Tom Petty rock tune awakens teen in deep coma
By Cindy Horswell
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette — July 23, 1994
“Gonna leave this world for a while.”
HOUSTON — Laura Hight missed her 17th birthday, because she had left this world for a while.
But she battled back from a deep coma, and 4 1/2 months after a car accident that doctors did not expect her to survive, the teen-ager from Dayton, Texas spoke again.
Her father, C.T. “Rusty” Hight, 47, a lawyer and member of Dayton’s school board, and her mother, Leah, a 39-year-old homemaker, never doubted that she would come back to them.
“When I first saw her at the hospital,” Mrs. Hight said, “I told her that I knew she hurt bad, but that she would be fine, that we would be with her.”
A single tear rolled down Laura’s swollen, red face as her mother spoke that night. For weeks afterward, a few tears appeared daily. Each renewed the mother’s hope that somewhere inside that battered body was her child, struggling to communicate.
Finally, on June 15, while a tape of the teen’s favorite pop turns played, Laura began to speak the words to one of the songs, “Free Falling” by Tom Petty.
Perhaps the lyrics held particular meaning for her: “She’s a good girl. Loves her mama. Loves Jesus and America too….I want to write her name in the sky. I wanna free fall out into nothing. Gonna leave this world for a while.”
Snow fluttered to the ground on Feb 1, unusual for this part of Texas. Because of the snow, Laura, a high school junior and honor student, skipped tennis practice and left early. She didn’t take her usual route home because 16-year-old John Gunter had asked for a ride.
A few miles from school, her car skidded on a curve. Laura swerved to bring it back on the road but overcompensated, sending it into the path of an oncoming pickup truck. The truck’s driver was not seriously hurt. But Gunter was killed, and Laura was flown by helicopter to Hermann Hospital in Houston in critical condition.
Gunter’s parents have visited Laura since the accident.
“My heart breaks for this boy’s family,” said Laura’s mother. “I think they understand it was an accident. They know that Laura is suffering, too.”
From the hospital waiting room, Laura’s father overheard a doctor tell a nurse that it was a shame the pretty teen-ager wouldn’t make it through the night. The nurse snapped back, “How do you know? You’re not God.”
During the first night’s vigil, the Hight family was given a special room to hold the 100 friends from their hometown who overflowed the waiting room.
Laura’s schoolmates tied yellow ribbons to their cars and lockers. Friends and neighbors brought food, gifts and offers to care for Laura’s younger brothers, Luke, 14, and Ladd, 8.
A computerized brain X-ray detected numerous bruises, blood clots and swellings. Her collar bone and pelvis were fractured.
For seven days, her mother slept in a chair by Laura’s bed — talking to her, playing music, trying to arouse her. Two weeks after the accident, Laura’s eyes opened, but they were unseeing slits.
After 42 days, Laura could breathe without a machine. She continued to be tube-fed. She was alive, but experts could not say if she would come out of the coma.
On March 24, she was moved to another Houston facility, The Institute for Rehabilitation and Research. Dr. Cindy Ivanhoe said Laura was in “a vegetative state” when she arrived there. When her birthday came April 7, Laura was still comatose. But she began to show gradual signs of improvement — responding to pain or bad smells by pulling away.
Then, on June 15, a therapist in a music therapy session began to plunk the old Elvis tune, “Love Me Tender,” on a special keyboard. The therapist noticed that Laura seemed to move her lips a little.
The therapist played a recording of Petty’s “Free Falling.” Laura began to whisper the words.
When her mother returned to Laura’s room, nurses and therapists were there. “It frightened me,” Mrs. Hight recalled. “I thought maybe something bad had happened.”
The therapist asked Laura if she had anything to tell her mother.
“I love you,” Laura whispered.
Today, Laura can read and do algebra problems. She is learning to feed and groom herself. Ivanhoe expects that Laura will be able to walk before she leaves the facility.
Ivanhoe won’t predict if Laura will be left with disabilities. Sometimes patients make gradual improvements for 20 years after an accident.
“It’s not like television, where a person wakes up as if nothing ever happened,” said Laura’s father.