Grateful for gift of life

Campaign: The Red Cross wants the nation to know that Becky and Lizzie Nimmich owe their lives to scores of anonymous donors.

February 21, 2002|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Becky and Lizzie Nimmich hadn't always been close. But in the fall of 1998, when Lizzie started as a freshman at her big sister's high school, they became best friends during a cherished daily ritual. They'd drive home together, laughing and eating junk food, with Becky, 17, at the wheel.

On a gray afternoon in October, Becky wheeled out of the parking lot of Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Wheaton. Lizzie reclined her seat and closed her eyes as they slipped past the fields and fences on their way home to Ellicott City.

When Lizzie awoke, confused, the car was stopped, the windshield cracked and her hand bleeding. Her sister whispered that she couldn't breathe. Neither knew what happened, but they had slammed into a pickup truck and been thrown so violently against their seat belts that they suffered severe internal injuries.

Paramedics flew the sisters to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore, where doctors operated on them a total of 19 times to halt internal bleeding. They spent nearly three months in the hospital and recovered fully.

"Their injuries were about as bad as I've ever seen and had the patients live," said Dr. Thomas Scalea, physician in chief at the hospital, who performed the surgeries. "About 98 percent of the people with these kind of injuries do not survive. But they pulled through."

What saved the sisters was 192 pints of blood - about the amount of blood circulating in 20 people. It was such an unusually large amount of blood that the American Red Cross is featuring them in a national advertising campaign for blood donation.

The ads, which conclude, "Thank you America, for saving Becky and Lizzie Nimmich," have been running this month on television stations and in newspapers around the country.

"These girls could be anyone's daughter, sister or neighbor," said Amy P. Thompson, spokeswoman for the Red Cross' Chesapeake region. "They put a face on what giving blood is all about. Without blood donors, they wouldn't have made it."

Their brush with death changed the sisters' plans for their futures.

Becky, now a 20-year-old junior at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, was so moved by a therapist who brought her books, videos and crafts that she rethought her plans to become a teacher. She decided she wants to help children in hospitals the same way she was helped.

Lizzie, a 17-year-old high school senior, now volunteers at the hospital and dreams of pursuing a medical education so she can work with doctors like Scalea.

The three months in the hospital seemed like a lifetime, the sisters recalled. So much happened.

Becky would have missed the deadline for applying to college if a friend hadn't fished her application - which was ready to be mailed - out of the wrecked car and faxed it in before the deadline. She received her acceptance letter in her hospital bed.

Becky's classmates voted her homecoming queen. But because she couldn't make it to the dance, her friends put the crown on her head as she lay in bed recovering from surgery.

"They came into my room with the crown and sash and flowers, but I was so medicated with painkillers all I could really do was say a word or two," Becky Nimmich said.

The sisters formed a deep friendship with their blunt-talking surgeon, Scalea. He wrote a college recommendation for Lizzie and invited the girls to his 50th birthday party.

"Dr. Scalea attached himself to those girls and said, `They are not going to die on my watch,'" said their mother, Mary Nimmich, a 45-year-old physical education teacher in the Howard County public schools. "I will be forever in debt to him and to everyone else who helped."

The sisters are the older of three daughters of Mary and Joseph Nimmich, a U.S. Coast Guard captain. Katie, the youngest, is 16.

As they grew up, Lizzie looked up to her older sister but was a bit intimidated because Becky was three years older, smart and popular. They didn't have much to talk about when Lizzie was in middle school and Becky was in high school.

Then in the fall of 1998, Lizzie started attending her sister's school. Every day, driving home from Our Lady of Good Counsel, they'd talk about their day and stop off at a 7-Eleven convenience store to buy junk food, laughing when they hid the wrappers from their mother.

At 5:04 p.m. on Oct. 8, 1998, Becky was driving north on two-lane Route 216 in rural Howard County when she crossed the yellow line trying to make a left turn at a "Y" intersection onto Lime Kiln Road.

A pickup truck driven by a 26-year-old man was heading south on Route 216. He swerved to try to avoid the girls' car, but collided with it nearly head-on, according to a police report. The man was not injured and police did not file charges.

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