Winkler brightens lives in spite of her brain injury

At her aunt Jane’s home in the Montclair Point neighborhood, Emily Winkler is a celebrity.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Emily’s mother, aunt, grandmother and great-grandmother gather at the home and shower Emily with attention. Jane’s five children love Emily like a sister. Their friends and hers call or come by to visit. Even the next door neighbor, a girl no more than four feet tall with a pink coat hanging off one arm, sneaks out of the house and knocks on the door to see if Emily is in.

Emily, who will turn 17 in June, entertains them all with smiles and her playful demeanor.

Seeing Emily and her mother Kathy yesterday was a far cry from seeing them at this same time last year, in a Washington D.C. hospital room, nearly eight months after Emily suffered broken bones and serious brain injuries when the car she was riding in was hit by an 18-wheeler. On Tuesday, Emily was dressed in jeans, a green shirt and matching vest, much like other girls her age.

The Winkler family and I met last March when the Potomac News & Manassas Journal Messenger’s Hoops Fest 6 raised money for their expenses. What the event netted, split with another family in need, was just a drop in the pan compared with the $1,300 a day in medical expenses the Winklers had at the time. But the family never hesitated to remind me how thankful they were. Someone out there has it worse, Kathy always says. Her daughter is alive and — depending on how it is defined –well.

Bed-ridden and in a coma after the accident, Emily progressed through physical and speech therapy at the hospital. Emily’s parents lived in a hotel next door until they took Emily back to their Fauquier home this past May. Now, 10 credits from graduating high school, Emily is taking English and Algebra II with a home tutor. She still works on speech and physical therapy, both with professionals and with Kathy.

There’s nothing easy about their ordeal. There are good days, and there are bad days.

I’m still amazed that nearly two years after a terrible accident forced an athlete and straight-A student into a wheelchair, the entire family continues to find positives.

When Emily chooses her meal with the same pickiness she exhibited before the accident, Kathy is happy that she’s expressing emotions. There are regular angry moments, okay for a girl who has been through so much. Even then, it’s good to know that Emily is like most teens in that way.

The four generations of women in Jane’s home on Tuesday genuinely enjoy each other’s company. Emily doesn’t talk much, but her face lights up at certain suggestions, frowns at others. She answers questions with a thumbs up, and is definitely in tune with what’s going on. She shows it by holding her mouth open as she poses for a picture. When a photographer gives her a count-out-loud three-second warning before he snaps his shot, Emily waits to hear the “three” before closing her mouth and putting on a smile.

She was, recalls Jane, the “queen of teasing” before the accident. She has not yet relinquished her crown.

Those of us whose lives have not been touched by tremendous struggle and triumph take quite a few things for granted that the Winklers do not.

Sitting in Jane’s living room on Tuesday, Emily’s grandmother walked in and sat down next to our photographer, who had spent time this month with this year’s Hoops Fest charity recipient, the family of Kierston Scott.

The grandmother wrote a check. Though the pains in her life were different from the Scott family’s — she’s been through a painful situation with a child other than Emily — she knows all too well how difficult it can be.

Donations come in all shapes and sizes. They have been mailed to our office since articles on the Scott family ran on Sunday and Monday. Kathy Winkler, who packed up hundreds of cards and stuffed animals when Emily checked out of the hospital, acknowledges every bit of help.

From 15 Osbourn Park students that didn’t know Emily who volunteered at another fundraiser to the participants in Hoops Fest, all of the assistance — remarkably –is appreciated. Kathy Winkler knows some families in similar situations aren’t so lucky. Kathy may one day recognize those blessings by writing a book. There are books out there that detail brain injury, but Kathy’s book could tell families, among other things, where to look for financial assistance and how to cope.

Though Emily has been to Disney World, had a sweet sixteen party and even jogs with a little assistance since the accident, she spends most of each weekday with her mother. Her father Gary teaches at Godwin Middle School and builds in his free time, sometimes with Emily’s help. The family, which forfeits the wants for the needs, has had Gary customize parts of their home for Emily.

Disaster struck Emily Winkler, but she brightens quite a few lives in spite of that. Even the neighborhood kids are sure to wear their helmets when biking and rollerblading, so that they don’t get hurt the way Emily did. It’s not an insult, but a way of making a positive from a negative.

Those displays of maturity and strength are frequent. That’s why Emily Winkler is a neighborhood celebrity.

“She’s never going to be the Emily she was,” says Kathy Winkler. “But we love the Emily she is.”

Keith McMillan is a staff writer for the Potomac News & Manassas Journal Messenger. Reach him at [email protected]

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