At Starmont, a life-changing accident, and a 'miracle season'

November 5, 2018 | 6:30 pm
Regan Janssen, a Starmont volleyball center, stands near the intersection in rural Arlington where she and three others were hit by a car in August on Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018. Janssen was due to begin her senior year and had to miss the first part of her volleyball season as she recovered from spinal chord injuries she suffered during the accident. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Chapter 1:

ARLINGTON — Regan Janssen paid her first visit in more than two months to the intersection of E Avenue and 50th Street in rural Fayette County.

The tire tracks of two vehicles still are visible in the ditch. And a traffic-control sign still is absent at the corner.

 

“Most gravel-road intersections around here are like that,” said Regan’s mother, Stacie Janssen. “No stop signs, no yield signs.”

It is here where the white Dodge pickup truck Janssen was riding in — along with her two brothers and her boyfriend — was broadsided by another vehicle Aug. 19. A senior setter for the Starmont High School volleyball team, Janssen suffered five compression fractures in her back, along with burns from contact with bleach that was contained in the truck.

The accident cost her the first few weeks of the volleyball season. It could have cost her much more.

All you have to do is leaf through photos of the destroyed truck, which flipped three times before landing in the ditch southeast of the intersection, and you know Janssen is fortunate.

“You’d have thought they’d have taken her out of there in a body bag,” Stars Coach Robert Goedken said. “We think of this as our miracle season.”

Chapter 2:

Back to state

The Stars have advanced to the state tournament for the third straight year. Ranked No. 4 in Class 1A, they take a 29-6 record and a 12-match winning streak into their first-round match against No. 6 Tripoli (23-15) at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the U.S. Cellular Center, Cedar Rapids.

And Janssen? She has shaken off the injury, the periodic pain and the loss of conditioning to average 10.40 assists per set. Only one setter in the state, Macy Bailey of Bondurant-Farrar (10.63), averages more.

Since Janssen returned to the lineup — she was out for a month after the crash — Starmont is 22-2.

“The crash was a life-changing event for me,” she said. “I think I’ve matured since that happened.

“At the end of the season, the seniors have to write a letter to their parents, telling them thanks for being there and all that. And it made me think about how much you take for granted. They could have lost all three of their kids that day.”

Last Wednesday, the day after Starmont swept HLV to nail down another state appearance, Janssen revisited the crash site.

“It’s still so vivid to me,” she said.

Chapter 3:

'I could feel my body burning'

She was in the back seat, on the passenger side. Her older brothers (Brady is 27, Colton 23) were in the front, and her boyfriend, Eric Vaske, was with her in the back.

They had returned to the Janssens’ house after participating in Starmont’s annual booster-club golf tournament. Then they set out for some Sunday-evening fishing.

They were eastbound, the other vehicle southbound, so with no signs, the Janssen vehicle had the right of way.

“I remember one of my brothers yelling. I remember being on the floor of the truck (after it came to rest), and I couldn’t catch my breath because there was bleach in my mouth.

“I got out of the truck, and I could feel my body burning.”

She pointed to the east.

“That’s the house that Eric and I went to, to get the bleach washed off of us.”

That saved them from severe burning. As the bleach washed away and the adrenaline wore off, though, Janssen came to the realization something was very wrong with her back.

“It was really messed up,” she said.

An ambulance transported Janssen — the most badly injured of all involved — to Regional Medical Center in Manchester, where tests revealed compression fractures in the C-2, C-3, C-4, C-5 and T-11 vertebrae.

She was fitted for a back brace, in which she stayed for most of the next month.

Her senior volleyball season was on hold, replaced by physical therapy.

“My first thought was that she’d be out a few days,” Goedken said. “But it kept getting extended.”

Without their setter, the Stars started 7-4. Frustrated, Janssen got a second opinion, then a third.

“She left a lot of doctors appointments in tears,” Stacie Janssen said. “At one point, we thought she might not see the court until regionals.”

Chapter 4:

The road back

Janssen was released in time for the Denver tournament Sept. 22.

“She was a little out of shape,” Goedken said. “The first tournament, she couldn’t get to anything down by her ankles like she usually does. For a while, she’d wear a back brace during the day, then take it off for practice and games.”

 

When Janssen was released, she was told she wouldn’t be pain-free. When she turns her trunk to the side, sometimes a sharp pain will hit her.

And there are lingering psychological effects when she travels.

“Every day, I think about it,” she said. “I’m always on edge. I’m not comfortable when I drive.”

The August accident wasn’t the first Janssen had survived. In 2011, she and Stacie were struck at another of those rural gravel-road intersections. Regan suffered internal bleeding; Stacie broke a foot.

Janssen is a three-sport athlete. She is a two-time state qualifier in golf and a pitcher/catcher/shortstop for the softball team.

And she is one of seven seniors who have made Starmont a prominent volleyball program. In their first two state appearances, the Stars met a quick exit.

“It’s hitting us that this is our last year,” Janssen said. “We’re not going there to mess around. We’re going to get the job done.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8857; jeff.linder@thegazette.com