Devastating consequences

ON THE evening of July 20, 2008 an off duty paramedic was traveling on Ohio – 7 near the Rush Run exit when he saw evidence a vehicle had gone off the road. Driving the SUV had been then 34-year old Sonya Pensis. When found some 100 yards from the main wreckage it was clear she had sustained several life-threatening injuries, including what would later be called a Traumatic Brain Injury.

The cause of the crash was not evident on the roadway.

The key to unlocking the cause of the devastation was eventually found, still clutched tightly in Sonya’s hand: her cell phone.

“She had been text messaging her then boyfriend about a dinner date they were to have that night,” recalled her mother, Wendy Roberts. “She also had not been wearing a seat belt when she crashed, which just made everything that much worse.”

She never got to that dinner date.

At about the time she should have been sitting down to enjoy her dinner date she was on her way to the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center in Pittsburgh and was in a fight for her life.

They were choices that ultimately cost her the life she had known until that moment, a life full of joy and of sharing in her son’s growing up years, and of the pure enjoyment of everyday life she was known to savor with a wide circle of friends.

She survived the crash, but her life was dramatically and forever changed. Every small victory would be won only through hard fought battles.

Roberts agonizes countless times daily over the life her daughter might still be enjoying had she chosen not to send that text message to her boyfriend to reassure him she would see him shortly.

“Because she did not use a seatbelt that day we think the trauma to the frontal lobe of her brain came when she was being ejected from the vehicle through the sunroof. We think she must have hit the front of her head on the sun roof opening,” offered Roberts.

In a matter of just a few days after the initial crash happened Roberts would be asked to stare into the dark unknown that came with many of the twists and turns her daughter’s ongoing healing and rehabilitation process are and have taken.

“They asked me to sign a paper authorizing surgeons to remove a portion of Sonya’s skull to let them gain access to the damaged tissue and remove it before it began making a bad situation far worse,” recalled Roberts, the pain of having to make that decision still evident in her words.

It was the sort of reality she steeled herself for from the moment she first saw the person in the hospital bed who was heavily bandaged, had tubes protruding from her head to help relieve the pressure on the brain from swelling brought on by the crash.

“Can you imagine the heartache I felt as a parent when they asked me to sign a paper allowing them to cut out part of my daughter’s brain before it put her in more danger?” she said.

Trauma to her brain was not the only major injury Pensis sustained as the vehicle smashed into the median and a guardrail, rolled as it left the roadway, eventually landing on the woman at one point which resulted in the complete shattering of the left part of her pelvis, the left femur and fracturing a part of the top of her spine.

Pensis was unconscious at the crash site, having slipped into a coma, and remained largely unresponsive for some months to come.

“The SUV she was driving that day belonged to a friend, so no one would have automatically known it was Sonja that they were working on at the crash site,” offered Roberts, the agony of the memory of not having been able to get to Sonya’s side earlier in the immediate aftermath of the crash showing through in her voice. “Initially they did not know who she was, even though she has lived here her whole life, no one recognized her.”

Pensis and Roberts joined a gathering at Buckeye Local High School recently to share their personal experiences with students about what can happen when simple safety laws and practices are not respected.

Roberts began sharing details about her daughter and the crash with the audience, and though a strong person she eventually asked Sonya’s nurse to finish sharing the message, as it became too difficult for Roberts to speak.

“When I arrived at the hospital in Pittsburgh, I thought I had lost her. She was unrecognizable. She was in a coma. A respirator breathed for her. Tubes were hanging from her head draining the fluid from her brain. They had to cut open her skull to relieve the pressure.

She was cut around her right ear – across the right side and back up front. She had a trach tube in her throat. Her eyes were bulging out. Her lungs collapsed, and she had tubes in her lungs to re-inflate them. If I did not know that was my daughter I would have never recognized her,” said Roberts. “As a mother you never think that once your children are grown up and have children of their own that you would one day raise them all over again.

