Fight to regain life

(Original publication date: Aug. 4, 2003)

On the morning of June 7, before Brian and Daphne Gipson left for home after their Disney World honeymoon, they held hands and they prayed. “Lord, may we have a safe trip and a safe return,” Brian asked. “May everything go well.”

For long hours it did. They wound their way up Interstate 95 listening to music and to each other. Daphne, 30, a teacher’s aide at the Mary Cariola Children’s Center in Rochester, N.Y., worked days and Brian, 29, a control operator at the Rochester Fox television affiliate, worked nights. They talked about how their schedules would mesh, how they were going to spend enough time with each other, who would be the one to fix dinner every night.

Minutiae are the stuff of a life together, and the Gipsons imagined that time spread out like the countryside before them, so they filled it talking about everything and about sweet, hokey, newlywed little nothings.

In South Carolina, they stopped at South of the Border to buy souvenir mugs and refrigerator magnets. They paused in front of the big yellow sombrero, and Daphne posed for a picture on the back of a long plastic alligator.

By the time they got to North Carolina, it was raining, and by Spotsylvania County in Virginia, Brian was tired. It was almost midnight. At the next exit, we’re going to pull over and switch drivers, it was agreed.

Then came the rock.

“What the hell?” Brian yelled. Suddenly the windshield was shattered and the roof had a gaping hole. Air rushed into the car. “Daphne, are you all right?” Brian yelled as he struggled to maintain control. She didn’t answer, so Brian looked over. And he saw her face. He yanked the car over and screamed and screamed.

Daphne! Daphne! Daphne! Daphne! Six times, seven times. Silence. Not even the wind howled back. Brian dialed 911.

“I need help. Something hit our car and my wife is injured. She needs to get to the hospital right now,” he keened. This is not happening. He watched his wife’s chest move up and down. “She’s got a hole in her face. Please hurry up.”

Today the Gipsons don’t live in the two-bedroom townhouse they rented in Rochester, the one that was supposed to be the first stop on their way to barbecuing on the Fourth of July, finding a church and raising (hopefully!) three kids. A 70-pound boulder dropped from a remote overpass one week after their wedding day changed all that. No one knows by how much or for how long.

The police don’t know who did it or why.

Now Daphne lives in the intermediate-care unit at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church. An oxygen tube helps her breathe. Once, a couple of weeks ago, she put her hand on her heart and pointed to Brian to tell him I love you.

Brian Gipson lives by her side. He lives in nearby hotels, where his mom tries to fortify him with homemade dinners. He lives for the day he can hear her speak again.

The Gipsons have been married less than two months, and Brian Gipson spends his days in a fog of news conferences, get-well cards and deep, deep confusion. He waits and he prays and he obsesses about how someone could drop a rock, change so many lives and still sleep at night. Sadness clings to him like a cotton shirt in the hottest July.

What did we do wrong? he wonders. This was not how it was supposed to be.

* * *

Brian and Daphne Gipson met at a community college in Rochester in 1992. He was quiet, she was bubbly and outgoing and tried to set him up with one of her friends. One day he asked Daphne for her number to get advice about that friend. He called and they talked, but only about each other. They quickly became pals, though Brian was interested in more.

He was attracted to her lips, her skin, her freckles, but “I was shy,” he says. “I don’t like rejection.” So they continued to talk on the phone, and years passed. Brian went to the State University of New York in Brockport, Daphne started working at a day care center.

May 16, 1997, was when it all changed, Brian recalls, smiling. He is sitting in the Skylight cafeteria at Inova Fairfax, where his days loop between hospital and hotel.

That night they agreed to meet up at a party, but Daphne never showed, so Brian went to a popular restaurant where he knew he’d bump into her.

There was something about the mood of the night, he says. “It was raining. I told her, ‘I didn’t want to dance with anybody else because you weren’t there.’ She said she felt the same.” He asked her to go with him. He took off his coat and draped it around her shoulders. He took her to her mother’s house, “gave her a kiss goodnight, and the next day it was a whole new thing. We’ve been together ever since.”

Brian Gipson is a soft-spoken guy. Kind of sentimental and superstitious. He smiles when he talks about wanting three kids, his love of old-school hip-hop, how his wife can’t get enough of his spaghetti. He blinks a lot when he talks about the accident. Or he stares off into space, where the near past feels like long ago.

