Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era
Sound those sirens!
Sound those sirens! BY LARRY ALEXANDER, Staff Writer
What began as a story of tragedy for a Hempfield High School girl ended in triumph on Thursday.
Fourteen weeks after suffering devastating injuries in a two-vehicle crash that left her on death's doorstep, Katelyn Elliott, a Neffsville Fire Company junior firefighter, returned from Hershey Medical Center to her East Hempfield Township home in a fire engine.
At the wheel was her dad, Neffsville fire Chief Mike Elliott, leading a caravan of at least 15 engines, tankers and trucks, which had their lights flashing and sirens wailing in celebration.
"It was so good to get her on that fire engine," said Katelyn's mother, Mary Kohler. "When she saw the fire truck she just screamed, 'Whoo, whoo.' It couldn't have been better. She is one happy young lady."
The Oct. 17 accident left Katelyn with a broken sternum, a broken pelvis, two fractured ribs that collapsed both her lungs and a "really bad hit on the head" that caused a traumatic brain injury, Kohler said.
What Kohler called a "sad situation" was compounded when a mistaken report that the girl had not survived the crash was relayed to the high school, where it was announced to the students.
What happened, Kohler explained, was that a police officer was in the emergency room at Lancaster General Hospital when a doctor told them that "he didn't think there was any more he could do for her, that she was brain dead."
"I walked into her room one minute later and started talking to her," Kohler said. "I told her, 'God loves you, God loves you,' because if she was not going to come back, I wanted to make sure she was going to heaven."
As she whispered the words to her daughter, Katelyn moved.
"The doctor said, 'Oh my gosh, we have to do more surgery,' " Kohler said.
By that time the police officer had left.
"The officer never got the message," Kohler said. "No one thought to say, 'Stop. She's back.' He assumed she'd passed on, and called the school."
The error was quickly corrected, first by Katelyn's father, Mike, who doubles as a junior varsity coach, after students sent text messages to him, and by Kohler, who phoned the school to tell them why Katelyn would be absent.
Katelyn spent the next five weeks in the trauma unit at Lancaster General Hospital before being transferred to Hershey Medical Center.
She still needs help to walk and has short-term memory problems.
"Other than that, she's doing fantastic," her mother said.
At 3 p.m. Thursday, Katelyn arrived at her home on Valley View Drive, where the front lawn was festooned with balloons.
Waiting at the house was a crowd of family, friends, classmates and neighbors, many holding signs and ignoring the cold wind to welcome the Hempfield senior home. As the distant scream of the sirens from the caravan grew louder, the well-wishers became more eager.
Family friend Mitzy Heading said she was feeling "very emotional."
"I'm just so excited," she said. "It's overwhelming how happy we all are that she's come this far."
Rachel Young, a friend of Katelyn's, said, "I'm very happy. This could have been a very different situation. I'm looking forward to seeing her."
After being lifted from the fire engine by a group of Neffsville firefighters, Katelyn said it "feels wonderful" to be home.
Struggling with her emotions, she said, "I greatly appreciate everybody coming out. I didn't realize how many people care about me. So many people love me. I'm lucky to have such a great support system."
Katelyn's stepbrother, Cameron Warfel, called her homecoming "a miracle."
"There's no other way to describe it," he said. "This is just amazing."
Chandler Elliott, Katelyn's 14-year-old brother, said, "It's great to have her home. She was very excited when we put her on the fire engine. It was overwhelming for her. And for us."
Her father said he could not believe how well his daughter had bounced back.
"Knowing where we came from on Oct. 17, to being able to bring her home three months later, it's incredible," he said.
Elliott was thankful to both hospitals for an "incredible job," and to his fellow firefighters who cared enough to turn out.
"Katelyn's a firefighter, and that's what the brotherhood does, supports each other," he said.
Katelyn will now start rehabilitation work at Lancaster General Hospital Health Campus and will be tutored by the school district at home until she is able to return.
Kohler said she never gave up on Katelyn's recovery.
"Even after we were told there was nothing they could do, I just assumed it wasn't over," Kohler said. "Something told me, 'Don't worry.' I had complete faith that she'd be OK."
nIt was good news this time as a teen, once thought dead in a car crash, comes home riding on a fire truck.