track movement with her eyes.

The expenses started to add up, local fundraisers were hosted to help the family and everyone was praying that Lauren would pull through. "Team Lauren" bracelets, tshirts, signs and stickers started popping up around New Prairie High School and in the small town of New Carlisle.

"You're looking at this beautiful young girl, and there's no, there's nothing there, she looks past you, looks right through you." 

Lauren was transferred in early September to the RIC Center in Chicago. The Rehabilitation Institute Center is the number one ranking facility in the country from those who suffered a brain injury and it comes at a big cost, $100,000 a month. Insurance covered one month and Lauren was forced to leave by October. Lauren was taken back to Memorial Hospital for continued care.

"She is our daughter and we are going to do everything we can to make her whole again, whatever that whole may be in the end," said Tonja.

Eventually, and despite the advice of some close friends, the Pokuta's decided to bring Lauren home, still in a vegetative state. Michael and Tonja were trained to take care of her.

They moved from the master bedroom downstairs upstairs to keep Lauren on the main floor of the house. A medical bed was brought in and a handicap shower installed to fit her wheelchair. In the room, posters, messages of well wishes and cards.

October turned into November, Thanksgiving passed, November to December and leading up to Christmas. Lauren was still in a vegetative state just staring off into space. When asked, during that time if they ever felt it would had been easier to just have said good-bye rather than have their daughter in a vegetative state they said, "I remember a friend of mine told me that when I have those bad thoughts, I'll never forget this, he said, that God won't put those bad thoughts in your mind, so don't let the devil get inside your head and don't let him win." 

The Pokuta's said that the discussion never came up to let Lauren pass, they were going to fight to keep the therapy going and for a breakthrough.

"This has been a journey that I guess we had to take. We had to bring her home. I can't imagine visiting a tombstone instead of having her here, there is no way," Michael said.

"No matter how Lauren was going to come out in the end, we had each other, our family and our friends," Tonja said.

Christmas was one of Lauren's favorite holidays and the first the family shared since the accident.

"We were celebrating that she as with us but she really wasn't with us at Christmas," Michael said.

Tonja jumped in, 'Lauren is usually full of it, very full of life and it was hard to see her just sitting there and knowing that Christmas is one of her favorite holidays." 

The Pokuta's continued to pray for a miracle, for any sign of life from Lauren who still at this point would just sit and stare into space with a blank look on her face.

On New Years Eve, just hours before the start of 2012 the Pokuta family got that breakthrough.

"A friend of mine asked her to give him a high five and Lauren looked over at me, turned her head slowly and looked back over and lifter her hand up and reached out and touched his hand," Michael recalled.

It was the first time in five months that Lauren moved on her own and responded to someone talking to her. That simple touch of the hand was all it took for the Pokuta's to know that they were on to something. If they could get Lauren to respond to a high five, where could they go from there?

For weeks the played, "knucks" where they would say, "knucks" and Lauren would reach out and touch her knuckles against someone elses.

"We started seeing movement where we hadn't seen movement before. Just little things, little things that we take for granted every day, but there was movement," said Tonja.

Knucks turned into an occasional smile, words forming on her lips--with no words coming out, mouthing songs on the radio, and pointing to her eyes, heart and a person to form the phrase I love you.

"Our little girl is coming back to us. Her personality is starting to shine through. She is going things that we probably thought for a long time we may never see again."

Lauren during the months of January and February was now able to nod yes and no in response to questions, able to point to letters on a board to spell out words and with continued therapy can now play her favorite card game Uno on an iPad and even physically in person.

Before the interview Brian sat down at the family's dining table able played a round of Uno with Lauren. Her lips formed the word, uno, when she was down to one card--Lauren won the game.

"She played cards with us today, she played cards with you. You watched her, she knows whose turn it is and what color to play," Tonja said with excitement in her voice.

With the amazing things that Lauren is able to do just months after a crash that nearly claimed her life there are still things that her parents miss about Lauren before the accident.

"I miss her voice. Singing and talking, maybe even yelling at me. I don't care but I miss those things," her mom said.

The Pokuta's are hopeful that one day, with continued therapy, Lauren will be able to talk again. They also are encouraged with casting that is occurring right now that she will be able to walk again.

Lauren has a cast on her wrist and leg right now, they stretch out the tendons that shrunk when she lost muscle during the time she was in coma. Her fingers and feet are bound so tight that the fingers on her hands are curled up and won't open--over time, with casting it is allowing her limbs to open back up again. It's a slow process but has already worked on her elbows. Lauren gets casted, uncasted and then recasted a little bit farther down redeveloping her movement again an inch at a time.

Asked what motivated Michael to get out of bed each day he replied, "Her smile, her smile just keeps me going each day. If I feel depressed or down I just think about that smile." 

"I've had a lot of people say they feel sorry for us and I've never felt sorry for us. I've always felt sorry for Lauren."

The couple said that they feel terrible that she lost her senior year, the dances, prom and the ability to text her friends on her iPhone. They talked about the experiences they had during their last year in high school and wished that their daughter could have had the same opportunities.

The interview ended with this final question, "What message do you have for your daughter tonight?" 

Michael said, "Keep going girl. I can't wait for her to meet her goals, to walk barefoot in the grass with her puppy dog walking around her." 

Tonja answered, "That I'm proud of her for what she's accomplished and I know shes got a lot more in her and I know she is going to make us all very happy no matter what the outcome is. She is still out girl, she is still our Lauren." 

 The wish from here is pretty simple, "If we can get close to how she was when she walked out the door that day I think we would be quite happy with that." 

Lauren continues therapy on a regular basis at Memorial Hospital. The family promised to keep ABC 57 News up to date on her progress. Stay with us as we continue to update you on how Lauren is doing.

Editors note: I would like to personally thank Michael, Tonja and Brynne Pokuta for welcoming me into their home. I've followed Lauren's accident since the day it happened and truly feel like this interview has changed my life. I will forever feel grateful for the opportunity to share her story with others. #TeamLauren!



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