Susan Wendal grabbed a pen and small notebook off the coffee table and peered into her daughter’s face. Without breaking eye contact, she said, “First line?”
Jennifer Wendal blinked, indicating yes.
Her mother ticked off the letters in that line.
“A, B, C, D, E, F -”
WHAT TO KNOW
- Jennifer Wendal, of Ronkonkoma, was left paralyzed and with traumatic brain injury after she was struck by a car in 2018.
- She now blinks to communicate, and hopes to raise awareness about traffic safety.
- From 2018 through 2022, 7,732 people were seriously injured in crashes on Long Island.
Jennifer closed her eyes again, picking "F." Susan jotted it down, and pressed on.
Since a 2018 crash left Jennifer paralyzed from the neck down, she uses her eyes to communicate, blinking through the alphabet — one line, one letter at a time.
It's a laborious process that takes minutes per phrase.
On a recent October afternoon at her home in Ronkonkoma, she blinked out "faith," how she and her family get through each day.
A once-active 22-year-old who loved art, dancing and math, she spends most days in bed, with round-the-clock medical attention.
Jennifer, who turns 28 on Sunday, is among the 143,495 people injured in traffic crashes on Long Island from 2018 through 2022, including 7,732 seriously, according to data kept by the Institute of Traffic Safety Management and Research at the University of Albany.
The Wendal family said while there is a focus on fatal collisions, less attention is given to serious crashes and the consequences for those seriously impacted. The crash not only took part of Jennifer’s life, Susan said, it dropped an extraordinary set of challenges on the family, including ongoing medical care, costs, and the physical and emotional toll. Jennifer, her family and caregivers opened up to raise awareness about traffic safety.
Last year, 243 people were killed in Long Island crashes, the most since 2015. It was a 29% increase compared with 2019, the year before the COVID pandemic, which traffic experts and law enforcement officials said triggered a surge in dangerous driving.
But traffic fatalities don't tell the full story. Another 1,536 people were seriously injured on Long Island roads last year, many whose lives will be forever changed.
Daily struggle to survive
For Jennifer, a former Sachem High School East graduate who hoped to become an accountant, survival is a daily struggle.
She was paralyzed after a car struck her in Lake Ronkonkoma, about a mile from her home, on Memorial Day 2018. It was 8:27 p.m. and she was with a friend crossing Ronkonkoma Avenue near Division Road when the car hit them, hurling both their bodies into the air.
There were no charges filed against the driver, who according to the police report, had the green light as the two stepped onto the roadway, an account Jennifer's family disputes. The other pedestrian did not respond to requests for comment.
Jennifer, according to Susan, landed on her head and had to be revived. She suffered traumatic brain injury and damage to her spinal cord, among other injuries that required surgery, including a fused jaw and broken femur.
She was in a medically induced coma for a little over a week and spent six months at Stony Brook University Hospital before being transferred to a rehabilitation facility. During the height of the pandemic in July 2020, her mother grew concerned about her care and brought her back to their Ronkonkoma home.
Every day, there are more than a dozen different prescriptions to manage conditions like seizures, plus pain, cardiac and gastric issues. Some medicine is administered via a tube into her stomach and intestine. Some are taken multiple times a day.
There is also wound, nebulizing, tracheostomy treatments and more. She has two feeding tubes, two ostomy pouches and a ventilator that helps her breathe.
'Cognitively 100% there'
Her complicated medical condition, per Susan and Jennifer’s pulmonologist and acting primary care doctor, Dr. Andrew Weber, requires “a village.”
Despite her physical disabilities, “She is cognitively 100% there,” said her social worker, Ira Dunne, a community case manager at Allegiant Homecare, who is at Jennifer's bedside regularly to help with her care. Weber agrees.
For instance, Jennifer likes to pick out her own clothes in the morning, sometimes by blinking her requests or by nodding when shown an outfit. Recently, she wore a purple T-shirt, her favorite color. She often asks to watch the series "Heartland" on the TV that faces her. Her mother devised the system with the alphabet displayed on a board, which Susan said gives her daughter a voice.
She can use her head to ring a bell near the top of her medical bed when she needs something.
On a recent fall day, Jennifer turned her head toward her younger sister, Caylee Wendal, 20, and blew one of her trademark kisses by puckering her lips for several seconds.
Her family says her kisses show love, thanks and appreciation. For Caylee, none of it is enough to make up for what was lost.
"I can't hear my sister tell me she loves me or hug me," Caylee said.
Advocates said entire networks of people are impacted by serious crashes. People who are seriously injured may need full-time caregivers, and in some cases, require a spouse, parent or a child to give up or switch jobs to fulfill that new role.
“It’s horrible. It completely changes the trajectory of one’s life and the lives of their loved ones,” said Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, based in Washington, D.C.
“The ripple effect of crashes for both fatalities and injuries is so wide and so tragic,” Chase added.
Jennifer's mother, Susan, works part time at a pharmacy store and gets by on little sleep, devoting most of her time to her daughter.
"Overnight, she can't be left alone, so you can't sleep. It's a lot, and there are times we are down a nurse, like right now," Susan said, adding that although Medicaid approved 24/7 care it’s been difficult to hire enough help and she's in the market for more assistance. Often a nurse only becomes available after their patient dies, she said, which is how she secured their current and only full-time nurse.
Jennifer received an insurance settlement from the crash, but Susan said it’s not enough to cover all her needs, and family and friends often pitch in to help.
“Without the family you wouldn’t be able to get her out of bed every day or every other day. And the body needs to be moved,” said Susan, who previously worked as a hospice-certified nurse’s aide.
It’s horrible. It completely changes the trajectory of one’s life and the lives of their loved ones.
— Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety in Washington, D.C.
Last year's surge in traffic deaths compared with 2019 occurred amid an increase in reckless driving behaviors such as unsafe speed, improper lane changes and passing, as well as distracted driving and alcohol, which were increasingly reported by police as factors in fatal car crashes, Newsday previously reported.
'I want people to pay attention'
Upon hearing about the increasingly dangerous roads, Jennifer blinked out a safety message with her mom over several minutes: "I want people to pay attention."
At her modest home, Susan pulled out several palm-sized notebooks filled with Jennifer’s thoughts since the crash.
She also dug out photos of Jennifer as a child dancing and then as a smiling teenager.
At any given moment, Jennifer can be caught laughing. She bobs her head slightly, breaking out in extended wide-open smiles.
In a nod to her nurse, Steven Crawford, Jennifer recently spelled out "CBW," a running joke that initially provided hours of amusement as he tried to guess what she meant. Then he noticed the words “cute but weird," stamped on her Lilo and Stitch blanket.
“I didn’t initially recognize anything on the blanket, so this was very funny,” Crawford said.
He said Jennifer likes to play Connect 4, blinking as he hovers a piece over the row she wants, and she beats him every time.
Sometimes she tries to mouth words, then resorts to her visual communication system. Since being brought home, she’s started to slowly open her fists, which are often clenched by her side.
The family's 4-pound Chihuahua named Bear brightens her mood, as well as the cardinals that land in the yard outside her window.
As far as what the future holds, Susan said only God knows.
In the roughly year and a half that Jennifer has been under Weber’s care, he said she often has surpassed his expectations.
“She has been in the hospital with me multiple times and yet she always comes out on the other end,” said Weber, who said his role is to make sure she has as long and as good a quality of life as possible. Short of a miracle, he said her chances of regaining meaningful motor function are slim to none.
“Her medical care is going to be difficult," he said. "It is going to be challenging and it is going to be lifelong."
He added: "I do not think that many people would be able to maintain the dignity, optimism and zest for life that she has."