The long road back

Published: July 3, 2004
263

Pam Malcolm won’t let a near-fatal car crash deter her from attaining her goals.

Pam Malcolm, 20, of Colchester is slowly but surely recovering from injuries suffered in a car accident more than two years ago. Despite injuring her spinal cord and losing movement in her left foot, Malcolm recently gave up a wheelchair for a pair of crutches. A member of the Bryant College basketball team, she hopes to make it back onto the court.

Pam Malcolm had a successful basketball career at Bacon Academy. The 6-foot-2 center set the state record (and is third in the country) with 563 blocks. During her senior season, she averaged 13.9 points a game and was a McDonald’s All-American nominee.

In the far right corner of the locker room stands a six-foot stall like no other.

The other 15 stalls of the Bryant College women’s basketball team are stuffed with gear. In Pam Malcolm’s, there are no socks, sneakers, knee pads or warmups. Just a lot of empty space.

It’s empty, but there’s good reason.

Nearly 46 minutes into her 18th year of life in April 2002, Malcolm was involved in a car wreck that nearly killed her.

While the driver of the car walked away with a few scratches and bruises, Malcolm injured her spinal cord to the Cervical 7 Vertebrae.

Malcolm became a quadriplegic.

The Colchester native underwent various surgical procedures to restore her ability to use her extremities.

More than two years later, Malcolm has recovered from the accident through surgery and subsequent Rehabilitation.

Earlier this year, she ditched her wheelchair and now makes her way around Bryant’s campus on crutches. While she remains without movement in her left foot and a bad left hand, Malcolm is regaining her balance. She wants to walk without assistance.

But through all the progress that Malcolm has made, in a sense, she is still a shell of her former self. While the vivacious personality she shows to family and friends still exists, the Malcolm that dominated the basketball court at Bacon Academy, where she was a nationally-ranked prospect, does not.

The driver that night, on the other hand, served some jail time in a prison in Niantic.

The nightmare

At approximately 12:46 a.m. on April 16, 2002, a red 1992 Mazda 323 veered off the eastbound lane of Route 16 in Colchester. It struck several trees across the roadway on the north shoulder and came to rest against a tree, according to the accident report.

When fire and EMS personnel arrived, they found Malcolm partially outside the vehicle with her legs pinned between the dashboard and passenger seat.

“It was weird because I wasn’t worried and I wasn’t scared. I was really calm,” Malcolm recalled recently. “I remember thinking I was fine because I didn’t feel any pain or anything.”

Malcolm had the shoulder strap of her seatbelt on, but not the lap part. She said as she was ejected from the vehicle, her knees got caught.

“If I was in the car I would have died because the whole top was on the seat and the whole front was in the seat, too,” she said.

Malcolm was taken by helicopter to Hartford Hospital. Two hours later, Joyce Malcolm saw her daughter for the first time through a window in the emergency room.

“At first, (I felt) just complete disbelief, like no, this can’t happen,” Joyce said. “I thought she’d be fine. I was not expecting it to be as serious as it turned out to be. I guess it wasn’t until the next day that we found out how serious the injury was.”

As a result of the C7 injury, Malcolm was paralyzed from the waist down. For the first three days after the accident her body and spinal cord were very swollen. Malcolm said she had feeling in patches. Her arms were first to regain feeling, though they were weak.

Though no one said anything directly to Malcolm about a prognosis, from the bits and pieces she did hear, she figured it out on her own.

“I have a friend with a spinal cord injury and I just kind of figured it out through what they were saying,” Pam said. “Nobody told me till about three weeks later and when they told me it wasn’t a surprise because I kind of knew.

“I was never worried and I never panicked in the first few weeks … it was weird. People around me were more worried than I was.”

Joyce tried to shield her daughter from the worst. She asked doctors to choose their words wisely around Pam in an effort to keep her mind positive.

“Sometimes people have full recoveries, sometimes it’s partial and I just wanted to hang on to that and I didn’t want anyone telling her that ‘you’re never going to walk again,’ ‘you’re never going to be able to do the things that you used to do,’ ” Joyce said. “I guess I just really believe in, if you’re told you can’t do something then you start to believe it and I didn’t want that for her.

“I wanted her to believe that anything was possible. I asked the doctors not to use words like ‘paralyzed for life,’ ‘You’ll be in a wheelchair for the rest of your life’ and things like that because I didn’t want her to feel like she had no hope. I wanted her to have hope.”

Hope renewed

A couple of weeks prior to the accident, Pam signed a letter of intent to play basketball at Bryant College, a Division II school with an enrollment of 2,700 undergraduates in Smithfield, R.I.

Pam had narrowed her choices down to Bryant and the University of Rhode Island, but fell in love with Bryant’s cozy campus and coach Mary Burke.

