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Eva Houlihan stands and walks forward to receive her diploma during Commencement for the Pomperaug High School Class of 2022, in Southbury.
Eva Houlihan waits in line with her classmates prior to Commencement for the Pomperaug High School Class of 2022 in Southbury June 20. Eva graduated after surviving a car accident in April 2021 that took the life of her boyfriend and classmate, Ryan Rutledge.
A cap and gown laid out in memory of Ryan Rutledge during Commencement for the Pomperaug High School Class of 2022, in Southbury, Conn. June 20, 2022.
Jerry Houlihan and Elizabeth Gower were told by doctors last summer to expect the worst.
Their daughter, Eva Houlihan, was in a coma and suffering severe brain trauma from a car crash that killed her boyfriend, Ryan Rutledge. Eva had received emergency craniotomy surgery, yet doctors couldn’t predict how or if she’d recover.
But Eva did wake up. She spent the next 14 months going through intensive rehabilitation and physical therapy. She re-taught herself how to brush her teeth, how to use utensils to feed herself and how to walk.
The worst never came.
Instead, Jerry and Gower watched their daughter use a walker to cross the stage at Pomperaug High School and receive her diploma. The moment on June 20 was met with a standing ovation from her 300-plus graduating class.
It was a day neither parent could have imagined over a year ago.
“She’s just so determined,” said Eva’s father, Jerry Houlihan. “Just to hear the audience clapping for her, the support and everything, it just brought back all the memories of what went on in the past year and how it’s culminating into something spectacular like this.”
Eva Houlihan waves to her classmates after standing and walking to receive her diploma during Commencement for the Pomperaug High School Class of 2022, in Southbury June 20, 2022. Eva graduated Monday after surviving a car accident in April of 2021 that took the life of her boyfriend and classmate, Ryan Rutledge.
It’s been a little over a year since the single-car car crash on Roxbury Road in Southbury. While the community has continued to mourn Rutledge — Pomperaug reserved a seat for Rutledge, decorating it in a cap and gown with his football and lacrosse jerseys during its graduation ceremony — Eva has continued to surpass her initial recovery expectations.
She has spent countless hours regaining strength on the right side of her body just to perform life’s most simple movements. Her blonde hair has grown out and reaches the bottom of her neck, fully covering the scar on the left side of her head from where a piece of titanium now lies beneath for better strength as part of her second craniotomy.
In the fall, Pomperaug tutors spent days helping her get caught up on the schoolwork she missed because of the crash. Families dropped off food for Houlihan and Gower as they poured so much of themselves into helping their daughter heal.
When the audience applauded for her that Monday afternoon at Pomperaug’s graduation, it was an accumulation of Eva’s, and the community’s, relentless recovery from the car crash on April 5, 2021.
“It was beautiful,” Gower, Eva’s mother, said. “You couldn’t stage something like that better. It was just so heartfelt. … It was just so beautiful that my daughter, because of her bravery and because she just doesn’t give up; I’m in awe of her and because of that she’s showing everybody that they don’t have to give up either.”
When Eva was discharged from Wallingford’s Gaylord Specialty Health Care in October, exactly six months after the crash, her days centered on physical therapy sessions and tutoring. Gower drove her to and from the hospital, sometimes taking Eva to the local gym to work on strengthening her legs.
The crash, which ejected Eva from Ryan’s Jeep, caused severe trauma to the left side of Eva’s brain, resulting in the right side of her body unable to move for weeks. While she was able to move her left arm almost freely, she often used her left hand to help prop up her right wrist during the early months of her recovery.
Pomperaug teachers and tutors visited Eva at Gower’s condo in Woodbury, helping her get caught up in the few months of junior year coursework she missed because of the accident. By January, she returned to Pomperaug with the help of an aide and a motorized wheelchair to resume in-person learning and finish her senior year alongside her classmates.
Elizabeth Gower gestures to her daughter, Eva Houlihan, during Commencement for the Pomperaug High School Class of 2022, in Southbury June 20, 2022. Eva graduated Monday after surviving a car accident in April of 2021 that took the life of her boyfriend and classmate, Ryan Rutledge.
This fall, Eva plans to take a handful of courses to prepare her for college and test what forms of possible aid she might need. Her parents say the plan is to have Eva attend a local college in person in January.
“This is really just to see if she’ll be ready, what kind of devices she might need to help aid her in college because it’s a little bit more challenging,” Gower said. “That’s really what everyone is trying to figure out, how much support, because she’s changing by the minute, so it’s week to week.”
It wasn’t until a couple months ago, in early spring, that Eva was able to make substantial progress in her recovery to walking again with the help of the parallel bars at physical therapy or a walker.
