Seeking Jasta

Posted: August 10, 2007

Melissa Sweeney so badly wants to remember a night four years ago - the kind of night most people would try to forget.

That's not the cruelest irony.

The cruelest irony is this:

Melissa was in bed at 2:30 a.m. when her boyfriend, in a bar much of the night, called her for a ride. So she woke her daughter, Jasta, 4, buckled her in the car seat, and went to pick him up.

On the way, Melissa's car was hit - by a drunk driver.

Jasta died within hours. Melissa fell into a coma, near death.

Outwardly, four years later, Melissa bears only the faintest physical remnants from the crash: an occasional loss of balance, a scar where her tracheotomy was. She can walk, work, even drive at times.

But she still struggles with the lasting effects of her brain being shaken like a can of paint in a mixer.

Her short-term memory was permanently damaged. She won't go to the mall because she can't remember where she parked. She'll call her mother . . . then call again because she forgot she already called her.

She recently started working evenings, cleaning an office in Fairless Hills. When she moves the waiting-room chairs to mop, she can't remember how to put them back. She must study a photograph.

The brain injury also wiped out many memories of her daughter - their last Christmas together, their last Halloween, when the pictures show Jasta dressed as Cinderella.

"I want more than anything to be able to remember all the little things about her, and it's hard," Melissa said.

When she's alone in her room, Melissa, now 31, still tries desperately to remember that fatal night. She wants to ask herself these questions: "Why did I agree to go? Didn't I see the drunk driver coming?"

A shy teenager

As a teenager, Melissa Sweeney was shy, an introvert even, who wouldn't go through a fast-food drive-thru alone. After her parents divorced and her mother moved to the Neshaminy district, Melissa couldn't bring herself to go to a new high school.

Her mother, Donna Daubenspeck, would drive her to school and pull Melissa out of the car, but she'd hide out in the bathroom.

Then at 19, Melissa ran off with a carnival worker. Daubenspeck called her son and said, "You better talk some sense into your sister," but nobody had any luck. The carny got into drugs, went to jail.

"The only thing good that came out of it was Jasta," Melissa's brother, John Sweeney Jr., said of the relationship. "That girl was basically an angel from day one."

For Jasta's sake, Melissa began emerging from her shell, to be her advocate, her guide, her mother. One example is their trip to Disney World in 2002 - a surviving memory that Melissa treasures.

"I remember she was so scared to meet Cinderella because of how much she loved her," Melissa said. "All she did was talk about how she couldn't wait to . . . tell her that she was beautiful.

"But when we finally met her, Jasta was scared. . . . Then I convinced her to walk up to her and tell her. She had the best time, and I am so glad I was able to take her there."

Melissa enrolled Jasta in Just Children, a preschool in Langhorne, and started working there herself, becoming a teacher, a job she loved.

In 2002, happier than she'd ever been, Melissa began dating Dan Jones, a house painter who lived in Philadelphia. Dan said he'd never waited so long to kiss a girl, but it was worth the wait. He began spending more time at Melissa's apartment in Levittown, and they were about to get a place together.

When Dan called her that January night in 2003, telling her that his friend was too drunk to drive him home, Melissa put Jasta into the car seat and headed north on 413, where she waited for the arrow to turn green at the entrance ramp to I-95.

It was 3:19 a.m.

The accident

Steven Williams, 23, had been drinking at a party in West Bristol - and arguing with his girlfriend, Tina Hauber.

"She was doing nothing but pestering me," he testified at his trial, "asking me why I broke up with her . . . and I just had to get away."

When he hopped into his Toyota pickup truck, she jumped in, too. She wanted to talk.

"Get out of my truck," he told her, according to his testimony. She denied he ever said that.

They took off driving through Lower Bucks County toward a Wawa for cigarettes and coffee.

Hauber told the court that she begged him to slow down. "At one point, I looked at the speedometer and it was over 100," she testified.

Finding the Wawa closed, he barreled south on 413. "I just wanted to get home and get on with my life," Williams testified.

At the I-95 ramp intersection, Williams said, the traffic light was yellow and he was going to "punch it" - hit the gas and beat the red light.

He said he never saw Melissa Sweeney's car beginning to turn left in front of him. Police said it was going less than one mile an hour when it was struck on the passenger side - T-boned - by his truck, right where Jasta was belted into her car seat. Police said he was going more than 80 miles per hour.

Williams walked out of his truck. His arm was broken in three places, and his head was bleeding from the windshield. He was not wearing a seat belt.

Hauber, with torn ligaments in her ankle and knee, testified that he approached her side of the truck. "He said he was sorry," she said, "and he told me to tell the cops that the light was green."

Which she did.

Two days later, after Tina Hauber heard that Jasta had died, she told police that the light had been red. "My daughter is about the same age," Hauber testified, "and I just felt so bad and so guilty that this little baby died."

