December 05, 2018
Laura Chrzanowski sat next to her daughter’s bed at Glendale Uptown House in the city’s Rhawnhurst neighborhood on Monday wearing a black sweatshirt emblazoned with the phrase “Pray for Laura.”
The message was about her 25-year-old daughter, Laura Brooks, but it just as well could have been for them both.
Fourteen months ago, Brooks was crossing the street in front of her family’s home on Richmond Street in Bridesburg when she was struck by a car. She was knocked out of her shoes. Her injuries ranged from brain swelling and multiple skull fractures to shattered teeth, collapsed lungs and broken legs.
Just minutes after the accident, Chrzanowski arrived home to see one of her daughter’s white sneakers near a puddle of blood in the street about three or four rowhomes away from the point of impact.
“She looked like a broken action figure,” the mother recalled.
Things were beyond very bad. At the time, her loved ones didn’t know if she’d survive the ambulance ride to Temple University Hospital. Looking back, they consider it a miracle that the coming days didn’t bring a funeral.
What's ensued for Brooks and her family since the September 26, 2017 incident has been a rollercoaster of progress and struggle. As things stand today, her 15th surgery for a variety of ailments is scheduled for December 19. Chances are, more procedures will be necessary.
As Brooks lie in bed – head tilted to the right on a pillow with her body covered in a multi-colored blanket and colorful tattoos peeking out from beneath the sleeves of her blue T-shirt – it's obvious that her memory has been impacted, but her cutting wit has not.
“Nothing,” she responded in the thickest of thick Philadelphia accents, when asked what she remembers of that night on her street.
“I remember things I want to remember,” she continued. “I don’t remember my accident. I don’t remember why my teeth make me look like a hillbilly.”
Her mom thinks that’s for the best.
"I just know I’m not going to let Laura go through all this in vain.” – Laura Chrzanowski
With all the challenges behind, now and ahead, being saddled with nightmarish memories of going head-first into a windshield after being hit by a 2005 Chevy sedan would provide little healing benefit.
Still, as rough as the going’s been, Chrzanowski wanted to show the world how much “Little Laura” has fought back from the brink.
“You don’t think about traumatic brain injuries until it’s all you think about,” Chrzanowski said, from her daughter's side at the rehabilitation and skilled-nursing center on Bustleton Avenue.
In the eyes of the law, what happened to Laura Brooks that night was not a crime. Charges were not filed against the driver, a then-21-year-old woman who remained at the scene.
Brooks’s family still raises questions about an investigation which started with claims that officers pushed, threatened to use a Taser and arrest them if they didn’t stop asking the driver what happened.
A toxicology test wasn’t administered, even as witnesses told the family that the car had exceeded the 25 mph speed limit. There were suspicions of ties between a police officer in that district and the driver.
Those concerns haven’t gone away, as that subplot bubbles under the surface while Brooks’s family watches her try to get her life back into focus.
She is by far the youngest patient at Glendale Uptown House, where she’s been since April 6. Her arrival there came after her initial stay at Temple University Hospital – from where Chrzanowski recovered a blood-stained necklace months after Brooks emerged from her medically induced coma.
Up next was a nine-week stint at Moss Rehabilitation, where she got a level of treatment her family appreciated.
When she’s not here in Room 254 – which she shares with a “sharp as a tack” 98-year-old patient named Ann – she’s either at Temple or Pennsylvania Hospital, where she’s taken for surgeries that don’t involve her still-healing brain.
“Ann tells us every day that everything is going to be OK, and that Laura is her friend,” Chrzanowski shared. “It melts my heart.”
As a nurse entered the room to move her right leg out of the brace which had it elevated, Brooks asked her mother if she had broken the limb. Then, with prodding, she recalled that she had been struck by a car, and offered up the driver’s name without pause. That detail is subject to instant recall.
Brooks suffers from seizures now, a direct result of the injuries. They’re still trying to figure out why, and how to address it. Chrzanowski wondered aloud whether her daughter could be weaned off of pain medications for CBD oils. She still has some research to do there, as her daughter's not ready to be taken off medications that her mom fears eventually could lead to addiction.
Brooks cannot move around all that much. Her most recent surgeries have been to address heterotopic ossification, or the presence of bone in soft tissue where it doesn’t belong, which is slowing her return to mobility.
Several months ago, Chrzanowski left her job at the debt-collection company where she and her daughter worked. It wasn’t fair to either side, she said, to have her half-assing a job while being so distracted.
Now, her daily mission involves helping her daughter regain as much normalcy as she can. That came into focus in an exchange between the Lauras as the Action News theme blared from the hospital-room television.
Mom: “What’s your job?”
Daughter: “To get better.”
Mom: “What’s my job?”
Daughter: “To help me get better.”
Mom: “Who are we?”
Daughter: “Team Us.”
Mom: “You got it, kid.”
Team Us is waging battles on multiple fronts that extend beyond basic physical healing.
Since she couldn’t work, Brooks’s insurance lapsed on January 31. A Medicaid waiver helped fill the gaps, and allowed her stay in this facility. The insurance Chrzanowski could have purchased wouldn’t have covered the cognitive therapy Brooks needs, which is what makes that waiver so important.
Brooks's thought process – at least when vocalized – belies repetition, as memory lapses surface regularly. (Why am I here? Can you scratch my elbow? Can I have a Q-Tip? Why am I here? Can I have a Q-Tip? Can you scratch my knee?)
