LAWRENCE: Hope and faith after a traumatic fall

By Lea Kahn, Staff Writer
    The stars in the Oregon sky were so close you could almost reach out and touch them, and Kelli Hawthorne and her new friend, Evan Alexander, wanted to get an even closer look at them from the beach.
    So Kelli and Evan set out for the cliffs that rose 25 feet above the beach. Kelli, who grew up in Lawrence, had traveled to Oregon with her family for her older brother’s wedding Sept. 19.
    There are stairways along the top of the cliff that lead to the rocky beach below. Kelli raced ahead of Evan and called out to him that she had found the steps — the last words he heard from the 24-year-old.
    Kelli had plunged off the cliff and landed on the rocks 25 feet below. But Evan didn’t know that until he called out to her and then, by the glow of his iPhone, clambered down and found her at the bottom of the cliff.
    Kelli’s head was stuck between the rocks, and her feet were pointing straight up in the air, her mother, Ruth Hawthorne, recounted at the table in the kitchen of her Franklin Corner Road home. Evan was sure Kelli was dead.
    Rescuers were summoned, but it took some time and effort to free Kelli from her rocky landing place. When they finally extracted her and hoisted her to the top of the cliff in a Stokes basket, they found she had suffered broken fingers, two broken arms, seven broken ribs, lung contusions, a shattered jaw, several missing teeth and numerous cuts and bruises. But she was alive.
    It was Jordan, Kelli’s younger brother, who had to break the news to his parents that Kelli had fallen off a cliff and was seriously injured. Ms. Hawthorne said she was not pleased when Jordan — accompanied by a state trooper — approached the rented house. She thought he was in trouble.
    But then Ms. Hawthorne learned what had happened to Kelli. One of the rescuers who accompanied Jordan told her Kelli was alive and it was a miracle. It is not uncommon for people to fall off a cliff, but they generally do not survive, he told her.
    “He said Kelli was awake and talking, and he was totally encouraging,” Ms. Hawthorne said. “I can’t even comprehend what happened. I had not gone to the beach.”
    Kelli was taken to the local hospital in Lincoln City, then quickly transferred to one of the two Level 1 trauma hospitals in Portland because of the severity of her injuries, Ms. Hawthorne said. Kelli basically had lost her face.
    “The trauma team that examined her asked us for a picture,” Ms. Hawthorne recalled. “They asked us, ‘What did she look like?’ The surgeon said the fall had destroyed her lower jaw. Her face took the brunt (of the impact), but it did what it was supposed to do. It protected her skull and her brain.”
    Kelli underwent several hours of surgery to work on her facial injuries, she said. The Hawthornes found a photograph of Kelli to guide the work of Dr. Eric Dierks, the maxillofacial surgeon who operated on her to reconstruct her face.
    “The waiting was unbearable,” Ms. Hawthorne said.
    When Dr. Dierks emerged, he told the family he had used a piece of her chin for a bone graft for the false teeth she eventually would have, and he had used a piece of the inside of her cheek to make lips. She required 1,000 stitches on her face and 500 inside her mouth.
    Kelli spent the next couple of weeks in the trauma intensive care unit. To reduce the likelihood of scars, Dr. Dierks gave her 100 percent oxygen and removed the scabs and dead skin frequently. She was treated with an antibiotic cream to keep infection at bay. She was released to go home in two weeks — much less time than anticipated, her mother said.
    It was Kelli’s indomitable spirit and sense of humor that quickly made her a popular patient with the physicians and nursing staff, Ms. Hawthorne said. Although efforts were made to prevent her from seeing the extent of her injuries, Kelli caught a glimpse of her face on the mirrored ceiling of the elevator while she was lying on a hospital gurney.
    “She said she wanted to see herself up close so we got her a mirror. She said, ‘I’m not going to need a mask for Halloween,’” Ms. Hawthorne said.
    Her daughter said she always wanted a tattoo when she saw the scar on her forehead, which looked like a peace symbol. She said that when she looked at herself, she didn’t see anything else but herself, her mother said.
    Kelli was determined to get through it, Ms. Hawthorne said. She added athletes are competitive, and they want to win, and it was that attitude that helped her daughter to begin the healing and recovery process. Kelli had always been a swimmer from the time she was a young child through her days at Lawrence High School.
    While she was hospitalized, Kelli received hundreds of cards from well wishers — people she knew as well as people she did not know. She heard from friends she had not spoken to in five or six years, Ms. Hawthorne said. Her longtime friend, Mary Veltri, also organized a Facebook page for Kelli called Team Kelli.
    Those cards and letters helped to lift Kelli’s spirit, Ms. Hawthorne said, adding it is amazing “to see what a card can do, what an encouraging word can do.”
    Her daughter remarked, “Most people are dead when they talk about you. I’m lucky to be alive to hear them and to know how many people care.”
    also has turned her accident into something positive. Noting Kelli had nearly completed work on a master’s degree in elementary education and special education at McDaniel College in Maryland, Ms. Hawthorne said Kelli told her the accident had given her a chance to learn what it’s like to deal with physical handicaps as well as the learning disabilities exhibited by special education students.
    Now that Kelli is home, she is working with assorted therapists at St. Lawrence Rehabilitation Center. She works with a different therapist to address a different aspect of her recovery nearly every day, Ms. Hawthorne said. It will take at least a full year for her to recover.
    As for Kelli, her approach is best described as one day at a time.
    “I kinda just do what I do,” Kelli said. “I always think, ‘Oh, my arm hurts. It could be worse.’ I lived, and I didn’t lose anything — just a couple of teeth and a piece of my lip. A lot of good doctors put my face back together. That’s just the way I have to deal with it.
    “A lot of people ask me, how do I deal with it. I’m just being myself. That’s the way it goes. Get over it. If you can’t laugh about it, everybody is going to be too serious. If you laugh, it’s more fun.”
    Contributions to the Kelli Hawthorne Trust Fund may be sent to the law firm of Stark & Stark at 993 Lenox Drive, Lawrenceville, N.J., 08648.
    A trust fund has been set up because some of Kelli’s medical expenses are not covered by health insurance.
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