Photo: Maple Park native Becky Nelson is currently in a coma as a result of her being struck by a vehicle on July 1 in the Cayman Islands. Nelson, who previously worked at the Kaneville Community Childcare Center, is undergoing treatment at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, Fla. Courtesy Photos
MAPLE PARK—It was supposed to be a Caribbean paradise. But for Rebecca Nelson, it became a nightmare—one she hasn’t woken up from yet.
She’s been in a coma since the night of July 1, when she was struck by a Dodge Caravan in the Cayman Islands in a hit-and-run accident.
Becky, who is 27, grew up on her parents’ dairy farm in Maple Park, and fell in love with the tiny Caribbean nation on a family vacation in Nov. 2011, according to her aunt, Anne Carson of Maple Park. Five months later, Becky packed her bags and moved to the Cayman Islands, an English-speaking nation of just 56,000 people located west of Jamaica.
“She really just fell in love with it,” said Sarah Peterson, a cousin who went on that vacation with Becky. “She fell in love with the climate and the people, and she hadn’t really found any jobs up here she was totally satisfied with, so she moved down there.”
She settled in George Town, the islands’ capital, on Grand Cayman and worked at a child care center, spending her free time enjoying the island’s beaches, looking at wildlife—stingrays, frogs and iguanas—and spending time with friends.
“She was loving it down there,” Carson said. “She loved to go to the beach. She had friends who would take tour groups and go snorkel and see the stingrays, and she loved doing that. She likes cooking; she’d always be cooking dinners for her friends down there and baking treats for them.”
July 1 was Constitution Day, a national holiday celebrating the Cayman Islands’ freedom, and the fireworks at nearby Camana Bay drew spectators from all over the island, including Becky. She didn’t have a car, so she walked. It’s unclear whether she was heading to or from the fireworks display at the time of the accident. What is clear is that, as she walked along North Church Street, a busy two-lane road that hugs the island’s western shore, a Dodge Caravan swerved off the road and struck her at 8:20 p.m. Becky was thrown into a wall. The driver fled the scene.
Just like that, paradise was lost.
The one piece of luck Becky had that night was that a Royal Cayman Islands Police Service officer saw the accident in his rear-view mirror and turned around immediately to help her, calling paramedics to the scene.
“The police officer had just passed her by in his vehicle, and he had actually seen the guy hit her in his rearview mirror, so he swung around and they had help to her within 5 minutes,” said Betsy Beyer, Becky’s aunt. “We were blessed in that at least.”
Another driver who witnessed the accident followed the Dodge Caravan until it stopped, called police to report the vehicle’s license plate number and location, and then returned to the scene to be a witness, RCIPS Supt. Adrian Seales said.
The driver of the Dodge Caravan that struck Becky was arrested later that night on suspicion of leaving the scene of an accident. He’s a Columbian national who resides in the Caymans and is now out on bond, said RCIPS Officer Janet Dougall, but the RCIPS will not release his name before he has appeared in court. Though the suspect’s blood alcohol level was tested when he was arrested—three hours after the accident occurred—the test results will not be released until the RCIPS has finished its investigation.
Becky was transported to George Town Hospital in critical condition, Dougall said.
According to Carson, Becky was rushed immediately into surgery, where a neurosurgeon removed two clots from her brain. The hospital contacted her parents, Dave and Peggy Nelson, in Maple Park around 10:30 p.m. The following night, Becky had another brain surgery to relieve the pressure in her skull as her injured brain swelled.
Becky’s family flew down to the Cayman Islands to be by her side. She remained in intensive care there for four days, even though neither of Grand Cayman’s two hospitals had the kind of trauma center she needed.
Her condition was too critical to move her, and because she had no health insurance, no hospital in the United States would accept her.
The second nightmare
And so the money to pay for her medical care—surgeries, weeks in intensive care, hospital transfers, rehabilitation when she comes out of the coma—has become the second nightmare Becky and her family face.
The Nelsons on July 4 were able to get Becky transferred to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, Fla., which has the only Level 1 trauma center in South Florida. For now, the driver’s insurance company has agreed to pay Becky’s hospital bills, up to $1 million, and that assurance made Jackson Memorial willing to accept her.
Her condition was so delicate that she had to be transferred to Miami by Lear Jet, a flight that cost $14,000.
“They couldn’t go much above sea level because there would be a pressure change in the plane, so they had to take her by Lear Jet so they could fly lower,” Beyer said.