“You ever see, like, a horror movie when something really bad happens?” he asks quietly. That’s how it was for him. He didn’t know a rock had hit them until the next day, he just knew “the left side of her face was caved in, her nose was smashed and there was blood everywhere. There was an open space between her eye socket and nose.”

When he called the 911 operator, she told him to keep a towel on his wife’s face so she wouldn’t bleed to death. He held that towel as it became soaked with blood. He clung to it in the front seat of the ambulance, listening as the paramedics, working frantically to save his wife, urged: “Daphne, we need you to stay with us.”

He didn’t let go at the Thornburg fire station, where the ambulance took him after Daphne was helicoptered to the hospital, where someone called his mom, who arranged for a cousin in nearby Stafford to pick him up. Not even as he cried and sought out a secluded corner to pray, “God, please save my wife. Why would something like this happen? We haven’t even had a chance to live together as husband and wife.”

A paramedic tried to get him to throw the towel away, gently telling him the hospital wouldn’t let him in with a bloody towel. But Brian held on. “I didn’t know if she was going to make it through the night and that was the last thing that touched her,” Gipson says.

The paramedic got a plastic bag and Gipson took his wife’s bloody towel with him.

* * *

For weeks it was unclear whether Daphne was going to live. Her chest was filled with blood, her brain was injured. Her face was split down the middle, nearly every bone in it broken. Her eyes bulged, ripped from their connections.

Hers were among the worst facial injuries he’d seen, says Sean Benoit, a trauma surgeon who led the team that worked to save Daphne’s life.

The prognosis continued to be grim over the next few days as Daphne’s lungs and kidneys began to fail. Doctors kept working on her, Benoit says, “antibiotics and medication to keep her blood pressure going ... the most ventilator support available . . . all the fluids and medicines we have.” She remained in a medically induced coma.

Then, between the second and third week after the accident, Daphne stabilized to the point that a plastic surgeon was able to perform reconstructive surgery to bring some symmetry back to her face. She was weaned off the pain medication and was able to wake up. She began responding to commands — squeeze my hand, nod if you’re feeling pain. On June 30, she opened her left eye. The following week, she began trying to write simple notes like “i have to go to bathroom.” The same week, Daphne, who knows sign language from her work with disabled children in Rochester, began using it to spell her name and other words with her speech therapist. On July 14 she took her first assisted step. The next day, with assistance, she walked out of her hospital room for the first time. Each day, she steps a little farther. Wednesday she had her second facial surgery. Today she is expected to move to an undisclosed rehabilitation facility.

She will lose her right eye, says Benoit. And “it may take a year and a half or longer to see how much of Daphne’s old self she will recover.”

* * *

The Washington area has a long history of rocks and overpasses and the senseless sadness they can bring.

In 1988, Herman Rodriguez, a 27-year-old Takoma Park mechanic, was out with his pregnant girlfriend when a Silver Spring 16-year-old dropped a boulder from Montgomery County’s Carroll Avenue bridge through his windshield, killing him. The teen was convicted, incarcerated until he turned 21 and made to pay restitution to the victim’s girlfriend.

Two years later, a rock fractured the skull of 15-year-old Destiny Morris of Hagerstown, a budding artist who had been accepted into an exchange program in the Soviet Union. Brain damage left her with the intellectual capacity of a fourth-grader. Three Prince George’s County teenagers, drunk and celebrating the end of their senior year in high school, hurled the rocks at Beltway motorists near Livingston Road in Oxon Hill. They injured nearly 30 people in two dozen vehicles, including a Landover man who lost his right eye and a Manassas woman who lost hearing in one ear. The three were convicted in the Morris attack and given sentences of about 40 years each.

Sgt. Gary Settle, a Virginia State Police spokesman, says he doesn’t know if there was one rock-thrower or a group in the Gipson case. He doesn’t know if those involved were young or old, but he calls the crime a felony and says the department has someone investigating it full time. “Looking at the devastation the Gipson family is going through, it’s hard for me to have any sympathy for these individuals,” Settle says. It’s hard to think of it as a prank gone wrong.

