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Family picks up pieces after car crash

Nicole Parnell was seriously injured in a car crash Saturday near Highway 525. She is currently being treated at Harvborview Medical Center in Seattle. - Photo courtesy of the Parnell family
Nicole Parnell was seriously injured in a car crash Saturday near Highway 525. She is currently being treated at Harvborview Medical Center in Seattle.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of the Parnell family

Byron Parnell knew that something was wrong when he heard a calm voice on the other end of a call from Whidbey General Hospital early Saturday morning.

His daughter had been involved in a vehicle accident, he was told. She was fine.

Still, he was told to come to Coupeville.

Right away.

Parnell gathered his wife and son Alex and raced to Whidbey General Hospital.

Nicole Parnell, a popular and pretty junior at South Whidbey High School, was injured in an early morning car crash on Highway 525 on June 16.

Nicole was driving an S-10 Chevy Blazer on Crawford Road. She turned onto Highway 525, where she was struck by a northbound F-150 pick-up truck driven by David Ludy.

The 17-year-old, well-known across the South End from her time on the cheerleading squad, sports teams and the stage at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts, is currently recovering from the accident at Harborview Medical Center.

The family doesn’t have insurance and a benefit fund has been established at Whidbey Island Bank to help cover the family’s medical expenses.

A drama unfolds

From outside his daughter’s hospital room, Byron Parnell recounted the nightmare that started early Saturday morning.

“When we got to the hospital, we saw that Nicole was in bad condition and that they were preparing her for the life flight over to Harborview Medical Center,” Parnell said.

“It was very scary. It’s a father and mother’s worse nightmare. We have five children and this is the first time we’ve ever had any kind of catastrophic damage or anything like this happen.”

At the Coupeville hospital, doctors had already diagnosed a torn diaphragm and found that internal organs had moved up into her chest cavity, displacing and collapsing her left lung. Nicole’s pelvis was also broken.

At 3:15 a.m., Nicole was on her way to Harborview Medical Center and Byron, Michele and Alex were driving north to get off the island and back south again toward Seattle. They didn’t have a choice: The next ferry wouldn’t come to Clinton until 5 a.m.

“We were absolutely scared for her life. It was the longest drive I’ve ever taken in my life. It was very shocking,” her father said. “You try not to think about the worst, but not knowing is probably the worst.”

The long drive was divided into moments of quiet reflection and prayer, and times when they told each other Nicole would be OK.

Two hours later after they arrived in Seattle, they were met by a staff social worker. Her father became worried, thinking he would meet his daughter’s doctors first.

His uncertainties eased a bit when the social worker explained that it was a standard procedure at Harborview Medical Center.

Their daughter was now in emergency surgery for her internal organs, but doctors had since found a fracture in a vertebra of her neck.

Now it was time for the Parnell family to focus on Nicole’s surgeries; for her neck, internal organs, her pelvis, and then plastic surgery to repair a laceration on the left side of her face.

Shortly after their arrival at the hospital, the first surgeon came to speak with them.

“A surgeon came out to let us know exactly what was going on as for the internal organs,” Parnell said.

“He said it would be basically a three-hour surgery; they would go in through the abdomen to pull her organs back down and sew up her diaphragm, providing there was no internal organ damage.”

Around 7 a.m., the surgeon returned to tell them the surgery had been a success and had gone much better than anticipated. The family was relieved.

New questions arise

Soon, there were new worries. Would Nicole be paralyzed? Did the doctors need to put her in a halo brace, or conduct more surgery?

Answers arrived when Nicole’s neurosurgeon came to see them around 8:30 a.m., nearly eight hours after her accident on Highway 525 near Crawford Road.

“They let us know that the break on her neck was a chip that came off and had gone out and away from the spinal cord,” he said.

“There was absolutely no spinal injury.”

The doctors concluded that surgery was not needed but that they would provide a neck collar and continue to monitor her neck’s condition; an artery ran along the side where the chip came off, and bruising might cause clotting or a stroke.

While one surgical team was examining Nicole’s neck, another team examined her pelvis. That led to more questions. Would pins or screws be needed? How long might it take to heal? Would they have to immobilize Nicole?

The surgeon heading that team, however, came back to tell the family that they determined the break was not that bad and surgery would not be needed for her pelvis.

The good news: She would have to stay off her legs and then, she would use crutches or a walker while letting the pelvis heal.

Doctors said it would take eight to 12 weeks for Nicole’s neck and pelvis to heal; Parnell and his family breathed a sigh of relief, if briefly.