Williams, whose blood-alcohol level was 0.17 percent - well over the legal limit - was convicted of homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence, among other charges, and sentenced to 41/2 to 10 years in prison.

Melissa's recovery

Jasta was airlifted by helicopter to Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Melissa's mother, Donna Daubenspeck, who heard about the accident at 6 a.m., was holding her granddaughter's hand when she died just before noon. Jasta became one of 17,000 Americans who died in alcohol-related crashes that year.

Melissa was taken by ambulance to Frankford Hospital-Torresdale Campus. With Melissa in a coma and the outlook grim, the family discussed whether to remove life support if she didn't get better.

"We talked about it a couple times," said Melissa's brother John. "I said to my mother, 'You have to let her go, because she doesn't want to be a vegetable.' "

After that threat passed, doctors feared she'd be paralyzed from the chest down. But she began moving her legs and toes.

Melissa suffered collapsed lungs, a neck fracture, broken ribs, and a broken leg, but the primary concern was her traumatic brain injury.

Jasta's brain was shaken so hard it killed her. Melissa's nearly so.

After nearly a month in a coma, Melissa regained consciousness. Even before Melissa could speak, still on a respirator, her mother told her about Jasta, that she had died in the crash. Daubenspeck saw tears well in her daughter's eyes.

But what Melissa understood is uncertain. That she didn't remember would become obvious. When she did speak, she told her family she was pregnant, in the hospital to have a baby. She didn't remember she'd already had Jasta.

She also didn't recognize Dan Jones, her boyfriend.

But once she remembered him, she immediately recited his cell-phone number. There was nothing predictable about what she could remember and what she couldn't.

Melissa had forgotten how to feed herself, how to bathe, how to walk, how to control her bladder. She was a child all over again.

Then she would forget

She moved to Magee Rehabilitation Hospital, and as her brain began to heal, Melissa would ask about Jasta. Again and again, her mother would tell her Jasta was dead.

Melissa would cry uncontrollably, devastated.

And then she would forget.

Hours later, or the next morning, she'd ask her mother again, "Where's Jasta?"

"I used to have to tell her 20 times a day that her daughter died," Daubenspeck recalled recently. "And she couldn't remember that. I told her over and over. But then, like, later the same day, she'd say, 'Where is Jasta?' and you'd have to go though the whole story again. There was this fantastic nurse at Magee who would crawl into bed with her because she'd cry herself to sleep."

"It was all new to her each time. I would come home and I was like a zombie, exhausted."

The records from Magee are filled with entries like the following, from therapist Todd M. Lewis: "Melissa continues to have significant memory deficits and thus has episodes where she forgets her daughter has died. She will then recall this and become emotionally overwhelmed."

After six weeks at Magee, Melissa went to live with her aunt, who worked nights and could watch her during the day, when other family members were working.

Although she had been told countless times that Jasta was dead, Melissa fully expected Jasta to run into her arms when she walked through her aunt's front door.

No Jasta.

"I thought they were so cruel, playing a horrible joke on me," recalled Melissa. That day she remembers.

Everyone - Melissa's mother, sisters, aunt and boyfriend - helped care for her.

"She was like a 2-year-old child," her aunt recalled. "She was in diapers. I would have to sit on the toilet and tell her what to wash in the shower. She got better at doing things for herself little by little, but she had to be constantly reminded."

To convince her that her daughter had died, and to get her to remember permanently, Daubenspeck asked Melissa if she wanted to watch the video of Jasta's funeral, which Melissa - in a coma - had missed. Jasta was buried in a Cinderella dress.

Melissa watched repeatedly.

At first, said her mother, Melissa seemed detached, watching the minister tell everyone how Jasta loved to dress up in long dresses and high heels, how she brought her blankie to school, loved her pop-pop's French toast.

"Maybe it was so hard for her to believe. Or to process and comprehend," Daubenspeck said.

But the more she watched the video, the more emotional Melissa got. She would see teachers from her preschool, her sisters, touching the casket on the snowy ground and she'd weep.

And forget.

"To go through a death is bad enough," said her mother, "but to go through it over and over is, like, unbelievable. . . . I guess what happened as the time went on, and her brain was getting a little better, she could grasp a little of it."

By summer, Melissa Sweeney understood that her daughter was dead.

Medical explanations

Guy W. Fried, chief medical officer at Magee and a specialist in rehabilitation medicine, said half a million Americans suffer traumatic brain injuries every year, and 50,000 die from them - often the result of car accidents.

Few are as lucky as Melissa. "Most people don't do that well when they come from such devastation," he said.

The brain, Fried said, "has nerves connecting all over the place, millions of connections . . . smaller than spiderwebs, connecting one thought to another."

