Story, Patient

Tragedy Meets Tenacity: How Marissa Found Hope After a Horrific Car Accident

June 17, 2021

A severe car accident left Marissa unable to talk, walk, eat or even breathe without the help of a machine. But with the help of Children’s Hospital Colorado – and an extraordinary determination – Marissa is now achieving things doctors once thought were impossible.

Marissa, Children's Hospital Colorado Patient Ambassador
Marissa, Children’s Hospital Colorado Patient Ambassador

On a warm August evening in 2016, Marissa was headed to back-to-school night with her mother and younger brother. She had just started 5th grade, and the family was looking forward to meeting new teachers and reconnecting with old friends. 

“We never made it,” says Marissa.

The last thing Marissa remembers was the sight of another car careening into the driver’s side of her family’s Acura. The force of the collision caused their car to violently crash into a light pole, which severed directly through the vehicle. Marissa’s small body bore the brunt of the impact.

Marissa remained unconscious for the events that followed, but her mother, Aimee, remembers every horrifying moment in vivid detail: discovering that her 6-year-old son, Ben, wasn’t breathing and watching as paramedics intubated him at the scene. Seeing Marissa, bloodied and unresponsive, being loaded into an ambulance and rushed to a nearby emergency room in Colorado Springs.

The children’s injuries were so severe that they were both airlifted to Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora, Colo. Aimee and her husband, Mark, immediately began the 70-mile trip by car, arriving two hours later to learn that emergency room doctors were in a desperate fight to keep their children alive.

Side-by-side siblings in the ICU

After they were stabilized, the siblings were placed in side-by-side beds in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. Ben woke up after two days and began making steady progress. But Marissa was a different story.

“We didn’t know the extent of her injuries at first, but it was much worse than we ever could have imagined,” says Aimee.

Doctors discovered that the impact of the accident had severed Marissa’s carotid artery, which supplies blood to the brain, causing a massive stroke. She had lost all function on the right side of her body and was blind in her left eye. Doctors had to drill a hole in her skull to relieve the pressure, and they kept Marissa in a medically induced coma to allow her brain to heal. 

Marissa couldn’t speak or move or eat. She couldn’t even breathe without the help of a machine. 

“She was so battered and bruised that I hardly recognized her,” Aimee recalls. “She had hundreds of stitches all over her face and there were more than a dozen different pumps and lines and tubes hooked up to her. It was just surreal.”

Beyond her brain injury, Marissa’s right femur was broken in half, and her jaw had to be entirely reconstructed and then wired shut to heal. Her pain was excruciating.

If that wasn’t hard enough, Marissa’s memory was severely impacted during the initial weeks, so she would continually wake up terrified and confused.

“It was sheer panic,” recalls her mother. “Every day we had to reexplain where she was and what had happened. It was awful.”

Baby steps to recovery

Altogether, Marissa had eight surgeries on her brain, leg and jaw. Marissa’s father says he’ll never forget the moment he met Dr. Michael Handler, Marissa’s neurosurgeon.

“He told me he would never stop fighting and that he would do everything he could for her,” recalls Mark. “And that’s exactly what he did.”

Marissa’s doctors never stopped fighting, but it was Marissa’s determination to heal that left even her caregivers astounded. She emerged from her coma after three weeks and was transferred to the rehab unit, where she underwent intensive daily therapy to relearn how to walk, talk and eat again.

Learning to walk was particularly excruciating – every step a piercing stab– but Marissa was determined to fight through the pain.

“The day that I took my first steps in the hospital was a huge milestone for me,” says Marissa. “It was so hard and painful, and I was exhausted afterwards, but it was such a massive accomplishment.”

Speaking for the first time after weeks of intubation was also an emotional moment.  

“My voice didn’t sound like my own at first, and it was really hard to make the words come out, but I was so proud that I did it,” says Marissa.

Marissa says she is incredibly grateful to her therapists who were there for every step of her recovery.

“They pushed me even when I didn’t want to do it, because it was painful and hard, but I’m so grateful that they did,” she says.

After three months in the hospital – and just two days before her 11th birthday — Marissa was able to return home. She was still partially paralyzed but against all odds, she could now speak, breathe, eat and even take steps on her own.

“Your entire life can change in the blink of an eye, and I’m just so glad that we had this incredible hospital,” says Aimee. “They saved my children’s lives. Without them, I wouldn’t have my family.”

A brave new path

Today, five years after the accident, Marissa continues to heal with perseverance and positivity. She does hours of physical and occupational therapy every week at Children’s Hospital Colorado’s Briargate Clinic in Colorado Springs. She has regained nearly 70% of the movement on the right side of her body – and she says she won’t stop working until she has full functionality in her right hand.

Marissa says she loves doing arts, crafts, and adaptive skiing and horseback riding, but her favorite thing is finding ways to give back to the hospital that saved her life.  

As a Patient Ambassador, Marissa is raising money for stroke research and the Children’s One medical transport helicopter. She also loves making handmade blankets, which she donates to kids in the hospital.  

“Children’s Hospital Colorado gave me my life,” says Marissa. “I can never thank them enough.”