Daughter with Severe Brain Injury 'Talks' to Mom for First Time in 21 Years


A child growing up in the ’80s and ’90s knew what dangers to look out for. Quicksand, as every show we watched told us, was ever-present.

And, of course, you never wanted to be hit on the head with a coconut and lose your memory. On occasion other tropes would sneak in, and the one that always stood out to me was the idea of a mentally alert person being otherwise trapped in their own body.

Reality helped rid me of most of my fears: neither I nor anyone I know have ever encountered quicksand. I was also pretty sure it took more than a bump on the head to lose your memory.

Being trapped in your body though, well, that one came up on the news from time to time.

Joellan Huntley knows this fear quite well. For 21 years her daughter has been unable to communicate.

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Trapped in her own body, Huntley has to date only been able to communicate through sounds and grunts. Communicating her thoughts has not been something she has been able to previously achieve.

Huntley and her catastrophic brain injury stretch back to a car accident that took the life of her boyfriend and another young girl, the sister of the driver. Huntley was thrown from the car after it swerved to miss a dog.

On Christmas day, though, her mother Louise Misner said she witnessed a Christmas miracle. “I said, ‘Joellan, I like your new Christmas outfit you got on,” Misner reported.

Using a tablet and a camera that tracks eye movement Huntley was able to select icons that allowed her to communicate with her mother. “And then she said no, and went to a long-sleeve shirt because she was trying to tell me what she had on.”

Misner said that response was a “Christmas Miracle,” and that “It was God’s way of telling me that she’s finally achieved what she needed to since the accident.”

After the car accident, the family won a $1-million insurance settlement. Afterwards, though, they found themselves in a legal battle with the province and its Community Services Department.

It seems they wanted to take back past and future monies that had been paid out for care costs. That was money that could be used for therapy and equipment that could improve Huntley’s quality of life.

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An out-of-court settlement was reached in April 2015. Among the equipment purchased was the very computer system that now allows Huntley to speak with her mother.

Amy Smith, who has spent 12 years working with Huntley, said that initially they had her practice tracking pictures with her eyes. After that they practiced yes and no questions by taping the words to tongue depressors and having her look at the correct answer.

“We had to go through two or three different screens until we found the right one for her, and it’s called Eyegaze. Her eyes focus on the icons to answer questions,” Misner said.

“The breakthrough on Christmas Day was that the system was set up for her and she was completely independent; there was no one else facilitating that conversation with her,” Amy Smith reported. “It was just a natural conversation she had with her mom, like anyone else would.”

The Eyegaze system allows people to communicate by selecting phrases, icons or typing words and phrases. Some who use the Eyegaze system are writing books while others attend school or just enjoy an improved quality of life.

For Huntley it means being able to communicate with her family. Misner reports that the nurses say she is doing really well with the new system.

A Christmas miracle indeed. Huntley and Misner are living a reality that many of us would find unimaginable.

Instead of giving up, they have pushed on and as a result they have encountered a miracle.Would that we could all be that lucky.

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