Ashton Mann had it all...looks, personality, brains and talent until her world changed dramatically on July 18, 2011.
Ashton and a fellow cheerleader were spending the afternoon together and decided to ride a 4-wheeler around the neighborhood. While riding, the girls had a wreck in which Ashton was thrown into a tree and was knocked unconscious. A neighbor heard the wreck and immediately called 911.
When the paramedics arrived, they quickly determined that Ashton was too critical to be taken to the local hospital and called for a helicopter to transport her to LSU Medical Center in Shreveport.
Ashton's mother, Staci Mann, was driving home from Monroe when she received the call that would begin her journey to bring her daughter back home.
"I had been to a children's party with my church, Cherry Ridge Baptist, and we were driving back to Bastrop, when I got the call that Ashton had be in an accident and was going by ambulance to St. Francis Hospital," Staci said. "When I turned around to head back to Monroe, my friend Nicole Mardis noticed and called me to see what was wrong and that she had heard someone was being airlifted."
Staci thought it was the second girl in the accident who was transported by air but soon found out it was Ashton and that the wreck was much worse than she imagined.
"I immediately called my husband, Randee, and he, along with Nicole and her husband James, met me at St. Francis and drove on to LSU, where we arrived about the same time as the helicopter," Staci continued.
Staci and Randee were told at first that Ashton had been without oxygen for 15 minutes.
"The trauma doctor came in and told us that and we were just stunned," said Randee, who is an administrator for Paramount Health Care and a nurse. "We knew if that was true, she was brain dead."
Randee then went to find someone who could tell him exactly what was going on and learned that she had went 15 before being intubated, not 15 minutes without breathing.
They were told that Ashton had received a right side subdural hematoma, which was causing her brain to shift to the left and surgery was needed to remove the blood clot. Ashton was also intubated and on a ventilator and a monitor was placed in her brain to measure the pressure. The couple was told after surgery that the next 72 hours would be critical.
"Randee and I stayed up all night just watching the monitors," Staci said.
Ashton began showing her fighting spirit only 12 hours after the accident.
"It took five people to hold her down while they changed the tape on the vent tubing," Staci explained. "Everyone was surprised and said she was doing better than average."
As the week progressed, the bolt was removed from her skull and the vent turned down because she was breathing on her own. But the trauma of the wreck was far from over. Because the doctors had shaved parts of Ashton's hair off and the rest of it was tangled and matted with blood, leaves and dirt, Staci made the difficult decision to shave it all off.
"I sat in a chair on the other side of the room and cried the whole time her hair was being cut," Staci said. "The nurse placed it on a pad to dry out and then I took it home with me. I know it was just hair, but it was a part of her."
Ashton soon began running fever and was placed on a cooling blanket. Her sedation medication was decreased for a few minutes to see if she could respond. Ashton was able to hold her parents' hands and raise her left arm when asked.
Four days after the wreck, Ashton was able to open her left eye partially. She also began having episodes called "brain storming," which was her brain trying to wake up the parts that had been damaged.
The episodes caused Ashton's vitals signs to be elevated and she would become very aggravated and combative.
"The brain storming is very difficult to watch," Staci said. "but it is a necessary part of the healing process."
Staci and Randee decided to place a limit on the number of visitors allowed to see Ashton because seeing her the way she was was very upsetting to her friends.
"The hospital staff commented that they had never seen anyone with so many visitors and wanted to know who she was," Staci chuckled.
When Ashton's face and neck began to swell, the decision was made to put in a tracheostomy and feeding tube. Within two weeks, Ashton was able to come off the ventilator and sedation medication. She was also responding by raising her fingers on her right hand when told to. She was then taken out of the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit and moved to a room. While she was no longer critical, she was far from being well.
Ashton's head, tongue and neck began to swell and samples of fluid from her head cultured. Cerebrospinal fluid began leaking from her skull into her scalp and attempts to insert a drain into her spine to pull the fluid from her head were unsuccessful.
Ashton's doctor, Dr. Sin, decided to open her skull and try to seal off the leak. He also had to remove a piece of necrotic muscle from her scalp. A drain was inserted into Ashton's scalp to help pull of excess fluid, but her head continued to swell. Doctors then placed an external ventricular drain at the base of her brain. Due to infection caused by the CSF, Ashton underwent a round of antibiotics and then had a shunt placed to keep the fluid from building up again.
While at LSU, Staci and Randee contacted Our Children's House, part of the Baylor Heath Care System in Dallas, regarding transferring Ashton there when she was ready. OCH, which actually looks like a Victorian home, is a licensed pediatric hospital where children receive care for developmental or birth disorders, traumatic injury and severe illness. On Sept. 8, Ashton was clear of infection and was transported to her new home away from home to begin round two of her journey.
"When Ashton was at LSU, she was classified as in a semi-vegetative state," Randee explained. "She could do things when asked, like raise one finger for yes and two fingers for no, but when she got to OCH, they classified her as in a semi-comatose state and immediately began a trial of drugs to help wake her up."
While at LSU and Baylor, the town of Bastrop rallied around the family.
Nine days after the accident, a prayer rally was held at the Mann's church, Cherry Ridge Baptist. Teens and children from across Morehouse Parish came to pray for Ashton and make get well cards, as well as sign a banner for her. Randee and Staci were able to hear the entire program via telephone.
But, the support did not stop there. The couple had a five-week old baby and Staci's friend, Amy Nason volunteered to keep him while they cared for Ashton. Nason and husband, Sonny, have four children of their own, with two being teenaged daughters, so she was well-versed in taking care of children and had the help of the older ones.
