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Blackburn making steady progress

| June 18, 2004 12:00 AM

By Paul Boring, Western News Reporter

Since Halloween night, the Blackburn family has been caught on an emotional roller coaster.

Nearly eight months after Ginny Blackburn was involved in a car accident that tragically took the life of her best friend and classmate, David Collins, Ginny is back at home in Libby, making steady progress.

On Halloween night, Dave and Tammy were up late in their home on the Kootenai River off of Montana Highway 37. Already past Ginny¹s midnight curfew, Dave was antsy, eager for his youngest daughter to arrive home safely.

³I don¹t really rest well until my kids get home,² Dave said.

A short time after midnight, Tammy decided to drive toward town, afraid that Ginny had hit a deer with the car. Grabbing a cell phone and a coat to ward off the bitter cold, Tammy unknowingly made her way to the scene of the accident.

³Just past the re-reg, I saw Ginny¹s car in the ditch upside-down,² Tammy said. ³I parked just past the car and ran over to the wreck. My brain was on autopilot, I think. The car was upside-down, but it didn¹t register that she would have been on the other side, being the driver. I saw her and screamed at her. I thought she was dead. I ran and got my cell phone. It worked!²

Dave picked up the ringing phone heavy with anticipation. At the other end was incomprehensible screaming. Attempting to make sense of the chaos, Dave urged the voice to calm down.

³I thought it was a prank call,² Dave said. ³And then I heard this voice screaming, ŒGinny¹s dead, Ginny¹s dead.¹²

Willing herself to calm down, Tammy explained to Dave that Ginny had been in a car accident and that she expected the worst. Dave frantically called 911 and jumped in his car.

³I screamed at Ginny again and there was no sound,² Tammy said. ³It was so cold and so quiet. I called my sister to have her come be with me. Then I got on my knees and prayed for Ginny to be alright.²

Looking back on the night of the accident, Tammy now laments her failure to check on the driver¹s side of the car.

³My regret is that I did not know David was in the car,² she said. ³I could have been there for him.²

Ginny told Tammy months later that she remembers hearing her mother¹s pleading voice while she was lying in the car after the accident.

³Ginny tells me she heard me yelling and tried to answer me,² Tammy said.

When Dave arrived at the site of the accident minutes later, he attempted to momentarily shrug off his own shock and console Tammy, who was huddled on the ground.

³The next thing I remember, the medics were getting Ginny out of the car,² he said. ³She moaned and she had a pulse. She was still breathing. I immediately called friends to start a prayer chain.²

Time ceased to move forward as the medics extracted Ginny from the automobile and prepared her for transport. She was stabilized at St. John¹s Lutheran Hospital and then promptly transferred to Kalispell.

³We drove to Kalispell up McKillop,² Dave said. ³It was the longest drive of my life.²

In Kalispell, Dave and Tammy met widely respected neurosurgeon Dr. Robert Hollis. He told the couple that Ginny had a 25 percent chance of living. During the impact of the car accident, Ginny¹s brain had rotated in her head, creating complications.

³Our little girl was being kept alive by machines,² Dave said. ³At that point, we basically placed her life in God¹s hands. Whatever happened, we¹d have to make the best of it.²

After inducing a coma, doctors found that Ginny¹s brain was draining naturally, an auspicious sign. In the weeks following the accident, the Blackburn family¹s optimism fluctuated with every hint of hope or weariness from the doctors.

Dave remembered sitting alone during the fourth night of the ordeal. He said he could feel the almost palpable presence of a spirit in the room.

³It gave me a clear message,² he said. ³It said, ŒDon¹t worry, she¹s going to be okay.¹²

The unexpected message resonated with Dave. Although surrendering control to a higher power was unnatural for man who had become accustomed to controlling the reins of his life, he said the experience brought him closer to God than he had ever been in his life.

³I could see God¹s hand in the whole thing,² Tammy said.

Nearly one month of Ginny¹s stay at the hospital was spent in a coma. While she floated outside of consciousness, Dave and Tammy read to her and played music.

