Kent State Stark Spring Graduate Crystin Walker Overcomes Deadly Accident and Addiction
Plain Township woman nearly died in car crash as a high school junior, later overcame addiction to cocaine. She graduated college Friday and is celebrating Mother’s Day this weekend.
By Kelli Weir / Repository staff writer
Medics didn’t immediately see Crystin Grindle in the heap of twisted metal that had been a Ford Explorer.
It was nighttime and the vehicle was cloaked by some trees near a curve off of Whinnery Road, an unlit country street just west of Guildford Lake in Columbiana County.
Crystin also was no longer sitting in the passenger seat. When the SUV struck the tree, the force knocked her seat back and sent her upper body to the driver’s side. Her head was lodged behind the driver’s seat, while her foot was stuck in the passenger side dashboard.
One of the medics stepped on Crystin when they entered the vehicle to revive Nathan. He was the 17-year-old love interest of Crystin’s best friend who agreed to drive Crystin home after a late group study session. He was speeding in hopes of making curfew, but lost control at the unmarked curve. Medics flew Nathan by helicopter to an area hospital, where he made a full recovery.
Emergency crews needed the Jaws of Life to cut through the vehicle and pry Crystin from the wreckage. She was taken by helicopter to Summa Akron City Hospital after medics determined she wouldn’t survive the longer flight to a Cleveland hospital. Medics performed four blood transfusions along the way.
At the hospital, Crystin remained in a coma. Doctors determined that she stopped breathing for 14 minutes and suffered a severe brain injury. The orbital bones around her right eye was crushed and would require five surgeries to repair. Doctors inserted a chest tube to support her collapsed lung and determined she would need surgery to repair her broken back.
By 3 a.m., Crystin’s condition deteriorated to the point the medical staff brought in her parents to say their final goodbyes.
A few days later, Crystin’s condition still hadn’t improved. She still wasn’t responding to any stimulation. Doctors asked June Grindle whether she wanted to take her daughter off the ventilator. They said even if she did come out of the coma, she likely would remain in a vegetative state.
June wasn’t ready to give up. Crystin was the youngest of her three children and only a junior at United High School. She ranked third in her class academically and was on track to possibly be valedictorian her senior year. She wanted to be a doctor, a brain surgeon no less.
She had too much to live for.
Mom was right
This weekend — today is Mother’s Day — Crystin, whose last name is now Walker, proved her mother right by giving her a Mother’s Day present to remember: Crystin was among the more than 190 students to graduate Friday from Kent State University at Stark.
The ever-smiling Crystin beamed as she crossed the Umstattd Hall stage to receive her diploma and shake the hands of the university’s dignitaries. She flashed an even bigger smile as she headed back to her seat and could see her mother sitting with her husband, Brent; daughters, Shyla, 11, and Eliana, 5; and other family and friends in the audience. She wiped a tear from under her glasses as she sat down.
Graduating from college was an achievement that seemed nearly impossible in the months following the car crash in April 1999 and one that was nearly derailed by drugs.
“I owe it to my family that I’m here right now,” said Crystin, who now lives in Plain Township. “They’ve put up with so much from me.”
Crystin woke up from her coma two and a half weeks after the crash.
She underwent nine surgeries to repair her right eye, her back and her vocal cords that had been cut accidentally during one of her first surgeries. Yet doctors could do little to heal her brain. It would take months of in-patient and out-patient therapy for her to relearn the basics, including how to walk.
When she returned home in mid-August of 1999, she still had the mentality of a 2-year-old. While the therapy helped her to walk and talk, it was her mother who had to reteach her how to make good decisions and about morals and values.
As the new school year approached, Crystin pleaded with her mom to allow her to go back to school. Her doctors warned against it, but Crystin was determined to graduate with her class.
“I loved school and school was such a big thing to me,” Crystin said. “I got there, and it was horrible.”
She forgot how to multiply. She couldn’t divide. On some days, she struggled to remember where her classroom was located.
Her brain no longer could filter sounds, so the noise of a student turning the page in a textbook sounded as loud to her as the teacher’s voice. All the sounds became a cacophony that quickly overloaded her brain, leaving her confused and frustrated.
School officials developed a learning plan to reintroduce Crystin back to the school environment one class at a time. Thanks to her previous high grades, she still was able to graduate with her high school peers and be accepted into college.
But Crystin quickly found that college wasn’t any easier. She became highly anxious to new environments and still struggled with her short-term memory and her concentration, which made it difficult for her to follow the lecture-style courses. She received her first failing grades in her educational career. Devastated, the former high school honor student quit.
Adrift without a goal, Crystin fell into back-to-back bad relationships. Soon, she turned to drugs to escape, first smoking marijuana daily and then using crack cocaine every day for a roughly nine-month span.
Crystin’s addiction to cocaine became so severe that she couldn’t make herself quit even after she lost custody of her daughter, Shyla.
It wasn’t until police officers came to her Minerva mobile home to arrest her then-boyfriend that she told her mom she wanted to get help. Even then, she wasn’t fully committed. The day her mother and a friend came to take her to the addiction treatment center, they found Crystin high and still not packed.
At age 27, Crystin remained at the Christian-based Appalachian Teen Challenge center in West Virginia for more than a year to combat her addiction. She returned home in 2010 and began taking steps to regain legal custody of her then-2-year-old daughter, who was being raised by Crystin’s mother. It would take her seven years before Crystin regained legal custody.
As she began to piece her life back together without drugs, Crystin met Brent, a native of Trinidad who attended Malone on a full athletic scholarship for soccer and now coaches soccer at GlenOak High School. The two were married Jan. 5, 2011, and Eliana was born nearly nine months later.
It was Brent, a 2007 Malone University graduate, who convinced Crystin to try college again.
College, even though it was part time, was just as difficult as Crystin remembered. But this time, she received some extra help.
Through Kent State at Stark’s Office of Student Accessibility Services, Crystin was linked with a reading tutor and had an in-class note taker. She also was given extended time for her tests and could take her tests in a less noisy environment. Through a grant for students who have suffered a traumatic brain injury, Crystin also received electronic textbooks so her laptop could read the text aloud while she read it on the screen.
“It has made all the difference in the world,” she said. “I’m now back to getting straight As again.”
For the past two semesters, Crystin has served as a supplemental instruction specialist, where she helps tutor students, and as a peer advocate, where she helps students at risk of dropping out, get the resources they need to be successful. In some cases, the students may need a tutor, while others may need help obtaining bus passes so they have reliable transportation for their classes.
Crystin said she will share the story about the crash in 1999 and her brain injury with students when it seems appropriate, such as when one woman was failing psychology due to a lack of effort.
“I had to say to her that you need to figure out how worth it is to you,” Crystin recalled. “If it’s worth the effort, you can do it. I went from being a student who didn’t have to put much work in to get As, to having to work my butt off to get Cs and Ds.”
The girl passed the psychology class with a B.
Amanda Weyant, coordinator of Academic Services, said believes students have responded well to Crystin because they see how hard she’s had to work to overcome her brain injury and achieve good grades.
“What stood out was her attitude,” Weyant said. “It would have been really easy for her to be angry and give up. ... But she’s helping others. She knew it was going to be harder for her, but she has kind of embraced it and hasn’t complained because it was harder.”
On Friday, Crystin, now 35, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. She wants to become a substance abuse counselor and hopes to find a job in the field before returning to Kent State to pursue her master’s degree.
“I know I have a lot that I can help people with,” she said.
Reach Kelli Weir at 330-580-8339 or email@example.com.
On Twitter: @kweirREP