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A survivor's story


By Mike DuPre'/Gazette Staff

MADISON -- Monica Forgues stuck her tongue out at her attorney.

The light of mischief brightened her brown eyes, and an impish smile played across her pretty face.

Sitting in her wheelchair, the 16-year-old girl turned her attention back to her inquisitive visitor and said matter-of-factly:

"I have skin problems because I can't move so much. I've had a lot of lung problems, pneumonia three or four times; bladder infections; weight loss, 20 or 30 pounds."

Monica listed just a few of the ways her health has changed since last March 25. Early that morning, Monica was one of 11 young people hurled from a speeding van turned topsy-turvy on Interstate 90 north of Janesville. They were scattered across the highway like so many torn and shattered dolls.

The accident killed seven of Monica's magazine subscription-selling colleagues. Fourteen young people were in the van. They were a crew recruited by a business known as Y.E.S. to sell magazines for Subscriptions Plus, an Oklahoma company.

Only one person, a young woman, escaped injury.

Driver Jeremy Holmes, whose injuries were relatively minor, was sentenced to seven years in prison for 12 felony charges. An habitual traffic offender, Holmes admitted trying to switch places with a front-seat passenger when he saw a police car pull out behind the van.

The van was going 81 mph when Holmes lost control. The van rolled over twice. None of the people inside wore seat belts.

The other five survivors suffered serious injuries. Monica was one whose life hung by a thread.

She remembers waking up in the hospital. She spent four months there.

Today, Monica is paralyzed from the waist down. She can move her right arm and wrist but does not have use of her fingers. She has extremely limited movement in her left arm.

Despite her crippling injuries, Monica is quick to smile, laugh--and stick out her tongue at attorney Victor Arellano.

He represents Monica and her mother, Nancy Ashton, in their lawsuit against the companies they charge are responsible for the accident.

Media have besieged Monica and Nancy, trying to get their stories. Arellano has shielded the family from most of the reporters. He allowed a short interview but set ground rules because of the lawsuit: No questions about the specifics of the crash. No questions about how Monica, then a 15-year-old eighth-grader, came to be on Madison's State Street, where she was recruited by Y.E.S.

"You try to keep a positive attitude," she said. "You take one day at a time. I can be perfectly fine one day and sick as a dog the next."

Monica's courage, spirit and sense of humor are remarkable in the face of what she has gone through--and goes through every day.

Monica has undergone therapy at the hospital, through school and at home. Every couple of weeks since she was dismissed from the hospital, Monica has had to return for stays of a couple of days.

The medical bills are staggering. A hospital lien for more than $211,000 has been sought against her.

Her mother, Nancy, had to give up her job as a lab technician so she could give Monica the round-the-clock care she needs. Now Nancy and Monica live on W-2 and Monica's SSI disability benefit. Medicaid provided Monica's wheelchair.

Monday, she returned to school, now Madison East High School, but the experience was too draining.

"All the other kids and teachers were very nice," Monica said. "When I got home, I got really tired. Tuesday I was sick. Wednesday I was sick."

Going to school now is just too much for Monica, Nancy said.

"It takes two hours just to get ready, and it's a rush," Nancy said. "Physically, mentally, it's tough."

Monica needs treatment every six hours, which can't be done at school.

"And it's not good for her to be sitting in one position for eight hours," Nancy said. "She needs to drink and eat all the time to maintain the health she has right now."

Seafood is a favorite, Monica said. "And Subway is the bomb."

Nancy said she will try to home-school Monica, but removing her from school also will remove her main link to the outside world and her favorite pastime: a school-provided computer and Internet access.

Monica does her homework via e-mail.

"I think I'm doing pretty good for as much school as I've missed," she said.

And she loves to chat with computer pals, one as far away as England. They talk about "kid stuff."

Kid stuff?

"Justin in 'N Sync is so-o-o fine," Monica said, her eyes sparkling with a smile.

"The computer is her whole life," Nancy said. "But in June, the computer goes. She won't have the computer, and I don't know what we'll do."

"Basically, it's the only thing I can do with no help. Well, I can't say no help," Monica said, nodding toward her mom.

Monica must use public transportation because Nancy does not have a van that can accommodate the wheelchair.

"Like today, she should have gone to the hospital," Nancy said. "But we'll have to wait until tomorrow because you have to give Madison public transportation 24 hours notice. If she gets sick in the night, we have to call an ambulance. That's $250 every time."

Nancy found a used van for sale for $4,000. But she can't afford it. Arellano's law firm, Lawton ∓ Cates of Madison, has established a trust fund for donations for Monica.

Nancy has virtually no life outside her and Monica's small apartment on Madison's east side.

An aide from Home Health United visits each day to help bathe Monica.

"It's a godsend," Nancy said, "but that's it."

Friends used to come by and provide respite so Nancy could get out, but that has petered out, Nancy said.

"She can't do anything on her own except talk and sit," Nancy said. "At times, it's pretty depressing because of the lack of help. We try to keep a positive attitude, but, of course, it affects us. It changed our whole life. ...

"We were close before (the accident). She was a wild teen-ager, but we were close. Of course, we're close now because we're together 24 hours a day, seven days a week....

"It's one day at a time. We really can't look to the future. I see a lot of trips to the hospital."

Monica has a goal, though: ''Right now, I'm just trying to finish high school."

To help keep Monica's outlook positive, Nancy got a Yorkshire terrier that will be trained as a service dog.

"It's really for mental support," she said.

The top of the dog's cage was piled high with stuffed animals, just a portion of the many stuffed toys that Monica has received since the accident.

"She collects Beanie Babies and Taco Bell chihuahuas," Nancy said.

When Monica was asked what she misses most, Nancy chimed in, "Being able to walk."

But Monica said: "No, that's not it."

A look of consideration furrowed her forehead.

"Probably going out and hanging out with my friends," Monica said. "Being able to get on a bus and go where I want. Just being able to get up and go.

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