After horrific Eatonville crash, Harris family mends together

Staff writerFebruary 9, 2014 

McKenzie Harris is not a soft-spoken little girl.

“She’s loud and proud, and when Kenzie is in the room, the party starts,” Sara Harris said of her 7-year-old daughter.

That’s why the ventilator that helps Kenzie breathe and makes her voice almost inaudible is one of many unimaginable challenges the Harris family has faced in the past month.

A New Year’s Day crash near Eatonville left Kenzie quadriplegic, and also injured her mother, father, brother and two cousins.

Doug and Sara Harris, their two children and two nieces were 100 yards from the couple’s driveway when their pickup was hit head-on by another pickup that had crossed the center line of state Route 7 near 316th Street East near Eatonville. 

The second driver, 48-year-old Glenn Fitting, who State Patrol troopers said might have had a medical emergency behind the wheel, died at the scene.

Before the crash, the cousins had come over to play, and had slept over because the family decided it wasn’t safe to drive on New Year’s Eve, Sara said.

The Harrises, whose injuries put them in separate hospitals, were recently reunited. They haven’t yet seen the nieces, who were treated for broken bones and released early on.

“That’d be too much,” Doug Harris said about an extended reunion.

The emotional wounds are fresh, as are the physical.

Wyatt, Kenzie’s 3-year-old brother, had plastic surgery for facial injuries from the crash. Doug, 37, had rib and femur fractures and a broken foot, which has him healing in a wheelchair. He also lost peripheral vision in his right eye.

Sara, 34, is using a wheelchair too, and says it’ll be a year before she’s driving and walking on her own again. Her injuries include liver and spleen lacerations, tibia fractures, a fractured sternum and a displaced lumbar spine. Her heel bone also was broken, and she’ll have a roughly five-hour surgery this week to fix it.

She and Doug don’t know when they’ll be able to return to work. That’s not what they’re thinking about now.

They’re staying with Wyatt at the Ronald McDonald House, housing for families with patients at Seattle Children’s Hospital. Relatives have been helping take care of the Harrises as they recover from their own injuries while supporting Kenzie with her treatment at Children’s.

Kenzie is doing speech, occupational and physical therapy. That includes playing games, her favorite of which is a “Shrek” memory challenge. Connect Four is also pretty fun, she said.

Last week, she got into a medical chair from her hospital bed for just the third time. That’s been scary, and uncomfortable because of the neck brace she wears in the chair. A “My Little Ponies” show distracted her.

She was especially nervous about the lift the hospital uses to get her out of the bed. So before she used it for the first time, a nurse hopped in it to show her how it worked, her mom said.

The family is grateful to the many first responders and hospital staff members who have helped them.

But Kenzie did raise an issue with one of her therapists.

The woman tried to say she was wearing a pink shirt, when clearly, Kenzie and her family said, it was brown. Compared to the pink decor plastering the walls of Kenzie’s room, it was. 

The 7-year-old has lovingly been dubbed the “pink police” by some. It’s her favorite color. She even has a pink Seattle Seahawks jersey and is on the list for a visit from quarterback Russell Wilson.

While her ventilator will keep her voice small for a while, her smile is about as big as they come. 

It’s there when she talks about cuddling with her kitty Max at home, who she says is fluffy and black. And when she brings up her friends at school. She must have a lot of them — her hospital room is covered with cards wishing her well.

And she definitely has the grin of a big sister when she talks about what a troublemaker Wyatt is. (He seems to run things at the hospital, last week racing between Kenzie’s bedside and a playroom with a ninja turtle in hand and an uncle chasing behind.)

Wyatt gets angry and sad sometimes as he starts to remember things about the crash, his mother said. 

When the doctors and nurses help Kenzie, he asks what they are doing, and they tell him. Sometimes he gets to take mom’s and dad’s blood pressure.

He loves being with his sister, and is especially gentle with her now, sometimes rubbing her feet, their mom said.

“He said he doesn’t want his sister to be in the hospital,” she said.

Being a family helps Kenzie and the rest of the Harrises smile and joke together through such difficult circumstances.

But their situation is still raw.

Kenzie’s loved ones weep when they talk about the crash and the following weeks.

Initially, Doug, Sara and Kenzie were not awake after the wreck. Kenzie was at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, while her parents were unconscious at Tacoma General Hospital.

Friends and relatives stepped in. Kenzie was “basically in a coma,” said Amy Peterson, who is married to Sara’s father, and that the Harborview doctors told them they didn’t think it was “a survivable event.”

But five days after the wreck, the 7-year-old opened her eyes. And a little more than a week later, she and her mother woke up and started responding on the same day.

Family friend Betsy Harris said she couldn’t help thinking “that maybe they were in the same place.”

Kenzie was able to hear her parents on the phone, and Skype with her mom. Then, about three weeks ago, they were reunited for the first time since the crash. 

Now, Kenzie and Wyatt can and do cheerfully stick their tongues out at each other. And Mom gets to fawn over Kenzie’s bangs, to ensure they’re done just right. They got to lie next to each other for the first time last week.

And the 7-year-old is starting school at the hospital with a teacher.

The Harrises will be at Children’s for about three months for Kenzie’s therapy.

“I can’t even imagine the bill,” Sara said about what the family’s combined medical expenses will be. Doug is a foreman at Seattle Electric; Sara is a business manager supporting the physicians in Tacoma General’s Emergency Department.

Everyone is hoping for the best – she gets a little more movement every day – but they believe Kenzie will need 24-hour care indefinitely.

“McKenzie has a long journey ahead of her,” Peterson said. “Bigger than I think any of us realize. We need all the support we can get. We’re a strong family. It’s just going to be a different journey for us.”

She and Kenzie’s grandfather, Brian Peterson, are part of a small army of family members who have constantly been at her side. Amy sleeps in the hospital room.

She said Kenzie has a new favorite song, and a motto of sorts. It’s from the movie “Frozen,” called “Let it Go.”

One verse: “It’s time to see what I can do, to test the limits and break through.”

Her family lovingly calls her both a little diva and a little miracle.

“She’s very brave,” her dad said. “She’s been very, very brave.”

Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268
alexis.krell@thenewstribune.com
www.thenewstribune.com/crime-news
@amkrell

HOW TO HELP

Donations can be made at any KeyBank branch. The fund is under the name “Harris Family.” Family and friends are raising money for the Harrises online at bit.ly/1fFFrif. Other fundraisers are in the works.

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