Life can change in a moment.
On Nov. 11, 2005, Neches High School students Ashley Coon, her boyfriend Dylan Cagle and their two friends Dennis Hunt and Jacob Kleshick were traveling to a party near Neches.
The last thing Coon remembers is her friend Kleshick answering the phone. The next time she opened her eyes — almost three weeks later — she was at Health South, a rehabilitation hospital in Tyler.
What Ashley doesn’t remember is that she and her friends were involved in a fatal one-vehicle rollover that claimed the life of Cagle at the scene, located at FM 2267 approximately 1 mile east of Texas 155 in Pert.
Hunt died one day later at Tyler’s East Texas Medical Center and Kleshick died three days later at Trinity Mother-Francis Hospital in Tyler from injuries they sustained in the crash.
The 1978 GMC Pickup operated by Cagle was traveling east on FM 2267 when it left the roadway to the right, went through a fence, rolled several times and landed on its top. All four occupants were ejected from the vehicle.
The memory of Brian Coon, Ashley’s father, is a little more vivid that his daughter’s — he recalls the details of that night as if they were yesterday.
“I had picked Ashley up from school to go to a basketball game, and she begged me to let her go to a party with her friends,” he said. “I didn’t really feel like arguing with her, so I let her go.”
When Brian got the call about the accident, he didn’t think it was that bad. But he began to worry when he continued to get phone calls — the next one stating that Dylan had died at the scene.
“I rushed back to Neches with my daughter Kelsie and found out what hospital she was at,” he said. “I called her mother to meet us there. I don’t know how I got there safely, but I did.”
Coon’s first goal at the hospital was to find out if Ashley’s spinal cord had been injured — he wanted to know if his daughter would walk again. Assured that her spinal cord was not injured, Brian, Ashley’s mother Shelly Mills, and her sister Kelsie went in to see her.
“The first time I saw her, I broke down,” he said. “It is hard to see your child like that.”
Ashley’s injuries included a broken left femur, broken right hip and shattered pelvis. Her bottom lip was ripped off and CAT scans found multiple bruises on the brain.
During her 17-day stay at Tyler’s East Texas Medical Center, doctor’s reconstructed Ashley’s pelvis and placed a rod in her left leg from her knee to her hip. She also developed pneumonia in one lung, a collapsed lung and had to be put on a ventilator for quite a while.
“She was in a medically induced coma up until the day before Thanksgiving (Nov. 23),” Brian said. After her time at ETMC, Ashley was moved to Health South in Tyler where she stayed for two months. It was during that time that Ashley woke up and had her traech removed.
“When they removed the traech, and I heard her say ‘Hi Daddy,’ I just lost it,” Brian said.
For rehabilitation, Ashley was sent to the Center of Neuro Skills in Irving where she stayed for four months, undergoing occupational therapy, speech therapy, physical therapy and counseling and education.
“It was like going from being a baby to an adult,” Ashley Coon said. “The hardest thing was learning how to walk again.”
Because both her parents worked, Ashley remained by herself on weekdays during her stint of physical therapy in Irving. During that time she learned independence and was put on a strict routine by therapists.
“Her mother or myself went to stay with her on the weekends,” Brian said. “During that time I really had to trust in the Lord and other people to help take care of Ashley.”
Ashley returned home Good Friday of 2006, returning to school to complete the year, go to prom and graduate with her classmates. Starting in a wheelchair, Ashley graduated to a walker and pole before being able to walk on her own.
“It was weird at first going back — no one could believe I was there,” Ashley said. “People thought I was still in the hospital. It was kind of weird.”
The strangest part, she said, was not seeing her friends lost in the accident, especially her boyfriend Dylan.
“I kept thinking that any minute I would turn around and they would be there,” she said. “But they never were.”
Brian Coon said that despite the desire of the boys’ families to visit Ashley in the hospital, her family made the choice not to tell their daughter about the fate of her friends until February.
“We wanted to make sure she was stable enough to handle it,” he said. “Despite everything those families had gone through, they were so supportive of us.
“We are so grateful for that.”
Ashley, now 19, seems like a normal young lady. She is attending college at Trinity Valley Community College, and hopes one day to become an elementary school teacher.
“She has been really good about taking care of the house and doing her homework,” Brian sad. “She makes pretty good grades and stays in regular contact with some friends she has in Utah.”
Still, though, she has to cope with lingering emotional and physical remnants of the accident.
“I am doing well, but I can tell I am not the same person I was,” she said. “Everyone once in a while I have bouts of short-term memory loss, but I feel like I am pretty much back to normal.”
“There is still some depression and anger she is working through,” her dad added. “But she is continuing counseling once a week to help with that.”
Brian Coon firmly believes that it was Ashley’s faith in God that helped her progress as much as she has in her recovery.
“The doctor’s told us it would take two full years for Ashley to recover,” Brian Coon said. “She is at 90 percent now — and she has never given up.
“She has got a long way to go, but has come a long way also.”
The generous support from the Palestine and Neches community, Brian said, helped the family cope with the accident and its aftermath.
“There is nothing as a parent you can really do in a situation like this,” Coon said. “You have to put it in God’s hands.
“I never in my life had to depend on God more that I did going through this,” he continued. “If not for God and the people of Neches and Palestine and everything they did, I don’t know how we could have made it through.”
On Nov. 11 of this year, Ashley and her family went to the wreck site with Dylan’s family for a memorial, and on Nov. 12 they visited the gravesite of Dennis Hunt.
“The families of those three boys that died have been so supportive of us,” Brian said. “They are always calling to check on Ashley. I can’t imagine doing that, if it were me.”
Other members of Ashley’s family include her stepfather Andy Mills, grandmother Virginia Coon, sisters Kelsie Coon, 14 and half-sister Amber Mills, 9.
Mary Rainwater may be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Life can change in a moment.