Melissa's brain was shaken so violently by the crash that many of these connections were destroyed "in tiny areas diffusely throughout her brain."

"The blessing," he said, "was that she was 27, so her brain is going to have more plasticity, the ability to recover or form a new pathway."

Gradually, most function came back to her. But certain things never will.

For instance, Melissa can no longer do "times" tables. She was never a strong student, but these she knew by heart as a child. Asked to multiply 7 times 5, she counted out loud, "5, 10, 15 . . . ," and with each repetition held up another finger. When she got to her seventh finger and said, "35," she stopped.

She was far from confident of her answer.

Fried said concrete actions (making a sandwich, mopping a floor) are easier than abstract thought (multiplying in your head or creating a lesson plan).

Anjan Chatterjee, a neurologist and brain expert at the University of Pennsylvania, explained how short-term memory may be damaged.

The brain, he said, is the texture of firm Jell-O, and the skull in most places is smooth. When the brain is shaken, it can slide along this smooth surface and minimize injury.

But the bottom of the skull is scalloped and parts of the brain cradled there are often damaged when shaken in automobile accidents.

One such part is the temporal lobe, which includes the hippocampus, a sea horse-shaped structure that coordinates memories and dispatches them to other parts of the brain for storage.

When the hippocampus is injured, he said, the brain has difficulty creating new memories - a person can forget what happened 10 minutes earlier.

In addition, with a damaged hippocampus, a person can lose memories that had not already been completely stored in other parts of the brain - a process that can take months.

This, Chatterjee said, could explain why Melissa's recent memories of Jasta were lost.

One other area of the brain commonly damaged in automobile accidents is the orbito-frontal cortex. When this part of the brain is shaken, he said, a person can become "disinhibited, distractable, and judgments may be off."

A person may lack discipline, he said, seem immature.

Melissa's best friend, Erin Doyle, jokingly blames Melissa for making her gain weight, because Melissa is always wanting to go to Friendly's for ice cream - a place Melissa never went before the accident.

A crushing loss

Dan Jones was at the hospital every day with Melissa, then moved into her aunt's house with her. But a year after the accident, Jones ended the relationship.

"She was totally crushed," Melissa's mother said.

"He made it like he cared and loved me," Melissa said. "But he up and disappeared."

Jones said he never stopped loving Melissa. But she had changed and he couldn't deal with her family.

"I wanted something I wasn't going to get," he said. "I wanted my girlfriend back. She was like a little kid. Her family controlled her."

"I kissed her one day. And they said, 'Don't kiss her.' They said she wasn't ready. I couldn't even show my girlfriend affection."

Melissa's mother said Jones was correct that the family felt Melissa wasn't ready for a relationship.

"Her mind was only up to a 15-year-old at the time," Daubenspeck said.

Melissa's family does not blame Jones for the accident, but the family was extremely protective of Melissa, and Jones understands why. "That was their daughter and their granddaughter," he said.

"I still feel guilty," he said. "I work a lot. That's how I get through the day, I guess. . . . I think about her all the time. I took responsibility for that action back then. I blamed myself for the longest time."

Jones had two kids before he met Melissa. (He has since had a third.) He said the tragedy had made him a better father. When his daughter fell off a bunk bed and punctured her kidney not long ago, he didn't leave the hospital for two weeks. He said that was a result of his experience with Melissa and Jasta.

He gave up drinking for a year after the accident, and his children never get into a car without clicking their seat belts.

Melissa said she had no interest in romance with him or any man. She said she could not imagine becoming a parent again. She couldn't bear the pain of losing another child.

Remembering Jasta

On her left shoulder, a year after the accident, Melissa got a tattoo of Jasta, rising out of clouds. On her right shoulder, months later, she followed with a tattoo of Tinkerbell blowing fairy dust across to Jasta.

Melissa is "obsessed," to use her mother's word, with Tinkerbell. Her small SUV has Tinkerbell seat covers and Tinkerbell floor mats. A plastic Tinkerbell hangs from the rearview mirror. Her mother calls the vehicle the "Tinkmobile."

In Melissa's bedroom, along with pictures of Jasta, are pictures of Tinkerbell, and a Tinkerbell snowball, and three Tinkerbell pillows on her bed. "I just like fairies," Melissa explained.

Her mother thinks this reflects her immaturity after the accident.

"She wasn't like that before," Daubenspeck said. "I can tell you that much."

Her brother thinks it's a way for Melissa to keep the memory of Jasta near and alive.

"Jasta loved Cinderella," John Sweeney Jr. said. Both Cinderella and Tinkerbell, he said, "remind Melissa of Jasta, and that's her way of coping."

A letter from prison

Awaiting trial, Steven Williams tried to commit suicide, according to his lawyer, Ronald Elgart.

Later, he got a tattoo on his arm, "In Memory of Jasta."

