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Crash Victim’s Family Sees Signs of Hope
Evergreen teen making progress after December car accident put her in a coma
Emily Berner is recovering after a car accident left her with severe brain trauma. A fund has set up at First Interstate Bank to help support the family. - Photo courtesy of Tom Berner
Life for the Berner family revolves around little details now. An open eye brings hope, and when 18-year-old Emily Berner appears to be able to differentiate between an apple and an orange, it feels like a miracle.

Emily, who will be 19 in April, has been in a coma since a Dec. 17 car accident south of Kalispell caused severe brain trauma, a broken pelvis, a shattered hip and a damaged liver and spleen.

After the crash, she was airlifted to Seattle and received extensive treatment at Harborview Medical Center. Emily was transferred to the Tacoma Lutheran assisted living facility on Jan. 10 to begin her rehabilitation.

Her parents, Tom and Inez Berner, spend as much time as they can with her in Tacoma, but Tom’s job driving trucks in the oil fields in Williston, N.D. dictates when he can visit Washington to see her.

Inez is there full time, watching for signs of improvement. The accident, during which Emily was sitting in the passenger seat, caused a diffuse axonal injury, also known as brain shearing.

This means the brain suffers traumatic impact and damage after shifting in the skull. Emily was in a severe-stage coma after the crash, but has improved to a mild stage. She is now able to communicate with her parents via a series of hand signals.

“She’s strong willed and coming together stronger and stronger each day,” Tom Berner said.

Born in Puyallup, Wash. in 1993, Emily grew up in Evergreen after her family moved to the area when she was just one month old. Her parents home-schooled her and her brother, Austin, and Emily graduated when she was 16 with a 3.5 GPA.

Emily could be stubborn when it came to schoolwork, her brother said. But that attribute will likely help her recovery, he added.

“She has a really resilient personality,” Austin said. “She has a lot more fight in her than I do.”

Some of her favorite hobbies before the accident included drawing with charcoal, music, weight lifting, boxing and horseback riding. Emily was also a sculptor, casting four bronze pieces by the time she was 15.

“She is an amazing artist,” Austin said.

At 18, Emily was beginning to decide where she wanted to go in life, Tom said, and did not want to begin college until she had chosen a path. She was also recently engaged to her boyfriend.

Now, the girl who once worked out for three hours at a time and made coffee drinks at Spill the Beans Espresso in Kalispell is relearning how to coordinate her lip and tongue movements to get ice cream off the tip of a spoon, then control the muscles that allow her to swallow.

“All those different things you don’t really think about, she’s getting all that back,” Tom said. “The biggest thing now is she’s healing and getting stronger, but it’s the brain – getting those motor skills redeveloped. They’re coming along slowly but they’re coming along.”

One of Emily’s most recent developments came after Tom and Inez decided to test her recognition skills. They communicate through Emily’s hand: open means yes, and closed means no.

Through a series of questions, Tom said Emily was able to differentiate between various colors of teddy bears, tell the difference between an apple and an orange and remembered her birthday.

She recognizes her parents, Tom said, and her open eye looked like it was tracking words on his cell phone screen.

Kathy Kusler said she has known the Berners for about 16 years. She taught Emily’s youth classes at their church from first through fifth grades, and described Emily as a strong girl, emotionally and physically.

As a speech pathologist by trade, Kusler said she has worked with clients with various types of head injuries and knows Emily faces a tough battle ahead. Kusler and other friends of the Berners are trying to organize a benefit to help the family with the costs not covered by insurance.

“They’re going to need some support and some help,” Kusler said.

Currently, there is a fund set up for Emily at First Interstate Bank and a website where donations can be made through PayPal.

She is getting stronger in her right leg and arm, Tom said, though her left side continues to be the most affected by the brain injury. Her therapists are working on strengthening her body’s core as well.

Tom said they aren’t sure if she will be able to speak, but she has been making humming noises and other noises when she yawns. Emily has also cried in the last couple of weeks, he said.

But there have also been small smiles curving on Emily’s lips, and Tom and Inez treasure each one.

“She’s just a real sweetheart, she really is,” Tom said. “I think that’s how people remember her, with a big smile.”

Donations to the Berner family can be made at First Interstate Bank, P.O. Box 5388, Kalispell, 59903, and at www.emilysfund.com.

For updates on Emily Berner, visit her CaringBridge site at www.caringbridge.org/visit/emilyberner.
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