Few crimes seem more senseless or more random. For victims, trying to fathom the cruelty behind the attacks adds a psychic scar, to go with all the others.

Two years ago, Cindi Broaddus, sister-in-law of popular television host “Dr. Phil” McGraw, was on her way to the Oklahoma City airport when somebody threw a gallon of sulfuric acid from a turnpike overpass. It melted part of her face and she suffered second- and third-degree burns over 70 percent of her body. The crime remains unsolved.

Broaddus, who has had recurrent nightmares and 13 reconstructive surgeries, says she has been overwhelmed by people’s kindness and support. She says that perhaps if the person who disfigured her face had known such support, things could have been different for them both. “I wonder had somebody done something kind to him that day would he have felt like being so mean, “ she says.

James Alan Fox, professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston, says: “The whole process of aiming at vehicles has a very dehumanizing effect. The perpetrator doesn’t really perceive that the target is a person -- it is a thing and an object and a shell of metal.”Especially for younger people, “it can help disconnect them from the consequences of their actions.”

A little over two years ago, Daphne’s mother, Wanda Dudley, was driving beneath an overpass on her way home from Sunday church services with her two youngest daughters when she heard what sounded like a gunshot, and her windshield shattered. Someone had dropped a bottle onto her car. She pulled over. Two men saw what happened and caught the people responsible: two boys, 9 and 12 years old.

Wanda confronted them. She wanted to know why they would do such a thing. “You could have killed us,” she said.

The boys stood silent and defiant.

* * *

A routine has settled over Wanda Dudley’s day. Like Brian, she is staying at a nearby hotel when not at her daughter’s side.

Usually one of Daphne’s sisters is there — Davina Burney, 25, an administrative assistant in Nashville, or Sharmaine Burney, 20, a fashion design student who dropped out of school in Atlanta after the accident so she could help provide emotional support for her sister. “We come in at 8:30 in the morning and stay to 5,” Wanda says. Then they take a break and come back about 8:20 and stay until 9 or 9:30.

She greets Daphne good morning, tells her the day and date and points out if others are in the room. She fills the room with gospel music or instrumental songs of worship and praise. She keeps the television on a children’s station so Daphne won’t have to hear an unkind word. She asks if she’s in pain, asks if she needs anything and encourages her as physical therapists help her relearn how to bend and sit up and take small steps. She tries to calm her when her daughter tries to pull at the breathing tube in her throat. She wipes Daphne’s face when she sweats, keeps her surgical stockings pulled up to her knees to help with circulation, and rubs lotion on her legs as she falls off to sleep.

“When she was well, I was able to let go,” Wanda says. But now she’s injured and “I have to be there until she’s able to take care of herself.”

It is a month after the accident, and Wanda and Davina are sitting on a bench a few floors down from the intermediate-care unit. It is not a good day. Wanda is weary. She feels the kind of tired that sinks in when the novelty of horror has subsided. When the realization that one kind of life has gone, and is not coming back, has settled its heavy self deep into a mother’s bones.

Wanda has been at the hospital since the early morning that Brian’s mother called and told her Daphne had been hurt. They flew from Rochester together, a tense, quiet flight, each woman consumed by thoughts of her child.

Wanda steeled herself before walking into her daughter’s hospital room. She hadn’t steeled herself enough.

Daphne’s face was swollen, Wanda recalls. Her eyes “were so disfigured, they were almost out of her head. It was a horrifying thing to look at being a mom. But I didn’t want to cry, because I figured she could sense that. I wanted to try not to give in to what I was looking at.” Instead, she stood by her daughter’s bed and told her over and over: “Mommy’s here. You were just in an accident, but you’re a strong woman. Just keep fighting, baby.”

Her mother was the first person Daphne told when Brian proposed on her birthday, when he got down on his knee at a restaurant in front of her co-workers. It was Wanda who coordinated their wedding. She arranged the flowers and designed the ceremony and decorated the wishing well.

When fate is kind, people have a chance to gather themselves after a life-changing event like a wedding. There is space to process what has happened and to move past any glitches; time to reflect about how it is natural and right that children should grow up and leave their mama’s house. But time has not been on Wanda’s side. She was still coming down from the wedding when she got the call that her oldest daughter needed her urgently.

