'We just keep proving them wrong': Khali Zabian works her way back into life
LEE — It is because a stranger stopped to help her in the dark, wet night. And it is because a neurosurgeon — in a rural county where there are only two — was ready for her.
It is because the 2018 Lee High School graduate was so smart, and so strong from years as lacrosse and soccer team captain and ROTC boot camp training in college.
And it is because her family, and her boyfriend — her very first love — never left her side.
It is because of the love and generosity in this tightknit Berkshire town, while the links in the international prayer chain also kept growing.
There's no telling exactly how timing, people and grace intersected to produce the miracle that is Khali Zabian after that car came careening along a wet Route 7 last summer and struck her, tossing her body across the highway, to the edge of woods.
Khali said she knows why her body and unique spirit are alive. It is because of something divine.
"God saved me," she said matter-of-factly, sitting at her kitchen table after she checked the weather forecast on her phone to prepare for her daily walk.
Just over a year ago, that stranger watched in horror as the woman he stopped to help was struck as they tried to run to safety. He knew her general whereabouts. But, she was thrown so far in the dark, it took him 20 minutes to find her, skull broken and bones shattered.
Five brain surgeries — and nearly a year of daily therapy — later, Khali, now 20, has regained the use of her body and mind in a way that has astonished doctors — and anyone who has watched this healing. Many said she never would recover.
Dr. Joseph Emrich, who performed the first emergency surgery on Khali at Berkshire Medical Center, said he is astounded.
"When we see outcomes like this, we suddenly feel that everything we've ever done in our lives suddenly became worthwhile," he said.
Tiffany Brower, of Berkshire Physical Therapy and Wellness, said she is "blessed" to have had the opportunity to see Khali's progress.
"She is my rock star," said Brower, who has worked with Khali for five months. "When I first saw her, I thought, `I don't know if I can help her.' "
One after another of those who examined Khali early on said she likely never would regain the basic skills needed to do things in life.
"We just keep proving them wrong," said her mother, Lisa Zabian, after a physical therapy session during which Khali deftly used the left arm and hand they were told never would work again. "God keeps proving them wrong."
Every day is devoted to work and hope, and every day, she improves. Khali walks, talks, thinks, exercises, cooks, reads and understands — all with some help at times.
The former straight-A student, who had been studying physics and calculus for her major in aeronautics physiology, still is intelligent, though most of her long-term memory is lost. She has to relearn her arithmetic and other subjects, and she said she wants to redo her freshman year after her leg brace is off.
She has to perfect her fine motor skills, especially in her left hand, because of the break in her arm, which is healing. She also has to get her left foot and ankle to fully work after the damage to the right side of her brain caused paralysis on her left side. She hopes to play the ukulele, guitar, violin and piano once again.
Because he was there
In summer 2019, Khali was home after her first year at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., where she met her boyfriend, Michael Kahn.
They both had taken jobs at a Great Barrington restaurant — Michael had moved to the Berkshires for the summer to be with Khali.
In early August, Michael returned to school, and Khali still was working while getting ready to rejoin him.
About 9:30 p.m. Aug. 7, Khali was driving home from her job when her car skidded on the wet road and struck the guardrails near Fountain Pond. The car came to rest across the northbound right travel lane.
She called her father, Ali Zabian, who advised her to call police. Then she stepped out of the car to assess the damage and direct traffic around her. A man stopped, pulled out a flashlight and helped her to divert cars.
Family and police say that a young driver, who police say was high on marijuana, did not slow down and was about to speed around them.
It was Khali who saw the vehicle coming and shouted, "That car's not stopping."
"Run," the man said.
The two tried to dash to safety, but the vehicle struck Khali on her left side.
And when police arrived, the man directed them to where Khali had landed.
The 17-year-old driver of the car that police say struck her was charged with operating under the influence causing serious bodily injury. Another teen also was in the car.
Due to the driver's age, information about the disposition of his case is confidential, and the Berkshire District Attorney's Office declined to release information.
Ali Zabian asked that the man who helped Khali not be identified, noting that he has suffered lasting distress from the incident.
Family and doctors say that every person who helped that night made a difference. Time was crucial to stop the bleeding and swelling in Khali's brain.
"He saved time because he was there," Lisa Zabian said of the man who stopped. Without him, Khali would have died, the family believes.
And Dr. Emrich said that, had he not been available to perform the eight-hour surgery at BMC, she would not have survived an airlift to a larger hospital.
"Sometimes, minutes matter," he said. "That injury by itself, or if not worse, it would have put her in a coma or in a nursing facility for the rest of her life."
After the first surgery, she spent three weeks at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, mostly in a coma.
Lisa Zabian, Michael and sometimes Khali's sister, Sina, who left college to be with her, stayed at an inn across the street. Khali almost never was left alone.
And every night in the trauma unit waiting room the family would pray with victims of gang shootings and motorcycle accidents, and share food brought by friends.
Lisa Zabian's sister also kept the family going in every way as they dodged multiple crises, some requiring additional brain surgeries, while Ali Zabian continued to run the family's haberdashery on Main Street.
