Submitted photo ## A May 4, 2016 crash outside McMinnville left one dead and three seriously injured.
Submitted photo ## A May 4, 2016 crash outside McMinnville left one dead and three seriously injured.
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Melissa Gates: Crash shattered lives in mere split second

Most people know our story. What I want people to know is how it changed our lives.

Guest Writer

Melissa Gates grew up in Amity. She began working in the Yamhill County District Attorney’s Office in 1999 and shifted to the Yamhill County Circuit Court in 2003. With the help of her mother, Peggy, she has become a primary caregiver for daughter Natasha Fisher. Her daughter suffered a disabling, near-fatal brain injury during an illegal street race crash, inspiring Melissa to become an advocate for ending street racing and supporting traumatic brain injury victims.

Through that effort, I hope to educate others on the risks of illegal street racing and the terrible outcome when something goes wrong. I would also like to bring awareness to the large population affected by a traumatic brain injury.

Street racing is, the dictionary says, “a form of unsanctioned and illegal auto racing which takes place on public roads,” one that can be “spontaneous or well-planned and coordinated.” Traumatic brain injury is defined as “a non-degenerative, non-congenital insult to the brain from an external mechanical force, possibly leading to permanent or temporary impairment of cognitive, physical, and psychosocial functions, with an associated diminished or altered state of consciousness.”

These two definitions should never come together, but in my life, they have.

May 4, 2016, started as a typical day. But it eventually turned into every parent’s worst nightmare.

First came the odd text that made no sense. Next came the phone call asking if my daughter, Natasha, had been with her boyfriend, Jeremy.

I called 911 and asked if Natasha had been in an accident. The dispatcher said if she had, an officer would be coming to the door shortly.

Then came the dreaded knock and panic set in. What I remember most is fearing the worst for my daughter and wondering where I could find her.

Mom had already gone out to start the car when the officer arrived.  The first words out of my mouth were, “Please don’t tell me my daughter is dead.”

He said no, that she was in surgery at a Portland trauma center. He gave me her case number and the hospital phone number. He said I would need to identify myself, as she had been admitted as a Jane Doe.

We locked the house and jumped into the car. On the way, I called the hospital.

The staff asked for any identifying marks. She has many tattoos, but all I could remember were two small ones on her wrists. 

That was enough. It was her.

When we arrived, we were escorted into a “grieving room.”

Two officers from Portland came in to explain what had happened. At the time, there was no mention of illegal street racing.

About an hour later, we were able to see her in the neuro trauma unit.

Wow! I can’t even explain what I was feeling.

She had a half-shaved head, a metal rod and some drainage tubes coming out of her head, a tube in her throat, monitors beeping like crazy and what seemed like 30 bags of meds dripping. After finding out what we were facing, all we could do was wait and watch.

An ICP monitor kept track of the cerebrospinal fluid pressure in her brain. We began to live every breath through that machine, as we knew the number it must stay below.

We had a nurse there constantly, and other nurses came in every hour to do an X-ray, pull fluids and check the drainage from her brain. I slept on the couch near her bed the entire time she was in neuro trauma, then moved to Ronald McDonald House as her care continued.

One night they woke me up because her ICP was spiking and the nurse, Bridgette, couldn’t get it back under control. The doctor called me to get approval to remove her skull, as her brain had swelled to capacity.

They intended to stop and do a CT scan first, but the nurse insisted there was no time. She kept pushing the bed on down the hall, refusing to stop. She said Natasha would die from pressure on her brainstem if they didn’t operate immediately.

Later, she came to our room and broke down. She felt she hadn’t done enough. But in fact, she saved Natasha’s life that morning.

While Natasha was in surgery, I went in to shower and lost it. I was so angry, I was screaming at God. I told Him, “If you want her back, take her. But if you leave her here for me, I promise to take care of her, to never leave her side.”

And this is what I have done. I will never give up on her.

The car Natasha was riding in spun twice from a high-speed impact. That inflicted what’s known as a diffuse axonal injury on the left side of her brain.

Medical authorities describe it this way: “A diffuse axonal injury (DAI) causes shearing of large nerve fibers and stretching of blood vessels in many areas of the brain. In addition to bleeding (hemorrhage), this type of injury can trigger a biochemical cascade of toxic substances in the brain during the days following the initial injury.”

