Tragedy Turns to Hope

“Kristina, wake up.”  The doctor leaned over the girl and grabbed her arm.  He shook her a little as he adamantly repeated his request: “Kristina — wake up!”

Kristina’s father, Stan Hoot, stood next to his daughter’s bed with a team of physicians and other medical personnel.  The doctor’s voice steadily increased in volume until he was yelling.  Inwardly, Stan cringed; he remembers wanting to “smack” him.  After all, that was his little girl who was being manhandled by a stranger.  She was barely 15-years-old — and she was in a coma.

All of a sudden Kristina’s right eye opened a little.  Her left eye, horribly swollen from a car accident seven days prior, remained a slit.  Against all odds and all medical prognostications, the Shorewood High School student was regaining consciousness.  Her father was amazed but “proud of his girl” for responding.  The doctor was shocked.  The highly qualified and dedicated team of physicians who had operated on and observed Kristina had all been of the same opinion: she would not recover, and if she did, she would never walk, talk or see again.

On December 11, 1999, Kristina Hoot had been critically injured after being hit by a car as she ran across a downtown Seattle street.  The time was recorded as 4:32 a.m.  She had been spending the night with a friend of a friend, a family not well-known by her parents.  Her right hand bore a stamp mark, a legacy of her illegal, underage entry into a waterfront nightclub that she had, at some point, exited and was ostensibly returning to later that evening.  Her companions, all alleged to have been underage and without ID, had also received entry into the club.

“She was the last one we ever thought would have done this,” shares Kristina’s mother, Tami, who has two other children, Monika, 17, and Traci, 11.  “She was the quiet, sensitive one, the one who was always concerned about other people and their feelings.”

Stan and Tami Hoot, and the rest of their large, extended family, believe that Kristina’s story is an important one, that by sharing the story of her accident and ongoing recovery other families may avoid tragedy.  They’re hoping that the outpouring of concern and support from the community will also translate into a renewed awareness that “good kids can make mistakes” and suffer terrible consequences.

“We received the phone call at 6:00 a.m.,” Tami recalls.  She recounts step-by-step the events leading to Kristina’s unexpected recovery from her coma.  “Someone from Harborview Hospital’s emergency room was telling me that a severely injured girl needed X-rays and had to be identified.  I argued with her.  ‘That’s not my daughter,’ I said.  The description over the phone just didn’t match Kristina’s age or name.”

Tami initially thought she had received a crank call, but the ER registration representative was so insistent that Tami suggested she check for a birthmark.  At the same time, a policeman rang on her call-waiting line to inform her of the accident.  The nurse returned to the phone: The girl’s hand was too badly scraped to confirm the mark.

Tami remembers driving 70 m.p.h on her way to the hospital and telephoning family members at the same time.  She arrived at Harborview about 6:45 a.m. and, to her dismay, found the hospital’s garage closed and no arrangements for emergency visitors.

When Tami finally found a place to park and entered the hospital, she was still unconvinced that her daughter was the patient.

A social worker asked Tami, “How was she wearing her hair?”

“In pigtails,” she responded.

“This girl is wearing pigtails.”

Tami wanted to cry, but remembers telling herself that she had to be strong.  A police officer entered the room and pulled Kristina’s keychain out of a pocket.

“I held it for a while,” relates Tami.  “Then I asked, ‘When can I go see my daughter?'”

When Tami finally was admitted to her daughter’s room, she was amazed that her face wasn’t disfigured.  Her head had been struck at least three times.  Other than a scratch on her nose and a badly swollen left eye, the only visible signs of injury were deeply scraped knuckles, a missing right shoe — and blood pouring from her ears.  Most of the injuries were internal, and closer examination would reveal a fractured pelvis and fractured right knee.

By 8 a.m., Tami’s husband had arrived at the hospital.  By 4 p.m., the waiting room outside the Intensive Care Unit, where Kristina had been moved, was packed with relatives.  Pastor Jim Ingram of the Edmonds Olympic Baptist Church was also there, providing what comfort he could to the family.

“I’ve known the Hoot family for years, and watched Kristina grow from a little girl into a leader,” shares Pastor Ingram.  “Something like this is devastating; it’s just not supposed to happen to one of your ‘kids.'”  He continues, “I was there that night when exploratory surgery was performed.  The damage was more severe than previously thought.  The front, left side of Kristina’s brain had already turned black and had to be removed.  Also the bones from the left side of her head were taken out and refrigerated.”

Although the surgery provided critical room for the brain to swell, it didn’t make for a pleasant prognosis.  When a doctor entered the surgical floor’s waiting room with the devastating news, Tami, overcome by grief, cut him off.  “I don’t want to hear this,” she pleaded, sinking to her knees, her twin sister flanking one side of her.  The doctor knelt by her other side.

