On March 17, 2014, life changed forever for then 14-year-old Brianna Strzok. As she and three friends drove home from school, they were rear-ended and pushed into oncoming traffic. Brianna’s side of the car sustained a direct hit from a truck driving more than 50 miles per hour.
When Brianna arrived at the Level I Pediatric Trauma Center operated by Regions Hospital and Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare, her prognosis appeared grim. She had sustained severe head trauma and multiple skull fractures; major damage to her diaphragm, colon, bladder and other vital organs; broken bones; and many other injuries. “One of Brianna’s doctors later told us that the amount of transfused blood she needed was the most he’d seen in 30 years of practice,” recalls her mom, Missi Langel. “I know in my heart that she would have died at any other hospital.”
In fact, Brianna’s outlook seemed so dire that her care team allowed additional family members into her room to say goodbye.
“I refused to believe she would never wake up”
Brianna remained in a coma for nearly five weeks while she struggled with the effects of her injuries, along with kidney and liver failure. Although doctors cautioned that she might never recover, Missi and other family members remained optimistic. Then, on Easter weekend, Brianna’s best friends visited her bedside. She emerged from her coma the same day.
Brianna had woken up, but her journey was only beginning. The once-athletic teen had lost weight and muscle mass, and the damage to her brain was severe. “She wasn’t walking or talking, and had significant nerve damage in her left eye,” explains Missi. “She was awake, but not really awake.” Brianna soon transferred to Gillette’s inpatient rehabilitation unit and began intensive physical, occupational and speech therapy. Missi describes watching Brianna re-learn everything as physically and emotionally exhausting. Support from Brianna’s care team helped her through. “They treated me like family. They explained the medical stuff, but also helped me understand that I was not alone in this journey.”
Milestones take on new meaning
As Brianna progressed in her therapies, she achieved milestones that became even more significant the second time around. “The first time she spoke, rode a bike, stood up, climbed stairs—all of these things were turning points,” says Missi. “Everything was a new first.” Even Brianna’s care team expressed amazement at her continued progress given the extent of her injuries.
But there were hard moments too. Because Brianna’s brain had been so badly injured, she struggled with emotional and behavioral issues common in children who experience a traumatic brain injury. “She went through many stages—first hitting, then swearing, then crying in pain. There were many nights I cried myself to sleep,” remembers Missi.
Through the highs and lows of Brianna’s recovery, hospital staff helped her family celebrate special milestones. For example, on her 15th birthday, they arranged to bring her beloved horse, Hidalgo, to an unused helicopter pad at Regions Hospital to visit Brianna.
“Thank you for saving my baby girl!”
After three months of inpatient rehabilitation, Brianna went home. She continues weekly therapies in her community and follows up with her Gillette team regularly. “Dr. Song is amazed and thrilled at how well Brianna is doing!” wrote Missi in a September CaringBridge entry.
Today, Brianna is walking independently, riding her horse, and recently made her high school’s honor roll. Although she still struggles with physical effects of her injuries and short-term memory loss, she has defied the odds by accomplishing more than many people ever thought possible.
Missi says she’ll be forever grateful to the Regions and Gillette team for bringing Brianna back from the brink of death. Her message to them is this: “You treated us like we mattered, like our daughter’s life mattered,” she says. “Thank you for saving my baby girl! I will never forget any of you.”