HAVERHILL — On Feb. 14 a "Jane Doe" was rushed to the University of California Irvine Medical Center with life-threatening injuries, the victim of a hit-and-run accident while she was crossing a street.
The woman, who was not carrying any identification, suffered five broken ribs, a punctured and collapsed lung, a broken scapula and clavicle, bruised spleen, facial injuries and major head trauma. She was thrown 50 feet after being struck.
The next day, Michael and Laurie Lyons of Bradford received the kind of phone call all parents pray never to get. Jane Doe was their 28-year-old daughter, Kaitlin, a 1997 Haverhill High graduate and standout athlete. Laurie Lyons immediately headed for California, followed soon after by Michael and Kaitlin's younger sister, Courtney Trembler of West Roxbury.
"It will always break my heart that she lay alone and unidentified for hours during the most critical time of her life," Laurie Lyons said of Kaitlin.
A graduate of Springfield College and California State University Fullerton who competes in triathlons and ocean races, Kaitlin was working as a youth swimming coach at a masters club in Orange County. She was struck by a car just a short distance from her apartment in Fullerton.
The first few days and weeks following the accident were tough, Michael Lyons said in an interview. His daughter was barely conscious and attached to a ventilator in the hospital's intensive care unit. It would be more than a week until Kaitlin was able to breathe on her own, wiggle her hands and feet and blink her eyes on command.
Setbacks and dramatic improvements followed over the coming weeks as mom and dad and sisters Courtney and Rebecca Moody sat vigil over what has become a miraculous recovery.
Kaitlin was released from the hospital Friday and will be flying back to Haverhill on April 8 to live with her parents. Doctors have told the family that a full recovery is possible, but that it could take up to two years to come back from her head trauma, called a Defuse Axonal Injury.
"The next six months are huge," said Michael Lyons, who has spent much of his energy in recent days researching local rehabilitation clinics in preparation for his daughter's return to Haverhill. "Her physical condition is what saved her. The doctors call her 'miracle girl,'" he said of Kaitlin, who spent many summers as a Salisbury Beach lifeguard before moving to California in 2001 to pursue a master's degree in kinesiology, the study of body movement related to sports. She obtained the degree in 2004.
Kaitlin's ordeal is catalogued at www.caringbridge.org/visit/coachkaitlin, where mom Laurie and sister Courtney posted daily journal entries keeping Kaitlin's friends and family in Massachusetts and California updated on her condition and progress. Messages to Kaitlin may also be posted on the site, which Kaitlin reads everyday, her father said. As of Friday afternoon, the site has been visited 16,932 times.
"Just a month ago, it was a huge deal for her to swallow or move her fingers," Michael Lyons said. "Now she doing a half-hour a day on the stationary bike."
One of Kaitlin's biggest challenges at this juncture of her recovery is getting her short-term memory back, Michael Lyons said.
"Time, though, is still a bit of a mystery — she is sure she will be back in the pool in a week, and can't wait to get her hands on 'her kids,"' Laurie Lyons said in a recent online journal entry. "We all know it will be longer, but you know, knowing Kaitlin, maybe not!"
The "kids" Laurie referred to are the young boys and girls Kaitlin coached at Novaquatics master swimming club in Orange County. The children visited her regularly while she was in the hospital.
Another concern is that Kaitlin may start having flashbacks about the accident.
"She was not impaired at time of accident," Laura said in an Internet posting. "The doctors could not sedate her while doing life-saving procedures because of her head trauma."
With Kaitlin's release from the hospital comes the end of her insurance coverage, her father said.
The family has organized a local fundraiser to help pay for her mounting medical expenses and long rehabilitation. It will be held April 12 from 4 to 9 p.m. at the Knights of Columbus, 505 Sutton St., North Andover. Tickets to the event, which will include a live band, buffet and raffles, are $10 and may be purchased at the door or by calling 603-362-9841.
Kaitlin's immediate family also includes sister Nora Sauter of Haverhill and brothers Jason Lyons of Seattle and Tyler Lyons of Concord, N.H. Sister Rebecca Moody lives in Atkinson, N.H. Mom Laurie works at a chiropractor's office in Newburyport.
The family is looking forward to Kaitlin's return home.
"I am missing my life about now and looking forward to Kaitlin sharing the summer with us, like the good old days," Laurie Lyons said on one of her last updates.
The driver who struck Kaitlin and fled the scene has not been found, but the police investigation continues, Michael Lyons said.
EXCERPTS FROM WEB SITE
Here are excerpts from dozens of well-wishers posted on a Web site created for friends and family of Kaitlin Lyons to monitor her recovery, www.caringbridge.org/visit/coachkaitlin
They include notes from: friends in California, Haverhill and elsewhere; Kailtlin's sister Nora.Sauter who wrote to their mother, Laurie — the first family member to visit Kaitlin in the hospital; and a friend from the Wellness Center in Newburyport, where Laurie Lyons works.
Friday, March 28, 9:55 a.m.
Mom- I can't WAIT to see you guys. Can't wait for you to be home- so much to catch up on and so much to talk about!
To borrow a line, this has been a long, strange trip, but it's things like this that shows us of what our family is made! Tough and stubborn, that's us!
Nora.Sauter, Haverhill, MA
Thursday, March 27, 2:15 p.m.
Kaitlin and Family,
Thank you for the tender and thoughtful postings and updates on Kaitlin and her stressful recovery. You are all a true Miracle! I have read and tried to post on occasions, but with your new journey about to begin... I wanted to remind you that untold numbers of concerned people are surrounding all of you with prayers galore!.
Onward dear family. Keeping your eyes focused upward and forward... There is really no limit to this healing.
Sending love and support from friends of Evan Cousineau's loving family. ..
Thursday, March 27, 9:18 a.m.
Kaitlin, I know the transition in your recovery to going back east with your family has to be both welcome and any change has a degree of uncertainty. The one thing you can be certain of is your family (biological and NOVA) will be there for you forever. You give us more than we could ever give you. When you are out of state, you will not be out of our minds. Keep up the great progress.
Tuesday, March 25, 7:58 p.m.
You'll have a swimming partner in Bradford...I'm old and slow but I can go for EVER....I hope eventually swimming is part of the therapy. We all can't wait to see you and take walks in the old neighborhood. Laurie, I'm sure you can't wait to be back too. Kaitlin, Bradford is a short stopping place to recovery and then you'll be back to your beloved California and all your wonderful friends. You are so loved by so many people. You truly are a lucky woman...Rich in friends and love ! see you soon.
Sunday, March 16, 9:56 p.m.
Hello Laurie and Kaitlin!
Kaitlin, right after your accident I went away for a couple weeks, but thought about and prayed for you every day! Although I've never met you, by knowing your Mom I feel like you are a part of The Wellness Center family... It sounds like you are really healing well and I hope this note finds you that much closer to recovery!!
Laurie, I am sending you big hugs and letting you know how much I miss our conversations and your presence at the office! Thinking of the whole family, and Kaitlin, I look forward to seeing you at The Wellness Center SOON!!
Love, Christine Moore-Dalton
Saturday, March 15, 2008 5:39 p.m.
Kaitlin, all of the Dandurants on Fernwood Avenue wish you a continued and speedy recovery. We will follow your progress through this great website. Great photos of you and your swim team!