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Posted on Wednesday, June 1, 2005

After brush with death, life's sweet

Mercury News

Her sandy brown hair has grown back, and the burns have healed enough so she doesn't have to wear the tight face mask used to mend the scars around her eyes and forehead.

Today, Tara Berendes' days are filled with moments that most people would take for granted -- having lunch with friends, going to the gym, driving to the supermarket and celebrating her 21st birthday. And she's thoroughly enjoying life as a new wife with husband Josh in their tiny Monte Sereno cottage on her grandfather's property.

A year ago, she lay near death after a horrific head-on crash in Utah. The June 1, 2004, accident, happened as the couple traveled from Los Gatos to Colorado to start their married life. It left the new bride in a deep coma with internal injuries and moderate burns. The prognosis was grim. Doctors warned her family and husband of 10 days that she might not regain consciousness. If she did, she would likely be severely brain damaged.

Berendes proved them wrong with her remarkable recovery.

``I'm healing more and more every day,'' said the outgoing, optimistic young woman who gives no outward hint of the brain damage she did suffer. ``I've just finished taking my last college course, and now I officially have my B.A. in psychology. And I hope to go to grad school soon.''

Berendes astounded her family and doctors by re-learning how to drive and, in March, right after celebrating her 21st birthday, getting a new driver's license. Many thought she might be traumatized getting behind the wheel after the crash.

``Thank God I don't remember the accident at all,'' she said. ``That made it easy. I wasn't nervous getting back on the road.''

Her husband says he worries a little when she goes driving, but he's philosophical: ``It's hard to worry about things you can't control.''

Tara Berendes was driving the couple's small sport-utility vehicle outside Salt Lake City when another car lost control and crossed the median, plowing into them. The other driver died at the scene.

Emergency crews cut Tara from the wreckage, and she was airlifted to a nearby hospital, where she remained for a month in a coma. Josh Berendes suffered modest injuries and recovered quickly. Tara was flown July 2 to Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose. A few weeks later she began to regain consciousness. At first, she whispered little words to her husband and soon began to sing, talk, read and walk.

Doctors have told her that she is about 80 percent back to what she was before the accident, and could be almost 100 percent within four years. She no longer requires physical therapy. But she does have some short-term memory loss.

Berendes is involved in many of her activities from before her accident, including mentoring teenage girls at her Los Gatos church, and briefly worked at a downtown Los Gatos coffeehouse. The one-time basketball player also hits the gym a few times a week. She hopes to join a support group for brain-injured patients and enroll in a memory improvement class.

Losing her short-term memory proved to be both good and bad, Berendes said. She has no recollection of the crash. But she also can't remember some of the best moments of her life, such as her May 22, 2004, wedding to Josh in the back yard of her grandfather's home.

``I knew I was married to him, but I have no memory of our wedding,'' she said. The couple hope someday to repeat their vows. When they do, she plans to wear the same wedding gown. The flowing ivory gown embroidered with beads was partly burned in the crash, but Berendes says it can be restored.

Berendes copes with her memory loss by writing lots of lists. She hopes to get into the social work master's program at San Jose State University to eventually help the disabled and other people in need.

Her husband doesn't doubt she'll achieve her goals. ``She's definitely got some barriers ahead before she can do all that she wants to do,'' he said as he and his wife held hands on their cozy sofa. ``But barriers never really bothered her before.''

Tara Berendes chimed in: ``I shouldn't be able to walk and talk and be as healthy as I am. I should be on a ventilator in a nursing home somewhere. But this miracle happened to me. I am going to do things with my life and help other people.''

Berendes still sees the burn scars when she looks in the mirror. Some friends and family have urged her to undergo plastic surgery, but the young woman said she's fine without it.

``Most girls would just die if they had these scars,'' the former model said. ``I honestly don't care about them. I would much rather have the scars and be alive.''

Husband Josh adds that the scars ``don't change anything at all. I don't even think about it. . . . She's the same person to me, the same person I fell in love with.''

He has no sadness about the past year. ``I am blessed to have Tara,'' says the 24-year-old who planned to be a youth pastor but for now works as a school custodian. ``What happened wasn't a choice. Things come up in life. You just go with it.''

While Tara Berendes looks forward to continued improvement and getting her master's, the couple also talk about their dreams together, of someday having children.

All around their small cottage are reminders of the outpouring of love and generosity that people sent their way after the crash. There's a large quilt, stitched by members of Los Gatos' Calvary Baptist Church, with inspirational messages such as ``You're a miracle.''

Tara Berendes looks at the past year this way: ``I figured we'd get the `for worse' part of the marriage out of the way in the beginning. Then it's all up after that.''


Donations can be made to: Tara Eichinger Berendes Recovery Fund, care of Wells Fargo Bank, 299 S. Main St., Salt Lake City, Utah 84111. For more information, go to www.tarajosh.com.

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

email: info@tarajosh.com