Jenny Baker used to not worry when her daughter was running late and would not text or call. But that was before the accident.
“Now, if I didn’t hear from her, I’d be on the phone,” Baker said.
Baker’s daughter, Kelsi Bender, suffered a multitude of injuries when she was involved in an March 2011 car accident. In addition to broken bones, a brain injury and arm damage that required extensive physical therapy, the injury to her heart was so severe that her doctors told her only 10 percent of people survive it.
Yet, just over a year later, she is on the dean's list at the University of St. Francis in . She didn't miss one day of school and is on track to graduate on schedule with a nursing degree in 2013.
“That’s probably my biggest accomplishment," she said. "I made the dean’s list.”
Bender is entering her senior year and has shocked others around her by how determined she approached healing from her injuries.
"'Go big or go home.' That's with everything. It's either commit and go for it or don't do it at all," she said. "I apply that to everything. That's what I live by. "That's how I like it and continue to to keep moving forward."
This is not the first time Bender had to move forward from tragedy. When she was a freshman at USF, her stepsister had a heart attack and she did not survive.
"She should have been airlifted at the age of 19 and she wasn’t," Bender said. "I went through that while I was in college, I was a freshman."
She did not miss any school then either.
Most recently, her Maternal-Child Nursing instructor, Catherine Guiney was amazed by Bender's fortitude.
"I haven't had any like Kelsey with a traumatic brain injury," she said of her students who have found determination despite life's challenges.
But, she said, she is in a way not surprised because anyone who chooses nursing as a career has that determination already in their personality.
"I don't think anyone goes into that profession lightly," she said.
Bender does not remember many details from her crash or the days that followed.
“I remember bits and pieces, but I was already in the hospital,” Bender said. “The one thing I do remember from the accident myself is the police officer. I remember her asking for my phone because they assumed (the accident) was because of text messaging, but it wasn’t.”
She knows now, though, that unlike her sister, she was airlifted from the scene at U.S. 52 and Arbiter Road in Minooka.
"They knew something was really bad and that’s why they chose to airlift me and get me out of there," she said.
Bender had a vertical fracture to her patella, a broken heal, a broken ankle, a lacerated liver and spleen, and deep lacerations to her knee and calf. Those were in addition to her traumatic brain injury and torn aorta.
Immediately after being airlifted to Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove, she went into surgery to repair her heart.
“It’s grafted with mesh,” she said of the repair. “It was like a five-hour procedure. My tissues will form around it and grow with it.”
Bender was in the hospital for 10 days and her mother never left.
When Bender was released, she could not do much for herself and had to rely on others. What she was determined to do, though, is get back to her schooling.
"She was very worried about her classes," Baker said. "When she got back home, within the week, she was looking at her books again."
Because of her brain injury, Bender found she had to take breaks often when studying, which was frustrating for her. But her determination never faultered.
Bender's determination helped her mother in the early days after Bender’s accident.
“Her determination was great; it fed me early on, it kept me going,” Baker said.
Both Baker and Bender find themselves appreciating their families more after the accident.
“It can happen to you, it did,” Baker said. “We’re so lucky, so fortunate.
“Enjoy your children, enjoy your life; don’t always assume you’ll have tomorrow.”
Editor's Note: A detail in this story was corrected. Patch regrets the error.