When Jillian Groh checked in to the downtown Westin Hotel one cold night almost seven years ago, everything felt certain. Then things changed forever.
At the very moment the police officer informed Bill his daughter had been in an accident, doctors were operating on Jill almost 850 miles away in an Aurora emergency room. The Grohs felt numb. Their son, George, put them on the next plane to Denver, and within a few hours of hearing the news, Bill and Janelle walked into the Aurora Medical Center. What faced them was the kind of scene parents’ nightmares are made of: Jill was in a hospital bed, bandaged from head to toe, her eyes shut. As bad as it looked, the Grohs couldn’t see the worst of it. Doctors had removed part of Jill’s skull due to the swelling in her brain. She was battling for her life.
The accident happened at 3:59 a.m. In the fraction of time before impact, according to a police report, Angela Reed had swerved into the slow-moving Expedition instead of away from it. The PT Cruiser’s low front end smashed underneath the SUV’s rear bumper, which increased the severity of the crash. One of the backseat passengers, Michael Martin, was thrown into the back of the driver’s seat; his body left an indentation that was still visible days later. The site of the accident was a mess of blood and shattered metal. When emergency crews arrived, they had to remove the Cruiser’s passenger side door.
No one died at the scene, but all seven passengers in the Cruiser and Chon, the driver of the SUV, were transported to the hospital. Jill and Michael were the only two who wouldn’t eventually walk away. (The Martins were told Michael’s skull collided with Jill’s during the wreck.) Michael’s parents were on a business trip in Ohio when they got the news. Hours later, Michael’s mother found her way to Denver. Her son was on life support. After 10 days, though, doctors told the Martin family there was no hope. The family switched off the machines.
Blood samples were taken from everyone to determine their alcohol levels at the time of the crash. The subsequent toxicology reports estimated that Angela’s BAC was 0.22—nearly three times the legal limit. Angela eventually pleaded guilty to driving under the influence, criminally negligent homicide, vehicular assault, and two counts of careless driving resulting in death or injury. The Grohs decided to testify on Angela’s behalf at her sentencing hearing, which occurred about a year after the accident; they thought Jill wouldn’t want Angela to do any jail time. In part because of the Grohs’ recommendation, the judge sentenced Angela to years of probation and hundreds of hours of community service.
The Grohs slept in the hospital lobby those first few days. They had a room at a nearby Sheraton but didn’t want to leave Jill. Despite Jill’s life-threatening injuries, the Grohs couldn’t help but think their daughter would pull through. “I just expected that they’d operate on Jill and in a couple of weeks we’d be going home,” Janelle says.
There were countless surgeries. After Jill’s first craniotomy, fluid continued to pool in her brain and doctors had to operate again. Doctors placed Jill in a medically induced coma. One of Jill’s lungs collapsed; a tube helped her breathe. She could no longer swallow, so doctors put a feeding tube in her stomach.
Whenever the Grohs asked about their daughter’s condition, the answer was the same: She’s in the ICU. We can’t answer that now. We should know more in two to three days. If the doctors said more, Bill and Janelle didn’t—or maybe couldn’t—hear it. To help keep track of it all, Janelle would ask family and friends to take notes whenever a doctor was in the room. Janelle focused her energy elsewhere: She shaved Jill’s legs, clipped her toenails, massaged her muscles, and stretched her limbs.
When doctors finally took the bandages off of Jill’s head, her scalp was an unrecognizable mess of bloody patches and knots of hair. They asked Janelle if they could shave Jill’s head. Janelle wondered why they hadn’t already. About a month after the accident, doctors decided it was safe to let Jill out of the coma. Janelle remembers a nurse shining a small flashlight into her daughter’s open eyes. Nothing.
The Grohs counted each of the 84 days Jill spent in the ICU. One day toward the end of their three months in Aurora, Bill walked across the street from the hospital to get lunch. It was raining. By the time he got back, the bread was soaked, the sandwich ruined. Bill thought to himself things couldn’t get worse.
Finally, doctors considered Jill stable enough to be transported to a facility near the Grohs’ home in Arizona. The day they were set to leave, one of Jill’s physicians pulled Bill and Janelle aside. For the first time, he explained the phrase “traumatic brain injury.” He told them Jill would never be able to care for herself again.