In September, Khali emerged from a coma and spent four months at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston. Her mother prayed for a unit at the Ronald McDonald House next door, and got it. She and Michael moved in, their bedroom windows facing Khali's.
In between more surgeries, more trials, Michael and the family would spend every possible moment in the bed with Khali and just hold her, kiss her and love her.
Her heart knew
Michael was 19, about to begin his sophomore year at Embry-Riddle, and in love for the first time when he got the call that his beloved had suffered a devastating injury.
When he got the news of her accident, he said, he alternated between weeping and shock.
"It was heartbreaking," he said.
But, he knew he would be coming straight to her, which meant being enveloped into the Zabian family. He left college and has spent nearly every moment for the past year with Lisa. And when Khali came home in January, so did Michael, moving into the family's small home on Pleasant Street where faith and prayer are central and which also includes Khali's two sisters, a foster sister and a cousin.
Michael is quiet, intense. In the kitchen, he and Khali gaze at each other as if they just had begun their romance.
One gift of the memory loss is a purity, Lisa says. Khali knows no sadness, nothing about the world other than love, even when her father provokes her a little to strengthen her and normalize life.
"He makes jokes to make sure I defend myself," Khali said, noting that there rarely is friction with the people around her.
Michael can get Khali to do things she otherwise might resist. He lifts her into the saddle for equine therapy at Blue Rider Stables, though this therapy is her most challenging. But, she is regaining her strength and body alignment through riding around the barn with support.
Michael always is with her.
Of their relationship at its inception, Lisa said she never had seen her daughter stir that way. At Lee High, Khali always had been a driven, humble girl who wouldn't even tell her parents about school awards, and who would play down good grades to peers.
Boys were of no interest.
Then Michael arrived. The son of a neonatal intensive care nurse with three sisters of his own, including a twin, shrugs when one tries to pry into his devotion.
Later, out of his presence, Lisa said she understands.
"He's quiet, intelligent, moral, humble," she said "He thought, `This is my girlfriend; I'm gonna get her back.' "
Lisa said he left once in an attempt to return to school, and came back the next day.
"I think a lot of why she wants to get better is for him," Lisa said. "That's the force."
And when Khali saw him for the first time after the accident, she could feel who he was.
"My heart knew," she said, glancing at him. "The first time I saw him, I knew."
These kinds of memories also are the source of jokes: Khali earlier had remembered Michael, but not her dad. Once or twice she did not recall her mother, who pretends to be offended. They laugh.
'Khali teaches me'
"Just having your boyfriend by your side brings a huge healing," said Antoine Alston, a movement specialist, trainer and healer known for his skill in transforming broken bodies.
He has been working with Khali for three months in Great Barrington. During this time, Khali was able to walk without the brace on her left leg, and began standing in the kitchen to cook.
"I'm planning a whole dinner," Khali said.
"And that's the execution function they told us she would never have," she said.
Alston is touching Khali's back and shoulder as she sits in her wheelchair, asking her to move an arm, a leg, her head, and breathe while holding different positions to bring the body back to symmetry.
"Khali was hit out of alignment," he said. Her right side is now dominant because the right-brain injury paralyzed the foot and ankle on the left, and her left arm also was broken. But, she now is moving that left side.
Those who come into contact with Khali say it is she who transforms.
"Khali teaches me perseverance, humility and increases my faith," Alston said after the four pray together at the end of the session. "Without faith, there's no way to walk back from this."
Lisa has known Alston for years, but it was a prayer for additional help that was answered with "Antoine."
"I was so nervous to get this call," he said. "I knew it would be real. And I've grown and healed from it."
Anchored by faith
The Zabian dogs, Honey Bear and Hudson, are lounging in the living room.
"Hudson's always been my favorite," Khali said of the yellow Lab.
It's an orderly household, which friends swooped into last year and renovated to suit Khali's needs. It was just one way the community poured support into this family.
The family's faith is an anchor for them, and for others. Ali reads Christian inspirationals aloud at the kitchen table every morning, and evening prayer begins at 9. Sunday church services are on Zoom.
"God is really using her to touch other people," said Lisa, who, on Facebook, continues to document Khali's progress to a hungry audience.
Privately, Lisa says an earlier crisis with cancer had prepared her "for anything."
But, the accident was a mother's worst nightmare. When she and Ali were brought into the emergency room "to say goodbye" to their daughter, Lisa said, all she wanted was for her to survive.
After that first surgery, Dr. Emrich told her and Ali, "I don't think we've got much here, but she's alive."
"What if she had died?" Lisa said, noting all the older mothers whose children had died and told her how lucky she was. "Instead, we have hope and we have joy. You can only feel joy during a tragedy if you're walking with God."
Khali sang at church several weeks ago, and she is thinking about what she'll sing next.
"I want to sing `I'm Alive,' " she said of a Christian song. "It's the song I relate to the most."
Heather Bellow can be reached at email@example.com or onTwitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.
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