LONGMONT — Talk around town about a broken woman typically means talk about addiction, heartache or bad luck — not literal broken bones.
But broken bones — many of them — represent the price Linda Epplett (Lambert), 55, paid to escape death’s clutch after a Del Camino car accident April 5.
Even with her seatbelt clicked, the collision broke Epplett’s neck and two other areas of her back; her left collarbone, left arm and wrist; six ribs; her left hip and pelvis; and her right knee cap, according to Diane Rossi.
As Epplett’s friend and medical power of attorney, Rossi, 51, got the bad news and rushed that afternoon to St. Anthony Central Hospital, a Level I trauma hospital in Denver.
“I asked what was wrong. The nurse wouldn’t say anything,’” said Rossi, who always admired Epplett for being a self-taught artist and for looking people in the eye.
She wasn’t the only friend and fan who worried about Epplett’s future that day.
Laurinda Gardner had for two years hired Epplett to paint sale deals and special holiday scenes, like Santa kneeling before the manger, on the windows of her two Longmont businesses.
She also commissioned Epplett — who started painting windows at age 13 by painting beauty shop glass in her Garden Grove, Calif., hometown — to create a mural of Noah’s ark in the nursery at Gardiner’s New Horizons Christian Church in Dacono.
Gardner, 51, marveled at the way Epplett incorporated the windows as the ark’s portals and then dreamed up dolphins hopping waves and so many other imaginative twosome animal renderings.
But after the accident, it seemed that Epplett’s painting days were over — even though her dominate right arm and hand were somehow spared trauma.
“When I first went to see her at the hospital, I was sure I had come to say goodbye,” Gardiner recalled. “She was hooked up to everything but the kitchen sink.”
Then she leaned close to her seemingly unconscious friend to whisper to herself as much as to Epplett.
“I leaned down and said, ‘Are you staying or going?’ Linda just lipped to me, ‘I’m staying,’” Gardiner said.
In 2004, 664 people died on Colorado’s highways, according to Colorado Department of Transportation spokeswoman Mindy Crane.
Epplett has realized a thousand times that the number could have been 665.
But that cold reality did not keep her from visiting the crash site on a sunny afternoon in early March.
A weeping willow’s branches dangle near the ugly oil spot that, almost a year later, still marks the near-fatal crash on the frontage road about a mile south of Interstate 25 and Colo. Highway 119.
That’s where a southbound gray GMC Jimmy prematurely crossed the center line to turn left into HBG Constructors parking lot.
The other driver’s miscalculation smashed Epplett’s 1996 white Ford Aerostar van along with her body.
But she remembers nothing of the 12:45 p.m. accident, only the tail-end of her old life and the dawn of her new life.
A flashback to that hour shows the difference.
Epplett was the only woman lunch-counter regular at Pepper Jack’s Neighborhood Grille in Frederick, according to day-shift waitress Becky Rhodes, 57.
In the half-hour before the accident, Epplett had finished a bowl of soup, a glass of iced tea and a round of joking with the other regulars in cowboy hats and baseball caps.
But other patrons, namely the road-weary who pulled off I-25, might remember her for the way she would annually paint Pepper Jack’s 28 windows with holiday scenes shortly after Thanksgiving, Rhodes said.
That day, Epplett paid her bill and decided to clock the mileage from there to east Longmont, where she would start her latest light-assembly job in two days.
The odometer was working fine until the collision stopped it and almost stopped her.
While Epplett lay slumped in the wreckage, police closed I-25 so a helicopter crew could land and take her to St. Anthony’s.
“I remember hearing the rotors turning, and I wanted to hold onto something,” Epplett said. “I heard the guys say, ‘Don’t touch that.’ And I thought, ‘Geez. You’re grouchy.’”
It would be a month before she would regain consciousness, two months before she would come off the ventilator and about six months before she would be discharged from the hospital.
Not until the end of April did she begin recognizing her mother’s voice.
“I just kept saying, ‘Hey, Linda. I love you. I’m here. You’re going to get better. Every day, we are praying that you are going to get better,’” said her mother, Betty Vedel, 73, of Montana.
Epplett, who also suffered temporary moderate to severe brain damage, underwent surgeries at St. Anthony before transferring in June to North Valley Rehabilitation Hospital in Thornton for the slow slog toward self-care.
“It’s almost like living your childhood again, but the days are long,” said Dr. K. Ravilochan, medical director of acute neurological rehabilitation.
Because of her body’s brokenness, Epplett had to wear a white, hard plastic shell much like a clam shell any time she sat or stood up.
“Sitting in a chair was work then,” said Jill Oltrogge, an NVRH physical therapist.
Gradually, though, Oltrogge and occupational therapist Kathleen Prall eased Epplett into walking.
Oltrogge said their patient initially walked just 5 feet around her hospital bed.
“It was hard staying in that rehab hospital trying to learn how to walk, because it hurt,” Epplett said.
But she kept chipping away and that made all the difference, NVRH staff said.
“She gave us her best,” Oltrogge said. “Not everybody’s like that.”
Walking comes easier now, but Epplett’s hobbling still takes Herculean effort. And her left arm still hangs as useless as a rag doll’s limb.
This disability makes slicing tomatoes, opening jars and pulling on socks a daily challenge.
She uses her mouth for everything from opening a paper to pulling a Velcro strap through a ring on her sling.
“Linda doesn’t think in black and white,” said Laurie Kruse, Epplett’s new physical therapist. “She sees 18 ways to do things.”
Who knows the progress she could have made with better post-hospital care?
Bureaucratic inertia kept Epplett from receiving Medicaid until February. Social Security rejected her claim in December, so she has reapplied and is crossing her fingers.
So, she sat for several months without professional help.
Medicaid benefits awarded in February reinstated occupational and physical therapy services Monday through Friday.
Also, a certified nurse’s assistant now helps her bath on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
But Epplett has something social services and rehabilitation professionals can’t give or take away.
“You never hear her complain, and, I mean, this lady has a lot to complain about,” Kruse said. “I ask her to do something, and she says, ‘More, more, more.’”
Pam Mellskog can be reached at 303-684-5224, or by
e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.