Burke was very fortunate to land a player with Pam’s abilities. Standing 6-foot-2, Pam was a force in the post and ranks third all-time nationally with 563 blocks (a Connecticut record). Pam also was ranked in the top 100 prospects nationally by a couple of publications, including Street & Smith’s basketball magazine.

“She’s one of the most recognized players that we’ve brought to Bryant,” Burke said.

“As a player, she would have fit really well on our team,” said Mark Caruso, an assistant at Bryant who coached Pam on her AAU team. “I don’t think we needed her to score right away. She would have been able to do that as she got stronger and bigger.”

But that opportunity never came.

Though basketball was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind after the accident, some wondered what would happen to Pam’s scholarship, worth approximately $33,000.

“My mom was really worried,” Pam said. “I wasn’t really thinking about it all that much in the hospital. I never really got a chance to worry because Coach Burke was amazing.”

Burke had been away from Bryant at the time of Pam’s accident and when she saw her a week later, Burke assured Joyce that Bryant would honor Pam’s scholarship.

“At that point they had absolutely nothing invested in her,” Joyce said. “She had just signed her letter two weeks before and had only been on campus three or four times.

“I think if Pam had lost that scholarship, it would have devastated her. She had her heart set on going to Bryant and if that had fallen through, it would have been really hard for her.”

Keeping Pam’s scholarship wasn’t easy though. Burke could not say what she had to do to keep it, but did say it continues to be a struggle.

“It really speaks volumes about Mary Burke’s character,” Joyce said. “I know she went through a lot to secure that scholarship for Pam and I just can’t say enough about Bryant College and Mary.”

After a month at Hartford Hospital, Pam was transferred to Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford. During her stay at Hartford, doctors used Pam’s hip bone in a fusion for her neck.

It was at Gaylord, though, that Pam started the long road back to recovery.

Try and try again

“The little games that she used to make it through were just exhilarating,” Joyce said.

What was normal procedure for every human being became a daily struggle for Pam. Her first battle was to simply sit up in bed without passing out.

“Her blood pressure would drop so drastically. When she would go from lying to sitting, that would make her faint or throw up,” Joyce said. “When she was finally able to sit up on her own, it was a huge thing.”

Once Pam conquered that movement, rehab became a daily ritual of pain and exercise. But as each day passed, she got stronger.

Pam made it to the prom and graduation, though she had to be taken by ambulance from Gaylord to both events.

“It was really hard because that’s not they way you want to your child to go to her high school graduation or her prom,” Joyce said. “But the fact that she was there and able to get her diploma was huge.”

Pam’s rehab is not as intense as it once was, but it’s still a struggle. While her teammates are in the weight room at Bryant, Pam goes to a rehab center 10 minutes from campus for a different experience.

“It’s tough physically because I get so tired so quick, because it’s such a different kind of workout,” Pam said. “I just focus and say this is what I have to do to get better and I try not to think about anything else.”

But while Pam struggled with her recuperation, questions began to form about the accident itself from those investigating it.

Once a friend

The driver of the car that April night was Lindsey Messervy, at the time a good friend and teammate of Pam’s at Bacon Academy.

When police arrived on the scene that night, Trooper Juan A. Morales of Troop K in Colchester noticed a partially consumed Budweiser beer bottle on the right rear floorboard and another empty beer bottle on the ground next to the passenger seat. Both girls had been drinking.

Morales asked Messervy if she had been drinking and she said that she consumed a 40-ounce Budweiser at about 11 p.m. April 15, about an hour and 46 minutes before the accident.

According to the police report, Messervy’s blood was taken upon her arrival at The William W. Backus Hospital in Norwich for the diagnosis and treatment of injury or alleged injury.

On April 30, police served a Blood Alcohol Content search warrant upon Backus for medical records pertaining to Messervy’s medical treatment.

Results of the blood work analysis showed that Messervy had a BAC of .090 present the night of the accident.

Morales contacted the Connecticut State Police Toxicology Laboratory and a doctor there, utilizing a conversion formula, found that Messervy’s BAC level was .070, which exceeded the legal limit of .02 as stated in the Connecticut General Statute for a person under the legal drinking age of 21.

According to Morales’ report, he called another doctor at the lab who informed Morales based on the fact that it is not known when Messervy stopped drinking prior to the accident, the doctor was unable to extrapolate where her BAC would have been at the time of the accident. Messervy’s blood sample was drawn a little over an hour after the accident.

Four months later the investigation took an unexpected twist when Joyce found letters addressed to Pam from Messervy.

According to the court affidavit, Messervy wrote in one letter she wanted to kill Pam because she was in love with her.

Another letter stated Messervy wanted to die with Pam laying beside her “so I know I will still have you.”

When Pam started to talk about the letters with her mother, she made it clear she to Joyce she had no desire to see Messervy anymore.

On Nov. 20, 2002, Morales talked to Pam about her relationship with Messervy and her view of the accident.

