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One woman’s struggle with brain injury is a warning for young drivers

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Hornback was a senior at Central Hardin at the time of her crash

By Amber Coulter

For Jennifer Hornback, graduation and prom season bring back thoughts of a vehicle collision she can’t remember and the consequences she’ll deal with for the rest of her life.

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Jennifer, 20, has lived in a medical rehabilitation facility in Lexington since a head-on collision near Rineyville just more than three years ago left her in serious condition, in a coma and with a traumatic brain injury.

Kentucky State Police said Jennifer was eastbound on Ky. 1600 on March 2, 2009, when a westbound vehicle crossed the center line and collided with the Mazda pickup she was driving. Jennifer wasn’t wearing a seat belt and was airlifted to University Hospital in Louisville, according to police.

Jennifer remembers being a senior at Central Hardin High School, where she played on the basketball team. She remembers going out with friends, partying and skipping school, thinking she had the rest of her life to make up for poor decisions.

Then, there’s a blank period in her memories, filled with hazy conversations with people at the hospital that she thought were dreams after coming out of a 47-day coma.

“I don’t remember the accident, and I’ve never met the lady who hit me,” she said. “All I know is her name, a name that will be etched in my mind forever, but I forgive her because people make mistakes every day.”

Jennifer doesn’t know whether the other driver, Jessica L. Christie, of Elizabethtown, was practicing any unsafe driving habits at the time of the crash. No charges were filed against her.

Regardless, Jennifer wants her situation to be a cautionary tale as young people celebrate the end of the school year. She wants students who might be living life as she lived hers to make good decisions, such as driving sober and not texting while driving.

“As a teenager, I thought I was invincible,” she said. “I never thought anything bad could happen to me.”

Half of traumatic injuries are the result of vehicle collisions, Jennifer said.

She never gets in a car now without putting on a seat belt.

“I now realize that I’m not invincible,” she said. “I have worked hard to get back most of what I lost. I’m not ever going back to that place again. I’m just going forward.”

Jennifer’s mother, Donna Hornback of Elizabethtown, said she had been living one minute at a time from the moment a school official told her to get to the hospital until her daughter woke from a coma.

Then, she and other loved ones had to explain to Jennifer that life never would be exactly the same again.

“There was just so much to tell,” she said.

Jennifer had adjustments to make after waking up from her coma. She had gone from a self-sufficient teenager to being unable to hold up her head and unable to feed, bathe or dress herself, go to the bathroom alone, or perform any of the other necessary tasks she never thought would be lost to her.

She tried to use sign language with her one responding arm to communicate, but her mother did not understand her. She tried to write, but the words came out as scribbles on paper.

“It was something I had to live with,” she said. “At the time, I didn’t understand.”

During her six weeks of in-patient care, Jennifer went through a period of anger and depression common to individuals who suffer traumatic brain injuries and said hurtful things to people she knew.

Surgeries since the crash have included two brain drains, two on the torn muscles in her eyes, a stent where her trachea collapsed and spinal cord repairs.

That didn’t stop Jennifer from working in physical therapy and rehabilitation, coupled with her brain healing itself, to regain as much of her physical and mental skills as possible.

Seeing other people in rehabilitation struggling with their own challenges also inspired her to push herself through the hard work of vocal exercises, arm stretches, workout machines, journaling, cognitive group and debate group needed to restore her ability to take care of herself.

She has regained the use of her left leg and can walk.

Jennifer also has gained confidence that allows her to be in public, something she couldn’t bear to do after coming home after the crash. She especially hated to be out in Elizabethtown, where people knew her and might feel sorry for her.

“People are going to stare, no matter where you go. I’ve learned to ignore it,” she said, then pointed at her mother. “She hasn’t so much.”

Doctors at first predicted Jennifer’s situation would not improve to the point that it has.

The young woman isn’t finished recovering her abilities and her future. She plans to attend college one day and is considering a career in physical therapy or sports medicine.

Donna said her daughter enjoys visiting her original neurosurgeon and other medical professionals who helped her three years ago.

“She wants to show them that she beat the odds,” she said.

Donna is proud of her daughter.

“She stands up for herself and takes care of business,” she said.

Jennifer hopes no one else will have to learn what she has or work as hard as she has for recovery.

“Even though I don’t hold any anger toward anyone, you don’t want to be the person at this end, and you don’t want to cause this to happen to anyone else,” she said. “Could you live with yourself? God has helped me change paths in life, and I am ready for His journey.”

Amber Coulter can be reached at (270) 505-1746 or acoulter@thenewsenterprise.com.