Becky spent two and a half weeks in intensive care. Then, as she stabilized, she had another surgery to repair her fractured pelvis, Carson said.
“They had to put some plates and screws in, and then put the ball back in the socket where it belongs,” Carson said.
Peggy has spent the past month sleeping in her daughter’s hospital room, conferring with her doctors and waiting for her to wake up, Carson said. Other family members have been flying to Florida on alternating schedules to visit.
“Coma” is a broad term that covers a range of states, and although patients in the deepest levels of coma have no response to any stimuli, at higher levels, patients hover somewhere between unconsciousness and awareness. Becky has been in a coma for over a month, but she’s now opening her left eye and tracking movement. That’s one reason why her doctors believe she is gradually emerging from her coma, though it’s hard to say when she’ll wake, Carson said.
Perhaps it’ll be tomorrow. Perhaps it’ll be months.
“(The doctors) are saying that, right now, she’s showing good signs of improvement. They told us that brain injuries take a long time,” Carson said. “She doesn’t wake up and talk to you, she hasn’t done that, but she can open one eye and can respond to movement. There is brain activity, so they think she’ll come out of the coma, but the long-term damage, they’re not sure what that will be yet.”
Peterson spent five days at the hospital with her in late July and said daily signs of improvement are there.
“Just for five days, we were down (in Miami), but we saw improvement,” Peterson said. “She’s been being more active as far as tracking movements with her eyes, and she started moving her head to look at things, and just moving her hands more. We noticed that every day, she was just a little more active. She still can’t follow commands, so if you say, ‘Squeeze my hands,’ she doesn’t do anything yet. Everybody’s very positive now, and we’re just waiting on Becky.”
The extent of the damage won’t become clear until after Becky’s woken up, Carson said, but her doctors have said that the right side of her brain may have more damage than the left, and that there may be some nerve damage, as well. She will almost certainly need extensive therapy.
“Our biggest challenge is getting her to wake up right now. She’s in a coma, and we don’t know how much she’s aware of. We just want her to wake up at this time. Anything after that… this family’s used to challenges, and we’ll deal with it,” Beyer said. “Becky’s that type of person too; she won’t let anything stop her.”
The next steps
Adversity is something the Nelsons, who have lived on their family farm in Maple Park for generations, have faced before.
Becky was diagnosed with epilepsy when she was 18 months old and suffered from seizures for years before having two brain surgeries—the most recent when she was 21—that brought them under control. Her younger brother, Eric Nelson, had a heart transplant when he was just four months old, as well as a later liver transplant.
“(Dave and Peggy) are like rocks,” Beyer said. “They just keep going. God’s throwing another one at us, and they need all the support they can get. We’re a close-knit family, and we’ve been trying to take care of things, but you can only do so much with what you have.”
Getting Becky transferred to a Chicago-area hospital is the family’s current priority, Carson said, so that they can visit her more easily and stop spending money on flights and hotels. Without health insurance, though, it’s difficult to find a hospital that will accept her.
“What we’re most concerned about is having the money to pay expenses and getting her back up here,” Carson said.
Carson said that the family has been working to get Becky approved for Social Security Disability benefits, which will qualify her for Medicare and pay 80 percent of her medical bills. Once that happens, an area hospital should be willing to accept her transfer, Carson said.
“I know the airlift from (Grand) Cayman to Miami was $14,000, and obviously she’ll have to be airlifted again when she’s able to come to Chicago,” Peterson said. “Overnight stays in the hospitals add up. And on top of that, she’s going to have to go to rehab to regain some of her functions, so the costs will be adding up for years to come.”
That’s why Old Second Bank in Elburn, where Peggy has worked for over 30 years, has set up a benefit account for Becky. Donations to the fund will help cover medical bills and rehabilitation costs, Carson said, and anyone who wishes to donate can walk into any Old Second location and ask for the Becky Nelson benefit fund.
A special table will also be set up during Kaneville Fest, Saturday, Aug. 24, to collect donations to help defray Becky’s medical bills. She previously worked at the Kaneville Community Childcare Center and is friends with Kaneville Fest Committee Chairperson Pat Hill.
“The family is struggling as far as money goes,” Beyer said. “We have no idea what it’s going to take when it’s all said and done. Their concern with Medicare is, will she be getting the care she deserves? She’s 27 years old, and to see her just laying there, with a (tube) down her throat … it’s hard to see it.”