Overcoming the Odds: Long road to recovery

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Woman lost friend, memory in accident in 1994

By Stephen Lega

Editor's note: This is the second story in a series of stories about local citizens who have overcome the odds and went on to thrive and do great things with their lives.

March 5, 1994, started like any night for Angela Adkins and her best friend Kristi Stumph. They had been out cruising around, and they'd picked up two other teenagers, Richard Kemp and Angela Mattingly, in Raywick and were giving them a ride back to Lebanon.

"I guess we were just out doing what average teenagers do," Adkins said. "I really do not remember that night."

That changed when Carl Burton, then 33, of Springfield, a drunk driver, crossed the centerline on KY 84 and slammed into Stumph's car. Stumph died as a result of the collision. Kemp, Mattingly and Burton were treated for injuries at Spring View Hospital. Burton would later serve eight years of a 15-year sentence for manslaughter.

Adkins, then 18, was flown to University Hospital in Louisville. Because of the collision, her face left a 6.75-inch impression in the hard back of Stumph's seat. Adkins suffered two brain bleeds. The orbital bone around her left eye was shattered. Her jaw was dislocated and she broke her chin. Her left arm was broken in three places. She broke her collarbone, and her stomach was out of line.

At approximately 3 a.m., a Kentucky State Trooper knocked on her parents' door and told her father, Larry Adkins, what had happened. Larry woke up her mother, Hope Mattingly, and they raced to Louisville.

"I felt like I was in another world, like it wasn't real," Hope said. "Inside of my heart, I felt like she wasn't going to be alive when I got there."

"I'm hard-headed," Adkins replied.

At the hospital, the doctors told Larry and Hope that they did not expect their daughter to survive until 8 that morning. Upon entering her daughter's room, Hope wasn't sure it was Adkins because her face was swollen beyond recognition and wrapped in gauze. Slowly, Hope worked her way up to the head of her daughter's bed.

"I was so terrified because of all the tubes and the respirator," Hope said.

It wasn't until she got a closer look at Adkins's hair that she knew she was looking at her daughter. 

"I started crying because I knew that was her," Hope said. "I knew that was her hair."

Adkins was in a coma for nine days. During that time, Hope read aloud from cards and letters while holding Adkins's hand and asking for her to give her a sign if she could hear. On the 10th day, something happened.

"Her thumb went like that," Hope said, demonstrating a movement of less than an inch. "I ran out to the desk and said, 'She moved her thumb when I told her to.'"

Shortly thereafter, Adkins suffered a bout of meningitis, but after a few days of treatment, she slowly started to recover.

"[The wreck] took almost all of her memory back-well, most of her life," Hope said. "All of her high school was gone, and most of her grade school, too. She didn't realize that she'd been to a prom, that she graduated."

"Still don't remember," Adkins said.

Adkins remained in the ICU at U of L for one month and then spent nine months at the Frazier Rehab Institute in Louisville.

During her initial recovery, the doctors had advised Adkins's parents to not tell her that her best friend had died. Because of her brain injury, they weren't sure she would be able to handle the news at first.

According to Hope, they had more basic concerns at that time.

"I had to teach her how to use the bathroom again. I had to teach her how to eat again," Hope said. "She had to be taught everything like a baby would be taught again."

And yet, Adkins also showed flashes of recognition. About eight weeks after the accident, Hope said she and Adkins were waiting to get on the elevator to go to a rehabilitation session.

"I said, 'Angie, what's wrong?' And she said, 'Somebody die in that wreck?'" Hope said.

When she asked Adkins why she asked that, Adkins replied that she could feel it. That's when Hope told her daughter that Stumph had been killed.

"Then she looked at me and kind of gasped, and her expression went back to the child-like expression, like she didn't even know it," Hope said.

During her stint in rehab, Adkins's family was encouraged to play card games with her. The games required her to focus and think, which helped her mental recovery.

At Frazier, Adkins also said she had her first "day of reckoning" during what she described as an out-of-body experience. She recalled sitting in front of a mirror and then feeling like she was looking down on herself. She envisioned herself visiting other patients and thinking they weren't going to make it. Then she realized that's what the other patients probably were thinking about her, too.

"From that day on, I started working my bejesus off to get better and smarter every day," Adkins said.

Her second day of reckoning occurred when she took a test before entering the Carl D. Perkins Comprehensive Rehabilitation Center. Like any 18-year-old, she thought she was perfect, she said. When she turned in the test after an hour and 45 minutes, the test administrator asked if she wanted the results. She got an 8.6, which meant she was testing at an eighth-grade, sixth-month level.

"It was not right that a drunk driver got to take my intelligence from me," Adkins said. "That's not right and that's not fair. I was getting it back."

At the Perkins Center, Adkins said she worked her "hind end off" in her classes. When she retook the test at the end of the program, it only took her 40 minutes, and she received a 12.9. In four months she'd improved from the intellect of an average eighth grader to the equivalent of a college freshman. She received an award from the Brain Injury Association for her accomplishment.

But something still didn't seem right.

Adkins knew she had been told that Stumph had died. She'd even seen pictures from the funeral home with Stumph wearing the same pink dress with white lace that Adkins had picked for Stumph to wear in the Junior Miss program.

But Adkins was in a coma when her best friend's funeral took place, so it still didn't seem real.

"It's odd when your friend is gone and all you see is a picture," she said.

Hope said she took her daughter to Stumph's grave and that's when it hit home. Adkins asked her mother to wait in the car, and she took some time to talk to her best friend.

"She said, 'Kristi's an angel, I know that. She's watching over me,'" Hope said.

Adkins has made tremendous progress. She's living in her own place (although her mother still worries about her), but Adkins said her boyfriend, Jamie Johnson, is a great help.

She also works part-time helping to clean houses and sitting with individuals who need assistance.

"They always try to tell me I don't know what it's like to be taken care of, and I'm quick to tell them, yes, I do," Adkins said.

She's quick to laugh, and according to Hope, Adkins became more happy-go-lucky after the accident, something Adkins and Hope both attribute to the brain surgeries that left her with a scar from ear-to-ear across the top of her head.

Adkins continues to cope with the physical effects of the wreck that occurred more than 18 years ago, however. In a span of two years, she had four automobile accidents. According to Adkins, she would occasionally lose vision in her left eye.

Her doctors had told her she would likely need surgery on her left eye again some day, and that day came last year. Unfortunately, she got an infection a few weeks after that surgery and had to return to Louisville again. She remembered the nurses giving her painkillers through her I.V. every 15 to 20 minutes, and every time they made her vomit. More surgery was needed to treat the infection.

Hope said doctors have told them that Adkins may need further surgeries on her eye in the future, but Adkins said she'll just wear a patch instead.

"We ain't doing that again," Adkins said.

She may not remember the night of the accident, but Adkins can't forget how it affected her life and others. She's become an advocate for seat belt use (the police reported that no one involved in the wreck was wearing a seat belt that night). She's even gone to Frankfort to testify in support of seat belt legislation.

And she continues to share her story, including speaking to high school students about the accident. One thing is clear - she has no tolerance for drinking and driving.

"They have no idea what they are doing to everybody they pass," Adkins said. "It's not right. God didn't give them that authority to do that."