Friday, June 22, 2018
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Walking miracle

Teen survives crash, spreads message to peers.

Aug. 25, 2010.

Typical Wednesday.

School started a week ago and Erin Smith is just getting the new routine down: Up early, ride with dad and brother from Gothenburg to Brady for a 7:45 a.m. start, stay awake through eight periods then cruise home again.


Not a teenager’s dream life but nothing out of the ordinary either.


An after-school spat with mom moves Erin to ask for the keys to her dad’s Husker red 2004 Pontiac Grand Am. She zips across town to her boyfriend’s house.

The day seems to be getting worse.

A fight with the boyfriend sends Erin north of Gothenburg to “cool off.”

The cell phone buzzes.

Erin replies to her boyfriend’s text.

The phone vibrates again.

Still mad, she pokes the buttons and sends another reply.

Not paying attention to her driving, she misses her turn on the golf course road.

“I don’t like driving on gravel.”

After a couple of miles she turns around, headed back toward town.

Another incoming message.

Saved in Erin’s outgoing drafts: “I know, right?”


Tim Schmeeckle lives on Road 769.

In a house next to a gravel road, there’s no mistaking when a vehicle drives past.

But the cloud of dust following the little red car ends suddenly before the intersection.

There must be trouble.

A call goes out to 911.

The eastbound Pontiac has rolled twice into the north ditch striking a power pole.

Its driver lies on the ground a few feet away.


Rescue personnel from the Gothenburg Volunteer Fire Department work carefully, diligently.

Neck brace, back board … every possible precaution.

Their movements are meticulous, cautious.

Every second counts but every tiny bit of motion could possibly cause permanent damage.


Lori Smith works the night shift as a nurse at Golden Living Center in Cozad.

Sleep is at a premium when you’ve got teenagers at home.

It’s 6:47 p.m. Lori is roused by the ring of her cell phone but what she hears on the other end of the line isn’t registering.

“This is the Gothenburg Fire Department. Your daughter has been in a car accident.”

From across the room, Jake Smith could hear every word from his wife’s phone.

By the time Lori hung up, Jake’s shoes were on and he was headed for door.

Lori, Jake and 14-year-old son Ryan pace at Gothenburg Memorial Hospital for what seems like hours waiting for the ambulance to arrive with Erin on board.

“Ow! Ow! My shoulder!”

Erin is conscious and talking. The wreck must not have been all that bad.

Initially, even the emergency room doctor is not alarmed.


The C2 is the second vertebra from the skull.

It has a bony knob which fits into the C1 vertebra that connects the neck to the head.

Breaking that bony knob often results in death.

The C5 and C6 vertebra are a little farther down the spine.

Erin’s X-rays show a definite C2 fracture. The C5 and C6 are broken also, twisted and no longer sitting on top of each other.

Damage to the spinal cord at this position often results in quadriplegia, paralysis of all four limbs.

Jake is a science teacher. Lori is a nurse. They know only a very small number of people with this diagnosis survive.

Fire department volunteers drive Erin to Good Samaritan Hospital in Kearney.

She’s confused. She thinks the flashing lights are the hazard lights on her dad’s car.

She wants to take her earrings out.


After eight years as a rehab nurse at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Lincoln, Lori knows the outside world stops for families dealing with severe injuries.

Nothing else matters.

Day and night, she spends at her daughter’s side questioning every nurse, every doctor.

At the end of the day, what’s important is that each decision is made with Erin’s best interest in mind.

A nine-hour surgery repairs what’s broken and an unexplainable prognosis is offered to the Smiths.

Instead of being dependent on a ventilator to make her breathe and living out the rest of her days in a wheelchair without use of her arms or legs, Erin is going to return to the every-day life she knew before that last text message.

Lori knows.

“There are times in the medical field when there are no other answers besides ‘angels.’”


A small brain bleed caused by head trauma from the accident turns the predicted 14-day recovery in Kearney into 36 days and four surgeries.

“I’m sorry.”

Erin feels badly about wrecking her dad’s car.

“I’m sorry.”

The frustration mounts over having to spend the entire month of September in the hospital because the pressure on Erin’s brain refuses to regulate.

“I’m sorry.”

Erin just wants her life back as a normal teenager, including school.

Jake doesn’t want his daughter to apologize any more.

“I keep trying to convince her that you can replace a car. You can’t replace a daughter.”

Finally on Sept. 30, Erin defies all odds and

See more photos and the complete story in our print edition. Receive the entire issue of the Gothenburg Times on-line in PDF format each Wednesday for only $25 per year. Call 308-537-3636 to subscribe.