BOSTON – Meg Theriault didn’t look in a mirror for two months. When she did, a stranger met her gaze.
Most of her hair was gone, but that wasn’t the worst of it: There was a dent on the left side of her head. A chunk of her skull was missing.
Meg’s parents told her there had been an accident. But that was two hospitals and a long plane ride ago.
Whatever had happened to her, she didn’t remember any of it. The photos posted around her Boston hospital room of a 21-year-old coed, her chestnut hair flowing below her shoulders, looked like a different person.
She could remember her semester abroad in Australia – even if some details of traveling in the Outback, scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef and bungee jumping in the rainforest were coming back slowly. But she couldn’t remember New Zealand, and the last days of her foreign adventure. Something had broken, and her mind wasn’t filling in the blanks.
Her parents, Todd and Deb Theriault, were there by her hospital bed in New Zealand after she came out of her coma.
“I love you, Meg,” Todd whispered.
“I love you,” she said.
Another month would pass before Meg smiled. She still was hospitalized, but back home in Massachusetts.
Her parents had hope, but doctors warned Meg might never be Meg again, the Boston University student who’d been on track to finish school and land an accounting job in the next year.
The business major couldn’t remember multiplication tables. Meg wobbled as she learned to walk. She had to practice spooning up her food, and how to bathe and dress herself.
But if Meg didn’t understand where she had been, she knew where she wanted to be.
“It’s just like being in school,” a therapist said one day during a drill.
“That’s good,” Meg said.
Because whatever it took, she wanted to be back at BU for her senior year.
She was the first victim they reached in the road.
“Meg, are you OK?”
Her classmate Dustin Holstein didn’t get an answer. Deep, fast draws of air were all he heard. It was the kind of breathing, he would say later, “where it’s like you’re on the verge of dying.”
It was the morning of May 12, 2012. The BU students – 16 of them in two minivans – had been headed to Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a trek through volcanic terrain with a view of the peak portrayed as Mount Doom in the “Lord of the Rings” movie trilogy.
Police said it seemed the single-vehicle crash happened after the minivan drifted to the roadside.
Stephen Houseman, the student who was driving, later would say the van began shaking and he couldn’t control it. Police said he tried to correct course before the van rolled several times.
Students Austin Brashears, Roch Jauberty and Daniela Lekhno also landed in the road. Friends covered their faces with sleeping bags or blankets before the first fire truck arrived.
Meg was luckier – but far from lucky. The worst damage was on the inside. Her skull had fractured. Blood was clotting on her brain.
A helicopter flew her to a hospital, where surgeons removed part of her skull to relieve the pressure from her swelling brain and purge the clot.
Meg climbed the front steps, one at a time.
Four baby steps, with her mother poised to catch her.
“You gotta use the railing,” Deb Theriault said.
When Meg had pictured coming home to Salisbury, Mass., she expected a trip from the airport, not the hospital.
But there was comfort in the kind of rewind that comes with a return to a childhood bedroom and a family cat’s meow.
“See, Charlie’s waiting for you,” Meg’s mom said.
“I know, adorable kitty.”
It was early August. Meg finally took a seat at her family’s kitchen table again.
Meg had planned to move into a city apartment, and start a summer internship at PricewaterhouseCoopers when she came home. Instead, her parents would drive her to Boston a couple times a week for therapy.
“You just can’t put words to it, getting her back,” said Deb Theriault, blotting tears. “She’s worked so hard.”
Meg felt more like herself, but craved the day when doctors would rebuild the missing part of her skull and she could ditch her helmet.
“Sorry you have to see me like this,” she told two of her friends.
“I don’t remember seeing this shape at all. ... We just went over this, but I don’t remember,” she said.
Meg’s mind wouldn’t work the way she wanted.
“This is really pushing your brain to compensate for difficult material,” her therapist said.
But something inside Meg urged her forward, a kind of determination captured in a poem on the wall of the therapist’s office.
“That one day, changed my life ... That one thing that counts, one thing that I can’t let go, the faith that one day I will be whole again,” the verse said.
She had been home for more than a month. She was thinner and back to wearing makeup and earrings. She had been reviewing an accounting textbook and seeing more friends.
But her parents made her sleep with a baby monitor at night. She still couldn’t drive a car.
Dr. Seth Herman, a specialist in rehabilitation medicine, said Meg’s memory and mobility had improved a lot, but might never be what they once were. Due to the frontal lobe injury, she had trouble with insight.
“She probably still thinks she can go back to school,” the doctor said.
The day in September the fall semester started, Meg went back to Massachusetts General Hospital.
The time had come for surgeons to fix the hole in her head.
Dr. Anoop Patel marked the left side of Meg’s head with violet ink, prepping the area where he and Dr. William Curry Jr. would operate.
“How are you feeling today?” Patel asked. “Ready to get this thing taken care of?”
Meg was more than ready.
Blood pooled in the pocket of a surgery drape as the doctors sliced into old incisions, dissecting skin and scar tissue.
They wouldn’t reuse bone New Zealand surgeons removed from Meg’s skull. To minimize infection risk, a custom-made plastic implant would patch the gap.
Designed with 3-D imaging, it had a lima bean’s shape. It was a little less than 5 inches long and 4 inches wide. Surgeons used tiny screws to connect miniature titanium plates to the prosthetic.
Several layers of stitches later, the left frontal cranioplasty was complete.
Meg’s head was round and her scars would be hidden once her hair grew. She wouldn’t bang her brain if she fell.
Meg had more to build on now.
“I can’t believe we happened to be here at the same time,” Meg told Dustin Holstein. “Today of all days.”
Meg beamed when he walked into the sushi place near Boston University. Her friend had chosen an auspicious moment to appear: In a few minutes, she and her parents would meet with BU officials to discuss whether she could return to school, nearly six months after the accident.
Dustin was a senior and looking forward to a job after graduation. But he also did a lot of looking back. He’d suffered flashbacks since the crash. Sometimes, they made him freeze up as he walked down the street in Boston.
But seeing Meg was a salve, and having her back in school would be even better medicine.
“She can tell her story on how she fought back from such a terrible accident,” he said later. “And that alone, at least people will remember who was lost on that day and the good that can come out of a situation that was so horrible.”
It was agreed that morning that Meg would audit an accounting class when spring semester started in January.
She’d already taken the class for credit, and it wouldn’t count this time. It was a test to see if she could handle school.
Meg’s old seat was waiting for her when she slipped into Intermediate Accounting I class, just a little late.
“I was in the traffic but everything’s good,” she told senior lecturer Eng Wu.
“Excuses,” he teased.
A scar on Meg’s wrist peeked out of her sleeve as she started to take notes.
But that was the only hint of what had happened. Her hair had grown into a pixie style. She was back working part-time in a Chinese restaurant and in a BU mailroom, and volunteering at an elementary school.
On this morning, Meg had lugged her book bag, set her cellphone down on her desk and swigged her coffee like any other college student.
But then the professor played a video clip his son, a neurosurgeon, had sent him. It wasn’t something meant for Meg, just a way for a teacher to connect with students on the semester’s first day. The clip was part of a British comedy sketch in which a brain surgeon belittled an accountant.
“Filling in those tax forms can get really confusing, can’t it?” the doctor said. “Still, it’s not exactly brain surgery, is it?”