Urijah Faber's sister on the mend after car crash put her in a coma

03/27/2012 12:00 AM

05/29/2012 7:39 PM

Michaella Tastad awoke and looked around the hospital room. She saw flowers, balloons and gift baskets, many addressed to "Urijah Faber's sister."

Her head pounded. She wondered how long she had been asleep.

Tastad had been in a coma eight days. The last thing she remembered was the post-Thanksgiving shopping trip she had taken with her friend to the Roseville Galleria in the early morning hours of Black Friday.

Every year, 1.7 million people suffer a brain injury. On that morning, Tastad, 19, become one of them.

She did not know she had been in a car accident. She did not know she had brain surgery, a collapsed lung, a fractured tailbone, and was paralyzed on the right side of her body. All she knew was that her head hurt, as if someone was pulling at her scalp.

"The pain was incredible," Tastad said as she stood in the living room of her brother's Sacramento home last week.

Over the next few days, her body began to recover, but the emotional impact was just beginning to set in. "I guess what hit me most was that your whole life can change in a moment."

Before the accident, Tastad had been a student at Sierra College, worked part time at Forever 21 and was a personal assistant to her brother Faber, the mixed martial arts champ.

For now, her life has changed, she said. It is a series of medical treatments. On a recent day, she headed for a checkup at Sutter Roseville Medical Center and later, a session in the oxygen chamber at the Hyperbaric Oxygen Clinic in Sacramento.

Outgoing and easy to laugh, Tastad is the picture of health. But she still has concerns – her sentences are jumbled at times, she has a bump on her forehead, and her short-term memory is faulty.

Like others who have had brain trauma, Tastad keeps a journal to jog her memories.

She placed her diary on the living room table. "I have it all here, everything that has happened," she said, leafing through the pages. "Believe me, this helps."

Car and boat accidents are the leading causes of brain injuries, said Lynda Eaton, coordinator for Mercy's Home and Community Program.

She said more than 5 million people in the United States are living with disabilities resulting from traumatic brain injuries.

George Visger suffered numerous concussions while playing professional football, including for the San Francisco 49ers during the 1980-81 season. He receives oxygen treatment several times a week at the Sacramento clinic.

"Oftentimes people have injuries and don't realize it," said Visger. He has dozens of journals to help him with his memory. "People are embarrassed to talk about brain injuries."

Many do not remember what caused their brain trauma.

Tastad is not sure she wants to.

After hours of early-morning shopping the night after Thanksgiving, Tastad and her friend left the Roseville Galleria and climbed into her mother's Chrysler Sebring convertible. According to police reports, she was headed west on Highway 80 to her brother's house in Sacramento. At 3:01 a.m., there was a collision on the Auburn/Riverside exit ahead of her.

"She took evasive action to avoid the collision and struck another vehicle," said David Martinez, an officer with the California Highway Patrol. "She was the most seriously injured."

Tastad was taken to Sutter Roseville. "She came in deeply comatose. We had a brief evaluation and she was taken directly to the operating room," said Dr. Derek Taggard, a neurosurgeon with Sutter Neuroscience Institute.

A doctor at the hospital called her mother at her home in Santa Barbara. "All I heard was, she's still alive and I started screaming," Suzanne Tastad said.

Faber, her brother, had just landed in New York when he was called. He took the first plane back. Thirteen years older than his sister, he had always been close to her.

"It was a really scary time," he said, and he rarely left his sister's side for the next three weeks.

Tastad had aggressive treatment from the beginning, said her doctor. That care included three brain surgeries, which required the teen to shave her once-long hair. It is now a pixie. To show his support, Faber shaved his head – and posted it on YouTube.

"I know it's hard for a beautiful 19-year-old girl to lose her hair and I wanted to show I support her 100 percent," said Faber, now in Las Vegas, where he is shooting the FX reality show "The Ultimate Fighter."

After she woke from her coma, Tastad began recovering quickly, though she is not accustomed to doctor visits.

Her parents used homeopathic remedies on all three of their children. All were delivered by midwives – Faber even videotaped his sister's birth. Tastad is a big believer that raw and organic foods can heal anything. She has never had a vaccination; never had toothpaste with fluoride.

"And I'm happy to say I'm not taking any pain medication now," Tastad said.

Her doctor praised her recovery. "I would never have imagined she'd be at this stage a year out and she's done it in only a few months," said Taggard. "It's phenomenal. Her prognosis is excellent."

The teenager has tried to remain upbeat about her recovery, but it is not always easy. She recently shut down her Facebook account because looking at photos of her friends having a good time was too difficult. "I started thinking about what I was missing out on," she said.

For now, she hopes to raise awareness about people living with brain injuries. On Sunday, she joined about 800 people who walked three miles in the Sacramento Walk for Thought, sponsored by the Brain Injury Association of California.

On a recent day, Tastad climbed onto a 7-foot-long bed that was pushed into a chamber for a session at the Hyperbaric Oxygen Clinic in Sacramento. Visger was down the hall. Tastad's brother Ryan Faber was beside her. She believed the oxygen will help her heal. For an hour, she lay there listening to classical music.

"I think about getting better and moving on," she said.

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