Wanda Dudley is a woman staggered by too many things in too short a time, but holding her daughter’s hand provides her a sense of clarity.

She left the hospital to take a break last Tuesday, and when she returned, Brian told his mother-in-law that Daphne had spoken her first sentences. She told her husband, “I love you.”

Then she said, “I want my mom.”

* * *

Disney World was the Gipsons’ second choice for a honeymoon. They had wanted to fly to Hawaii. But they had budgeted for around 200 people at their wedding reception, and as the RSVPs were returned, the numbers swelled to close to 400. The extra plates cost them their flight.

At first Brian felt bad for not being able to pay for the honeymoon his wife really wanted. He felt like he wasn’t being a good enough provider. Now he feels much worse. Not just about the honeymoon. Why didn’t we leave the night before, why didn’t we switch drivers earlier so that I would have been in the passenger’s seat, why did we stop so long for dinner? His mind loops.

Brian spends his days at his wife’s bedside. He reads to her from a book of prayers —“Healing for a Loved One” — and another called “The Needs of Marriage.” He reads along until he gets to a place where he can insert her name. “On behalf of Daphne Gipson, I express faith to you that she will be healed, and you will raise her up,” he prays.

Brian is sitting at an Uno’s restaurant not far from the hospital. He toys with a half-finished beer. On the first night of his honeymoon, he got lost trying to find the hotel in Orlando and ended up ordering a late dinner from Macaroni Grill. “We didn’t have candlelight but we dimmed the lights,” he says. They stayed in the hotel’s sweetheart suite, which had a heart-shaped hot tub. “It was nice,” he says, looking at his beer. He wears his wife’s wedding band on his left hand, next to his own.

When he first got to the hospital, a social worker took him into a secluded room. He thought she was going to tell him that his wife had passed. A social worker had taken him to a secluded hospital room 11 years earlier to say that his older brother had died of sickle-cell anemia. That first night with Daphne, he sat in the room willing her to fight. “I love you, I love you with all my heart,” Brian told his wife. “Don’t give up.”

For weeks he watched her trying not to die. Clinging to life in implausible places, crooking a finger or blinking an eye against a swelling tide of nothingness. For close to two months, he has held on to the smallest signs of Daphne’s life and drawn his own strength from her feeble moves.

He has given news conferences asking anyone who might know what happened to call the police. He did NBC’s “Today” show outside the hospital on June 16, but turned down a request to appear on ABC’s “The View” because he didn’t want to go as far away as New York, even for a day trip. “I like to be there when she wakes up,” he says, “so that she knows I haven’t left her hanging.” He’s considering contacting “America’s Most Wanted.”

The Fox-TV affiliate in Rochester where Brian works has told him not to worry about his job. Donations from strangers have helped pay for the family’s lodging. Brian is able to spend every day with his wife, but it is grinding work. Not the sitting with Daphne, but keeping his mind from thinking about the places they wanted to go, like Japan and Africa, and the little things they wanted to do, like joining a bowling league or having friends over to play cards.

“I want to go home with my wife,” Brian says. “We were going to barbecue on the Fourth. I want to be able to kiss her, to hold her and be with her and do all the things married couples do.”

You wonder if Brian worries that his wife will never be the same woman he married. Brian says he worries more about her not liking the way she looks. “I know the person inside. That’s the person I fell in love with,” he says.

But he often wonders about the rock-thrower and his family. “Were they rich people who didn’t pay any attention to their kid or poor people who didn’t pay attention to their kid or couldn’t buy them anything? Why were they so bored that this was a form of entertainment?” he asks. Always there are more questions.

* * *

Daphne Gipson is laughing hard.

She’s watching her husband get duped by a slick-talking shell-game dealer at a table in Orlando.

“Newlyweds, huh?” You’re out of the hotel roomso early, the dealer teases them.

The video camera pans the crowd and Daphne is still laughing. In a hotel room far from Orlando, Brian is watching the TV screen with his mother and his grandmother, and a smile plays across his lips. Sometimes it all still seems so close. I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine. Sometimes it’s so hard to know if that was the dream or if he’s dreaming now and cannot wake up.

Brian stops the video. He gathers himself to join his bride at the hospital.

Washington Post staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

 
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