At home, Gower and her daughter came up with a tag-team like system to help Eva ascend the staircase to the second-floor bedrooms in Gower’s condo.
One of the biggest concerns with Eva walking is making sure she’s always aware of where her right foot is to avoid tripping over it or rolling her ankle. Her right foot has severe inward toning due to the accident and placing too much weight on her foot or bending it the wrong way could lead to worse damage on her tendons or ankle.
She’s scheduled to have surgery to fix the toning at the Hospital of Special Surgery in Manhattan on July 11. It’s likely the toning could return later on, meaning Eva will need to keep up with consistent rehab on her foot and strengthen her quad while not rushing back too soon.
A cap and gown laid out along with lacrosse and football jerseys in memory of Ryan Rutledge during Commencement for the Pomperaug High School Class of 2022, in Southbury, Conn. June 20, 2022.
Both Gower and Houlihan said they expect their daughter to be walking again this fall following her recovery from the surgery.
“My belief with Eva, knowing her, she’ll find a way,” Gower said. “I’m really optimistic. It’s going to be a slow process, but she’ll get there. She says she’s running again; I believe her. We’re gonna run together.”
Following the accident, Eva struggled with both short- and long-term memory. There were days she couldn’t recognize Jerry at the hospital and times she’d need Gower to remind her what she did that morning.
While she may never remember the accident, her parents say they’ve noticed improvements in her ability to recall memories within the past six months.
“The pause that she has when you ask her a question is probably limited now to a second or two where before it was five, six seconds,” Houlihan said. “It’s pure joy. It’s just great. It’s like I’m getting my daughter back.”
“She does it so quickly,” Gower said. “She’s improving so fast for this kind of injury. It’s remarkable.”
About a month and a half ago, Gower says Eva’s physical therapists noticed she was getting more comfortable with using the walker on her own. It was then they decided to make a new goal for Eva: walk across the stage at graduation.
On the graduation day, Eva sat in her wheelchair among her peers dressed in Pomperaug’s matching red cap and gown.
While Eva was in line waiting for her name to be called, her older brother Doug Houlihan came up and surprised her with a hug. He flew in from California to be by her side.
When Eva got to the small set of stairs leading to the stage, the crowd began clapping as she began to lift herself up out of her wheelchair.
With the support of someone guiding her from behind, Eva grabbed each staircase railing. Slowly, she stepped onto the first stair then hopped on the second, making sure to not put weight on her right foot. By the third stair, the majority of her 300-plus classmates stood to cheer her on.
A teacher held out her walker for her to grab at the top of the stairs. Eva’s steps with the walker were slow as she crossed the stage to receive her diploma.
The crowd that Monday afternoon inside Pomperaug’s gym stood and cheered for the full two minutes it took the 17-year-old to complete the walk across the stage and down the stairs. They waited to call out the next graduate’s name until Eva had safely descended.
Jerry stood in front of the stage filming Eva as she walked. He was unaware of her plans to use the walker and was immediately brought to tears.
“It was overwhelming,” Jerry said. “I was crying like crazy, bawling my eyes out just because it’s been a long hard road for the past year and three months and I didn’t think she’d be able to do it.”
Gower couldn’t help but laugh when she saw Eva do a princess wave at the end of the stage before descending the stairs.
“This was a situation where the doctor said she would be a vegetable,” Gower said. “And then it was, ‘She’ll probably never walk again,’ and look at her. From the very beginning, I mean there were ups and downs … but then an angel would show up at the lowest time and remind us to keep praying. Just some stranger or a respiratory therapist that was observing everything, could change the way just by reminding us that prayer does matter and she’s a miracle for that.”
Eva’s life is nowhere what it was before the accident. Her life may never return to what it was before.
The accident on Roxbury Road forever changed far more than just Eva and her family.
It effected the Southbury community.
“Whenever I’m in town or getting a coffee at Starbucks or I’m getting some quick dinner at Panera, the local restaurants, Stop & Shop, whatever; everybody, I mean everybody, stops to ask about Eva,” Jerry said. “It’s a grounding of gratitude and I realize how precious life is and that nothing else matters.”
Eva’s recovery has inspired those that know her, that knew Ryan Rutledge, and those who are just meeting her now.
Following Pomperaug’s graduation ceremony, an elderly man approached Eva while she was with her family.
He told her that he suffered a stroke, but watching Eva walk across the stage that afternoon inspired him.
“He was in tears,” Gower said. “Eva is giving this man hope and that really opened my eyes. Seeing how it doesn’t matter how old you are, doesn’t matter what your situation is, if you’re poor, if you’re rich, whatever, every day we live and you gotta strive to get better and you can never give up.”
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