- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 8, 2005

ARKANSAS CITY, Kan. - If Tracy Gaskill could, she would spend her day eating — strawberry-swirled ice cream and juicy watermelons and vanilla milkshakes from Sonic.

But most of all, she would eat pizza. “Supreme,” she says — her one-word response recalling a popular Pizza Hut offering topped with pepperoni, beef, pork, green peppers, onions and mushrooms.

Her words delight her grandparents, Don and Stella Gaskill. Since a 2002 traffic accident damaged their granddaughter’s brain, Miss Gaskill has been silent, nourished through a feeding tube in her stomach. For about 2 years, her daily diet through that tube has consisted of five cans of a liquid, high-calorie mixture called Jevity.

But during the past few months, Miss Gaskill, now 30, gradually began using her long-dormant throat muscles again. She laughed. She hummed. She sipped water.

Now she can talk — mostly in one-word answers that began a month ago and brought tears to her grandparents’ eyes.

And she can eat.

Before the accident, Miss Gaskill was a student at Cowley County Community College who dreamed of becoming an art teacher. She also worked as an aide caring for disabled children at Creative Community Living, the company that took over their housing and care after the state hospital closed in Arkansas City.

All that seems like a lifetime ago — before the evening of Sept. 3, 2002, when Miss Gaskill rolled her pickup truck while driving between Arkansas City and Winfield. The cause of the accident is unknown.

She was taken by helicopter to a Wichita hospital, where her grandparents were told that she was critically wounded and likely would not survive past noon the following day.

Today, a poster from the children for whom Miss Gaskill once cared hangs on the wall beside her hospital bed at Medicalodge North. On it are pasted photos of her former young charges with a hand-scrawled message: “Hi Tracy. Thinking about you. We miss you. Everyone wishes you the best.”

That same poster has followed Miss Gaskill from the surgical intensive-care unit where she spent a month to the select specialty hospital room where the semi-comatose patient’s ventilator was removed. It remains on display at the long-term care facility where she now lives.

Unlike Terri Schiavo, who doctors testified was in a persistent vegetative state, Miss Gaskill eventually showed signs that she recognized people and was aware to a limited extent of her surroundings. But she couldn’t speak.

Her doctor, David Schmeidler, has made no significant changes to her medication. He credits her ability to communicate again to her constant care and to occupational and speech therapy. But, most of all, her doctor credits prayer.

Although Dr. Schmeidler doubts that Miss Gaskill will ever fully recover, he thinks that with intensive therapy she will continue to improve.

“The brain is an amazing thing,” Dr. Schmeidler says.

In February, the Gaskills found renewed hope as they followed press reports of another Kansas woman who began talking 20 years after a brain injury. They prayed for a similar miracle for Miss Gaskill.

Like the Gaskills’ granddaughter, Sarah Scantlin had been mostly oblivious to the world around her. Miss Scantlin was an 18-year-old college freshman on Sept. 22, 1984, when she was hit by a drunken driver as she walked to her car after celebrating with friends at a club.

Miss Scantlin had started talking in mid-January, though she asked staff members not to tell her parents until Valentine’s Day to surprise them. But by early February, Miss Scantlin could not wait any longer and made the phone call that thrilled her parents, sparked intense press coverage and brought hope to families of other brain-injured patients.

For almost three years, the Gaskills have visited their granddaughter every day. Mr. Gaskill comes every morning, his wife every evening. Miss Gaskill’s mother died the year before the traffic accident; her father has his own serious health problems and doesn’t live nearby.

About a month ago, Don Gaskill had just returned home when he got his own long-awaited phone call. It was Tracy.

“She said, ‘Grandpa.’ That did it,” Mr. Gaskill says.

He learned later that his granddaughter also had told him on the phone that she loved him. He didn’t hear that part; he was crying too hard.

Mrs. Gaskill cried, too, as she phoned family and friends to tell them the news. She says she hasn’t quit crying.

“We have more expectations, more hope than before,” Mr. Gaskill says. “Only God knows what will happen from here. We always had hope that this day would come.”

Soon, the feeding tube to Miss Gaskill’s stomach will be removed. The injectable tube that staff also used just recently to feed her pureed food by mouth also sits unused in her hospital room’s sink.

Now each passing day brings more improvement in Miss Gaskill’s condition — more words, perhaps even a new food to rediscover.

In recent weeks, she had her first cookie in three years — oatmeal raisin. She had a taste of fresh watermelon. An aide stopped in briefly to bring her a promised vanilla milkshake from Sonic.

The staff even muses that Miss Gaskill might be able to handle pizza now.

Her family hopes that, like Miss Scantlin’s recovery, Miss Gaskill’s story will hearten the families of other brain-injured patients.

“A happy ending,” her grandmother says.

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