MIGHTY CULTURE
Gary Kunich

Marine makes miraculous recovery after brain injury

Olivia Nord doesn't remember much from Marine Corps boot camp, or the car accident that killed her three friends, and almost killed her and her mother.

Her mom, Jennifer, doesn't remember anything either. But as she looks at her daughter, says she knows one thing for sure.

"She's my miracle. She's my absolute miracle."

The two were returning home Dec. 2, 2016, for Olivia's first leave after she graduated from basic training at Parris Island, South Carolina.

"I don't have any memory of that," Jennifer says. "The last memory I have is waiting at the airport in South Carolina."

"I don't even remember basic training," she adds. "I remember running and shooting. That's it."


Olivia's boyfriend, Austin, joined the Marines six weeks ahead of her. His family — mother, Dawn; sister, Dylan; and Dylan's 2-year-old son, Payton–met them at the Minneapolis Airport. As they drove onto the interstate, another driver having an epileptic seizure slammed head first into their car.

Olivia Nord is all smiles after graduating from Marine Corps basic training. Hours later, she would be in a coma from a head-on car crash.

Dawn, Dylan and Payton were killed.

"I was broke in half," Jennifer says. "My pelvis was crushed. I have a moderate brain injury and a rod in my back, with four screws holding it together."

First responders didn't have much hope for Olivia. Paramedics first took her to Hennepin County Medical, a level-1 trauma center, before she was transferred to Walter Reed in Maryland, and finally, to the Minneapolis VA Health Care System, Jan. 12, 2019. She had a severe brain injury and was in a coma, along with a shattered femur, torn aorta and lacerated liver. She had a tracheotomy, and was kept alive with artificial respiration.

Coming out of the coma

The Minneapolis VA is one of five major polytrauma centers in the entire Department of Veterans Affairs. It offers an array of integrated services for those in inpatient, transition and outpatient care. Brain-injury runs the gamut from someone with a concussion or stroke, or in Olivia's case, all the way to a coma — one of their most severe cases.

"She was in our 'Emerging Consciousness' program, but wasn't very responsive," said Christie Spevacek, a nurse who oversees some of the most acute polytrauma cases. "We had to wean her from the vent, and she was in a very minimal state. Wasn't talking, wasn't doing anything.

"You see that, and you say, 'Let's get to work.'

"In the next month or so, she started waking up, but she'd maybe have five minutes, and then would be down again," Spevacek said. "We had to bring up her endurance."

Olivia shares photos from that time. Tubes and wires run everywhere. In another, she hugs her mom with a vacant stare in her eyes.

"She was awake, but she wasn't awake," Jennifer said. "She wasn't aware of what was happening and didn't know she was hurt. We had to keep reminding her."

At one point, Olivia woke up and it didn't know where she was at.

Olivia Nord suffered a severe brain injury, torn aorta, lacerated liver and crushed femur. She was in a coma for more than a month.

"I didn't know I was hurt or why I was there," she said. "I didn't know my one leg didn't work. I started to get up and fell down. The nurse came in to get me."

Doctors, nurses, and therapists continued working with her. They'd take her out of the room. The goal was to make her feel normal again. They painted her fingernails and gave her lipstick. She worked on walking, talking, remembering, and all those things taken for granted.

"It was amazing to see her flourish," said Kristin Powell, a recreation therapist who worked with her on the acute side, and now as an outpatient. "We were able to take her on outings. She was able to take what she learned in physical therapy and use those skill and flourish in the community."

Not every outcome is as good as Olivia's, which makes the recovery even more remarkable," Powell said. "You see them come in here at their worst, in acute care, with tubes going in and out, and that was Olivia. And look at her now."

Olivia is training to ride the recumbent bike at the upcoming VA Summer Sports Clinic in San Diego. She works as a grocery cashier and has plans to go back to school for elementary education.

Patrick Hayes, the man who caused the crash, was not even supposed to be driving. He was sentenced April 9, 2019, to 100 months in prison. Olivia and her mom both gave victim statements at the sentencing.

"I feel like we are a flicker of a flame, and you caused three of those flickers to burn completely out," Olivia sobbed in court.

The car crash is still a blank for mom and daughter.

"In one way, it's a blessing," Jennifer says. "But there is a part of us that wants to remember, just so we can grieve."

"It's just like they were here one moment, and now they're gone," Olivia adds.

She and her boyfriend are no longer together.

"We don't talk," Olivia says. "He was back home for his birthday and I sent him a 'Happy birthday' text."

"We know it's hard for him, too," Jennifer says. "He lost his mom. He lost his family."

Recovery beyond the Minneapolis VA

Today, in a lot of ways, Olivia is like any 21-year-old. She laughs, tells jokes and likes to cuss like… well, like a Marine.

Jennifer and Olivia help each other remember dates and even the right words that sometimes get lost or garbled.

"She'll help me and I'll help her," Jennifer says. "The other day, I said, 'I'm going out to vacuum the lawn.'"

"I said, 'No, you're going to mow the lawn,'" Olivia added.

Olivia uses a leg brace to walk, and also participates in Wounded Warrior events in the community. But sometimes it's hard not to get angry.

Jennifer and Olivia Nord lost their three friends, and were both nearly killed in a head-on collision. Today, mom and daughter are thriving despite brain injuries.

"I'm still not the best," she says. "I see how far I've come. My gosh, I'm out of the hospital. At some point, I don't want any injuries. I can't run. I can't use my left arm. But I'm getting better. My thinking process is better. I'm always thinking.

"My friends think I'm crippled," she adds. "I'm not crippled."

Mom and daughter have tattoos that show their love for one another — and those they've lost.

Both sport a red fox tattoo on their ankles. Jennifer's says, "Love you, bebè." Olivia's says, "Love you, mamá." She also has another, larger tattoo on her waist. It's an American flag shaped like the United States, a cross and three dog tags bearing three names Dawn, Dylan and Payton. She has another on her inside right arm — four different colored roses for family members, and a tiny cross on a chain that says, "Faith."

"For me, the faith is not always what you believe in. It's what you do to get better," Olivia says. "I have faith in myself that I will get better."

This article originally appeared on VAntage Point. Follow @DeptVetAffairs on Twitter.