The Comeback of a Coma Survivor

It's difficult to envision that Amanda Edwards was once trapped in a coma from which one doctor believed she might never awaken, except in a vegetative state.

She is now 27 years old and married, with an engaging smile and a playful sense of humor. She recently gave birth to her first child, a daughter named Audrey.

When Amanda pushes Audrey's carriage along the sidewalks of her Orange County, Calif., apartment complex, she walks with a limp — her right side was paralyzed by the accident that placed her in a coma, but she has few other visible manifestations of the severe brain injury she suffered in May 1997.

Regaining her life, her appearance and her sense of normality was a long, arduous and painful process.

Ten years ago, Amanda, then a popular cheerleader at Newport Harbor High School, was thrown out of a crowded sport utility vehicle when it flipped over at what police said was a high rate of speed. She was riding with a group of high school students, most of whom had been drinking. She was not wearing a seat belt.

"It was extremely difficult," said her mother, Chris Maese, who is divorced from Amanda's father. "All I knew that I could do is pray. … I was helpless."

A Community Effort

Amanda was hospitalized in a coma at Western Medical Center in Santa Ana, Calif., and within days, she was also at the center of an extraordinary community effort to restore for her a chance at the life she had dreamed of.

"My friends were always there," Amanda said. "They never went away."

On June 7, 1997, the night of what would have been her high school prom, her schoolmates showed up at the hospital, dressed for the dance they would attend later. They decorated the corridors with pictures as Amanda lay unresponsive in her room three floors above. And before they went to the prom, they recorded messages for her.

"We're all praying for you," said one, "and we love you."

One constant visitor to Amanda's bedside was another cheerleader Sydney Burkhardt, who is now married and has one child. "That was a life-changing experience," she said. "That was the day that a lot of us grew up."

Burkhardt remembers the accident as transforming because of the trauma that was suddenly and unexpectedly introduced into their lives. When doctors confirmed six weeks after the accident that Amanda was slowly coming out of the coma, Burkhardt continued to accompany her friend during often agonizing physical therapy at the Meridian Neuro Care Center.

Recovery 'Like Growing up All Over Again'

What frequently was a look of distress on Amanda's face was a reflection not only of pain, but of the raw emotions she felt because her brain hadn't recovered to the point where she could interpret or communicate what was happening to her. The long and exhaustive rehabilitation was videotaped by her mother.

"I subconsciously told myself that when she woke up she needed to see where she was," said Maese. "And then when she was awake and she was learning how to walk, learning how to talk, I wanted her to see where she had been so that she can give God the glory. Because when you look at the tapes it also helps you to strive to be better than what you see."

Watching some of those 10-year-old tapes reminds Amanda of her journey — back then she was still in physical therapy, still subject to confusion and preoccupied with the idea of going home.

"It gives me a good feeling to see how I once was and how far I've come," Amanda said. "I wanted to go home and go to school. And I did."

Five months after the accident, Amanda made a return to the world she had left by attending her high school's homecoming game. Her classmates had voted her homecoming queen. Friends helped dress her for the event, where she was escorted onto the field and was able to repeat a school cheer. She has only limited memories of the experience.

On Oct. 24, 1997, she finally got her wish to return home, where her rehabilitation continued. "My memory had been wiped," Amanda said. "It was like growing up all over again."

Because of the severity of the brain injury, Amanda's emotional state during her early rehabilitation was in some ways like an infant's. She had to relearn social behavior and inhibitions that were second nature to others her age.

Some days, said her mother, Amanda gave into despair. "She would throw herself down on the ground, and she would, like a child, have a tempter tantrum. She would pound her fist into her legs, and she would throw her head back and forth, and sometimes throw her head back on the ground. It was very disturbing."

Back on Her Own

After three years, as Amanda steadily improved, she wanted to strike out on her own again. In 2000, she found an apartment and a roommate, and accepted a part-time job as an assistant at a cancer center. Then, in 2001, she took lessons to obtain a driver's license, despite the trepidations of her mother.

"She knew not to hold me back, just to let me spread my wings and try and fly," Amanda said. "And if I got somewhere, that was great."

In February 2005, Amanda began dating Mike Edwards, a computer game programmer from Australia.

"I was instantly hooked on Amanda," Edwards said. "I think it was just the glow that she gave off. She's always smiling. I had no idea what she'd been through."

"We were always together, and whenever I didn't have my Mike, I needed my Mike," Amanda said, laughing.

They were married after a yearlong courtship. On Christmas Eve 2006, Amanda delivered her first child, Audrey. "It was a breathtaking moment to see her for the first time," said Amanda.

Short-term memory problems persist because of the damage to Amanda's brain. To maintain a consistent routine as a mother, Amanda relies on schedules she writes and notes she leaves herself, some of which are attached to her kitchen cabinet.

If she has trouble extracting a word from her memory, she uses her husband as backup.

"I guess sometimes I'm her surrogate, short-term memory," Edwards said. "She'll forget the odd things and sometimes she might repeat what she said. But it's never been a huge difficulty for us."

Having a baby who is dependent on her also has led to an unexpected change in Amanda. Before Audrey's birth, Amanda thought she would never improve much beyond the point she had reached. She argued with her mother about it when she was pregnant.

"I was done," Amanda said. "I'm like, 'Mom, just accept me how I am because this is how it is. I'm not getting any better.'"

In fact, research indicates that the majority of neurological recovery occurs in the first two to five years after an injury. Nevertheless, Audrey motivated Amanda to resume working on her weaknesses — for instance, a right arm that her brain may forget to use unless she concentrates on the task. The problem is a remnant of the right-side paralysis she suffered in the accident.

"Amanda is back to therapy," said Maese. "And it was her baby that helped her see that she needed to start working that arm out again."

"And I will get better," Amanda added. "I am going to be able to lift [Audrey] when she's older."

Amanda also feels a debt to the community that supported her and helped raise money for her rehabilitation.

"She started speaking in churches, to youth groups," Maese said. "Her topic was, it only takes one second to change the rest of your life. Think about what you're doing."