For 14 long days and nights, Ashley Reisser lay in a medically-induced coma at the University of Tennessee Medical Center.
An automobile accident on an iced-over Pellissippi Parkway in late January had left the former Maryville High School senior with a fractured skull, broken ribs and severe burns. The scar on her hip, the result of being dragged beneath the car that struck her, would take months to heal. Her hands as she lay there had swollen to nearly the size of the mitt she used to play centerfield for the Maryville softball team.
Marilyn Reisser, Ashley’s mom, worried over all those things as her daughter slept. On Valentine’s Day, Ashley opened her eyes for the first time since the accident. The Reisser family, which includes Dr. John Reisser, Ashley’s father, and five siblings, was understandably overjoyed. There was just one thing.
Ashley’s first words were in Spanish. Fluent Spanish.
“Ven aca,” or “over here,” she said.
Wide-eyed shock swept round the room.
“They were afraid I would come back speaking Spanish,” Reisser said.
While she’d taken Spanish at Maryville, she’d never been anything close to fluent, Reisser said. The head injuries suffered in the accident had rearranged some things, at least temporarily. English as Reisser’s primary language would return the next day, all part of a long journey back with no shortage of unusual twists and turns.
Reisser and Maryville classmates Ashley Sams, Allie Porter-Garrett, Rachel Moore and Chandler Miller were returning from Knoxville when Reisser’s car hit an ice patch on Pellissippi’s Lt. Alexander “Sandy” Bonnyman Memorial Bridge and spun out, colliding with a vehicle driven by Maryville resident Dave Shelton.
When Reisser and Shelton exited their vehicles to exchange information, a following car lost control and struck Reisser, pinning the Lady Rebel centerfielder beneath the vehicle and dragging her for several feet before coming to rest against an outside, concrete retaining wall.
Reisser was on the phone with her mom, informing her she’d been in an accident, at the moment of impact.
Shelton was struck by a second following vehicle while preventing the driver of the car which had struck Reisser from moving any further. Marilyn Reisser credits Shelton’s selfless act for saving her daughter’s life.
The passengers in Reisser’s car didn’t emerge unscathed. Miller suffered severe cuts to one of her legs, requiring follow-up medical treatment weeks later. Sams badly injured a knee in the accident and spent much of her final weeks as a senior at Maryville on crutches. While largely uninjured physically, Moore and Porter-Garrett, like Sams and Miller, were forced to deal with the trauma of watching a classmate lie near death on an icy highway.
Moore, Reisser said she later found out, feared even worse.
“She looked over (the bridge) to see if she could see me floating in the water,” Reisser said.
The outpouring of concern for Reisser quickly grew to levels no one could have imagined. Students at the school organized a prayer vigil prior to classes the day after the accident. Maryville High teammates, classmates and coaches descended upon the medical center in droves.
“My mom told me hundreds of people came to the hospital,” Reisser said. “I don’t even know 100 people.”
A Facebook page launched so those concerned could track Reisser’s progress had more than 9,500 members signed on at last count.
“The whole first week, I kept saying, ‘She must have angels all around her,’” Marilyn Reisser said.
When doctors brought her out of the coma, Reisser said the first thing she noticed was her hair. It wasn’t there anymore.
“I thought somebody from Maryville High School had shaved my head when I was asleep in class,” Reisser said. “The first thing I said was, ‘My mother is going to kill me.’”
There was little said those first few days after Reisser regained consciousness. The extent of her injuries was still being determined. Soon, Marilyn Reisser said, it came time to inform Ashley why she was in the hospital.
“I said, ‘Ashley, do you know why you’re here?” Marilyn asked.
Because of the force of the impact, Ashley had no recollection of the accident. She remembers much of the trip home. She remembers exchanging information with Shelton. The rest, like suddenly being able to speak fluent Spanish, was Reisser’s mind in overdrive, working to protect her.
“I thought I was skiing,” she said. “I heard this guy say, ‘Hey, turn around!’ - and thump!”
“Because of the ice and snow, she probably turned it into a ski accident,” Marilyn Reisser said.
Former Maryville student Jonathan Weigand brought in a newspaper clipping about the accident for his girlfriend to see as proof. Reisser was hearing none of it.
“I said, ‘I don’t believe it,’” she said. “I just crumpled it up.”
That, Marilyn Reisser said, is when doctors informed the family Ashley was on the road back.
A common occurrence among patients who suffer severe head injuries is an all but uncontrollable anger, Marilyn Reisser said they were informed. Unfailingly polite prior to the accident, Ashley could now swear with the best of them.
“We were thinking she’s got a future in the merchant marines,” Marilyn Reisser said.
Gradually, Ashley’s cognitive skills began to return. She’d been an A-student at Maryville, after all. It’s the way those skills returned that took some getting used to, Marilyn Reisser said.
Reisser said doctors first asked her: “‘What’s your name?’”
“‘What is your full name?’”
“‘What’s your middle name?’”
“‘Uh … ’”
It took a few days for the names of family members to return, even Marilyn’s. Schoolwork, though, was entirely different story.
After UT, Reisser was moved to St. Mary’s for further treatment. She would spend a total of 52 days between the two hospitals all told. Once at St. Mary’s, Weigand began bringing Reisser’s homework along so she wouldn’t fall too far behind. By the time she was discharged for outpatient therapy at Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center, Reisser could whiz through complex math assignments like it was nothing.
Complex word problems, where doctors would read sentences and paragraphs to Reisser and she would repeat them - backwards?
Nothing to it.
“She could do the tough mental things at first but not the easy things,” Marilyn said. “All the information was still there. She just had to reconnect it.”
Reisser returned to school before the end of the semester, ensuring she would graduate with her class.
“A lot of people were nervous around me because they didn’t know if I’d be different,” she said.
The thing Reisser wanted most, though, was not to be.
The Lady Rebels had reached the state softball tournament her junior year, finishing third. Reisser said she wanted desperately to return to the team this spring.
While doctors released Reisser to return to school, returning to softball so soon was ruled too dangerous. Maryville coach Ken Hawkins, who stepped down last week, arranged with the state athletics association for Reisser to take an official, soft-toss at bat on senior day for the team, but she declined.
The concern shown her was heartfelt, Reisser said, but she couldn’t bear being “the hurt girl” with something she loved so much. If doctors felt facing live pitching too risky at this point, she would simply walk away from softball with no regrets.
“I do love sports, and really softball is the only thing I was ever good at,” she said.
That Reisser didn’t want a staged at bat says a lot about her, Lady Rebel coach David Allen said. Upon returning to school, Reisser’s first thoughts were for a Maryville student currently undergoing chemotherapy for cancer.
The sight of Reisser returning to the school was “an amazing thing to see,” Allen said. “It’s like I told Ashley, ‘God’s going to use this for something bigger.”
The road back for Reisser is continuing at the University of Tennessee, where she’s enrolled in summer classes. The events of this winter will always be there, but she’s moving forward, Reisser said. Her wit has returned along with much of her memory.
The thing she now regrets most about the accident?
Losing her cellular phone on the bridge that day.
“I really liked that phone,” she said.