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A young life back from the brink

JASE ALLEN AND Charlotte McConnell are two Addison County children who’ve developed a close friendship while each dealing with disabilities. The roots of their relationship goes back to an accident that nearly took Charlotte’s life.

MIDDLEBURY — The devastating event happened 10 years ago, on April 1, 2014, but Karly McConnell relives it every day.

She’d walked her two children across Weybridge Street, from the Otter Creek Child Center (where she was working at the time) to her minivan. Her children — Charlotte and Micah — stood next to her as she unlocked the vehicle.

While her mom was tending to the vehicle door, two-and-a-half-year-old Charlotte suddenly stepped back into Weybridge Street upon seeing an OCCC teacher she recognized and wanted to greet, according to a Middlebury police report.

Tragically, Charlotte was struck and severely injured by an SUV driven by Zachary Bruchmiller, a Middlebury College student from Texas. In addition to various broken bones, Charlotte sustained a traumatic brain injury that left her fighting for her life. She was rushed to Porter Hospital and then airlifted to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H.

In an instant, Charlotte McConnell’s life trajectory had gone from unlimited potential to maddening uncertainty.

Karly McConnell still gets attacks of the “what ifs?”

“There’s many things I’d do differently if I could turn back the clock,” Karly McConnell told the Independent. “For starters I would have stood my children on the sidewalk while I struggled to open the van door, had I known I was going to have to work hard to get it to open. And in the meantime, Charlotte’s life was taken from her. Yes, she’s alive, but she’s no longer the healthy daughter I gave birth to; she will forever be disabled. I feel robbed, and I think she was too. The guilt comes and goes.”

But the waves of guilt recede each time Karly sees Charlotte, now 12 years old, do things that other children and moms might take for granted. Throwing a ball. Speaking in short sentences. Learning new words. Making new friends.

Giving her a big hug.

“Every day is a new day,” Karly said. “A day to cherish and to be thankful for what we do have.”

It’s been far from easy.

The accident has impaired Charlotte’s sight, left her with a severe leg injury and brain trauma that’s decimated her ability to learn and function in a conventional classroom. She’s a part-time 6th-grade student at Middlebury Union Middle School, where she’s particularly fond of music, art and her fellow students.

“The brain is an amazing but mysterious organ,” Karly said.

Charlotte has been diagnosed with “cortical visual impairment,” which hampers her ability to see things underfoot. She’s learning to use a mobility cane to help guide her on uneven ground and the unexpected drops in stairs and sidewalks.

“Some days her vision is pretty ‘on,’ while other days it isn’t as good,” her mom said.

Charlotte has had a number of surgeries on her leg to help guide its growth in the proper direction.

She’s had a Vagus nerve stimulation device placed in her body that’s staving off the seizures that once pummeled her unmercifully.

It’s a lot for a child and her family to deal with.

MEETING CHARLOTTE

Charlotte showed a panoply of emotions as she sat in on this reporter’s Monday interview with her mom, a Counseling Service of Addison County employee who coordinates services for adults with disabilities.

An energetic young girl with a quick smile and mischievous brown eyes, she proudly and candidly introduced herself: “My name is Charlotte, I have a brain injury and I’ve had a tough day.”

She settled into her chair with a snack and some music. One sensed she wanted to be part of the conversation, but her healing brain wouldn’t allow it. She contributed by asking the reporter his name multiple times and by querying her mom on what they’d be doing next. When she speaks, she holds her right palm next to her chin and flicks her fingers, as if to emphasize her words.

Karly patiently smiled as her daughter crawled into her lap to give her a lengthy bear hug while she conversed. Karly is her daughter’s universe, and any planetary shift doesn’t sit well with Charlotte. Her demeanor can switch from laughs to tears, on a dime. Even a hint of a departure from the family routine saddens her.

Caring for Charlotte is more than a single parent can handle and thankfully, she has help.

Her dad Josh, who now lives in another state, cherishes his time with Charlotte during school vacations.

Her grandpa John Duclos (Karly’s dad) pitches in, giving Karly the occasional breather. 

