Joellen Huntley is shown in a pair of family handout photos. In what her mother calls a “Christmas miracle,” a Nova Scotia woman who suffered a catastrophic brain injury in a 1996 car accident communicated one-on-one with her mother for the first time in 21 years. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Nova Scotia brain injury victim communicates with mom for first time since 1996

HALIFAX — In what her mother calls a “Christmas miracle,” a Nova Scotia woman who suffered a catastrophic brain injury in a 1996 car accident communicated one-on-one with her mother for the first time in 21 years.

Louise Misner said her 37-year-old daughter Joellen Huntley used eye-motion cameras and software on an iPad to respond to a comment from Misner about her clothes.

Huntley has been severely disabled since she was 15, unable to walk or talk and fed through a tube. She has always responded to family members’ presence by making sounds, but was unable to communicate any thoughts.

The breakthrough occurred during a Christmas Day visit at the Kings Regional Rehabilitation Centre in Waterville, N.S.

“I said ‘Joellen I like your new Christmas outfit you got on,’” Misner said in a telephone interview on Friday.

Misner said her daughter then used the technology to find an icon for a short-sleeve shirt.

“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 her reaction was immediate to what had been a long hoped for personal communication.

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

Huntley was thrown from a car that had swerved to avoid a dog that was running loose along a road in Centreville, N.S., on April 18, 1996. The accident claimed the life of her boyfriend and a young girl who was the sister of the driver.

Huntley’s family eventually won a $1 million insurance settlement as a result of the crash, but by 2014 they found themselves embroiled in a court battle with the province’s Community Services Department, which sought to claw back the money for past and future care costs.

An undisclosed out-of-court settlement was reached in April 2015, after Joellen’s family argued they needed the money for care that included physiotherapy and special equipment that would add to her quality of life.

Misner said the settlement money helped the family purchase the computer equipment she is now using with the help of a speech pathologist.

“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 one of Joellen’s nurses told them she is “doing really well with it.”

“I knew she just needed time for technology to catch up with her,” Misner said. “When God gives you a child, they are the most precious thing and you never give up on them and you always fight for them.”

The family has invited journalists to the rehab centre on Tuesday to “meet Joellen.”

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