By Alyce Collins



PROM CELEBRATIONS went awry for this teenager who had to be AIR LIFTED to hospital after suffering a serious head injury that left her in a coma – and doctors feared she only had a TEN PER CENT chance of ever WAKING UP.


Prom is a cherished celebration for many, but for Avery Tanner (18) from Utah, USA, the day’s events were only just beginning as the day began with abseiling, followed by lunch, an evening dance and then dinner.


Unfortunately, on April 20, 2019, Avery’s parents, Jesse Riley (39) and Caysie Riley (38) received a call that Avery had been hurt and was being rushed to hospital. A group of Avery’s friends were abseiling, and it’s thought that Avery pinched her hand in the carabiner clips and let go of the rope suspending her. She hit her head against the cliff and fell 25 feet, only to be miraculously caught in the arms of one of the boys who’d already taken the descent.


Avery before her accident. MDWfeatures / @forthestrengthofavery

Avery coded and died momentarily in the helicopter, before being resuscitated. Once at the hospital, doctors stabilised Avery and carried out CT scans of her head and spine before placing a monitor in her skull to measure intercranial pressure. Jesse recalls the first time he and Caysie saw Avery after arriving at the hospital as the most painful sight ever because she looked as if she was dead.


Avery spent 23 days on life support, and an MRI revealed that she had suffered a diffuse axonal injury, meaning the wires to the brain were torn from their connections. The prognosis was that 90 per cent of patients never wake up from their coma, while the other 10 per cent are in a permanent vegetative state. This was devastating for Avery’s family who feared she had been given a death sentence at only 18.


Jesse did physical therapy exercises with Avery five times a day, stretching out her limbs and joints to prevent them from tightening up. Every time he got to her hands, he would tell her to squeeze his hand and then pause, but nothing happened. On the tenth day however, Jesse felt a squeeze – but doctors assured him it was only reflexive and not intentional. Two days later, a physical therapist told Avery to squeeze her hand and Avery did so, then when instructed, she let go and wiggled her fingers, so on day 12 Avery came out of her coma.


Avery surrounded by machines to keep her alive. MDWfeatures / @forthestrengthofavery

“In Utah it’s common for the kids to do day events rather than just a dance for prom. Their plans included abseiling, lunch, then splitting apart and going home to get ready for the dinner and dance,” said Jesse.


“Usually lots of pictures are taken by proud parents before they head out for the night.  Dinner would have been followed by the actual dance.


“Our world was turned around when we received a call at 11:37am. My wife was visibly shaking when she rushed to tell me that Avery had been hurt.


“During abseiling, they were all using harnesses and safety equipment and two of the boys went first to make sure it was safe. They then decided it was one of the girl’s turns but one of the younger girls who’d been volunteered to go first was terrified. Even though Avery was nervous, she told the younger girl that she would go first to show her that there was nothing to worry about.


Friends visit Avery as she recovers from a brain injury. MDWfeatures / @forthestrengthofavery

“They’re unsure of what exactly happened, but the kids think she pinched her hand in the carabiner clips and instinctively let go of the rope.  She fell back and hit her head three times and amazingly was caught by one of the boys who’d already gone down.


“He has no idea how he was able to catch her. He remembers seeing her fall and the next thing he knew she was in his arms. She fell about 25 feet and he caught her without falling to the ground himself, keeping her from hitting the ground, which surely would have killed her.


“The kids snapped into action and called emergency services. First responders arrived and as they started evaluating her, they decided she warranted a life flight rather than ambulance.

“She coded and died during the life flight and had to be resuscitated, but once they got to the hospital, she was stable, so they did CT scans. Caysie and I were placed in a small waiting room for what felt like an eternity until they came and told us they were placing a monitor in her skull.


“Avery was taken up to the Trauma ICU as the neurosurgeon drilled a small hole in her skull and dropped in a fibre-optic sensor to monitor the intracranial pressure in her skull. We were eventually allowed to go and spend time with Avery who was connected to life support with, what felt like, a million machines surrounding her.


Some of Avery’s friends from school during a visit to her hospital room. MDWfeatures / @forthestrengthofavery

“As a physician myself, I’ve seen this before, but nothing prepares you for seeing your daughter in this position. She looked dead. I’ve seen dead people, but nothing was more awful than this.


“The next four days were the longest of our lives. This was the period when Avery’s brain would reach critical swelling, determining whether she would need surgery to remove part of her skull. After four days without the pressure getting too high, they decided to take the monitor out and do an MRI to assess the damage. We were elated.”


Five days after her fall, Avery had a tracheotomy fitted, a feeding tube and a subclavian line which circulated cooled fluid into her system to lower her body temperature, tackling her fevers.


Although she had a slim chance of surviving, Avery has defied the odds which were stacked up against her. She required surgery on her right eye, which doctors said she wouldn’t be able to see out of yet her vision has returned, and despite her spinal column being packed with blood, which doctors said would prevent her from walking, she now walks 5,000 steps a day.


“It felt like every day was two steps forward, 15 steps back. Avery battled fevers, abnormal breathing rates, abnormal heartbeat, abnormal blood pressure and a constant draining of cerebrospinal fluid from her right ear which soaked through absorbent pads every two minutes,” said Jesse.


Surgeons didn’t expect Avery to make a recovery as she had a 90 per cent chance of being in a permanent vegetative state. MDWfeatures / @forthestrengthofavery

“I did physical therapy five times a day to stretch Avery’s limbs to keep them from tightening up. Whenever I got to her hands, I’d tell her to squeeze my hand, then wait. Nothing.


“On day 10 I got a squeeze. I began yelling that she squeezed my hand, so my wife and a few others gathered around as I finished the rest of her arm exercises and at the end, asked her to squeeze my hand. A very visible and intentional hand squeeze occurred, and it was seen by others, not just me!


“The doctors told us to not get too excited as it was only reflexive, and they didn’t expect her to pull through. Physical therapy had begun coming and helping Avery sit up. But on day 12 they put their hand in hers and told her to squeeze and she did!


“We tried to not get too excited, but then they asked her to let go, which was intentional movement and not reflexive, and she did. They asked her to wiggle her fingers and she did. It would be weeks before she did any communicating, but her eyes were opening occasionally, and she was following commands. This meant that she was out of the coma.


Avery and her dad at a dance before her prom celebrations. MDWfeatures / @forthestrengthofavery

“More struggles came as she battled a collapsed lung, three rounds of pneumonia, a blood-filled right eye that wouldn’t let her see, no hearing in her right ear. Her legs hadn’t been moving so they did MRIs of her spine, which showed that her spinal column was completely packed with blood and it was impinging on her spinal cord.


“This meant that she would probably never walk again, but within a month of physical therapy she learned to walk on her own again. She had surgery on her right eye, and she can see great out of it. The right ear is still damaged, and this will be permanent, but she’s so positive.


“All in all, she spent 68 days in hospital for an injury that was supposed to end her life. Avery’s now back home and doing outpatient therapy. She still has a long road ahead of her, but it’s a road we once thought was a dead end.


“Avery’s community rallied around her because of who she is. There are those people who have this innate light within them, Avery has that, but her true talent is that she’s able to bring that light out in other people.”


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