Not missing prom: How rehab helped high school athlete find new normal after accident

At 16, Julia Covill suffered a traumatic brain injury and other serious injuries that led her on a journey to re-learning to walk, talk and run again

Julia Covill (2nd from left) and friends posing for prom pictures in 2012

Julia Covill (2nd from left) and friends posing for prom pictures in 2012

The Pediatric NeuroRehabilitation program at Milestones is celebrating 25 years of service. Mary Covill shares her daughter’s story

For our daughter Julia, prom night 2012 wasn’t just a rite of passage – it was a milestone we weren’t sure would ever be possible. Except for the walker at her side, you wouldn’t know that the smiling teenager in the purple, strapless dress, arms wrapped around friends while posing for pictures, couldn’t walk or remember everyday words just months earlier.

Some seemingly ordinary moments are forever seared into a parent’s memory. For us, that’s the afternoon of Feb.11, 2012 as Julia left for a friend’s house to get ready for a winter dance. I remember warning her it was supposed to snow. I remember telling her to drive slowly.

Just two miles away from home, she hit a patch of black ice and crashed into a tree. A friend of ours found her alive, bleeding but conscious. She was ultimately transferred by Survival Flight to the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital where she was treated for massive broken bones, collapsed lungs, a neck injury and a traumatic brain injury. We watched our 16-year-old daughter– a standout volleyball player and track runner who loved bonfires, dances, and football games — suddenly faced with having to re-learn how to talk and walk.

Her dad and I breathed a huge sigh of relief when we knew there was no paralysis but we also learned that traumatic brain injury outcomes are different. The neurosurgery resident compared it to Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford’s head injury from a gunshot wound. Julia had sustained a similar traumatic brain injury on the left side of her head, which meant it would affect her speech, memory and cognitive skills.

After nearly three months of care at Mott that included occupational and physical therapy, along with speech-language, neuropsychology and recreation therapy, Julia’s fractures healed but she still wasn’t walking. She was combative, didn’t eat and couldn’t sleep. She was frustrated from an inability to remember words for objects. For example, she kept saying she wanted her purple box, and we finally realized that she was asking for her cell phone. The therapists were helping her dress herself, learn to move her arms and legs, and gain her strength back. They taught her words and had her write a daily itinerary for what she had to do so she could remember it. Still, our family was losing hope that we would ever get Julia back to her old self.

That spring, she reached a breaking point, so upset that she told her therapist Sara McAllister that she wanted to leave the hospital and go home. Sara said, “Fine. Leave, but you have to do it yourself,” – and she did. Julia took her first steps to the wheelchair across the room on April 3 and she hasn’t stopped walking since. Two weeks later, we went home.


Two years after a debilitating car accident, Julia Covill was back to running track.

That spring, Julia started working with the team at the Pediatric NeuroRehabilitation program at Milestones to help regain everyday skills that had once come so naturally. Here, she refined her walking skills, learned to ride a bike and balance on a balance board. Swim therapy and equine therapy helped her strengthen her muscles. She had assistance with daily living skills such as grocery shopping, cooking and other routine tasks. Speech-language therapy helped with reading and comprehension and she worked with a neuropsychologist to help with the social aspects of the back-to-school transition.

Just weeks after starting at Milestones, the team had a new challenge to prepare Julia for – she was asked to the prom.

Every team member at Milestones played a role to help. It was her first outing without any support from her father and me, or any of the professionals that we leaned on for everything. Prom was a big moment not only for Julia but her whole team. It’s just one example of how far she’s come in this journey.

Two and a half years after her accident, Julia continues to make improvements, even competing in her final track race as a senior. She still practices the skills she learned at Milestones every day.

When we talk about the last two years, our family sometimes refers to the Kelly Clarkson song that was popular when the accident happened – “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”  The intense rehabilitation Julia received from all the dedicated professionals at the University of Michigan has not only made her stronger but we finally have our Julia back.

Take the next step:

Best Children's Hospitals - C.S. Mott Children's Hospital University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital is consistently ranked one of the best hospitals in the country. It was nationally ranked in all ten pediatric specialties in U.S. News Media Group’s “America’s Best Children’s Hospitals,” and among the 10 best children’s hospitals in the nation by Parents Magazine. In December 2011, the hospital opened our new 12-story, state-of-the-art facility offering cutting-edge specialty services for newborns, children and women.