“Texting while driving that horrific day has not only changed her life, but her children’s lives, my life and everyone who knows Sonya,” said Roberts. ” The moments, seconds, minutes and hours blended. They took her into surgery. It seemed like forever, but it was about four hours. After the surgery she was unresponsive. They called me back into recovery. Her face and head were even more swollen. Words could never describe the feelings, the emotions, the fear I felt. I talked to her to try to wake her up, but the only way to tell she was coming around was by watching the monitors: her heart rate, pulse and oxygen. I watched those screens constantly. I sat by her side and talked to her all the time.

“Sonya and I were on the outs before her accident, as sometimes parents and kids are. Now she needed me and I needed her too,” shared Roberts.

Crisis points came and went. Eventually she was moved to one of the best facilities in the world when it comes to reating traatic Brain injuries: the Dodd House at Ohio State University Medical Center.

For a time it was a second home, Sonya having earned the right to complete two terms of scheduled care at the facility.

“Most patients only get to go through the program once,” offered Roberts, reflecting on her daughter having always been a fighter.

“I thought to myself, this is as good as it is going to get: she’s alive. But, this would be my daughter’s life from now on. I remember praying, ‘God, if she is going to be any good then spare her, please. If not, then please God take her home so that she doesn’t suffer.’

Not long after that prayer was offered a seemingly small sign of life from her daughter spoke volumes about her future possibilities – if Sonya could continue to work there would be benchmarks met and new ones established.

“They brought her to Acuity in Steubenville,” recalled Roberts. “I was there for her when she woke up and I was there when she went to bed. During the day the nurses would take Sonya out on a board into the sun, to get fresh air. One day she reached down on her own and gathered her gown and the sheet, pulled it up so her legs could get some sun. That day was the first day of her sign of recovery. Words could not describe to you the joy I felt at that seemingly small action.

“At first she was passive. She had to learn to feed herself again. She was still in diapers, as she had to learn to use the bathroom again; to regain control of her bladder again. They controlled her bowel movements as she could not go on her own. Therapy was excruciating, painful, long and hard. But she fought, cussing at the therapist – but she did what she was told.

“She took her first steps with the aid of a walker four months later and in January 2009 she took her very first steps without using a walker. Watching Sonya take her first steps again brought so much pride, so much hope, such relief to me that I could not express in words the overwhelming emotions I felt,” shared Roberts. “It’s been two years and every day she continues to improve. God does work miracles every day, Sonya is a living testament to that.

“The doctors were skeptical, and said she would never walk again. I believe God spared her to help someone else, maybe help one of you,” said Roberts as she addressed the Buckeye Local students.

Sonya has short term memory loss and selective memory when it comes to her past. She doesn’t realize her boys are not living with her or that she missed their birthdays. She still thinks they’re 11 and nine years old. Sonya can never live alone. She asks what year it is and sometimes thinks it is 1999. She needs reminded of the day, month and year. Her recovery is long and ongoing. She’s come a long way and improves every day, but her life will never be the same.

“She used to ride Harley’s – pitch for softball, and play ball with her boys. But this is no longer the case,” said Roberts to the audience at the high school, with Sonya – sporting a Pittsburgh Steeler’s jersey – standing next to her, each helping the other get through their first public discussion about their ordeal.

“It’s so not worth it. Don’t text when you are driving, and always put your seat belt on,” Sonya said with conviction. “If I can help the other kids not have to have this happen that makes me feel good.”

“If only she would have put down that cell phone. If only that text message would have waited. If only.

“She would have her boys. She would drive her own car, and ride her Harley. She would have her life,” offered Roberts. “Sonya now needs a nurse at her side constantly – all because that text message just couldn’t wait. Think of all you have and want to have in your future; don’t cut it short by texting while you are driving or by not wearing your seatbelt every time you get into any vehicle.”

Sonya and her mother may be reached at 740-733-7209 for further information on their presentation.

They support the use of seat belts and the practice of turning off cell phones when driving to reduce incidents of texting while driving and the destruction it can bring, as it did in Sonya’s life.

Loccisano can be reached at