IU student recovering after injury during Little 500 practice
In just a week, students will be returning to Indiana University's Bloomington campus, but nursing student Lauren Gill won't be with her classmates.
She's recovering from the most serious injury ever associated with the iconic "Little 500" bicycle race. Gill ended up on life support after a crash during practice for the race in May.
The race is one of IU's storied traditions. Gill, 23, hoped to add to that history by leading the first Little 500 team riding for the IU School of Nursing.
She even recruited her sister, Kelsey.
"The fact that she decided to do this and then somehow got me to do it, too, that pretty much describes Lauren," Kelsey Gill said.
She describes Lauren as the tougher of the two.
Both knew crashes are part of cycling. Riders are instructed to stand back up as quickly as possible. That's how Kelsey knew something was very wrong when during a practice race, Lauren went down.
"The fact that Lauren didn't immediately get up was really concerning," Kelsey said.
She took Eyewitness News back to Armstrong Stadium, to the pits, where she was standing when Lauren crashed.
"She rubbed tires, so her front tire hit the girl's back tire and she just went over her handlebars and landed on her shoulder and then on her head," Kelsey said.
She said it took "about two seconds" to get to her injured sister.
"I ran over to her and she was unconscious. Her neck was bent at a weird angle," Kelsey said.
"My cell phone rang. It was Kelsey and she said, you know, 'Lauren has been in an accident' and she said 'She is unconscious'," said the girls' father, Tom.
"It was a parent's worst nightmare and now it was mine," said mother Jackie Gill.
"There was always a question of whether or not she would be alive when we got here," Tom said.
"I went into the emergency room and there is Lauren just totally unconscious and her whole face was just really all the cinders from the track," Jackie said.
Lauren was in critical condition. A pressure monitor was drilled into her skill and a ventilator helped her breathe.
"It was such a shock to see her in that condition," Tom said.
Every hour, nurses encouraged Lauren to respond, but day after day - nothing.
"Every night that she didn't get worse was a good sign," said Kelsey.
"All I would do was just cry and cry and pray and that is about it," Jackie said.
Then early Easter morning, a turning point - at the exact time Pope Francis delivered his holiday Mass in Rome.
"People were praying for her at that mass," Jackie said.
For Lauren's deeply religious Catholic family, it was a sign.
Encouraged, just eight days after the crash, Kelsey vowed to go back to Bloomington to fulfill her sister's Little 500 dream.
The rookie nursing team led a tribute lap wearing stickers honoring Lauren.
"Seeing everybody clapping and cheering us on was really good," Kelsey said.
It was a lift and a break from the pace of Lauren's recovery.
"It's very slow," Tom said.
After a day of therapy at the Rehabilitation Hospital of Indiana, Lauren told us she doesn't remember much.
"First memory after the accident?" asked Eyewitness News anchor Anne Marie Tiernon.
"Oh, I don't know. Something here?' Lauren replied.
Lauren's widespread brain injury created mental and physical deficits. She was a stellar student and her determined nature is still there.
"We see every day a little bit more coming back,"Tom said.
It is still hard for her to see. She has to squint with her left eye to see pictures.
"Is this the day of the race?" she asks, looking at one picture.
She never got to wear her race jersey and her helmet is trashed. But she knows her team - and her sister - finished the race in her honor.
"When did you first realize something had happened?" Tiernon asked.
"Oh, I don't even know, but it was just hard to believe, I guess," Lauren said.
With no memory, she has no fear of cycling.
"I don't know. For me, I would get on a bike again," she said.
But first, Lauren's goal is to walk again. She needed help when she briefly stood to ring the bell signaling her discharge day at RHI.
"You think she is going to come back all the way?" Tiernon asked Lauren's mom.
"Oh, I sure hope so. I pray about it," Jackie said.
Lauren's therapy will continue near her home in South Bend the hope is she will return to Bloomington, but it won't be this fall.
"It's still going to be a long next six months," Tom said. "We expect her to have that full recovery that we all have been praying for."
Doctors say Lauren could continue to improve for up to two years. Her family believes her lengthy time as a patient will someday make her a better nurse.
As for the race, the IU Student Foundation, which hosts the Little 500, says while Lauren's injuries are the most serious in race history, it would not lead to any changes in how the race is run in the future.