Family and friends of Chloe Rombach have learned to find hope in the smallest signs since the 22-year-old suffered a severe brain injury when she was struck by a car in December.
She can breathe on her own now. She opens her eyes. The family believes there are times when she might be making eye contact. Other times she moves her fingers or an arm a little when asked.
“We don’t know what level she’ll eventually reach,” said her father, Edward Rombach, 62, of Marblehead. “We’re just praying for the best possible outcome.”
He says the family is well aware they are in this for the long haul.
“The doctors keep saying, ‘this isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon,’” Rombach said. “I fully expect to be deeply engaged in this for the rest of my life.”
Rombach said he and his family take heart from even the slightest indication of improvement.
“Whenever we have a toast,” Rombach said, pausing a moment to control his emotions, “we raise a glass and say, ‘To an independent life.’”
Chloe Rombach moved to western Massachusetts to attend UMass Amherst, graduating two years ago. Most recently, she lived on Bridge Street in Northampton. She was crossing the street in a crosswalk near her home when she was struck by a car on the night of Dec. 9.
No charges have been filed against the driver, Kenzie Kimble-Badgett, 18, of 8 Button Road in Easthampton. Police said after the accident that the dark and rain likely made for poor visibility, and that drugs and alcohol do not appear to have been factors in the accident.
Rombach was dragged by the car and pinned underneath for about 20 minutes while firefighters worked to move the vehicle. She was rushed to Baystate Medical Center in Springfield.
“The evening of Dec. 9 and my wife and I were just finishing up dinner and there was a knock on the door. It was Marblehead police,” said her father. The officers communicated the information about the accident that Northampton Police had told them.
A nor’easter was dumping torrential rain on the state that night. “It was a three-hour drive in the driving rain, not knowing what we were going to find,” he said. “That was a horrific night.”
His daughter suffered third-degree burns and cuts in the accident, but her most serious injury is a diffuse axonal brain injury, according to her father. It is an injury affecting a large area of the brain that is caused by the brain moving back and forth inside the skull. In Chloe Rombach’s case, it caused life-threatening brain swelling.
In the days immediately after the accident, doctors at Baystate Medical Center performed a craniectomy to remove two sizable skull plates over her frontal cortex to relieve the pressure from the swelling, according to her father. Doctors also said it is likely her brain was further injured by oxygen deprivation while she was pinned under the car.
On Saturday, a neurological examination at Massachusetts General Hospital determined that Chloe Rombach is ready to have the surgery to put the skull plates back in, probably sometime in March. It’s another good sign, her parents believe.
“She’s making modest progress,” her father said.
She breathes on her own, though through a tracheotomy tube. She also has a feeding tube, and infections are always a risk, he said. She is visited by physical therapists, respiratory therapists, and many more specialists who try to help her along.
Rombach and his wife, Jeannie, visit Chloe every day at the rehabilitation hospital 10 minutes from their home. Edward Rombach, who is unemployed, said being at the hospital with his daughter is “my job now.”
Jeannie Rombach, 60, has been taking time off from her job as a special education teacher in Marblehead, though she will have to go back to work soon, according to her husband. Their older daughter, A.J. Rombach, an artist in Philadelphia, came back to Massachusetts the day after the accident and spent nine weeks with her sister, though she is now back home.
The family created a CaringBridge website where they post daily updates about Chloe’s condition for loved ones to read. Rombach said there seems to be an infinite number of sympathetic people, from friends of friends and co-workers to extended family members, who have offered “support, prayers, intentions and thoughts.” A friend started a crowdfunding website to collect donations for the family’s medical expenses, and it has raised over $33,207.
Rombach said he feels thankful to all the people who have extended help to the family. “That’s really what’s sustained us,” he said.
“When this happened I felt like I was pushed out the window of a high building and I was falling to my death. All the prayers, the meals that showed up, the people lending us cars and making donations, it was like a safety net keeping me from falling,” he said. “They were like angels lifting me up.”
