‘We’re fortunate we came home’
ASPEN ” Jeff Reese and Susan Grove say everything in their lives was falling into place when their world was shattered by a drunk driver last May.
The couple was returning from a Colorado Rockies baseball game to their home in Basalt when they rounded Emma curve on Two Rivers Road and got smacked head-on by another vehicle. They survived the crash ” barely. Both were knocked unconscious and remained in comas for several weeks. Their list of injuries reads like an inventory of patients at a MASH unit.
“As I understand it, it was touch and go for both of us,” said Jeff, whose speech is difficult to understand at times even though it is obvious he is an intelligent man.
Their bodies were mangled. They suffered injuries to their brains. They face an unknown amount of time in rehabilitation and they have a mountain of debts in medical bills. In spite of all that, their spirit of caring about others endured. They expressed no bitterness toward Oscar Canas Portillo, the man who caused them all this pain and suffering.
“One of the things we’re grateful for is that he didn’t hit someone else and kill them,” Susan said. “We’re fortunate we came home.”
The journey home took more than four months. Susan, 53, came out of her coma first, in June, and spoke Spanish exclusively for the first 10 days although it’s not her native tongue. The right side of her lower body was crushed. She eventually needed a hip replacement. She said she mixes up words and has problems with anxiety.
Jeff, 46, remained in a coma until July 3 and when he came to he had memory loss. He forgot that he and Susan were married. Details of his life vanished in the collision.
The big, strong Aspen native lost 50 pounds while he was out. His right ankle was fractured and his left knee banged up. It’s difficult for him to control the right side of his body. Skiing, bike riding and hockey ” three of his passions ” are out for now. He is particularly frustrated that his injuries slurred his speech.
“My mouth ” it feels like it’s asleep,” Jeff said. He has constant jaw pain.
Susan said her pain was so severe after she came out of the coma that she asked God to take her life. She is thankful he didn’t listen. The pain medication whacked her out to the point where she called a Denver-area police station and a fire department to report that her caregivers were trying to kill her.
“They took my phone away,” she laughed.
She figures that part of the reason her life was spared was to campaign against drunk driving, something she intends to do when her recovery is more complete.
Jeff and Susan were reunited in a Denver hospital in late July. They ate meals together, spent all their spare time together and frequently crossed paths in physical therapy.
Jeff was released in August, Susan in September. They returned to Aspen, where Jeff’s parents, John “Jack” Reese and Beverly Reese rented part of a duplex for them across from their house in Aspen.
Jeff didn’t hesitate when asked how he has persevered through the hardships.
“Religion is number one,” he said.
He is a devout Catholic who was part of the St. Mary parish in Aspen while growing up and when he returned to the area. His older brother, Ben, is a Catholic priest who visited Lourdes, France, and brought back some of the famed healing waters to Jeff and Susan.
Susan, who has been a nurse since 1976, said a positive attitude is vital to dealing with the issues.
“You have a choice to be happy or miserable,” she said.
Both of them had a long list of examples of how family and friends have helped them ” from staying by their sides in the hospital when they were in comas, to encouraging them during the darkest days of recovery and now assisting them during day-to-day living in Aspen.
They have a lot of friends to draw upon. Jeff graduated from Aspen High School in 1980. While attending the University of Colorado he went into the U.S. Navy and saw combat action in the Middle East. He returned to Colorado after 10 years in the service and met Susan in Keystone, where they owned condos in the same complex.
They moved to the Aspen area in 2006 and were piecing together a great life. Jeff was working with his longtime friends, the Marolt brothers, at their accounting business. Susan was hired as a nurse in the surgical department as Aspen Valley Hospital. They were married in June 2007.
They bought a lot at W/J Ranch and were scheduled to meet with an architect the day after their crash. They were renting in Basalt until they could build.
Susan said her colleagues at AVH donated their vacation time to her so she would continue getting a paycheck. Their ongoing kindness continues to overwhelm her. They singled out longtime friend Kathleen Callahan for helping them with daily struggles.
Their friends are devising ways to help them pay their medical bills and come up with funds for daily living. They medical expenses have topped $1.3 million and continue to mount. They said Susan’s job has provided solid insurance coverage. More than 80 percent of the expenses were covered.
Nevertheless, they were left with a lot of debt and they have no income to pay rent, groceries and other living expenses.
Jeff applied for Social Security but was denied on what seems to be an outrageous premise that he can now work a 40-hour week. Susan is cleared to resume work on Feb. 1. Her position at AVH was initially filled by temporary workers in hopes that she could return soon, but it had to be filled once the busy part of ski season hit, according to AVH spokeswoman Ginny Dyche. The hospital will work with Susan to find a suitable nursing position for her as soon as possible, Dyche said.
“It’s a temporary quandary and we feel terrible about it,” Dyche said. “We have every intention of keeping Susan as an employee.”
There are several ways that people can contribute to Susan and Jeff’s recovery. An account is established in their names at Alpine Banks in the Roaring Fork Valley. There is a website where donations can be made at http://jeffandsusan.chipin.com/jeff-and-susan.
Also, Mike Marolt is organizing a fundraiser. A film called “Skiing Everest” will be shown Thursday, Jan. 22, at 7:30 p.m. at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen. All proceeds will go to Jeff and Susan.
Susan and Jeff will get closure to one part of their ordeal Jan. 28 when Canas Portillo is sentenced in a criminal case that resulted from the accident. He pleaded guilty last month to two counts of vehicular assault causing bodily injury.
Jeff and Susan plan to attend the sentencing hearing.
“The man who hurt us needs to see the harm he’s caused us,” Susan said, stressing that she is trying to forgive him. “We want the judge and the district attorney to see the full impact. My whole life is changed upside down.”
“It will be hard,” Jeff said. “When you see him it will be hard to forgive him.”
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