"Brennan stayed with Amy for three weeks and I could not have asked for anyone to love my child any more than that family does," Staci said.
Other people in the community wanted to help the family in any way they could, so a benefit concert and auction was planned. On Sept. 17, with the help of many, the Ashton Mann Benefit Concert was held at Prairie View Academy. Local musician Travis Whitehead, the group My Way and West Monroe-raised rising country music singer Chancie Neal all performed for hundreds in the outdoor setting where Ashton had spent much of her time cheering.
While she doesn't remember, Ashton has watched the tape of the concert and recalls her favorite part.
"Jackson [Ashton's younger brother] sang Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star from the stage for me," Ashton said as her eyes lit up and a huge grin appeared.
Randee, who never left Ashton's side through the entire crisis except to go eat with the family a couple of times, was able to watch the concert via Skype.
He recalls the first time he did leave her to get a bite to eat.
"Staci and I went to eat soon after we got to Baylor and when we got back, Ashton had tried to crawl out of her bed!" Randee said. "They had to put a netting all around the bed, kind of like a playpen, because she was so determined."
As Ashton continued therapy, she progressed more and more each day.
"She would wake up at 4 o'clock every morning and want to talk," said Randee. "I loved it, because she was at her clearest at that time and I could see on a daily basis improvement."
Ashton's first word was "momma," but according to Randee, she was coached.
"Staci and Nicole would whisper 'say momma' in her ear so much, she had to say it," he said.
Staci quickly replied, "I don't care, it was her first word!"
After day 108 of her hospital stay, Ashton was finally ready to come home and returned to Bastrop on Nov. 4, 2011. But, she still had a long road to travel.
"When she first came home, it was around the clock care," said Staci. "I slept on the floor in her bedroom and she literally had to be watched all the time."
Because of the medication she was on, the normal effects of a brain injury like hers was multiplied and issues with anger, poor impulse control and body tremors happened daily. As her medication was decreased, her side effects did as well and she began going to physical, occupational and speech therapy in Monroe.
She had a coming home party on Nov. 19, and while excited to see her friends, some for the first time since before the accident, Ashton was also scared.
"I was afraid of what they would think of me," Ashton said in a low, soft voice. "I was ashamed of the way I looked and the way I walked, the way I talked, just ashamed of everything."
Ashton was not 100 percent steady on her feet and someone needed to walk behind her, at her elbow, to help her. She was also very stiff and her voice had taken on a deeper pitch which was hard for her friends to understand.
For someone who started in beauty pageants at the age of six months, these things were difficult for her to deal with. But she was determined to get her former life back and worked harder to meet the goals she sat for herself.
Ashton began training for pageants and over the past year, entered eight pageants and won eight titles.
She used to be the typical girl next door; she had beauty and brains. Now, she is no longer that typical teenage girl, but one who still possesses those qualities plus a new understanding and outlook on life.
"I think everything I have been through is a blessing," Ashton said. "I was going down a bad road but now, I am closer to God and my family and think I am an all-around better person.
"I used to think my life was awful...now I think it's awesome!"
Her love of the stage has not diminished and she is determined to one day compete in the Miss America pageant. She recently was crowned as the 2013 Miss Louisiana Lagniappe Outstanding Teen. This achievement allows her to compete in the Miss Louisiana Outstanding Teen competition, which will be held May 29 through June 1.
Despite her injuries, Ashton continues to grow stronger each day and is taking honors classes at Northeast Baptist School and was a cheerleader during football season. She participated in the Team Seth Traumatic Brain Injury Foundation 5k run earlier this month with her family and finished before her mother and sister, Lauren.
"I just kept pushing her," Randee said. "Every time we got close to other runners, I would tell her that we could pass them, and we would!"
The run is held to raise money for the foundation, which was started in honor of Seth Hanchey, a Ruston man who, like Ashton, had a traumatic brain injury resulting from a 2011 accident where he was hit by a van while riding a bicycle.
Ashton has also been asked by the Pilot Club of the Twin Cities to be their spokesperson. From this experience, she was asked to be a spokesperson for Pilot Club International.
The Pilot Club's service focus is helping people with brain related disorders and Staci sees the opportunity as another blessing for Ashton.
"We are so excited for her to be involved with the Pilot Club and see it as another opportunity for Ashton to be able to tell her story and bring more awareness to people about traumatic brain injuries" said Staci.
"The first time we met Ashton, we just loved her," said JoAnn Pickering of the Pilot Club. "She is just a natural fit to be our spokesperson. She just fits so well with our overall emphasis."
Ashton will speak at the Pilot Club International Convention, which will be held in New Orleans in July.
When asked how Ashton's injury had effected them, both Staci and Randee grew pensive for a moment.
"Well, we don't ride 4-wheelers anymore!" Staci said with a smile. "I had a very bad time, but it is getting better. Not only was my daughter in grave condition, but also I was away from my boys, Jackson and new-born Brennon. That was extremely hard to deal with.
I just appreciate every moment I have with her, as well
Randee, who has always rode a motorcycle, said it hasn't been ridden in two years.
"I was very protective before, but now I'm even more protective and more on guard," Randee said.
Ashton, who always did well in school without putting out a lot of effort, is much more determined and responsible about school work.
"She comes in everyday and gets her work done without any help from us," Staci said. "She knows it is harder to maintain good grades now, so she puts out a lot of effort to keep them."
One would think that a traumatic brain injury to a teenage girl might be the end of her story. But, which Ashton, it's only the beginning.