KENNEWICK — Kathleen Darling cherishes the simple things in life -- watching her husband Cale eat ice cream, seeing him smile when she walks in the door and hearing him say, "I love you."
Nine months ago, the 23-year-old Kennewick woman was sitting by her husband's hospital bed, praying he'd wake up from a coma after being critically injured in a car crash in North Carolina.
Doctors warned that if he did wake up, he might never talk or eat without a feeding tube.
But since then, Cale, 24, has exceeded expectations of doctors and therapists and continues to make progress in rehabilitation at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Palo Alto, Calif., where he's been since July 21.
Despite the progress, he likely is going to need 24-hour care for the rest of his life. The traumatic brain injury he suffered affects his memory, cognitive and physical skills.
Still, Kathleen said Cale's "doing so well" since his move to California.
"The therapy he's getting is definitely helping. It forces him to be pushed more," she said.
"Sometimes he's very tired and he doesn't want to do these therapies any more. He just wants to sleep and he does need sleep because he has a constant therapy schedule ... but it just forces him to push himself even more."
His daily therapies include, neuropsych, occupational, speech, physical, vision and recreation.
Kathleen said she's amazed at the new things she's seen her husband learn to do again -- things she was told likely never would happen.
"He's just coming along so fast," said Kathleen's mother, Joy Bankston of Kennewick. "He's completely amazing. They said he would never use numbers again because of the side of the brain that's damaged and he's counting."
Kathleen has kept up the blog that friends started after the crash -- caledarling. blog spot.com -- and posts daily updates along with photos and videos about her husband. Bankston said she reads it every day.
"When I first heard about the accident and I first went to North Carolina ... in my mind, I couldn't see him getting any better because it just didn't look like that would happen," Bankston said.
"Now it's just like, wow! Just every day, I'm in tears a lot. I will get on and read the blog and read (about how) he's done something amazing."
Their car struck tree
Cale is recovering from injuries received Feb. 10 when the car the young couple were in slammed into a tree. Cale, a 2004 Kennewick High School graduate, swerved to avoid hitting a teenage boy who pulled out of a driveway in front of him, lost control of the car and hit the tree.
The driver's side of the car sustained the most damage and its roof caved in on Cale's head. He also had a broken femur, facial, clavicle and pelvic fractures and a severely damaged optical nerve in his left eye.
Kathleen suffered minor injuries in the crash and has been by her husband's side as he has moved from the hospital to rehabilitation facilities, while also trying to make plans for the future.
It's a future much different than what the couple, who have been married since they were 18, had planned.
At the time of the crash, Cale was an Army sergeant stationed at Fort Drum, N.Y., and was set to be discharged in April. He had been in Afghanistan as an intelligence analyst and returned to Kennewick from his second tour last Christmas.
Cale and Kathleen were heading to her brother's home in Beulaville, N.C., when they crashed. They had planned a short visit there before taking a train back to the Tri-Cities to pack up their belongings and drive back across the country to North Carolina.
Cale spent about six weeks at Pitt County Memorial Hospital in Greenville, N.C., then was transferred to WakeMed Hospital in Cary, N.C.
By then he was out of his coma, but still not awake. He eventually woke up while at WakeMed, but he wasn't fully aware of things or tracking what was going on until a few weeks after moving to California.
That happened in late July, when he was loaded onto a special C17 military plane that had patients' beds stacked three high and was flown to Palo Alto.
During Cale's time there, he has gotten to the point where he can walk with a walker, can eat regular food and is learning how to write and speak again.
Kathleen has been staying in a room at the Fisher House, which is on the hospital campus and provides a place for families to stay for free. Cale still is on active duty -- they are working on getting a military medical retirement -- and Kathleen's only expenses right now are food, toiletries and her car, her mother said.
But, any savings they have will go quickly once Cale is ready to be released from the hospital, Bankston said. Plans for what happens next still are being worked out, but Cale is expected to stay in Palo Alto until the beginning of next year.
Hope to return to Tri-Cities,/b>
Kathleen said she's trying to find outpatient rehabilitation options near the Tri-Cities.
Kathleen's written in the blog that Cale often says he wants to leave the hospital and go home, but she wants to keep him in Palo Alto as long as she can because of the great strides he's making there.
"The doctors want to get to a point where when I take him, I can hire less help, because what's expected right now is he's not ever going to be able to take care of himself," she said.
"Being away from everybody we know, that's just what we're in right now. Eventually we will get to go home. Right now we don't even have a home or apartment to go home to, but we do want to go back to the Tri-Cities and be closer to my family and his family."
Bankston said she's trying to see if the couple could qualify to get a home through Habitat for Humanity.
Doctors say Cale will need 24-hour care for the rest of his life, but Kathleen's committed to getting him all the help he can get to make him as independent as possible so he won't need her there 24-7.
Working for independence
Cale has cognitive and physical issues that now prevent him from being able to care for himself. For example, he can use the walker to get around but he still needs to have somebody near him -- he can't get himself up and go to the bathroom.
He needs help with things like brushing his teeth, taking a shower, washing his hands. Now, if he was told to make a sandwich, he wouldn't know how or where to begin, Kathleen said.
He also doesn't remember the crash and has to be reminded that's why he's in the hospital.
"He for the most part will need supervision still," she said. But she hopes to get him independent enough that she could leave him alone for short periods.
"That's something the therapists are working toward," Kathleen said.
What Cale's trying to learn is how to get his brain to properly relay how to move his muscles or process what he wants to say, Kathleen said. For example, doctors used to ask him if he could wave his hand, and sometimes he would lift his foot or do something else at random, she said. But now when he's asked to wave his hand, he does.
Cale also sometimes has trouble finding the right word to describe things. For instance, one time the speech therapist held up a Chapstick and asked what it was and Cale called it a freezer, Kathleen wrote in a blog post.
She's able to find the silver lining and laugh about the silly things, but she also doesn't hide the fact that it's difficult to watch Cale struggle and get frustrated because he can't do simple things.
She credits her faith in God with helping her stay focused, mostly positive and giving her the strength to get through some of the toughest days in her life.
Bankston said she worries about her daughter not taking care of herself or getting enough sleep, but she's also very proud of how Kathleen has held things together.
"She's gone from a young lady who was very naive about a lot of things and she's just grown up overnight," Bankston said. "A lot of this she's had to go through on her own ... but she's got such a strong faith and believes God is there and is holding them up."
Kathleen acknowledges there are a lot of people worrying about her, but she said she wants to assure everyone she is truly doing OK and is grateful that she can be there for her husband.
"I miss him a lot -- how he was before the accident, obviously," she said. "We're together and he's different now ... but I have my husband and we can still laugh together. Right now the moments that we get to laugh and be silly and be playful together, those moments are the best. They're like the coffee and cake of my day."