Rombach said that one of the many reasons it is so hard to see his daughter in bed is that she was always so full of life.
“She was a very adventurous gal — sometimes enough to make us nervous,” he said.
After high school, she took a year off to spend time on ecosystem farms in Spain, Costa Rica and Brazil. Agriculture, especially organic and sustainable vegetable and fruit farming, was her passion.
“She saw this as an interesting possible career path,” Rombach said.
‘All things agriculture’
In 2013, she earned a degree in sustainable food and farming from UMass Amherst after only three years. Rombach said that when he and his wife would visit, her kitchen was full of greens she grew herself.
Chloe Rombach was a leader in two agricultural projects at UMass, the Student Farm Enterprise project and the Garden Share Club. Amanda Brown, a lecturer in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture and director of the UMass Student Farm, said Rombach spent a year working on the farm.
“She was involved in all things agriculture at UMass,” Brown said Monday. “She did a little bit of everything. She worked in the fields with us in all kinds of weather, and she was involved with the farmers market and the CSA pick-ups on campus.”
She said Rombach has a “huge heart,” a talent for farming and a contagious laugh. When they worked together several years ago, Brown said, Rombach was always upbeat and never complained.
“She was well-liked and respected by her peers right away,” Brown said. “She was just great to be around.”
Brown said everyone in Stockbridge and the farm was devastated to learn of the accident. Many have kept abreast of her progress through the CaringBridge website and through other classmates who are connected to her family. “We’ve kind of been supporting each other,” she said.
Rombach was also an actor and had “a hell of a set of pipes,” her father said. In middle school, she played Dorothy in the “Wizard of Oz,” he said, and in high school, she played Maria in “West Side Story” and sang in an a capella group.
Her interest in natural healing methods drew her to another passion: yoga. After taking classes at the Karuna Center for Yoga & Healing Arts for six months to a year, she became an instructor in November.
Karuna director Eileen Muir called Rombach “the shining star” of the yoga teacher training program.
“She has an incredibly bright disposition. She was always enthusiastic and just shone her way through the training,” Muir said. “She was an integral part of our community — and still is.”
Staff and students at the center have been deeply affected by Chloe’s accident, Muir said. She keeps in touch with the Rombach family, she said, and she and another staff member send weekly updates to the Karuna community based on the information on her CaringBridge site.
“I send healing energy her way every day,” Muir said.
The family believes she was walking to the yoga center at 25 Main St. when she was stuck by the car.
Jake Clough of Northampton said he became friends with Chloe after he got to know her last summer when they were both students at the Karuna Center. He said there is a “huge community” in the Northampton area that is pulling for Chloe and checking her CaringBridge site religiously for updates.
“She’s one of the strongest people I’ve met, so that’s what’s getting me through it,” he said. “I just trust in her and her strength.”
Clough, 24, a musician, said he and other friends are planning a fundraising concert to help the Rombach family with the staggering medical expenses, though a date has not been set.
“Raising money is the most practical thing we can do right now,” he said. “We’d all just like to be able to help.”
For his part, Rombach said his family is touched by the support — and they do need the money. “It’s only going to scratch the surface of what it will cost for long-term recovery,” he said. For instance, just her ambulance ride to Mass General for the exam Saturday cost $3,000 to $4,000, he said.
A friend initially started a fundraising effort on the GoFundMe website, but Rombach later took over and started a new campaign with a fundraising goal of $100,000 at http://www.gofundme.com/n1a53s. He said his daughter’s health care costs may one day reach several million dollars.
For now, Rombach said, he and his family will keep praying while they sit by Chloe’s bed, massaging her and looking for any sign of recovery. They hope one day — though it might be years from now — she will walk again and live an independent life.
At the same time, Rombach said, even as he and his wife care for their daughter now, they are concerned about who would continue to care for her when they no longer can.
“Most people go through seeing their parents die or get sick,” Rombach said. “I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy. It’s the hardest thing for a parent.”
For updates on Chloe Rombach’s condition, visit www.caringbridge.org/visit/chloerombach.