Pam told Morales that she believed that Messervy had some personal problems that were affecting her personal and school life, the affidavit said. Pam told Morales that she does not believe Messervy sat down to plan the accident as a way of keeping them together. But Pam told the trooper that if she were to find out that Messervy’s actions were premeditated, she would not be surprised.

Pam also stated that she asked Messervy why she never hit the brakes.

Messervy replied that she could not explain it, and that when a person is drunk it is not a natural reaction, according to the court documents. Pam said that the fact that Messervy never hit the brakes prior to impact led Pam to believe her former friend might have thought about the accident right then and there and decided not to try to avoid hitting the trees.

Based on Pam’s statements and the fact that Messervy was driving under the influence, Morales believed there was a probable cause for Messervy’s arrest.

On Jan. 20, 2004, Messervy was convicted of third-degree assault and driving while intoxicated. Messervy received a six-month prison term for the assault and two-year probation for the DWI charge.

Messervy served three months of that term and was released in April, but is doing community service to finish out the sentence. Messervy was allowed to apply for her release because of good behavior.

“Part me of didn’t want to see her go to jail. I wanted her to get help,” Joyce said. “But on the other hand, she’s got to have some consequences here.”

Though the trail and conviction of Messervy put some sort of closure on the whole situation, Joyce is still upset at Messervy and her parents for not recognizing a problem.

Messervy and her family declined comment on the situation on the recommendation of her lawyer.

A new chapter

The transition from high school to college is a challenging endeavor for any 18-year-old. But to adjust to college life while dealing with a physical Disability is like asking Shaq to score 30 points without a dunk.

“I think I cried for two days just thinking how she was going to do this,” Joyce said.

Pam’s insurance company said it was willing to have an aid assist Pam for a few hours a day, but she wanted no part of it. But Pam had something more than an aid help her when she started at Bryant in December 2002. She had her best friend.

Lauren Glenney first got to know Pam through rival AAU teams and Glenney’s time at NFA before the two eventually played together on the Connecticut Storm.

When Pam was leaning toward going to Bryant, she did just about everything she could to convince Glenney to follow.

“Pam was like, it would be so much fun if I came to Bryant,” Glenney said.

A few days before the accident, Glenney decided to follow Pam to Bryant. Little did they know it would be the best thing to happen to Pam.

“She’s been unbelievable,” Pam said. “If I didn’t have her around, I don’t know how I would make it.”

Up to a certain point, Glenney helped Pam with just about everything she could, but Joyce worried it would become too stressful for Glenney.

“I was really afraid this was going to be a huge burden on Lauren, who is totally committed to helping Pam,” Joyce said. “I had a couple of conversations with Lauren (in the beginning) and I told her if it got overwhelming for her, that she didn’t have to help Pam anymore.”

But that never happened.

“I know that if it were Lauren (in that situation), Pam would do the same thing for her and I think Lauren knows that too,” Joyce said.

Pam was at ease with Glenney around. Being the new kid on the block and having to deal with her own physical limitations kind of put Pam on an island of her own. With Glenney as her roommate, Pam didn’t have to play Survivor in her first year of college.

“When she first came to Bryant, she didn’t know many people and I think it was a big transition because she went from the hospital to home and right to here and that’s tough,” Glenney said.

Tough, but a bit easier with Glenney around.

“It’s good to have her here because she knew me before the accident, so she looks at me differently than anybody else,” Pam said. “She remembers me playing basketball and doesn’t look at me as the girl who was in the car accident.”

Endless possibilities

Pam, in some ways, has become a role model.

“She’s a constant reminder that we need to be appreciative of what we have and how quickly things can change,” Burke said. “I think we are gaining more from Pam than any scholarship could have given her.”

But the scholarship will give her one thing — a chance to go down in the Bryant College records books.

“We have a goal to get her out there (on the court) for Senior Day,” Burke said. “We’ll find a way. I think we have to for her.”

How long Pam remains on the court remains to be seen. Even if it’s long enough just for the tipoff, it’ll be an award of sorts for the times she sat at practice, sometimes bored, wishing she could be out there.

“Sometimes I’ll hear people complain about an ankle injury or about having to go to practice and I’m just like, I don’t want to hear it,” Malcolm said. “It’s tough to watch the team play sometimes and know that I can’t go out there and I can’t do anything to help.

“It’s frustrating, but at least I have the past to remember and can say I did this and achieved that.”

Pam will graduate in a couple of years and though she’s not too sure what career path she’ll take, the possibilities are endless.

“She doesn’t see any barriers,” Joyce said. “I’m proud of her for that because I think a lot of people, especially a young person without a lot of life experience might say my life is over.”

Actually, it’s just beginning.

whernandez@norwich.gannett.com

By WILL HERNANDEZ
Norwich Bulletin