Nikki Warnecke was an outgoing, ambitious, and hardworking girl who followed closely in the footsteps of her older sister, Mallory. She loved music – she played banjo for her bluegrass band, the Pickin’ Chicks. In July of 2015, she was enjoying her summer break before starting her senior year at New Athens High School, where she was an honor student with a passion for cross country and cheerleading.
But on July 15th, Nikki’s life and the lives of her family changed forever. She had spent the evening with her boyfriend, Brett, helping him pack for his family vacation. “When they finished packing, they went to the McDonald’s that was less than two miles away from Brett’s house,” Nikki’s mother, Diane, recalls. “When they were on the way home, they were broadsided by a woman who ran the stoplight going 70 miles per hour with no signs of braking. She was under the influence of morphine, codeine, and heroin.” On impact, Nikki was thrown over the center console and onto Brett’s lap. Brett was transported to a local hospital by ambulance, and Nikki was airlifted to SSM Health Cardinal Glennon. The woman who hit them had no injuries.
“That night, I received that call that no parent ever wants to receive,” said Diane. “All we were told was that Nikki was involved in a car accident and that she had been airlifted to Cardinal Glennon, so Mallory and I rushed to St. Louis. With her condition unknown, we prayed and pleaded that she was still alive. I hope that no one EVER has to see their child in the state that Nikki was in when we first got to see her.”
Diane remembers that Nikki was on a respirator and in a coma. She was informed that Nikki had a broken pelvis, broken vertebrae, a lacerated liver, and a lacerated spleen. She had also acquired a diffuse axonal injury, a type of traumatic brain injury, in which recovery prognosis varies from moderate to severe cognitive deficits to a complete vegetative state.
For the next few weeks, Diane waited desperately for a sign that Nikki’s brain was still functioning. Doctors visited her bedside in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) every hour to try to get her to give a thumbs up or to wiggle her toes. “It was so painful as a mother to see my beautiful daughter in a hospital bed in such a lifeless state,” said Diane.
Nikki remained in this condition for many heartbreaking weeks, during which time the employees of SSM Health Cardinal Glennon became her second family. Diane asserts, “Their caring and compassionate attitudes kept the hope alive, even when Nikki’s condition seemed to take one step forward and two steps back.”
Diane recalls an afternoon when some of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball players were visiting the patients in the PICU. She and Mallory were so excited to finally sit Nikki up and take her breathing mask off to see if she would respond. “We began to tell Matt Holliday the story of what had happened to Nikki and he started to tear up. Just having him there seemed to lighten the mood of the entire room. It was the first time that I had seen my other daughter, Mallory, smile in weeks! As she and I got our phones out to take pictures of Nikki and Matt, Nikki gave us the response that we had been desperately praying for. She opened her eyes to look at us, lifted her head off of the bed, and flashed us the “peace” sign! Tears of joy flooded the room, and Matt left us that afternoon with a newfound hope for Nikki’s recovery,” said Diane.
In the next days to come, Nikki had an important hip surgery. She returned to her room without the help of a respirator, and her recovery sped up tremendously after the surgery. In a matter of a few days, she was moved to the Transitional Care Unit and quickly to a rehabilitation hospital. It was then that she began to talk, walk, feed herself, and many other self-care activities. At each care meeting, her doctors and therapists were amazed with Nikki’s progress. Because of her particular injury, however, the therapists were unsure how close Nikki would resemble or return to her normal self. She spent a total of six weeks there before she was finally able to return home in September, 2015. She continued outpatient rehab, and eventually finished her senior year at New Athens High School. Though Diane is incredibly grateful for and proud of Nikki’s achievements, she emphasizes that they have not come without a considerable amount of effort and struggle.
“Nikki deals with anger, depression, migraines and long term memory loss. She has spent a great deal of time with multiple therapists, and is challenged DAILY with ‘re-inventing’ and discovering who she is. Because she has limited memory of her past, and she finds it incredibly hard to focus – school, jobs, relationships are all just ‘harder.’ Prior to the accident, Nikki dreamed of being a radiologist. She is currently attending school at Southwestern Illinois College, but her career direction ebbs and flows right now. More than anything, she just wants to be a normal kid,” said Diane.
One of the big turning points for Nikki was the sentencing day for the driver. Nikki was able to both write and verbalize her Victim Impact Statement, and that gave her great satisfaction. Nikki told the driver that, “Even in prison, you will still have opportunity to improve your life many ways, but unfortunately, I won’t be able to purchase myself a new brain.”
Diane said, “I think she needed to express that anger and frustration. In many ways, still now, she tries to control everything in front of her, because she is so fearful that it could all happen again, and she will lose everything she has worked for.” Diane says, “I truly believe that Nikki is one of God’s many miracles. We are forever indebted to the doctors and nursing staff at Cardinal Glennon for saving Nikki’s life. All of our prayers for survival were answered, and our prayers for continued healing continue.”