(Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series on the recovery of Creston 18-year-old Sophia Groumoutis from a highway head-on collision in Taylor County on Aug. 7.)
For two weeks, Sophia Groumoutis was motionless in a coma at University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, fed by a tube.
She was gradually healing from several lacerations and bruises suffered in a head-on auto accident on Highway 2 near New Market on Aug. 7. She was not wearing a seat belt and was thrown from the spinning vehicle after the collision, landing 30 feet north of where the car came to rest.
Quick medical attention at the scene and further assistance by medical personnel during a ride by helicopter ambulance to an Omaha hospital helped her stay alive until arriving at the emergency room.
When worried family members arrived from Creston that night, they found the 18-year-old honor student and accomplished golfer fighting for her life.
“It was terrible,” said her father, Dino Groumoutis of Creston. “There were tubes hooked up, she was in a neck brace. She was still covered in blood. It’s like your worst nightmare as a parent.”
While she was in a coma, with no clear indication of how complete her recovery could be from head trauma associated with the accident, it soon became clear to the family there was a lot of support from home.
“It was just amazing, the number of people who sent messages or flowers and gifts, or drove all that way to visit,” Dino said. “There were prayer chains set up by people we didn’t even know. We were certainly appreciative of all the help and prayers from everyone.”
It was difficult to be patient in the seemingly endless waiting game. Alexi Groumoutis, Sophia’s aunt, remembers those anxious days.
“It was very scary for awhile,” she said. “At the very beginning, the nurses said she’ll wake up in a couple of days. Then she wasn’t waking up for a week and half or two weeks. She had road rash all over her body. She’d open her eyes, but she really wasn’t there. She would mumble things nobody could make out.”
Finally, there was a breakthrough.
“I think the first time we realized she was really with us when Mae (her mother, Mae Greene) asked her, ‘Sophia, where does it hurt?’ And she answered, ‘Everywhere.’ That was the first time I remember her talking.”
“It was very erratic when she first became conscious,” Greene said. “A lot of times what she was saying wasn’t making sense. She started being herself after about four weeks, when she was at the Madonna (Rehabilitation) Center. Even then she’d sometimes forget that she had seen us.”
Groumoutis said she doesn’t remember much about her three-week stay at University of Nebraska Medical Center. But, once she began therapy at the Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital her cognitive functions were quickly restored.
“They started me with easy hand things, like moving a block on the table,” Groumoutis said. “I had a seizure after the accident and my left side wasn’t working right. Eventually I did fine motor skills like grabbing pennies out of Play-Doh. That was really hard at first, but it got better. They also did speech therapy with me.”
She was also having trouble walking, but showed quick progress in physical therapy sessions at Madonna.
“Her gait is still different than it was,” Dino Groumoutis said. “But she’s improved a lot. She had a cane when she first got home.”
Boredom was part of Sophia’s struggle in the early days at Madonna, when she wasn’t mobile and restricted from using her cell phone until there was more time for her brain injury to heal.
“I kept asking if I could on go on wheelchair rides around the facility just to get out of that room for awhile,” she said. “I could see that some people had it worse. There was a kid who had been in a motorcycle accident. He was pretty much paralyzed and could barely eat his food.”
Groumoutis was originally scheduled to stay at Madonna until Oct. 28. But, her improvement occurred so fast the date was moved up six weeks.
“When I was in my room and not at any of the therapies, I would play with the stretch putty or stretch out my band, just continue to do some of the exercises they had me do in therapy,” she said. “And, I read a lot.”
Dino Groumoutis quickly found out that when an insurance company receives word a patient has hit a bench mark for release, there’s no time to spare.
“We were in Des Moines one afternoon and got a call from somebody at Madonna that she was cleared for release,” Dino said. “I said, ‘That’s great, we’ll be there first thing in the morning.’ Then the lady said, ‘You don’t understand, if you’re not here and have her out by midnight, you have to pay ($9,000) for the extra day.’ So, needless to say we got over there as quick as we could and started loading up all of the stuff that Sophia had received from people.”
