Byline: CHERIE BLACK, The Times-Union
The phone rang at 2 o'clock in the morning. It was a shrill, disturbing sound wailing an unwelcomed tune at an ungodly hour.
A stranger's voice on the other end of the line informed a sleeping mother her daughter had been in a car accident. Get to the hospital as soon as possible, she was told. It's serious.
Rachael Tofany, then 16, was thrown out of the window of a friend's car as it rolled after swerving off the road. Tofany suffered a traumatic brain injury, and for the next 30 days the Jacksonville teenager hung between life and death.
Her brain swelled with fluid and developed a blood clot. Doctors operated and removed a large portion of her skull. Her lungs collapsed twice and she breathed with the help of a ventilator for three weeks. She was paralyzed on her right side and couldn't talk.
That was October 2003. During the next six months, three other teenagers from Tofany's high school in northern St. Johns County arrived at the same Jacksonville hospital with nearly the same traumatic brain injuries.
The four Bartram Trail High School classmates were strangers to each other at the time, each fighting a separate struggle for life. In time, their individual accidents bound them together with a shared story few can understand.
Tofany's first words after her accident were written upside down and backwards. She didn't fully understand what had happened to her, but she didn't like its results. She couldn't verbalize her frustrations and could barely move.
She was discharged to Brooks Rehabilitation where she underwent exercises to learn how to move her paralyzed right side. At the same time, one of her classmates was just beginning her ordeal in the same trauma unit Tofany left less than two months earlier.
A pickup truck struck Kinsey Leonard at a school bus stop near her Fruit Cove home on Jan. 7, 2004, sending the 16-year-old to the intensive care unit at Shands with bleeding and swelling of the brain. Surgeons drilled a hole in her head to relieve the swelling, followed by another surgery. Her brain injury also destroyed her ability to talk and move. For 20 days, her parents watched and waited. Leonard's eventual recovery also required intense rehabilitation therapy at Brooks. She arrived there four days after Tofany was discharged.
The overlapping accidents and recoveries continued during the next several weeks.
The first day of spring break, April 3, 2004, 17-year-old Justin East and his friend were heading to the beach when the friend lost control of his car and hit a guardrail, putting East in a coma for five days. He, too, suffered a brain injury.
Nearly two weeks later, an SUV hit Jessica Wills, from behind while she was walking to the bus stop. She became the fourth and, at 15, the youngest of the four teenage brain injury victims.
Unknown to each other while overcoming physical, mental and emotional obstacles, the teenagers became aware of the other's plight while rotating through rehabilitation. They returned to school last fall, all a year behind and some levels below where they were before the accidents.
Depending on where in the brain an injury occurs, patients can suffer many different behavioral changes. The four teenagers are on medication to calm them down and help them focus in school. All of their parents describe their child's behavior as more aggressive and outspoken after the accident.
"Everybody thinks they're OK, but they're not," said Justin East's mother, Tracy East. "I'm a little more afraid of how things will move forward for him, but he's going to be who he's going to be."
East wasn't allowed to drive or go places with his friends for months after his accident. His school also sends weekly behavior reports home to his mother. Every day he has to protect his head from another injury because doctors say the next one could kill him. …