Near the end of the school year at Brandon’s University Christian School, the art teacher gave his first period students large canvases, leftover paint and the freedom to go at them Jackson Pollack-style.
Danielle Parkman, 14, dipped her hands in color and splattered it against the white – tossing pink, blue and red across the rectangle. Then she threw it on her friends, who laughed and retaliated until, pretty soon, everyone was engaged in a colorful, carefree mess of creativity.
It is her most vibrant memory of the day her life went black, canvas wiped clean.
On that day, May 12, 2009, her mother, Julie Parkman, a wife and mother of three, had a lot on her mind.
In two days, her eldest son, Mitchell, would graduate from UCS. He was away on a mission trip with his father, Louie, but they would return that evening. On May 14, the family would leave for the Bahamas, and she couldn’t forget about Danielle’s upcoming horse show.
After work, she drove to register her daughter for the 4-H competition, got her hair cut and headed to the tanning salon to get a little color before the trip. But at her last stop, Julie couldn’t get out of the car.
“I pulled into the place and thought, ‘I need to go home, and I don’t know why,'” she said. “Thank God I did because she wouldn’t be with us if I had waited any longer.”
Danielle Parkman had loved horses since she was 5. She had several stuffed ones in her toy collection, and because family friends took her with them to horse shows, she grew into a competitive show woman.
At age 10 on Christmas morning, her parents presented her with a pony named Princess. When she was 12, they added a half-Quarter/half-Arabian horse with a reddish coat and black mane named Renegade.
That afternoon, when Louie Parkman arrived at the family’s Brandon home with Mitchell from the annual UCS senior mission trip, he saw Danielle at the barn with a bucket in her hand feeding the animals. As a rule, Danielle was not to ride Renegade if no one was home.
Louie waved at his daughter, and because he had been traveling eight hours, went inside and collapsed in his recliner.
American Idol had just aired and music was blaring from the TV when Julie arrived. She went to look for Danielle.
“I didn’t see her anywhere,” she said. “I looked around, and a piece of cloth caught my eye.”
She soon realized it was Danielle lying on the ground. Danielle was motionless and face down. Louie turned her over, and Julie, a nurse, checked her vital signs. Her daughter’s left pupil was dilated, indicating brain trauma. She talked to her and held her hand waiting on the ambulance, and when it arrived, she got inside and started her daughter’s IV.
Danielle was transported to Blair E. Batson Hospital for Children in Jackson, where she was intubated because of difficulty breathing. Neurosurgeons drained fluid from her brain to control swelling and put her in a drug-induced coma for two weeks. She developed pneumonia, a staph infection in her lungs and a hormone condition that caused her body to retain fluids. Doctors told her parents the first 72 hours were critical, and the Parkmans waited, wondering if their daughter would live.
Within 48 hours, they began to see signs of improvement and clung to hope Danielle would pull through, but they were still uncertain what quality of life she would have if she survived.
“After we figured out she was going to live, I didn’t care about anything else,” Louie said. “I said if she lives, I’ll tote her the rest of her life if I have to.”
Danielle couldn’t move her left side, and doctors didn’t know how much function would return, if any. They also didn’t know if she would be able to breathe on her own or swallow. But within 10 days, the pneumonia and staph infection had cleared, doctors began decreasing the sedatives and Danielle began to move a little. Her parents were thrilled when she motioned “I love you”, but it was a finger wiggle that sent her dad over the moon.
“The day I saw her left index finger move, I liked to have run out of the hospital,” he said. “There is no describing how that felt. I had my phone in my pocket. I started texting everybody: ‘I saw her finger move. I saw her finger move.'”
After two weeks, Danielle was free of sedatives. Soon, she was taken off the machines and moved to a regular floor. Speech and physical therapy came next. She eventually began to move her left foot and hand. Therapists helped her identify shapes to improve her cognitive skills. But despite her improvement, doctors said they didn’t think she should return to school. Danielle had other plans. She intended to graduate with her class.
“UCS has always been a really tight-knit school, and when someone gets hurt, it’s like a member of your own family getting hurt,” said Phil Hannon, principal of the private Christian school with about 350 students.
Teachers adjusted Danielle’s schedule so she could attend school half days and therapy the rest. Louie Parkman describes his daughter as strong-willed and independent, just like her mom, who is earning a bachelor’s degree in nursing while working full time.
Today, Danielle has almost fully recovered. This year, she played basketball, volleyball, softball and tennis, ran track and was a cheerleader. She’s also back riding “with a helmet of course,” she said, but not on Renegade.
The 17-year-old will graduate from UCS May 21 and plans to attend Jones County Junior College the first two years majoring in photography and graphic design.
Danielle doesn’t remember exactly what happened three years ago, but knows that in preparation for the horse show barrel competition, she rode Renegade in a clover-leaf pattern, focusing on sharp turns.
“A day doesn’t go by that I don’t think about my accident,” she said. “Not that I dwell on it, but an ambulance will go by, or I’ll hear about another accident. Anything will bring it up.”
Danielle said she and her mother now have a tighter bond.
“My mom slept in my room, and when I had to take a shower and couldn’t hold myself up, she put on a bathing suit and got in the shower with me,” she said. “She brushed my hair for me, braided it, put it up in a ponytail. She put lotion on my feet when my skin got dry in the hospital bed.
“Most young people want to get away from their parents and go off to college, but I will miss her so much.”
Julie Parkman said the accident was a humbling reality check.
“All these things you think are important, things you worry about from day to day – working, money, bills, your normal routine, going on a cruise – changed in an instant. It makes you realize how fragile life is.”
Said Louie: “Everybody has to work to make ends meet in today’s time, but you better make some time to spend with your family. I’ve always told my kids I love them, but it’s on a daily basis now.”
The Parkmans have decided to resume that trip to the Bahamas. They’ll be headed there May 26 with Danielle, the new graduate, in tow.
–LaReeca Rucker, The Clarion-Ledger