This made Melissa angry. She feels he has no right to carry her daughter's name on his arm.

Williams, who is in prison west of Altoona, declined to be interviewed for this story. His lawyer thinks that Williams has suffered greatly.

From prison, Williams wrote Melissa:

"I hate myself for what I caused. Jasta is always on my mind day and night. I have a lot of shame and guilt. I hold on to the pain I cause you. Just about everyday I question myself why am I still living. I should of died that night not her. . . . All because I was a selfish person that got into the truck drunk. It eats at me I don't even feel human anymore. I know an apology not going to fix what I caused. I am sorry. I wish there was something I could do."

Because Williams had limited car insurance and no assets, Melissa got only a few thousand dollars from the insurance company. The judge in the criminal trial ordered him to pay $11,000 to Melissa, and he sends small amounts from prison - $36 a few weeks ago.

Melissa also filed a civil suit against Williams, but not to win a big judgment. Williams could never have paid it, her lawyer, Joan Gallagher, said.

Instead, Melissa wanted to make him pay by remembering. So Williams has agreed to a settlement that will require him, once he leaves prison, to write a $75 check to Mothers Against Drunk Driving every month for the next 15 years.

"I don't want the money," Melissa e-mailed, "and I wanted it to do some good, and at the same time I wanted him to remember what he did to have to write that check. So I thought it was a perfect way!"

Williams, who, according to his lawyer, has been a model prisoner, is eligible for parole this Christmas Eve. In June, Melissa and her mother both told a hearing officer that they opposed his release.

"It's simply too soon," her mother said.

Melissa's life today

Nine months after the accident, Melissa went back to work at the preschool. They welcomed her, tried their best to accommodate her. But Melissa left last winter. The job became too much for her.

Even following directions for arts-and-crafts overwhelmed her. If she sent a child to "time-out," on the playground, said a former assistant, Melissa couldn't remember who it was or what he'd done by the time she got back inside.

Melissa lives at home with her mother and stepfather, and probably always will live with family or friends. They believe the tasks of daily living - remembering to turn off the stove or paying bills - would overwhelm her.

Melissa receives Social Security disability, and baby-sits now during the day for a family she met at the preschool.

The Trommers, of Feasterville, worried at first if caring for their little girl would upset Melissa, remind her of Jasta, but that hasn't been a problem, Ingrid Trommer said. She and her husband also realize Melissa can't remember many instructions they tell her, so they write things down.

Every morning on the toaster they leave a Post-it note: Please make Katie a piece of toast. In her room they leave a note: Please turn air conditioner on for her nap.

"Melissa is the strongest person I know," Ingrid Trommer said. "It is just incredible what she has endured and how far she has come."

Melissa drives now, but never at rush hour, and only to work, the cemetery, or the preschool, where she tends a bench dedicated to Jasta. She is able to do this, said Fried, because these are familiar routes, deeply embedded in her brain.

If a road is closed, Melissa will panic and call her mother, unable to cope with finding a new course. She will not drive to the mall because she can never remember where she parked.

In March, Melissa began cleaning a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation office three nights a week, through a program run by Inglis Community Employment Services to help people with disabilities find and keep jobs.

Melissa prefers to keep busy, not only because it keeps her mind off Jasta, but also because it helps her to focus.

"I just try to take it day by day, but hope to get myself stronger and happier," she said. "The only thing I want and would try to push for is to try and be happy. I don't know if it is possible. I'm not happy, but I'm not unhappy. I'm stuck choosing one of the ways, like a teeter-totter, happy or unhappy.

"And I feel guilty if I'm happy. I feel I shouldn't be. I remind myself what happened. It makes me go, 'You shouldn't be happy.' Because I don't have Jasta. Not that I want to be like that. That's just how I feel like I'm going to be."

Last month, Melissa went to Myrtle Beach with the Trommers for a week - as a friend, not a baby-sitter. "I had so much fun just being away," she said. She even went parasailing. Later this month, she's going on a cruise to Alaska with her best friend, Erin Doyle.

Erin knows Melissa can't plan, so she asks Melissa what she'd like to do - and then makes it happen.

The other evening, Melissa was back cleaning the PennDot office. Jen Holtzworth, her job coach, was there helping.

When Melissa started the job, she couldn't remember how to wheel the big bucket of water. Holtzworth would show her - put the mop into the bucket, and use that for leverage to push and steer. But Melissa couldn't remember from one night to the next. This went on for weeks.

On this night, Melissa wheeled the mop and bucket onto the main floor with ease - just as Holtzworth had taught her many times.

"Look," Holtzworth pointed out, "she remembered."

Melissa overheard this comment, turned and smiled.

"She drilled it into my head," Melissa said: "Put it in the water and push!"


Contact staff writer Michael Vitez

at 215-854-5639 or mvitez@phillynews.com.

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