“The first day, coming here, we didn’t know if she’d be here when we arrived. So we went from that to an incredible diagnosis with the internal surgeries and with regard to her pelvis and neck,” her father said.

The doctors decided to keep Nicole on a respirator for a day and a half in the Intensive Care Unit because they were worried about her breathing.

By Sunday, the respirator had been removed with her vital signs were good. Nicole was moved into a post-trauma room.

“We were feeling incredibly great about things,” Parnell said. “But we were all still in shock. I don’t think it really registered with anybody other than how lucky we were to have her here.”

The elation quickly faded when the teen was wheeled back into ICU to receive a chest tube to drain off fluid that had collected around her lung because she was having difficulty breathing.

“She spent another day and a half in ICU, and then as of Wednesday afternoon, they brought her back upstairs again,” her father said.

Parnell said Nicole may be home by early next week.

“At the inside, we should be out of here by Monday. But she still has the chest tube in her.”

Nicole is already showing signs of recovery, Parnell said. She is moving around with assisted walking in physical therapy, and is now eating regular foods.

“It is a real miracle that she is doing this well. We are hoping the chest tube will come out in one to two days,” he said.

Parnell said Nicole’s speedy recovery was likely due to her youth and health.

“She has done about every sport at South Whidbey High School and junior high,” he said. “She was a cheerleader, played on the volleyball team, did cross country and track through the years.”

The only girl out of five children, Nicole — or Nikki as her family calls her — is the actor in the bunch, a point of pride for her family.

“She has done nothing in sports this year because she focused on doing her Whidbey Island Center for the Arts plays,” he said. “My proudest moment was when she did so well in the community theater as Irina, a major role in ‘The Three Sisters.’”

“She cannot wait to get out of here. Her spirits are very good,” Parnell said. “She is still realizing how serious the damage is and is very concerned about our neighbor, David Ludy.”

Lude is her across-the-street neighbor and a friend of the Parnell family. He was driving the other car in the crash and was on his way home at the time of the accident.

Nicole recalls some of the details of that early morning crash, like the moments right before the impact, moments of the medivac flight to Seattle, and waking up after her surgeries.

But she doesn’t remember Shannon Brown, the 22-year-old from Clinton who was the first person on the scene and gave first aid and CPR until emergency crews arrived.

“Shannon Brown was the first to arrive on the scene and literally revived Nicole. She was not breathing and Shannon could not find a pulse,” Parnell said.

“Fortunately, Shannon has been training as a physical therapist and brought her back to life. We didn’t know Shannon had saved her life, had revived her at the scene until Wednesday because Nicole did not remember any of that.”

Nicole has spent time reflecting on what happened, but knows in an instant how she feels about Brown.

“Shannon Brown is an angel. She was so responsive and clear about what happened and told me straight up everything that happened,” she said.

“She saved my life. I don’t know how you put that into words.”

The accident, and its aftermath, has forever changed the Parnell family, they said.

“I have been reflecting a lot on family and friends,” Nicole said.

“The healing process has actually gotten a lot better because of my friends. And once you go through a life-changing experience like this, you do realize who your true friends are. It brought me and my family closer together,” she said.

Her father agreed.

“I think we’ll get a little closer to the church,” Parnell said. “And certainly, I am closer to my daughter.”

Another thing is certain: there will be more hurdles to overcome.

Parnell estimates the medical care for Nicole will cost at least $50,000; likely a lot more.

With no other car insurance other than state-mandated liability insurance, their car is a total loss and hospital bills are mounting.

Additionally, Parnell and family are not covered by health insurance.

“We were in between health benefits at the time. We were restarting our health benefit program,” he said. “I have no idea, at this point, how much this is going to cost.”

“The money is irrelevant, absolutely, at any cost. I’d rather have my daughter around. Yes it’s going to be a financial hardship for us, but well worth every penny,” Parnell said.

Parnell’s sister, Traci Hauser, and his son Michael, who is home on emergency leave from the Army, have set up an account with Whidbey Island Bank for donations to help the family defray the medical costs.

The account is set up under Michael’s name, with a link to his sister.

Nicole sees life differently now.

“I am going to change my lifestyle pretty much,” she said. “It is much more of a spiritual change than anything. I am just more connected with my body.

“I understand it is not all about what you can do but what you are able to do. I am grateful for everyone’s effort to show me they care,” she said.

Parnell is thankful as well.

“I have become more grateful for what I have,” he said. “She definitely had a higher being; God was shining down on her.”

Spencer Webster can be reached at 221-5300 or at swebster@southwhidbeyrecord.com

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