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Posted on Tue, Jul. 27, 2004

Speedy coma recovery defies grim outlook


Mercury News

At first there was a faint smile and the gentle squeeze of a hand. Loved ones didn't dare to believe that Tara Eichinger Berendes might be coming out of the coma she had been in since a head-on car crash in Utah on June 1.

But then she began whispering little words to her husband, Josh.

On Tuesday, the 20-year-old newlywed continued to stun doctors and those around her when, with the help of physical therapists at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, she briefly stood on her own.

That capped what friends and relatives are calling a miraculous turn of events during the past several days. Just in the past week, Berendes, who is from Los Gatos, made brief phone calls to friends, played blackjack with her dad, read some get-well cards and scribbled notes in a journal. She even sang with a friend -- in harmony.

``We had some pretty grim news at first, that she'd probably be in a coma two to three months and that recovery might be a year or two out,'' said Josh Berendes, who had married her 10 days before the accident. ``We didn't expect her to be doing rehab this quick. I think we're watching a miracle.''

Doctors say Tara Berendes' progress is excellent. Dr. Jeffrey Englander, her physician, says it's an especially good sign that she is showing frustration.

``Typically,'' he said, ``when you recover to the point of realizing what you can and can't do, like Tara has, that's a good sign and an important step in recovery.''

Englander said Berendes' youth and determination, good health and strength -- the 6-foot-3 woman played basketball for years -- have helped in her recovery.

First signs of waking

Berendes first showed signs of waking from her coma about six weeks after the accident, after being flown to Valley Medical Center from University Hospital in Salt Lake City.

As soon as she arrived in San Jose on July 2, family members and longtime friends, many of them from Los Gatos' Calvary Baptist Church, where the couple had met, surrounded her with prayers and support. Many say that, and the couple's strong faith, are behind her amazing recovery.

``I can't help but feel that all of the love she's getting is what has made this happen,'' said Deborah Levoy, a friend of the newlywed couple's who sang at their May 22 wedding in Monte Sereno. ``When you have all this going for you, you have something to work for. Tara has so much to live for.''

When Levoy first visited, Berendes was unable to speak and could only roll her eyes. But last week, when the friend began singing a song she performed at the couple's wedding, Berendes chimed in and helped finish the song.

``She was in perfect harmony,'' Levoy said. ``It's incredible to see her coming back, singing, smiling and laughing. It's pretty much nothing short of miraculous.''

But as Berendes slowly regains her memory, she also is starting to come to grips with all that happened to her. She has no recollection of the devastating accident, which killed a Salt Lake City father of two, but she is aware that she was in an accident and recently asked what happened to her car.

`I almost died'

Her father showed her photos of her mangled sport-utility vehicle. She grew very quiet and said, ``Wow, I guess I almost died.''

The accident claimed the life of 28-year-old Thad Goodman, the driver of the car that slammed into the Berendeses and the father of 3-year-old and 7-month-old daughters. His widow, Susan Goodman, has reached out to the Berendeses, forming prayer circles at her Salt Lake City church and urging anyone wishing to donate money to her family to instead give to the Berendeses' fund. The couple do not have health insurance.

After their wedding, the couple packed their gifts and on May 30 headed for Colorado, where Josh Berendes was to be a youth pastor and work for Home Depot while his wife studied psychology.

On the afternoon of June 1 as Tara Berendes drove the couple's Suzuki Vitara near Salt Lake City, Goodman lost control of his car and it shot across the median, hitting the Berendeses head-on.

Josh Berendes suffered moderate injuries but was able to work himself free. His wife was pinned in her seat as the car burst into flames. She suffered brain damage, some internal injuries and burns across her forehead. The burns are healing after skin grafting surgery.

Today, her husband, 23, rarely leaves her side. He sleeps in a folding chair next to her hospital bed.

Tara Berendes can't yet recall certain events, including her wedding, but doctors believe at some point it may come back to her. Josh Berendes has filled her hospital room with their wedding photos and other pictures of family and friends to jog her memory. She looks at them constantly. And she glimpses herself in the mirror, looking at the unpleasant burn scars on her forehead that may take months to heal.

``To me, she's just as beautiful as she ever was,'' Josh Berendes said. ``When she smiles, she lights up the room like she always did.''

Contact Connie Skipitares at cskipitares@mercurynews.com or (408) 920-5647.

email: info@tarajosh.com