After a specified amount of time transpires for a patient in Ginny¹s condition, doctors and family are forced to make the irrevocable decision whether to continue patient care or turn off the machines. At that critical juncture for Ginny, she miraculously responded with body movement, displaying the first signs of an iron will that would ultimately lead her back home to Libby.

³The doctors couldn¹t believe it,² Dave said. ³The doctor asked her to squeeze his hand and she did. Then she was able to show two fingers when asked, which shows understanding.²

Ginny continued to show gradual improvement, greeting cousins and other family members by squeezing their fingers. Although Ginny¹s physical condition had improved markedly, the eyes staring back at her parents and family were blank and unable to register what she was viewing.

³Her eyes were open, but there was nothing there,² Dave said. ³We were told that was expected, but it was painful to see.²

The Blackburns found solace from the painfully slow pace of Ginny¹s recovery in a young boy at the hospital who had suffered similar injuries in an accident just prior to their daughter¹s. Through watching the boy and seeing his progress, the couple was offered a glimpse of what they could expect from Ginny in coming weeks. Ginny and the boy would become friends, undergoing physical therapy together and ultimately leaving doctors and nurses with damp eyes when they were discharged.

Ginny was released from the hospital on Feb. 10. She celebrated her 17th birthday with family and friends at home in Libby on March 17.

³It¹s amazing how far she has come,² Tammy said. ³Not only is she dealing with how her life is different, she¹s dealing with the loss of her best friend.²

A normal week for Ginny consists of physical therapy, speech therapy and tutoring. Watching their daughter make incremental improvements has taught Dave and Tammy patience. The trauma from the accident and the severe injuries has left Ginny¹s personality altered.

³We have those memories of the old Ginny,² Dave said. ³But we¹re making new memories. All we can do is continue to love her and the new person she is becoming.²

³We¹re learning a new person,² Tammy said. ³She¹s having to learn everything over again.²

Tammy praised the hospital staff for their competent and genuinely heartfelt care. Without the constant reassurances from the specialists, the ordeal could have been unbearable for the family.

³Ginny¹s nurse, Mary, was

another godsend,² Tammy said. ³She was with her one-on-one around the clock. She not only kept the machines in check, but prayed for her several times a day.²

While Ginny fought for life in Kalispell, the Libby community instantly rallied around the Blackburns, planning fund-raisers and assisting the family at every possible opportunity.

³The strength of our little town to come together and support a hurting family is a true sign of a wonderful community,² Tammy said.

Through the accident, Ginny has touched many lives. Her siblings, Dan and Robin, were overseas when the tragedy occurred. Their international exposure inadvertently started a gigantic prayer chain that introduced people from all over the world to an inspiring young girl in Libby, Montana.

³There has been an international prayer chain,² Tammy said. ³I can¹t believe how amazing it¹s been. And the support from the Libby community has been overwhelming. It¹s just different in small towns. We are so grateful.²

Ginny has emerged from the accident with a clear mission. She plans to finish high school and then tackle college, ultimately hoping to become a counselor.

³She¹s always wanted to help troubled kids,² Tammy said. ³The accident made that desire stronger.²

Drunk driving continues to be a problem with young people. Ginny has taken a strong stand, challenging others to rethink their decision before getting behind the wheel after drinking alcohol.

³Don¹t drink and drive,² Ginny said. ³That¹s the most stupid thing you can ever do.²

Ginny¹s optimism and capacity for perseverance have grown through her experience. She has also embraced the belief that no tribulation is insurmountable with God¹s help.

³God can help you through any trials in your life,² she said. ³He did not cause the accident, but He was there with us.²

The Blackburns have sought solace in each other as they¹ve accompanied Ginny on her trip to recovery.

³For our family, it brought us all closer together, realizing what¹s really important,² Tammy said. ³Ginny has a much stronger love for God, having gone through this. And we know David is dancing with the angels and we will see him again.²

Tammy said that the public school system plays a large role in the maturation process of students. Instructors shoulder the responsibility of empowering the children and providing unconditional support. And law enforcement agencies face an uphill battle as they attempt to dissuade youth from drinking and driving.

³Our schools and law enforcement have a tough job and it is not getting any easier,² she said. ³We need to support them and help where we can. It takes a village to raise a child. The kids need to know someone cares.²