Act II: Brianne Applegate ’11 Shows Recovery is No Accident

A fresh outlook on life and art helps Brianne Applegate ’11 heal from a near deadly car crash.
Meaghan Haugh

When Brianne Applegate ’11 rolls up her shirt sleeve, people are often surprised to see the tattoo on the inside of her forearm, which reads “II.I.MMVIII.” Just like the Post-it notes that now hang all around her bedroom and the pain that still lingers, the tattoo is a constant reminder to the 25-year-old Brianne of what happened that day – February 1, 2008.

After hearing her story, you might just wonder how she could ever forget.

Brianne had recently transferred from Bucks County Community College’s nursing program into the Fine Arts program at Rider University. After auditioning for a student-run production of Working, the apprehensive Brianne encountered Dr. Patrick Chmel, professor emeritus of Theater. Chmel remembers well how nervous she was about her tryout, but he reassured the recent transfer that everybody loved her. “It was so clear that she was so impassioned about art and so eager to start her program at Rider,” Chmel recalled. Then they went their separate ways that rainy winter day.

Brianne was driving by herself home to New Hope, Pa., when, without warning, her car hydroplaned and lost all contact with the slick road surface, causing her to veer off the road and into a ravine. She remained unconscious for 45 minutes before she could get up to find help. Brianne sustained significant frontal lobe damage to her brain and fractured the C2 vertebra in her neck, which was inoperable because of bone fragments pressing on her vertebral artery. She also sustained four broken ribs on her left side and a punctured lung. Brianne’s situation worsened in the first 24 hours when she developed lesions on her brain following a stroke, brought on by massive hemorrhaging.

“That was my new birthday, February 1, 2008,” explained Brianne, slowly running her hand over her tattoo. “It changed me forever and ever. I’m a new person now.”

Gravely injured, Brianne spent three weeks recovering at St. Mary Medical Center in Langhorne, Pa., and Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia. With the fate of her daughter uncertain at best, MaryAnne Applegate did not think she would be able to survive either.

“She was having seizures. She already had a stroke. She was immobilized, and she was inoperable. There was nothing we could do for her, besides pray,” MaryAnne said. “The doctors said that hopefully the fragment would be reabsorbed into the vertebrae.”

While Brianne clung to life in the hospital, the Fine Arts community at Rider waited anxiously for news about their injured friend and associate.

“Brianne is the sort of person who you want to embrace as a member of your own family and that’s how everyone feels about her,” Chmel said. “I think she became so popular, so quickly, with both faculty and students that when the accident occurred it was a great shock to many.”

When Brianne was finally released from Jefferson, she was put on a waiting list to begin rehabilitation, so MaryAnne brought her daughter home in the interim to New Hope. With little information about her daughter’s injury to guide her, MaryAnne retreated to a realm she knew well – art. Using a common-sense approach, along with multisensory therapy, she sat Brianne down with an easel and paint brushes, determined to maximize her daughter’s chances of recovery. Surrounded by the familiar warmth of her kitchen and a beautiful view of trees outside, Brianne, unable to talk, hear or write, began to paint.

“You could sense that the shock waves going on in her brain were coming out on her canvas. There were all different shapes and colors,” said MaryAnne, an artist herself.

Later, Brianne sat down at her piano and began to play, from memory, the music she had once composed.

“She had no recollection of other things, but in some way, the music came back to her,” MaryAnnes aid. “Our home was really conducive to her healing. It was very amazing. She was doing what she did best.”

In April 2008, Brianne began an aggressive rehabilitation program for cognitive and occupational therapy at the Kessler Institute in Chester, N.J. At first, MaryAnne drove Brianne on the 100-mile round trip every day before Brianne eventually moved into more local quarters, where a driver could shuttle her to and from Kessler five days a week. At night, after eight hours of rehab, Brianne painted, composed music and played the synthesizer her mother had bought for her. Post-it notes hung around the apartment with friendly reminders to turn off the stove after cooking, or other seemingly routine living skills.

Today, Brianne is a senior Fine Arts and Dance dual major, one the casual observer would never suspect of having suffered a traumatic brain injury. Less than a year after her car accident, she took two independent study courses and traveled to Prague as part of her Arts Abroad class.

Eventually, after her leave of absence, she returned to the University as a full-time student where she was named an Andrew J. Rider scholar – an honor reserved for the top one percent, by grade point average, of students in each of Rider's four academic colleges – and named to the dean’s list multiple times. An active member of the Rider chapter of Alpha Psi Omega, the national theater fraternity, Brianne landed roles in three main-stage plays, including Rent, Bug and Anatomy of Gray.

MaryAnne Applegate said she was overwhelmed by the support and dedication of the Fine Arts faculty and students. Chmel and Miriam Mills, assistant professor of Fine Arts, brought Brianne’s assignments to her home when she took the independent study classes.

“Brianne would not be where she is without the academic program and its exceptional faculty and students.” MaryAnne said. “I remember how the students threw her a welcoming reception. They sang with her and cheered her on. There must have been 60 students there. It meant the world. They are such an amazing group of people.”

Still, for Brianne, the experience has not been easy, and there are painful daily reminders of her ordeal. The accident has affected her short-term memory, so she has to write everything down.

She cannot turn her neck all the way to the right and her vocal chords were damaged as well. So, while she can sing, it’s very difficult.

“Ever since the accident, I have taken three steps back. I was 22 when it happened, and it was frustrating to be an adult and having to start all over again. I’ve learned patience. I’ve learned the value of family,” said Brianne, who particularly noted the love and care provided by her siblings, as well as the generous financial support of her aunt and uncle. “Without my family, I would have died. I take nothing for granted. Everything is an honor. Driving is an honor. Singing is an honor.”

In the future, Brianne would also like to pursue careers in acting and music therapy. In addition, the Applegates have become involved with the Brain Injury Association of New Jersey.

“My time at Kessler has pushed me to help others affected by brain injuries,” Brianne said. “I met normal people, just like you and me, who had been in car accidents or had been shot. It was a totally sobering experience.”

Through it all, MaryAnne says Brianne has been a beacon of light for others. “Brie’s an inspiration to her family, friends and community,” MaryAnne said. “She has been a breath of fresh air, with her sense of resiliency, determination and purpose, MaryAnne continued. And, indeed, she’s also learned not to be afraid of death, but rather, the unlived life.”

This article originally appeared in the fall 2010 issue of Rider Magazine.