Sadly, there is no prognosis for this injury. We just have to wait and see how much improvement she can make.

Natasha has been through approximately 30 surgeries since the crash, the result of a street race at triple-digit speeds. She has also undergone countless X-rays, MRIs, CT scans, blood draws, shunt placements and replacements, and various other procedures.

The most significant surgery was the skull replacement she underwent on May 7, 2018, almost two years to the day after the crash.

We were told it would be purely cosmetic, but she began slowly improving afterward, shocking even her neurosurgeon.

On May 11, we were finally able to bring Natasha home. By then, she had spent three years in various hospitals — Legacy Emanuel, Randall Children’s, Providence St. Vincent, Vibra Specialty and, for the last 2½ years, the Providence Center for Medically Fragile Children.

Someone was by her side continuously — me, my mother, my brother or my sister, alternated with her biological father, her grandparents and her friends.

People say I’m lucky to still have her. I never know how to respond, as lucky doesn’t seem the right word. I feel blessed to still have her, but sad to not have her the way she was before.

We have not heard her voice in more than three years. She can’t walk, and can only eat small amounts of pureed food. She can’t do anything for herself.

Lucky? No, blessed.

I’ve also heard, “There’s a lesson to be learned here.” But I’m still trying to figure that out.

I’ve learned a lot about traumatic brain injury and want to share that information.

TBI can be an invisible disability, making it hard for people to understand. Victims are sometimes mistaken for being drunk or dumb.

I want victims to know they have nothing to be ashamed of, so they should embrace their life and share their journey. And I want outsiders to respect that.

You never know when this will touch your life. I know I never thought my daughter would lose her livelihood and almost her life before the age of 21, turning my mom and I into 24/7 caregivers.

As for illegal street racing, it’s my mission to combat this scourge. There are legal ways to race other cars in relative safety.

Why take other people’s lives into your hands? When cars reach the speeds these did, 100 mph plus, the likelihood of someone dying soars.

I’ve joined several sites that address and support families of street racing victims. I am thus extremely excited to learn about Portland’s Vision Zero project.

Every weekend, Portland police cite or arrest drivers for illegal street racing in a targeted crackdown. And every arrest means a possible life saved.

Our crash occurred between McMinnville and Lafayette on Highway 99W — a stretch I’ve been unable to drive since. I had to learn to overcome anxiety that overwhelmed my body when I reached McDougall’s Corner on my way home from the hospital in Portland, especially when the sky was lit like it was the night of the crash.

Someday I plan to visit the cross marking the death of oncoming motorist Claudio Martinez, an innocent caught in the carnage, and thus try to release the pain that spot created for so many. If you pass Claudio’s cross, please think of him and pray for his soul.

We had to hold several fundraisers in able to bring Natasha home. I would like to thank our community for the love and support they provided.

I would also like to thank those who helped us remodel her room so she could live as normal a life as possible — my brother David, Wayne Dykes’ Construction, Bishop & Son Construction, Josh Brockman Painting, Huff Plumbing, Nice Electric, Builders Choice, Wilson’s Carpet One and The Concrete Guy LLC. You contributed not only labor and materials, but also your hearts.

Let’s open our hearts to those with disabilities, get to know people and love them as they are. And let’s put a stop to illegal street racing so we can be safe on the road.

 

Comments

Joel

Wow, this article literally took my breath away. Thank you so much Melissa for sharing this. God bless you and Natasha and the rest of your family. You are a true inspiration!

RobsNewsRegister

Thanks for increasing awareness of TBIs. I suffered one in Sept 2016 from a car accident and it's been quite a learning experience. For anyone with a concussion that isn't getting better I recommend going to the concussion specialists at OHSU. They referred me to the BIRC center (brain injury rehabilitation center - https://www.progrehab.com/) in Portland. I'm not sure where I'd be now if I hadn't completed that program. Often, local physicians don't see these type of injuries enough to pick up on the nuances and don't have the more advanced testing equipment.

Your description of "Victims are sometimes mistaken for being drunk or dumb." is right on too. A friend of mine at the center was questioned by police once at it was something we were all concerned about.

Bufordthe1st

Heart wrenching!! You and your family are so very brave. Bless you and Natasha and your sweet Mother with strength and faith, now and in all the coming days, months & years.