“Once they got her up and started working with her, the people at Madonna were really impressed with how fast she was progressing,” Greene said. “They did mention how quickly the process of brain healing is for someone that young. She was thrown quite a ways from the car and suffered a lot of trauma, but she was coming back quickly.”
Still, nothing seems fast when you’re the one in a facility, day after day doing many of the same mundane actions in trying to regain “normalcy.”
“She hates the word ‘time.’ People always were telling her, ‘it’s going to take time.’ She cried a lot that first week, because it was a little overwhelming,” Greene said. “Here she was a straight A student and a good athlete, and she was having to relearn so many basic things. There was a lot of frustration.”
Groumoutis admitted that her personality isn’t conducive to appreciating slow, steady progress.
“I am probably the least patient person,” she said. “So, it’s annoying when they say it will come in time. I even had to relearn how to smile, because I had 17 stitches inside my mouth and seven on the outside, and I was in a coma for almost three weeks and not using those muscles. After I got home I tried to golf but the club was flying off my left hand. It’s not right yet. It’s the little things, like I still have trouble washing my hair with that hand. And, I still have headaches, which is my biggest pet peeve right now.”
Groumoutis continued regular physical therapy sessions at Greater Regional Medical Center for another month after returning home. A neurologist told Sophia’s parents that she could see continued improvement over the course of 18 months to two years.
This week she will be cleared to take tests to regain her driver’s license, although her parents say she still has a “blind spot” on the periphery of her left eye’s vision. The independence of driving would feel like a big leap forward, she said.
“She’s determined to drive. She hates relying on people,” Greene said.
Fatigue is still an issue, so the family decided to start with just one class in beginning academic work at Southwestern this semester. So far she’s enjoying the anatomy class that forms the foundation of her nursing aspirations, but she still experiences occasional short-term memory lapses. She also gets tired near the end of her work shifts at Homestead Assisted Living and Memory Care.
Doug North, Southwestern golf coach and co-athletic director, has reached out to her to become involved with the team, if she wishes, even though playing isn’t realistic for the upcoming season. Sophia’s older brother, Christian Groumoutis, had also golfed at Southwestern under North.
“I knew she got enrolled with a lighter load and is trying to get back into the swing of things,” North said. “I told her she could work a little with the team and be a part of our activities if she wants to this spring, and then we’ll see where she’s at next year. I know she still has some physical limitations. She knows the game and just being around the team would be great. She’s a great kid and we just want whatever is best for her.”
Greene said she’s noticed a new sense of maturity and perspective in her 18-year-old daughter after the accident.
“It was hard at first,” Greene said. “She was in a depression about how she looked and she didn’t want to see anybody. But she got better and she realizes that life is important. She tries to think more about her choices.”
Also helpful are the weekly visits to Dr. Randall Kavalier, board certified child and adolescent psychiatrist in West Des Moines.
“It helps her, because you’re not going to tell your mom and dad everything,” Dino Groumoutis said. “It’s just a different outlet to say, here’s what’s on my mind.’ He was very impressed with how she’s been able to handle everything, but we all would struggle at times with everything she’s been through.”
Groumoutis said seemingly endless hours in hospital rooms allowed for reflection on her life. Shortly after returning home to Creston, her mother had a mild stroke, and was suddenly having her own recovery issues. It all made Sophia more appreciative of efforts made by her parents over the years.
“It’s changed my life,” Groumoutis said. “The life that I was living with my ex-boyfriend, it was not good. I really hurt my family. I let them down. I don’t know why I did all that. Now, watching my little sister Maria grow up, I want to help her make good choices.”
She knows the consequences. In fact, it’s difficult for her to even look at photographs from the first weeks after the accident.
“They make me cry every single time,” Groumoutis said. “I’ll always probably be a little sad about it. I think it will help me in becoming a nurse. I hope I get there.”
The fact that she’s enthusiastic and healthy enough to pursue those dreams isn’t taken for granted by her family.
“It is a miracle, definitely,” Green said. “I hug her every time I see her.”