Both are common in traumatic brain injury patients, the abbreviation for which – TBI – Brooks forgot at first, but recalled three separate times when asked over the course of the next hour. It was a sign that reinforcement helps her brain lock in on something. Hours later, her mother texted to share that she spent the bulk of the afternoon telling people what TBI stands for.
Brooks remembers some things that have since occurred rather vividly. She didn’t much like being the center of attention at one of her previous stops.
“Like, let a b**** get some breathing room!” she said, a line that elicited a chuckle from her mother.
“You always said you’d be famous. I didn’t think it would be for this, though,” Chrzanowski responded, before sharing her daughter's first spoken words after the coma: “Call mommy.”
“At Moss, she would stand using the tilt table, but she’d scream. The pain is unbearable,” Chrzanowski recalled. “I’d have to leave the room. Every day, when you hear your child cry like that, it’s just painful.”
Still, things have gradually improved.
They shared a laugh when recalling Laura’s initial reaction to hearing she was at a rehabilitative hospital: “Rehab? What the hell? I don’t even do drugs!”
She knows she doesn’t much like the food at Glendale.
“One day, she told them she likes cheese on her eggs. The next day, that’s what she got. When someone came in and asked if she liked her omelet, she said, ‘Oh, is that what you called that?’” Chrzanowski shared.
For all the laughter, there is the pain of missing things on the outside.
She’s missed two Thanksgivings at home. Later this month, she'll spend her second Christmas in a hospital bed. Then, she was unable to be there for her sisters after the birth of two nephews, Jason and Connor.
In June, however, friends and family packed a commons area at Glendale to celebrate Laura's 25th birthday.
"It was standing room only," her mother said. "It was so nice."
Adding another layer of familial pain, though, is the fact that Chrzanowski’s mother – who lives at home and suffers from dementia – continually asks, “Where’s Laura?” That's not an easy question to muster the strength to answer repetitively with everything else going on around the family.
"I don't know what tomorrow's going to bring," Chrzanowski said.
From a financial perspective, the incident has impacted the family. A beef-and-beer last October, with no fewer than 85 gift baskets in the raffle, drew friends dating back to the first grade. That helped to a certain extent.
“Did I make a lot of money?” Brooks asked.
“Yep,” responded her mom. “The beef-and-beer was huge. There were so many of your friends there, friends from grammar school who are now grown men and women so I didn't even recognize them!”
The legal side of things still weighs on Laura’s family, too. They’ve hired an attorney in case they choose to pursue a legal response, but no suit has been filed.
“The driver’s young. Even if we won a $100 million judgment, we’d never see a dime of it,” Chrzanowski said.
They also filed a report with the police department’s Internal Affairs Division, but haven’t heard anything about it in the months since. The department’s public affairs unit confirmed to PhillyVoice on Tuesday that no charges have been filed.
“They just want it to go away,” Chrzanowski said. “The sergeant who took the report asked, ‘If I told you the officer was on sick leave that week, would it change your mind?’ No, it wouldn’t. Big Bird could’ve responded to take the initial report and it wouldn’t change anything. All the officers involved gave statements and then lawyered up, so nobody’s saying anything now.”
Bolstering her cover-up theory was an exchange her husband Ray had with a friend, who happened to be a police officer, outside a local ShopRite store in the weeks after the collision.
When she looked through the windows, she could see they were having a heated conversation.
“This isn’t that officer’s first rodeo. She’s got a mortgage and two little kids,” the officer allegedly told Ray.
“Yeah, well what about our kid who almost died?” was her reaction to that.
“I’d rather (the driver) keep the money and just get put in jail,” she said. “I need them to feel the way we feel. I want to take this to the D.A.’s Office, but I don’t know what to do.
"I just know I’m not going to let Laura go through all this in vain.”
The driver – whose name is being withheld as charges weren’t filed – hired attorney Michael Fenerty in the aftermath. He spoke on behalf of his client when contacted for comment on Monday night.
"First and foremost, my client and her family continue to pray for Ms. Brooks's full recovery from this tragic accident,” Fenerty said. “While they cannot do so directly due to the ongoing legal issues surrounding this matter, my client and her family are extremely grateful for this opportunity to relay their sincerest wishes for Ms. Brooks’s full recovery, and for continued strength and peace for her family and all of those supporting her and involved in her care during this very challenging time.”
He also addressed the unresolved legal issues surrounding the case.
“Please be aware that my client has appropriately cooperated with the investigation of this accident and shall continue to do so," he said.
Even when the side issues arise, Chrzanowski doesn’t let them linger in the air. Her daughter won’t let her, to a certain extent.
For now, it’s all about Laura healing to the point that she can go home to Richmond Avenue just as quickly as humanly possible. Perhaps this upcoming surgery to address the lingering damage on her left side will be the turning point.
Her mom knows they’ll need to likely build a ramp, and an ADA-compliant bathroom, but that’s work they’ll do happily if it means Laura is home.
“Laura, what’s that song you like to sing?” her mom asked.
After a couple moments, and some gentle prodding, it came to her: “These Boots Are Made For Walking.”
Brooks acknowledges that she might not be able to put boots on and walk as soon as she’d like. So, she smiled, shrugged her shoulders and offered up the alternate lyrics she wrote while being stuck in a hospital bed:
“This wheelchair’s made for rolling.”
“And that’s what it’ll do.”
“One of these days these wheels are gonna roll all over you.”
With that, the laughter of a mother and her daughter who've been to hell and back filled the room, taking their minds off – if only for a moment – the challenges ahead.
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