December 4, 2012 started off like any other day for 17-year-old Darby McGee, an Arkansas high school junior and devoted member of her school’s Color Guard. But it quickly became the first day of what would become the most challenging few months of her young life, and she doesn’t even remember the day or anything that happened in the month after it.
Darby was driving to school by herself when she lost control of her car and ran off the road, into a tree and then into a creek. She suffered a traumatic brain injury and was in and out of consciousness for the next three weeks. Her family didn’t know what to expect.
Said mom April McGee, “Our first thought, of course, was is she going to live? After that, we wondered whether she would be able to speak, would she ever be herself again?”
Darby, who had been very active, outgoing, studious and extremely committed to her Color Guard routines, spent two weeks at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, where her rehabilitation began. Immediately, her family noticed that one part of the old Darby was shining through: her commitment and work ethic.
“They had her sitting up on the side of bed, and had her brush her teeth, and it was such a moment for us, to see them put her in the wheelchair and wheel her down the hall, and she was interacting with people,” said her dad, Robert.
After discharge, the real work began. Darby worked tirelessly with her RehabCare therapists at National Park Medical Center in Hot Springs, Ark. over the course of the next five months, with the goal of getting back to doing the things that mattered most to her.
“I wanted to get better, get back to Color Guard and get my life back,” Darby said, with no trace of any lasting speech impairments. “I wanted to stop having people see me as this broken person lying in bed, because I’m not broken.”
Robyn Smith, M.S., CCC-SLP, was Darby’s speech language pathologist.
“From day number one, she was willing to do whatever she needed to do to recover back to a functional level,” Robyn said.
Robyn noticed that Darby was progressing very quickly in a short amount of time. Through cognitive-linguistic therapy, Robyn worked with Darby on memory and attention exercises, showing her how to keep a journal detailing things like what she did during the day and what she ate to help her recall those details later. Attention-to-task and multi-tasking were challenging as well, so Robyn would work with Darby to devise scenarios that were applicable to her life as a teenage girl.
“We used Facebook and Google and other real-life things that Darby would be doing in her day-to-day life,” said Robyn.
Monica Scott, M.S., CCC-SLP, Program Director of Rehabilitation at National Park Medical Center, said the team approach to Darby’s recovery was crucial to her progress.
“We met with the principal at her school and gave her educators some information about what a traumatic brain injury is, and by working with them, we were able to reduce her school day to a manageable three periods with therapy in the afternoons,” Monica said. “I think it was the buy-in from everyone involved – the parents, the teachers, therapists and of course, Darby herself, that really helped to make this a true success story.”
Robyn was so impressed with Darby’s progress and her committed role in her own rehab that she nominated Darby for the state poster ambassador program, for which she was selected. Darby and her rehab team were able to meet the governor of Arkansas on the day he signed a proclamation declaring the month of May as Better Hearing and Speech Month in Arkansas.
Darby will resume a full course load as a high school senior and is set to graduate with honors. She is also back to being a full participating member of the Color Guard, her greatest passion. Despite all that she has achieved, the road has not always been smooth.
“There were days I would get frustrated,” Darby said. “Before the wreck I had a really good memory, and studying for tests and remembering Color Guard routines were really difficult for me afterwards. I would come home some days and cry but then I would get right back into it.”
She says she wouldn’t have made it through this challenge without the support of her friends, her parents and her two siblings.
“I feel like I’m almost back to where I was,” she said. “My friends and my family have been really supportive."