“I wish I had better news,” he said, “but if it’s any consolation to you, Kristina’s not hurting.”

Tami, now hysterical, was led from the waiting room to the bathroom where two of her relatives tried to comfort her.  A high-energy, no-nonsense person and prior business owner, she remembers that there were “15 people in the room and I couldn’t look one of them in the eye.”  Pastor Ingram put his arms around her and told her it was okay to be angry, to “go with the pain.”  Meanwhile, his church contacted national and international affiliates which galvanized a prayer chain of one-half million people.

The full prognosis, which the doctor didn’t share with Tami, couldn’t have been worse.  Kristina’s condition was considered “hopeless.”  If, by some miracle, she regained consciousness, her eyesight, speech, motor functions, and even logic and emotion would be nonfunctional.  In essence, she would be what some unflatteringly refer to as a “vegetable.”

During the next few days Tami began to enter into what the pastor calls a “zone of peace,” that unexplainable emotional cushioning that sometimes occurs to those experiencing great trauma.  Kristina still remained in a coma and on life support.

“We had heard the worst by then, and Stan and I were living one day at a time,” relates Tami.  “On Monday evening a doctor had instructed me, ‘You have two days to make a decision to let her go in peace.’  Fortunately, another physician, one who didn’t just rely on the medical chart but regularly checked Kristina’s pulse and vital signs, recommended that we postpone making a decision for one week.”

On Thursday, December 16, Tami and a sister-in-law were attending a support group at the hospital for relatives of brain-injured patients.  Although no one had said outright that Kristina was brain-dead, a nurse had talked about organ donations and informed the family that her skin, for example, could benefit ten burn patients.  Tami brought up this issue and was greatly startled to hear the group’s leader say, “She’s not brain-dead.  You can’t make arrangements to donate her organs yet.”

“That’s my answer!” said Tami, turning to her sister-in-law.  She and Stan had been waiting and praying for definitive direction before pulling the plug on their blue-eyed, strawberry blond-haired daughter.

Meanwhile, Kristina had begun squeezing visitors’ fingers in response to their requests.  The doctors — and most of the nurses — were skeptical.  “It’s just a reflex,” they said.  Two of the nurses, though, had witnessed other unexpected recoveries and encouraged the family to have hope.  Tami began to consider teaching her sign language.

And then the impossible occurred.  On December 18, one week after the debilitating accident, Stan, who had been remaining at Kristina’s side throughout the evenings, called Tami at home: “Honey, you’ve got to get down here right away — Kristina’s opened her eyes!!”

By December 22, both eyes were fully open.  By Christmas, Kristina drew pictures and wrote letters that said “I love you” which were scanned and sent via email to delighted family members.  By January 7, 2000, the day that she was transferred to Children’s Hospital, she had already begun to speak in short sentences.

“The doctors are astounded,” shares Pastor Jim Ingram.  “In fact, they’re calling her a ‘miracle.’  I was amazed, but not surprised.  My father was involved in a car accident in 1983 and in a coma for three months.  When he regained consciousness, there was some brain damage but he made a full mental recovery and lived another eight years.”  He adds, “We do what we can and allow God to do the rest.”

Although Kristina’s recovery has progressed at a much faster pace than originally predicted, her parents know she has a long way to go.  She has daily rigorous sessions with physical, speech and occupational therapists, and even a school teacher.  She walks, with assistance, about 400 feet, and wears a helmet on her head for protection until the bones can be reinserted.  In addition, she was recently fitted with a gastro feeding tube.

And, although she’s hesitant to speak in front of strangers, like any teenager she responds happily to familiar voices on the phone.

The Hoot family has the highest praise for both Harborview and Children’s Hospital and for the care that Kristina has received.  Stan, a driver for Associated Grocers who used combined sick leave and vacation time to take three weeks off from work, and Tami, who resigned a job as a courier to aid in her daughter’s recovery, are also very grateful–and very surprised — by the outpouring of support from the community.  Students from Seattle’s Shorewood High School held vigils for Kristina and placed collection cans displaying her photograph at grocery stores.  A friend of the family opened a special bank account for donations, and Liam Besaw, Kristina’s cousin, created and frequently updates a website which includes a guest book and photographs.

Tami reminisces about her life before the accident.  “We had purchased a used van from a relative, but I was a little uncomfortable driving it because of a bumper sticker on the back that says, ‘Prayer Can Change Your Life.’  To be honest, prayer wasn’t always a daily priority.”  She adds, “But now I believe in it more than ever.”

Note:  Kristina Hoot was discharged from Children’s Hospital on March 17, 2000.  She began outpatient therapy and returned to Shorewood High School for special education classes.

(Written by C.E. Chambers and originally titled “Tragedy Turns to Hope for Shoreline Family,” this was published by the Lynnwood Journal Newspapers on April 4, 2000.)

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