The Westerly Sun
Charlestown native Tonya Duhamel Harris only remembers bits and pieces about Friday, the 13th of January, 2017.
For instance, said Harris, who lives in Salem, Conn., she remembers leaving the Salem Health Mart where she works as a pharmacy technician, stopping at her mom’s house afterward, then heading to the Little Caesars in Norwich — with two of her three children buckled up in the back seat — to pick up pizza.
She also remembers being rear-ended by the car behind her as she was waiting to make a turn onto Rattlesnake Ledge Road in Salem, and she remembers being slammed — head on — into the car she’d been waiting to pass by. She also remembers hearing a woman scream in the next car, screaming for help for her daughter. She remembers checking on her children in the back seat before getting out of her car to help the woman in distress.
“You know how that is when you’re a mom,” said Harris with a smile, “you always help another mom.”
It was then, when she got out of her car, that her memories of that Friday the 13th ended.
The next thing she remembers is waking up in a hospital bed 10 days later.
“I was in Hartford Hospital,” Harris said last week as she recalled her experiences of the last two years. “I was paralyzed. I had been in a coma for 10 days and I had no voice, and the only thing I could move was my eyes.”
Later, Harris, a 1995 Chariho High school graduate, would learn that she’d been hit by a driver trying to go around the collision, and had been dragged “quite a distance” along the pavement.
The accident “obliterated” her kness and left her with a broken neck, a spinal cord injury, and brain trauma. Doctors had little hope that she’d ever walk again ... until one doctor saw her wiggle a toe on her right foot.
She was treated at two hospitals, and said that Gaylord Hospital, in Wallingford, Conn., where she spent most of her recovery time was “a place where miracles occur.” But after six operations and months of therapy, Harris is more than on the road to recovery. With the aid of two large leg braces, she walks and she drives. And with determination, she writes. Using her index fingers, she types. That’s how she compiled her memories and thoughts in a self-published book, “Superstar: How God’s Intervention and Determination to Live Helped me Survive Getting Run Over by a Car.”
Next Sunday, Harris, the daughter of Karen Brown of Connecticut and Robert “Du” Duhamel of Charlestown, will talk about her book and the accident that changed her life at a fundraiser and book signing at The Breachway Grill in Charlestown. Harris’ father, a Charlestown native and a regular at the restaurant, is well known in town for his “Du-isms.”
Breachway Grill owner Craig Marr said he’s hoping as many people turn out for the book signing as attended the first fundraiser he held for Harris after the accident. “Everybody in town showed up,” said Marr, who has known Harris’ father since he opened the business nearly nine years ago. “There were cars parked all over the place.”
“She survived,” said Marr. “She’s an amazing girl. That’s why we call her ‘Our Miracle Girl.’”
“Plus, it’s a feel-good love story,” he said.
Genny Plas, an employee at the restaurant, wrote the invitation for the event, which has been dubbed “Our Miracle Girl — Tonya Duhamel Harris.” In it, she described Tonya’s journey back to life as “one of boundless determination, pure grit, and amazing faith.”
Harris said she would answer questions and sell and sign copies of her book. The event is scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 17, from 3 to 6 p.m. She enjoys telling her story, she said, and answering questions about her recovery from curious people.
Sometimes, she said, people ask her why she’s so happy.
“In the beginning, I used to ask why ... why me?” Harris said. “Then, I feel like all of a sudden God flipped a switch in me. From then on I woke up every morning with a plan. Then I set goals. Every day I set a new goal.”
“I am alive,” said Harris with a smile. “Every day I tell myself, ‘Tonya, you’re alive.’”
“Miracles do happen,” she said. “My kids get to see me and not a grave. That to me, is one of the biggest blessings.”
“Sometimes people call me the miracle girl,” she said, smiling broadly. “I love to say that the Man above had something to do with this. If you look at the accident, you wonder how is it possible that I am alive, and that my kids are alive.”
Harris’ oldest son, Reamark, 17, was at home at the time of the accident; her two youngest children; Trayton, 13, and Roslyn 11, escaped the crash with “just a few bumps and bruises.”
“One of the many things I’ve learned is to open your eyes to what’s really important,” she said. “And also, that laughter is the best medicine.”
The book is also a love story, said Harris. “An amazing story that defies the odds.”
Before the accident, Harris had developed a close friendship with a man named Christopher Beauchene, who had suffered a spinal cord injury 20 years earlier. In the final pages of the book, Beauchene, now Harris’ boyfriend, describes his own ordeal — becoming paralyzed after jumping into a wave during a neap tide in 1998 — and the trials of dealing with Harris’ accident.
“I will always remember the journey that I took with her in a very positive way,” Beauchene writes. “We encountered a life-threatening accident and we endured. The accident has made our relationship stronger because we have been through the worst. My life will forever be changed after this accident. Just as long as we do it together, that’s all I need.”
“I tell people, ‘Don’t give up,’” said Harris. “We all have moments when we fail, but you just get back up.”