- Associated Press - Saturday, January 9, 2016

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (AP) - They rode away in the fog, wearing flannel Christmas pajamas.

R.J. Varner had to let his godparents’ dogs out. His sister Vicki’s boyfriend, Tyler Thomas, had to get home so he could wake up for Christmas morning with his family.

The Varners’ Christmas Eve tradition had been fulfilled. Everyone had opened one gift, the Christmas pajamas.

So Cheryl Varner, Vicki’s and R.J.’s mom, suggested the three ride together because she knew R.J. was tired from a full day’s work at a Caroline County Verizon store.

The blue Ford Focus disappeared into the fog with Vicki in the back seat, wearing her flannel two-piece flamingo pajamas.

Cheryl was placing cookies and milk out for Santa Claus when she saw lights from a car pull into the drive just before midnight.

It’s too early for them to be home, she thought. Through the bay window, she saw an Orange County Sheriff’s Office emblem on the side of the car.

There had been an accident, the deputy told her. Her daughter was alive, but was complaining of pain in her abdomen. She couldn’t feel her legs.

The fog had obscured R.J. Varner’s vision that night as he drove north on the 10000 block of Tower Road toward State Route 20, his mom said. And he wasn’t yet used to that two-land road, his mother said, because she had moved to the Unionville area of the county in July.

He missed the curve, and the Ford Focus struck a tree on the right side of the road.

Thomas, Vicki Varner’s boyfriend for the past two and a half years, walked away with 11 stitches for lacerations on his chin, lip and nose. R.J. Varner didn’t have to go to the hospital, and wasn’t charged or given a traffic ticket.

R.J. was talking to a cluster of officers and deputies when his mom arrived at the crash scene. He dissolved into tears when he saw her and collapsed in her arms, terrified of what the accident had done to his little sister and her boyfriend, who had left in ambulances.

His fears were realized when doctors determined that Vicki was paralyzed from the waist down.

Pins are holding up part of her spinal cord. She has undergone at least three surgeries, and more are on the horizon.

The seatbelt saved her life, but part of it impacted her abdomen, “pushing everything” against her spine, her mother said.

Vicki Varner was home for the holidays after her first semester at Missouri Valley College, where she pitched for the college softball team on an athletic scholarship and earned a 4.0 grade point average, according to her mom.

Now the college softball player will never walk again on her own, a team of neurologists told the family. The Varners hope that medical advances will open up opportunities for her one day.

“I just really want to see myself get better. I may not be able to walk again. But I’m happy that my brother and boyfriend are alive,” Vicki said Sunday in a telephone interview from her hospital bed at VCU Medical Center. “If anything bad were to happen in the accident, I would want it to happen to me.”

The family didn’t learn of the severity of her injuries until she had been transported to the Richmond hospital.

“When I heard the news, I did a lot of crying. Her father told me to be strong,” Cheryl Varner said. “But at the same time, she’s alive. Everything else we’ll take day by day. She has her brain, her personality, her character, her determination.”

Only months before, Cheryl Varner had made a 30-hour trek to Missouri to drop her daughter off at college.

The possibilities seemed endless for her 18-year-old.

The graduate of Spotsylvania County’s Courtland High School played on travel softball teams throughout high school. She taught 9-year-old girls how to pitch, visited special education students and volunteered at the Special Olympics.

In her first semester at college, she switched her major from communication to psychology to pursue becoming a clinical psychologist.

These days, the goals are smaller.

New Year’s Day marked the first day she was able to be in a chair instead of her hospital bed. On Saturday, she was thrilled to drink her first Gatorade since the accident. She soon will be moved from the intensive care unit to her own private room.

“I cried when my dad told me. And then I cried again when my doctor told me. So I cried two times, and then I said, ‘OK, you are just going to have to get over it.’ I’m alive,” Vicki said.

She’s already started talking about online classes, and she can’t wait for physical therapy and the day when she can do things by herself again.

“If anyone can get through this, it’s Vicki,” said Olivia Paz, a college softball teammate who started a GoFundMe page in Vicki’s name.

Paz went numb when she saw the text informing her of Vicki’s accident. She had lost another friend in a car accident only months before.

She wanted to get to Vicki as soon as possible, but her friend still can’t have outside visitors.

So Paz set up the GoFundMe page to raise money for medical expenses for the friend she once was with “24/7,” she said.

Within five days, the page had raised more than $7,000. Vicki Varner’s college roommate also set up a Facebook page called “Prayers for Vicki Varner.”

“I knew there is no way she is going to back down from this,” Paz said.

For now, most of the Christmas presents at the Varner home remain unopened. Only Vicki Varner’s 6-year-old brother tore into his gifts on Christmas day.

“We plan on having Christmas when Vicki finally gets home,” Cheryl Varner said.


Information from: The Free Lance-Star, https://www.fredericksburg.com/

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