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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Getting Back To Life After Suffering A Broken Back, Loretta Serbell Is Recovering And Has Big Plans For The Future.

Loretta Serbell rolls onto the floor. Her movement is cautious, almost clumsy.

Hands reach down to loose the Velcro straps on her brace. Free from her plastic turtle shell, she shifts again onto her tummy and hikes up her shirt.

Loretta is showing her scar. It’s lo-o-o-ng. Twelve inches, a delicate red river curves across her back.

Just a month and eight days ago, Loretta and four friends were in a car accident. No one was drunk. The driver was not speeding. Instead, 16-year-old Jim Larson, who had gotten his license just five days earlier, was taking his friends to sightsee at the new Spokane Valley Mall.

It was 10:30 a.m. They were headed west on Interstate 90, just getting up to speed, when a tire blew. The ‘86 Subaru rolled, coming to a stop against the fence at the edge of the right of way.

Loretta, 16, broke her back in the accident. Doctors collapsed one lung, removed two ribs, pulverized them to create a paste of bone, contained in a mesh basket of titanium. The bone should grow and solidify, doctors hope.

She can walk now, a little. She’ll be able to dance at her junior prom next spring - though not in a backless gown, she laments. She may be able to shotput again; Loretta was a state contender last year as a member of the East Valley High School track team.

All three activities nearly withered into memory on August 19.

“She’ll have a normal life,” breathes Billie Serbell. Every mother’s prayer, answered.

Passenger Tiffany Longfellow, 16, suffered two herniated discs, heavy bruising and amnesia about the accident itself. She bears a scar below her right elbow. The kids call it her tiger scratch, an apt name. Nate Paul has so much back pain, he’s finally gone to a doctor.

It’s about an hour after East Valley High School lets out for the day. Loretta, Tiffany, Jim, Nate and Brandon Haupt are gathered in the Serbell living room. They are the “accident five.” They’ve been together most days since. Jim has come to see Loretta every day.

“He’s a very responsible young man,” Billie says.

These students were close before the accident. Most of them took sophomore honors humanities last year. Taught by Julie Seipp, the rigorous class culminates with a nine-day trip to London, Stratford-on-Avon and Stonehenge in November.

Loretta’s neurosurgeon has given the OK for her to go on the trip, if her recovery remains steady.

After school every day, the friends descend on the Serbells’ home, tucked away off East Wellesley. This might be the only cul de sac in the Valley where you’ll find diagonal parking.

The living room is jammed. More friends are sitting on the sofa, the floor, anywhere, along with Sarah, 18, and Twyla, 15, the two other Serbell sisters. Valerie Kurtz, a math teacher from East Valley High and Loretta’s tutor, manages to give her a test on colonial period vocabulary. Never mind that three people are talking at once.

They’re talking about the accident, the sunroof, the shards of glass. The hours of waiting through Loretta’s surgery, 18 of them in the waiting room at Sacred Heart Medical Center. Group therapy, at 80 decibels.

“I don’t remember intensive care,” Loretta says. “I just remember a nurse leaning over me and her hair smelled good.”

“It’s so weird,” says Nate. “I hardly ever wear my seatbelt and that day I did.”

“And I always do,” says Loretta.

“And that day, I didn’t…”

After a while, Jim disappears, heading to the basement. Loretta and the others worry about him.

“How I deal with stuff is to tell everyone,” says Loretta. Later, Jim says he’s talked about the accident a lot. “I’ve said the same things 832 times,” he says. It’s still uncomfortable for him.

One other mom is at Serbells’ this afternoon - and most mornings. Kathy Ellis, whose daughter, Holly, is also going on the London trip, has joined Loretta’s support team, partly because a similar accident just a year ago partially paralyzed a young relative of hers.

“Kathy takes care of me,” says Loretta. “She helps me with my antibiotics and she keeps me entertained. She’s an awesome storyteller.”

Mornings aren’t easy for Loretta. “It’s sad just being here by myself,” she says. Kathy makes it bearable.

Another single mom and friend of the family, Elaine Meier, is making soup for the gang, as she regularly does. It’s potato soup today, daughter Catie announces. Billie shakes her head wondering how she would have gotten this far without the pots of soup, the money, the caring from all these people.

Since the accident, Billie, a single mom, has taken off untold hours from her nursing job. Money is tight. Some food comes from the Valley Center’s food bank. The girls enthuse about the doughnuts they’ve learned to make from biscuits.

Next week, Loretta is due to start physical therapy. She frets about the spending money she still needs for London. With a job bagging groceries at the Liberty lake Albertson’s store, Loretta had managed to save the $1,400 needed for the trip.

Right now, earning extra money is out of the question.

Being able to sit comfortably for more than an hour is the issue.

“Right now, the rule is I do whatever feels good. Yesterday I walked a lot,” she says. Now, the evening is getting on. The potato soup has disappeared, and a second shift of friends has arrived. Billie and Sarah worry that Loretta is overdoing it.

“This is what Dr. Larson is worried about with you in London. That you’ll overdo it,” Billie warns.

“Go to bed, Loretta. You look pale,” Sarah commands.

But afternoons and evenings are Loretta’s favorite times. That’s when her friends laugh and gossip. This night, they recall making goofy home movies, they remember the awesome end-of-school party last spring, where 50-some kids had fun without beer, drugs or petting - and where the backyard hose ran for a good 12 hours, for slip-and-slides and who knows what fun, leaving Billie’s back yard a soggie mess.

Loretta slips back to August 19.

“Does the window really have shards of glass like I remember?” she wonders.

Last week, 20-odd friends took Loretta to the movies at the new Valley Mall. Billie is dismayed to learn they drove the interstate to get there.

“You did?” she asks.

Yet she knows that these young people are pumping love and life back into her daughter. They catch her up on school news, details about classes and homework.

These are just kids. They remember last year’s food fights fondly, for crying out loud.

But they learned a priceless lesson out of that sunny August morning.

“There are so many people driving drunk, driving stoned. We weren’t doing anything wrong. And it happened to us.

“I’m no longer invincible,” Loretta says. “That’s what I learned.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 4 color photos

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