Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

An Unspoken Will : She Should Be Dead, But O.C. Woman Fights to Walk, Talk

August 29, 1993|DIANNE KLEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you want to talk about odds, or bell curves, or patient profiles culled from the medical literature, do so out of earshot of Christine Olson. She'll have none of it. Neither will her family, a particularly stubborn lot who won't countenance bad news.

They've had enough. First there was the accident on July 4th three years ago, way out in the desert near Blythe. Christine, then 16, was driving her '73 Mustang, tailing her dad. It was about 5:30 in the morning, when it was cool.

The two were headed from Orange County to Denver, the city that until a few months earlier had been their home. Christine had her seat belt on and the radio blaring KIIS-FM when she fell asleep. Then her foot pressed the gas pedal to the floor.

The Mustang flew, literally sailing off the road before a boulder smacked it down. Her father looked in his rear-view mirror and saw only a rising cloud of dust.

You want odds? Christine Olson, now 19, should be dead. She was in a coma for two months. She couldn't swallow on her own. Then there were the surgeries, six inside her skull alone. The right side of Christine's brain no longer exists.

Her neurosurgeon says he did surgeries never done before, if for no other reason than because there was nothing to lose. During one, Christine's swollen brain was left open for four days.

The complete inventory of Christine's injuries is too long to list here. Suffice to say that she cannot walk or talk. That is, not yet.

If you want to understand Christine's story, you must put aside conventional notions about odds. You must, instead, think of her graduating on time with her high school class in Huntington Beach. Or about delaying, by sheer force of will, yet another brain surgery because she didn't want to be a bridesmaid in her brother's May wedding with a shaved head.

"That's Christine," her family says.

And now medical professionals are saying as much themselves. Far from counting her out, they are proffering hope where they might not have before, especially for the daughter of a carpenter with no insurance and no means to pay. They are essentially working for free.

"She's sort of a miracle," says the surgeon who is about to operate on her now.

Which is why Christine is lying in the surgical holding area of Western Medical Center in Santa Ana, an IV in her ankle and arm and her homemade alphabet board resting on her chest.

She takes a manicured finger and spells out her thoughts. "T-h-i-s i-s t-h-e f-i-r-s-t s-u-r-g-e-r-y I-m n-e-r-v-o-u-s a-b-o-u-t," her mother, Judy Olson, reads aloud.

There is cause. The surgery Christine is about to undergo is new and tricky and its objective much loftier than most. And Christine must remain awake because her active participation is key. Her hopes are not only up, they are floating somewhere over her head.

Dr. Stanley Lowenberg, an otolaryngologist and head and neck surgeon, aims to make Christine talk.

Lowenberg is one of a handful of physicians nationwide who insert implants of small blocks of plastic, called Silastic, against paralyzed vocal cords in an effort to nudge them into a position that will allow a patient to speak.

He has performed the surgery twice before, with success, but on patients whose prognosis and general health were very good.

"I would have never chosen Christine as a patient," he says. "She's sort of on the far end of the bell curve. She has major neurological impairment. She's had a stroke. She has scarring. She doesn't have much of a neck . . . What you are dealing with is someone who came back from death essentially."

But on the advice of his friend and colleague Dr. Mark Krugman, Lowenberg met Christine and her family before saying no. Krugman, a voice specialist who has been seeing Christine for a year, had been touched by his patient's determination and spunk, not to mention her jokes.

The night before this morning's surgery, this young woman who has always loved to talk spelled out what she intends to be her first words in the operating room.

"I-t-s a b-a-d h-a-i-r d-a-y," she wrote.

Lowenberg met Christine early last month and he, too, was moved.

"My feeling was here's somebody who has made unbelievable progress. I don't know everything, but what I do know is phenomenal. And what her parents are like . . . her mom. She's just marvelous. With people like that, you can't lose. I got on the bandwagon right away, after just meeting her for the first time.

"I knew that whatever I could do for her would be worthwhile."

Lying in the surgical holding area earlier this month, Christine's mind is on something else. "T-h-e-s-e p-e-o-p-l-e a-r-e n-u-t-s g-e-t-t-i-n-g m-e u-p t-h-i-s e-a-r-l-y a-n-d e-x-p-e-c-t-i-n-g m-e t-o s-t-a-y u-p," she spells out.

Judy Olson, her daughter's full-time caretaker, turns to a visitor. "The only thing I think is unfair about this surgery is they won't be able to put a zipper in," she says.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|