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Idaho grad Holly Terrill witnesses life change in an instant

Holly Terrill is graduating with the University of Idaho Class of 2020. (Courtesy)
Holly Terrill is graduating with the University of Idaho Class of 2020. (Courtesy)

To Holly Terrill, it’s kind of funny to think that three months ago, she was spending nights out with friends at Buffalo Wild Wings.

As she entered her senior year at the University of Idaho, Terrill was making the most of her last months in Moscow. Four years of work for a degree in civil engineering, plus on- and off-campus jobs, all led up to one last semester with a light course load.

“If my friends wanted to do anything at all, I was totally down,” Terrill, 22, said. “Then all of a sudden, my life just completely changed. Looking back, I’m so glad I did it then while I could.”

Early on a February morning that last semester, Terrill’s younger sister Grace called from the family home in Cle Elum. Something was wrong with their mom, Monica.

Monica rushed to the bathroom around 5 a.m., feeling a little sick. She lost consciousness, hitting her head as she fell, and Terrill’s family initially thought she had a concussion. Grace called an ambulance to take her to the nearest hospital in Ellensburg, 30 minutes away.

“When I got the call, Mom was still doing OK, she was talking and she seemed fine,” Terrill said. “My first priority that morning was making sure the kid I nannied for had someone to pick him up from school. I packed just an overnight bag to head home, thinking I would only be there for literally one night.”

Terrill began the three-hour drive to Ellensburg. She didn’t even get out of Moscow before receiving more panicked calls from Grace.

Their mom had several seizures in the ambulance, prompting paramedics to take her to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle instead. There, doctors determined Monica had suffered from a brain aneurysm, causing a brain bleed and two strokes.

Terrill and her sister stayed in a Seattle apartment for three weeks, while their father spent nights by Monica’s bedside in the intensive care unit. Monica was in a coma, and the family had no way of knowing how much damage had been done until she woke up.

Terrill kept busy by staying on top of her schoolwork. She would sit in the hospital cafeteria with friends and family who came to visit, logging into lectures remotely and emailing professors.

“Every day felt so long, but really we weren’t doing much,” Terrill said. “We spent entire days figuring out our next steps, talking to insurance. But school stayed important to me.”

After two weeks, Monica was awake and improving, but largely unresponsive. Terrill returned to Moscow for a night right before spring break in mid-March.

During the break, the university announced classes would move online for the remainder of the semester. By then, Terrill had already transitioned online. But knowing her final semester – and chance of seeing friends again – was cut short still weighed on her.

“It was no different to me not going back,” Terrill said. “But what really sucked was not being able to see my friends, to have my support system. The one time you need people, and not being able to tap into that was not very easy.”

When she returned to Seattle, worries about the growing coronavirus outbreak were heightening. Soon, the family was barred from entering the hospital. Terrill didn’t see her mom in person again for weeks. When Monica was later transferred to a rehab facility, the family gathered outside the entrance, craning their necks for a glimpse of her before she went through the door.

Terrill and her family returned home to prepare for Monica joining them. They kept in touch via video chat, but Monica didn’t usually respond when Terrill or her sister would speak. Terrill said not knowing if her mom understood why they weren’t with her was the hardest part of this time.

“The trick was, she loved music,” Terrill said. “If you played one of her favorite songs, she would lip-sync and dance along. So that became one of our main forms of communication.”

A few weeks later, Monica was released and returned home. Since then, Terrill said she’s improved greatly, taking walks in the forest surrounding their home and holding simple conversations. She still requires round-the-clock care, but Terrill said the family expects her to make a near-full recovery.

Terrill will start a new job at an engineering design firm in Bellevue, near Seattle, in July. She and her fiancé, Eli, will soon move in together after years of a long-distance relationship, and are planning to be married in fall 2021.

Despite her plans for her last semester being wrecked, Terrill said she simply moved through obstacles as they came.

“With graduation being canceled and everything changing, I was definitely upset and a little crushed,” Terrill said. “But your priorities kind of realign when something like this happens. I just knew I had to get through this, because there was still work to be done.”

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