Metal screeched, and glass shattered in a violent explosion.
Moments before, Mike and Michelle Gillin were waiting at a stoplight with their daughter, Elizabeth. It was 6:30 a.m. on a quiet Saturday, and they were on their way to a softball tournament.
Then the world burst around them.
“It was like a bomb had gone off,” Michelle Gillin said.
Another driver had plowed into their car traveling almost 50 mph. The accident left Michelle Gillin with a broken spine, unable to use her legs or move her abdomen and in a wheelchair.
In a single moment, the Gillin family’s world splintered. Michelle Gillin has endured months of rehabilitation to learn to get out of bed, take a shower and cook a simple meal.
Their tri-level house needed to be remodeled to be handicap accessible — tearing out walls and adding plumbing in order to accommodate a wheelchair.
When their life was in disarray, the Gillins found support in the community around them. The football community, where Mike Gillin is known from his work as Indian Creek High School’s head coach, reconstructed their home.
Without the support of their friends, family and co-workers, the Gillins say, they do not know how they would have managed.
“The people pitching in from everywhere I’ve lived and coached, the response has been unbelievable,” Mike Gillin said. “Just one person after another has helped.”
Michelle Gillin thought she knew what it meant to be paralyzed. She wouldn’t be able to walk and would use a wheelchair. But the reality of what she would no longer be able to do was staggering.
She had to learn how to get from the bed into her wheelchair, from her wheelchair into the bathroom.
Michelle Gillin had to develop the strength and coordination to maneuver her around corners, down narrow hallways and around other people. Without feeling below her waist, she has to have a catheter.
“I have to set an alarm clock multiple times throughout the day to catheterize myself,” she said. “There are so many limitations. It’s a total life change.”
It hasn’t just been Michelle Gillin that has had to learn to change. The entire family’s life has changed, starting with their home.
‘Everything went haywire’
The Gillins’ house has three levels. Before the accident, it was the perfect home for their family. But the only rooms on the ground floor were a living room and kitchen. It would be impossible for Michelle Gillin to live there.
Over the past three months, the Gillins have converted the garage into a bedroom and installed a bathroom for Michelle Gillin.
Plumbers installed a wheel-in shower, handicap-accessible toilet and lowered sink. The cabinets and counters in the kitchen were remade so that Michelle Gillin could reach them from her wheelchair. Ramps were installed throughout the house.
“You don’t know how much your life changes when you have someone who’s confined like that,” Mike Gillin said.
The accident happened early on May 17. The Gillins had left their home in Mooresville and were headed to a weekend softball tournament in Lafayette.
Elizabeth, a seventh-grader at Paul Hadley Middle School in Mooresville at the time, was sleeping in the back seat of the car. Mike Gillin had just stopped to get coffee, and he and his wife waited for a traffic signal to turn green.
They had no warning of the speeding driver behind them until the car plowed into them.
“It came out of nowhere. I wasn’t looking in the rear view mirror, and I don’t know if there was anything I could do if I had been,” Mike Gillin said. “Everything went haywire after that.”
Both Michelle and Elizabeth Gillin were knocked unconscious. Though dazed, Mike Gillin realized that he had to get out of the car and help his family. He smelled steam and was worried about the car catching fire.
He freed himself from his seat and rolled out of the car. Emergency medical technicians arrived minutes later; and because both Elizabeth and Michelle Gillin were trapped in the car, the fire department had to cut through the metal to free them.
‘Worst 30 seconds of my life’
Michelle Gillin had regained consciousness after a few moments and turned to see her daughter crumpled in the back seat.
“I thought she was dead. It was the worst 30 seconds of my life,” she said.
At the same time, Michelle Gillin recognized that her legs wouldn’t move. She describes it as feeling like all of her blood vessels broke. More concerning was the pain in her upper body.
“I knew my neck hurt really bad, and something was wrong with my legs,” she said. “I was in shock because I couldn’t move.”
As firefighters cut through the car and reached her, they wanted to remove her from the car first. But Michelle Gillan wouldn’t allow them to treat her until her daughter was in an ambulance and on her way to the hospital.
Elizabeth Gillin was taken to Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health in Indianapolis, and Mike Gillin rode with her at his wife’s insistence.
She regained consciousness at the hospital, and doctors were able to treat her broken ribs, clavicle and shoulder blade. After two days, she was released.
Michelle Gillin went to Methodist Hospital at Indiana University Health in Indianapolis. With no feeling below her waist, doctors needed to do an MRI scan to determine the extent of her injuries.
They found that her T2 and T3 vertebrae, located in the upper back, had been fractured. Surgeons rushed her into surgery. In a seven-hour operation, they implanted a metal rod into her spine to stabilize the broken vertebrae and stitched up her incisions.
‘Acts of kindness’
She spent a week in intensive care at Methodist Hospital and then was moved to Rehabilitation Hospital of Indiana.
Michelle Gillin also has struggled with ancillary health issues over the past three months. Her blood pressure jumped and needed to be treated with medication. More than three quarters of fluid was removed from her lungs after her breathing became labored and ragged.
Infections required her to stop rehabilitation for days and weeks at a time.
“She hasn’t been able to work on strength and recovery as all of these other things have come up,” Mike Gillin said. “That’s slowed down the whole timetable.”
When word spread that the family was hurting and needed help, hundreds of people stepped up.
Gillin has coached at Monrovia, Tri-West and Decatur Central in addition to Indian Creek, so the football connections were numerous. But the assistance came from all over.
“It’s amazing because it wasn’t just football players or families. It was people I knew from work or that Elizabeth knew from cheerleading or softball,” Michelle Gillin said. “There were these unbelievable acts of kindness that you’d never imagine.”
People donated gift cards to home improvement stores and provided more than $12,700 for construction costs through a crowd-sourcing website. A meal-delivery system was set up, and people cooked for the family for two months.
Friends with contracting experience and construction companies offered their services. They installed drywall, painted, and redid electrical systems and plumbing — free of charge.
Supporters purchased a van with a wheelchair lift, so Michelle Gillin could be easily transported to doctor’s appointments.
“People I hadn’t seen in years called to help out,” Mike Gillin said.
‘I see good things’
Mike Gillin is retired from teaching, so he can stay home and assist his wife during the day. When he needs to leave for football practice, family has offered to stay with Michelle Gillin for him.
As he’s cared for his wife, he’s noticed small victories every day. Feeling has returned to Michelle Gillin’s legs, though she still can’t move either one. But she’s been able to twist her abdominal muscles and can feel the muscle group becoming stronger.
“We have a long way to go,” Mike Gillin said. “But I see good things. As bad as it’s been, we know it could have been worse.”
Michelle Gillin has spent her recovery time researching spinal rehabilitation programs in Indiana, Chicago and Louisville, Kentucky.
Her doctors have told her that it can take two years or more as the body heals from a spinal injury, but she might regain use in her legs.
That’s keeping Michelle Gillin focused on getting better.
“As I get through this medical part, I have a lot of faith,” she said. “I want to work as hard as I can to walk again with some capacity.”