By Heather Fiore
At first glance, she’s nothing more than a normal student with a brilliant smile and a bubbly personality. But once you get past the external aspects of Brianne Applegate, a senior theater major at Rider, there is so much more to uncover.
After a car accident that nearly killed her two years ago, Applegate has been forced to relearn many aspects of living.
On Feb. 1, 2008, Applegate was traveling on Route 95 South in the pouring rain. Her car hydroplaned for about 70 feet right before crossing over the bridge into Pennsylvania.
She collided with the median and her car flew into a ditch off the side of the road, where she was knocked unconscious for about an hour before she woke up. Although there were people driving in front of and behind her, no one pulled over or stopped to help.
“I woke up, and through the rear view mirror I could see a bunch of blood and cuts,” Applegate said. “I just opened up the car door and got out and looked at it and held onto some branches. I knew I had to get up to the road, so I just climbed up this ravine and just waved my hands high and two people stopped.”
Applegate was transported to St. Mary’s Hospital in Langhorne, Pa., where doctors informed her that her neck was broken, her lung was punctured, most of her ribs were broken on her left side and her head was split. They also told her that she received severe frontal lobe damage, which has affected her short-term memory ever since.
“When I try and explain it to a regular person who doesn’t have any issues, they’ll be like, ‘Oh, I forget my keys all the time.’ And I’m like, ‘No, you don’t understand. I forget sometimes where I’m driving to when I’m on the road,’” Applegate said. “It’s to the point where it’s a lot and it’s kind of annoying, but it’s getting better.”
At St. Mary’s Hospital, she underwent three operations on her punctured lung, two of which were unsuccessful. The surgeries caused her unnecessary pain, a stroke and countless blood transfusions. The third operation fixed the problem but caused her to hemorrhage, creating an array of other problems.
“It was just really bad. We had people come in and say, ‘She’s not going to make it. You need to call people,’” she said. “I can’t even tell you how much [the operations] cost and now I have to pay that and I’m in debt.”
However, although she experienced endless strife, her professors, friends and family kept her attitude strong.
Miriam Mills, head of the theater program, has known Applegate throughout her years at Rider and has directed many of the main stage plays she’s been in.
“I helped with the party to welcome Brie back and we offered Brie extra time and independent studies,” Mills said. “I visited her at home and kept in touch with her during her recovery, but I did very little. Brie found the inner courage to heal herself. We were just her cheering section.”
Dr. Pat Chmel, former chair of the Fine Arts Department, also worked together with Mills to aid in Applegate’s recovery process.
“She was on death’s door for a very long time. She survived because of her determination and strength, and amazingly strong and loving parents,” Chmel said. “Our inclination was to ‘baby’ her for a long time. I remember during rehearsal of Bug last winter, a very physical play, when I was pampering her, she got angry and reprimanded me for being soft on her. She’s very strong and will only get stronger.”
Fortunately, Applegate’s support and optimism kept her strong through the seven weeks of intensive rehab at Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia, where she was transferred to from St. Mary’s.The most basic functions and tasks like walking and talking were part of the agenda.
“A lot of the recovery took place in the first year. Forgetting words, multitasking, little short memory problems were the issues,” Applegate said. “We learned how to walk side to side, how to walk up stairs, shower myself. I was on loads of medication, two doses of Oxycodone a day, and you know what medications do to you. They just make you feel horrible. It was like everything completely changed.”
After Jefferson Hospital, insurance began compensating her for rehab at Kessler Rehabilitation Center in Trenton. She had to move to a hotel nearby since her home was too far to travel from.
“I would go there from 9-5, to physical, cognitive and operational therapies,” Applegate said. “Then, I would come home on the weekends. It was like my life was completely turned upside down.”
Since then, David Spadora, a junior theater major and Applegate’s current boyfriend, has been able to understand her hardships and encourage and support her.
“It’s a double-edged sword for her to have people meet her and not be able to tell what she’s been through, but it’s really amazing. I’ve never met anyone who follows his or her heart like Briebo,” Spadora said. “The creative visions that she shares with me and level of expression she puts into her work is unmatched and entirely unique. Her accident isn’t a negative happening, nor is it an event that defines her. It has merely opened her eyes. She’s truly an incredible miracle and a gift to everyone she comes into contact with.”
The time alone in rehab also changed Applegate’s view on life and true friends.
“I’m a totally different person now. I was this crazy person but everything has changed,” Applegate said. “I aged emotionally so many years; I feel like I’m so much wiser. I know the value of life more than people in their 20s. They feel like they’re invincible, they take it for granted or slack off. I just really know how precious life is and what love means. I’ve just never seen the love that I had seen through my parents, my family and my good friends.”
Applegate still faces a plethora of issues. She can no longer turn her neck to its full ability and one of her lungs partially works. Although she struggles with acting, she’s able to make light of it.
“It takes me more time to read stuff. Instead of reading something two or three times, I have to read it seven or eight times just to retain the information. But it makes acting a whole lot of fun because I just keep reading,” Applegate said. “I’ll sometimes walk around the same spot a bunch of times so I can remember where I was when I read that line.”
Applegate has overcome so much, however, her life hasn’t turned out the way she hoped it would. Although she’s graduating this upcoming Mat, at 25, she believes she should’ve already excelled more like others her age. But, this is the exact opposite of what her boyfriend thinks.
“I help to remind Brie that ‘No, you’re not too old to be an actress. No, it’s not wrong that you’re 25 and not quite out in the real world yet. You’ll be learning your whole life,” Spadora said. “There’s no point to get yourself down or be upset about your age.”
Since Applegate is such an independent person who doesn’t like to make excuses for things that have happened, she takes great pride in accepting her accident as part of her growth as a person.
“I wouldn’t change a thing that happened. Everything was so intricately planned, this whole accident and even the way I broke things and my injuries,” Applegate said. “I’m applying to NYU and Yale for grad school and just auditioning in New York. Now I know what it is that I have to do so if I have a chance, I’m going to do it.”
As a part of the Brain Injury Association of New Jersey, Applegate urges people to participate in its Walk for Thought/Cycle for Safety event at Washington Crossing State Park in Titusville, N.J. on Oct. 16.