By Bridget Murphy
---- — Editor’s note: This is the first of two articles that follow Salisbury’s Meg Theriault as she fights to return to her regular life after a horrific accident in New Zealand last year.
Meg Theriault didn’t look in a mirror for two months. When she did, a stranger met her gaze.
Most of her hair was gone, but that wasn’t the worst of it: There was a dent on the left side of her head. A chunk of her skull was missing.
Meg’s parents told her there had been an accident, that she bumped her head. But that was two hospitals and a long plane ride ago.
Whatever had happened to her, she didn’t remember any of it. And photos posted around her Boston hospital room of a 21-year-old coed, her chestnut hair flowing below her shoulders, looked like a different person.
Now Meg’s two front teeth were cracked into peaks. Her boy-short hair was matted beneath a black hockey helmet. It protected her brain, but made her face break out in blemishes.
She could remember her semester abroad in Australia — even if some details of traveling in the Outback, scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef and bungee jumping in the rainforest were coming back slowly. But she couldn’t remember New Zealand, and the last days of her foreign adventure. Something had broken and her mind wasn’t filling in the blanks.
Her parents, Todd and Deb Theriault, were there by her hospital bed in New Zealand after she came out of her coma.
“I love you, Meg,” Todd had whispered.
“I love you,” she answered.
Another month would pass before Meg smiled. She was still hospitalized, but back home in Massachusetts.
Her parents had hope, but doctors warned Meg might never be Meg again, the Boston University student who’d been on track to finish school and land an accounting job in the next year. Two months after the accident, connections to her brain were still scrambled.
The business major couldn’t remember multiplication tables. She mistook a doctor at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston for her sixth-grade teacher. She looked forward to reuniting with a dog that hadn’t lived with her family for years.
Meg wobbled as she learned to walk. Therapy filled her days, including speech and reading exercises. She had to practice spooning up her food, and how to bathe and dress herself.
But if Meg didn’t understand where she had been, she knew where she wanted to be.
“It’s just like being in school,” a therapist said one day when she faltered during a drill.
“That’s good,” Meg said.
Because whatever it took, she wanted to be back at BU for her senior year.
Aftermath of the accident
She was the first victim they reached in the road.
“Meg, are you OK?”
Her classmate Dustin Holstein didn’t get an answer. Deep, fast draws of air were all he heard. It was the kind of breathing, he would say later, “where it’s like you’re on the verge of dying.”
It was the morning of May 12, 2012. Steam from a volcano in the distance curled into a cloudless sky in New Zealand’s countryside.
The BU students — 16 of them in two minivans — had been headed to Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a trek through volcanic terrain with a view of the peak portrayed as Mount Doom in the “Lord of the Rings” movie trilogy.
Police said it seemed the single-vehicle crash happened after the minivan drifted to the roadside.
Stephen Houseman, the student who was driving, would say later the van began shaking and he couldn’t control it. Police said he tried to correct course before the van rolled several times.
Students Austin Brashears, Roch Jauberty and Daniela Lekhno also landed in the road. Friends covered their faces with sleeping bags or blankets before the first firetruck arrived.
Meg was luckier — but far from lucky. Dustin pushed his friend’s hair from her face as American pop star Adam Levine’s voice streamed from the stereo inside the wreck. Blood leaked from a laceration on her chin. Skin had ripped off her right arm, baring part of the muscle.
But the worst damage was on the inside. Her skull had fractured. Blood was clotting on her brain.
A helicopter flew her to a hospital, where surgeons removed part of her skull to relieve the pressure from her swelling brain and purge the clot.
Meg had been due back in Boston in a few days. She’d sent ahead an early Mother’s Day bouquet of lilies, tulips and roses, promising a celebration when she got home.
Instead, her parents had boarded a flight to New Zealand. Mother’s Day melted away as they prayed their daughter wouldn’t die.
Meg climbed the front steps, one at a time.
Four baby steps, with her mother poised to catch her.
“You gotta use the railing.”
When Meg had pictured coming home to Salisbury, she expected a trip from the airport, not the hospital.
But there was comfort in the kind of rewind that comes with a return to a childhood bedroom and a family cat’s meow.
“See, Charlie’s waiting for you,” Meg’s mom said.
“I know, adorable kitty.”
It was early August. Meg finally took a seat at her family’s kitchen table again.
Reminders of the accident were all around. There was a second bannister along the stairs to her room, and support bars in the bathrooms. But Meg could start showering by herself in a special chair. She could shave, too.
Meg had planned to move into a city apartment and start a summer internship at PricewaterhouseCoopers when she came home. Instead, her parents would drive her to Boston a couple times a week for therapy.
“You just can’t put words to it, getting her back,” said Deb Theriault, blotting tears. “She’s worked so hard.”
Meg felt more like herself, but craved the day when doctors would rebuild the missing part of her skull and she could ditch her helmet.
“Sorry you have to see me like this,” she told two of her friends.
But soon they were laughing and chatting about Meg’s plan to return to school.
“I don’t remember seeing this shape at all. ... We just went over this, but I don’t remember.”
Meg’s mind wouldn’t work the way she wanted.
“This is really pushing your brain to compensate for difficult material,” her therapist said.
But something inside Meg urged her forward, a kind of determination captured in a poem on the wall of the therapist’s office.
“That one day, changed my life ... That one thing that counts, one thing that I can’t let go, the faith that one day I will be whole again,” the verse said.
She had been home for more than a month. Her complexion was clearing. She was thinner and back to wearing makeup and earrings. She had been reviewing an accounting textbook and seeing more friends.
But her parents made her sleep with a baby monitor at night. She still couldn’t drive a car.
Her left arm floated away from her side when she walked, giving her a robotic gait. She exercised to build her core strength and banish left-sided weakness from her brain injury.
Physiatrist Seth Herman said Meg’s memory and mobility had improved a lot, but might never be what they once were. Due to the frontal lobe injury, she had trouble with insight, including recognizing her shortcomings.
“She probably still thinks she can go back to school,” the doctor said.
But the day in September the fall semester started, Meg woke before dawn and went back to Massachusetts General Hospital.
The time had come for surgeons to fix the hole in her head.
(Next: Meg’s determination to go back to school)