And then there’s Julia Allen, a CSAC personal care assistant who’s worked with Charlotte since the accident. In an ironic twist, Karly used to babysit Julia and her siblings back in the day. 

Allen picks Charlotte up from school, plays with her and tends to her needs when Karly is working or needs a break. The Allen family even takes Charlotte on their summer camping trips.

Julia said working with Charlotte has been a gift, rather than a gig.

“Working with her has changed my life,” she said. “It breaks my heart that the worst possible thing could have happened to her, to change my life forever, and all the positives that have come out of it.”

STRUCK AND NEARLY killed by a vehicle on Weybridge Street 10 years ago, 12-year-old Charlotte McConnell is making steady progress. Pictured here are, left to right, Karly McConnell (Charlotte’s mom); Charlotte; Julia Allen (Charlotte’s personal care assistant); and Jase Allen, Julia’s son.
Independent photo/John Flowers

And like Karly, Allen has seen Charlotte progress from the frail toddler once confined to a wheelchair.

She’s not only walking now, she’s running. And while she can’t discern colors or read words, her vocabulary and articulation have grown tremendously, according to her mom.

Allen agrees.

“To see her then and now, it’s a pure miracle,” said Allen, who used to accompany Charlotte to preschool at Middlebury’s Mary Hogan Elementary. “It was amazing to seeing the challenges she faced of getting that brain to work and heal. The little milestones were huge — and are still huge.”

Charlotte may never understand the full impact she’s had on the Allen family.

THE ALLEN FAMILY

Allen had been caring for Charlotte for around two years when she — then an expectant mother — received heartrending news of her own: Her future son Jase had been diagnosed, in utero, with Down syndrome. 

“You’re trying to take that all in, you’re kind of a mess,” she said of her state following the test results. “The next day, I had Charlotte, and we went to Lake Champlain, listened to some music. I just cried.”

But Allen’s experience with Charlotte had given her a real-life introduction into what it would be like to care for a special-needs child.

“I think Charlotte came into my life and helped me prepare me for this little guy,” she said, patting 7-year-old Jase on the head.

“I was like, ‘This is a new adventure, and who knew that when Charlotte walked into my life years ago, it would change my life.’”

Jase and Charlotte are best friends. If you have no aversion to cuteness and shedding a few tears, check out their joint Facebook Page at tinyurl.com/h45e2jnu.

“The relationship she has with Jase is amazing,” Allen said. “They are so close.”

Karly, now 42, has gotten used to the rigors of caring for a child who may never be ready for independent living. At the urging of others, she’s trying to carve out more “me-time” to relieve stress and have distraction-free time for hobbies. She’s glad she’ll be able to watch the eclipse in its entirety on Monday without hearing, “Hey, mom!” She’s looking forward to an upcoming, weeklong vacation, which will allow her to decompress.

But no matter where she goes, her thoughts will be with Charlotte and the village of people who are helping her navigate a life strewn with potential pitfalls and challenges.

April 1 will always be a dark day on the McConnells’ calendar.

“I lost my job, my home and my healthy daughter that day, and a month later, my mom,” Karly said. “The accident haunts me in different ways. It’s made me more aware of pedestrians, especially those dressed in dark colors basically camouflaged to drivers. It’s caused me to have PTSD; I struggle when I hear a lot of sirens.”

She now reminds herself that the sirens mean whoever is hurt is getting the medical attention they need.

Karly suspects she’ll always get attacks of the “what-ifs?” but she isn’t one to hold grudges.

On the very night of the accident, Karly had her mom find the driver’s contact information so Karly could call him to make sure he knew Charlotte was alive and that she wasn’t “hunting him down.”

“I wanted to make sure he was emotionally OK,” she said. “It was a true accident. He was not drinking and driving, nor on his phone. It’s an example of how even with best intentions, we as drivers make mistakes. We don’t always see people even right in the road, we don’t always do ‘the right thing.’ He was a young adult at the time and this changed his life forever, too.

Karly continues to stay in touch with Bruchmiller, saying the contact has helped her.

“In the blink of an eye, this accident changed the life of more than one person,” she said.

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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