Before paramedics pulled a comatose Christina Kopaczewski out of a wrecked car last year, they thought she was dead.
A pickup truck had struck the car in which the 17-year-old Westminster High School senior was riding, spinning the vehicle around and sending it up over a curb and through a block wall.
At UCI Medical Center in Orange, John and Vi Kopaczewski learned the extent of their daughter's injuries: Her jaw was broken in three places, her clavicle was broken, her pelvis was shattered, her bladder and an ovary were ruptured and her brain was bruised. Then the head trauma team doctor told them the worst news of all: There was no way of telling when--or if--their daughter would ever come out of the coma.
That, says John Kopaczewski, "was the most devastating thing I had ever heard in my life."
Kept Positive Attitude
But through it all--even when Christina suffered a minor stroke--the Kopaczewskis prayed and maintained a positive attitude, refusing to accept their daughter's negative prognosis. And when Christina woke up after 13 days in the coma, they say, it was like a miracle.
Forty-nine days after the accident, on March 3, 1985, Christina was released from the hospital.
But that wasn't the last the nurses and respiratory technicians at UCI Medical Center would see of Christina.
Since then, Christina and her mother have made scores of return visits to the hospital to see the people who, they say, have become like family members. And, from the beginning, they have volunteered to be on call to talk to patients in intensive care and family members who might need emotional support, a kind word and visible reassurance that, even in the worst cases, there is hope.
The Kopaczewskis are, in a word, grateful.
"We feel there is no way we could ever repay these people," Kopaczewski, owner of an office and home cleaning service, said in an interview at his Garden Grove home.
"I guess we feel an obligation for what they did for our daughter," said Vi Kopaczewski. "We don't even know what some of their names are, but we still go up to them and give them a big hug and a kiss."
"The nurses are like good friends to me," said Christina, a petite 18-year-old, speaking in a low, husky voice that, her friends say, sounds like Lauren Bacall. Her voice, made husky by the stroke that paralyzed her left vocal cord, turns to a hoarse whisper when she talks too much.
Learned to Walk Again
Now 18 and working full time as a salesperson at Best Products in Westminster, Christina underwent six weeks of physical therapy to learn how to walk again. She has a minor problem with her memory and has had to give up playing contact sports because, she says, "if I fall again I have a chance of re-breaking my hips." She also wears braces, the result of her teeth having shifted since the accident.
"Usually the day you're released from the hospital, that's the last time they see you," said Christina. "I can't understand why people don't come back to visit. As far as I'm concerned, they've helped me achieve where I am today. I am so thankful to them."
"She doesn't realize what all went on," her mother said. "That's one reason I enjoy going back there. Everyone at the hospital is so compassionate."
"That," added John Kopaczewski, "is why we gave the party."
"The party" is the all-day bash the Kopaczewskis threw in January at Los Alamitos Country Club as a way of thanking the hospital staff. About 75 doctors, nurses and technicians showed up for the party which, in order to accommodate the different shifts at the hospital, began at 10 in the morning and didn't end until 10 at night.
Guests 'Just Amazed'
"It was very exciting just to see them all there at one time," Vi Kopaczewski said. "They said no one has ever done anything like that. They were just amazed.
"For me," Christina said, "it was exciting because I was out of it for so long in the hospital. I got to meet a lot of people I didn't know, like the paramedics. If they hadn't been there in the split second they were, I wouldn't be here right now."
John and Vi Kopaczewski believe the positive attitude they maintained throughout the ordeal played a major role in Christina's recovery.
From the first day--when their comatose daughter's face was so swollen they could barely recognize her--the Kopaczewskis decided that "no one would go in the room with negative thoughts." Vi Kopaczewski said they instructed relatives that "when you go in, go up to her and talk to her like she's awake. Say nice things to her, not 'Poor baby.' "
Some relatives, she acknowledged, simply couldn't handle seeing Christina and had to leave the room.
But the Kopaczewskis, who stayed by their daughter's bedside around the clock for 16 days straight, continued to act as normal as possible.
Played Her Favorite Music