- Associated Press - Sunday, January 15, 2017

DICKINSON, N.D. (AP) - Shayna Monson showered alone this fall for the first time since her car accident more than a year ago. She was nervous, her mom recalled. So Connie Monson waited by the stall just in case.

The 22-year-old washed herself and rinsed. Then she turned to her mom, pumped her fists and mouthed a silent scream of joy.

“We’re at home,” Connie told her. “You can holler.”

She did.

Excitement built with each new accomplishment. Shayna clipped her own fingernails. She walked barefoot without braces across the carpet.

“It was so awesome,” Shayna remembered at her Dickinson home on Wednesday afternoon. “I feel so normal again.”

Shayna is the sole surviving victim of a June 2015 drunken driving crash in Mandan, in which Jordan Morsette, 30, slammed his vehicle head-on into Shayna’s car at the McKenzie Drive exit of the Bismarck Expressway, The Bismarck Tribune (https://bit.ly/2iZUUWk ) reported. The impact killed her two passengers, Abby Renschler, 22, and Taylor Goven, 21.

Goven was her college roommate. Shayna had met Renschler just that night.

Morsette, a two-time drunken driver, pleaded guilty to two counts of criminal vehicular homicide and one count of criminal vehicular injury in May 2016. He was sentenced to serve 25 years the North Dakota State Penitentiary. He’ll first see a parole board in 2027, according to the parole clerk.

Meanwhile, Shayna faced a long road to recovery, undergoing a series of surgeries and rehabilitation courses. She spent four months at hospitals in Denver and another five months in a rehabilitation center in Omaha, returning home to Dickinson in April.

The force of the accident threw Shayna’s car engine across the road, a witness told the Tribune last spring, and did something similar to her brain. As one doctor told her mom, she was like a newborn in an adult body.

Connie said Shayna’s brain probably slammed forward, like shaken baby syndrome. It tore the tissue between her brain and skull, causing bleeding and swelling. Surgeons had to remove the front of her cranium, and now she has a titanium replacement. The brain injury also caused her right hand and both feet to clench. So, doctors snipped tendons and wrapped her limbs in casts to straighten them.

When Shayna became aware for the first time three months after the accident, she was confused about why she was in a Denver hospital room wrapped in casts.

“I did not know where I was. And I was thinking, what happened here?” Shayna said. “And then it was hard for me to find out, because some people, they told me, and I said, what? So it was hard.”

Shayna still doesn’t remember the crash - which may be for the best. But she and her mom talk about it, and she testified at Morsette’s sentencing this spring.

“There’s times that she says to me, ‘Mom, if I wouldn’t have gone to see Taylor that night, this wouldn’t have happened,’” Connie said. “But I say, ‘But it happened. We can’t go back and change it. This is the situation we’re in. So we’ll make the best of it and go forward.’”

At the time of the accident, Shayna was only 14 credits away from graduating with a degree in biology and chemistry from the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. She was planning to go to medical school.

Now, Shayna’s days go more like this: Wake up, have breakfast, go to therapy, practice reading or moving in the afternoon. She has iPad apps that exercise her brain and her therapists ask her to write summaries of the novel she’s reading.

Shayna said she still feels like who she was before, albeit with less capacity. She had lost some of her memory as a result of the accident, but this fall, she started recalling things from her childhood.

“I feel like I’m almost the same person, but I’m a little different, because I can’t do everything I could have before,” Shayna said. “I’m not mean and I’m not mad. I’m just friendly and shyish.”

Luckily, friends have stayed close. On Wednesday afternoon, Liz Brown, a classmate from high school and college, dropped by to take her to coffee. Brown said Shayna remains the same person inside, and they like to talk about what they did together as teens.

“Figuring out how to interact with Shayna again was kind of hard for me,” Brown said. “I guess I wasn’t sure what (she was) going to be like after the accident.”

Shayna still has many physical challenges. She often looks up instead of at you. She can’t balance well on her feet, so it’s hard to walk more than 15 minutes. And she can’t be home alone. If she fell, it’s possible she couldn’t get up and call for help. So, her mom, dad and sister take turns staying with her.

Her voice is slow, slurred and often hard to understand. She recently came off a brain stimulant medication, which she may need to go back on, as Connie thinks her speech has grown worse.

It’s unclear how much more progress Shayna will make. Will she be able to live on her own? Volunteer at a coffee shop? Finish college? That’s all still unknown. Brain injury patients typically make their biggest recovery in the first year after an accident, Connie said. In Shayna’s case, the doctors contend she may see more improvement because her severely injured brain was simply healing in the first year.

For now, Shayna says it’s “awesome” to be back in Dickinson. And her mom tries to remain positive.

In May, Connie traveled to Grand Forks to watch Shayna’s pre-med classmates graduate, a memory which brought her to tears.

“Knowing that Shayna should have been there with them and she wasn’t. They’re moving on, they’re getting jobs, they’re doing so much with their lives, and Shayna can’t at this point. So that’s been really hard, Connie said. “But then I look at the fact that Taylor and Abby are gone. What their parents are feeling has got to be so much more horrible than what I’m feeling, because I do have hope for Shayna. We do know that she has a future.”

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Information from: Bismarck Tribune, https://www.bismarcktribune.com

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