Is she dead?
It’s the question Kyle Zittel asked himself as he bolted down a Calder Commons stairwell on Oct. 13. He thought for sure that Paige Raque, his girlfriend who had just fallen five stories from a window, lay lifeless on the ground below.
Parker Raque, Paige’s older brother, asked himself the same question as he sprinted to the scene of the accident. Parker had been at a get-together with his gymnastics team on Keller Street — just a few blocks away — when one of Paige’s friends called him with the news. When he arrived, an ambulance had already whisked his sister away.
An hour-and-a-half later, at about 1 a.m., Parker and Kyle waited together in Altoona Regional Hospital. Parker, a senior, was recruited to compete on the Penn State gymnastics team, which he now captains. Paige, a sophomore, was a cheerleader, but that’s not why she came to Happy Valley.
“When we’re together, we do everything together,” Parker said. “She came to Penn State because I was here. No one can replace who she is in my life.”
Through her family, Paige declined to comment for this story.
While Kyle’s bond with Paige isn’t as longstanding as Parker’s, it’s just as strong. He remembers vividly how they met: in their first class, freshman year, on a Tuesday. Kyle, a sophomore on the lacrosse team, sat with Paige for the rest of the semester.
“It was kind of a cliché meeting,” Kyle said.
Their meeting at the hospital was the furthest thing from cliché. The doctor wheeled Paige out on a bed after multiple CAT scans and X-rays. Her eyes were closed, and blood still marked her face.
Paige was alive when Kyle reached her outside Calder Commons, but she was facedown, “like on CSI where their arms are out,” he said. Paige was alive when Kyle and Parker first saw her at the hospital.
Paige, the doctor said, should be dead.
Responding and responses
Kyle remained outside Calder Commons after the ambulance had taken Paige away. He cried hard after that, drowning in his own self-blame.
“ ‘How could I let this happen?’ ” Parker remembers the 6-foot lacrosse player saying.
Paige and Kyle had separated at the party, but he remembers a scream that brought him to the window. Below, his girlfriend lay alone and unmoving. The sight so overwhelmed his senses that the five-story descent of Calder felt like just five seconds. Kyle’s brain overflowed with questions — “What am I going to do? What’s going to happen here?” — that could only be answered by reaching Paige.
One of the first on the scene, Kyle assessed the damage. There appeared to be no major blood loss or protruding bones. And Paige was moaning. One of the paramedics asked her where she was, and Paige said, “I’m right here.” All good signs.
But the diagnosis wasn’t nearly as positive. Paige had a broken pelvis and swelling on her brain. Doctors medically induced Paige into a coma, but they could not bring her out the next day.
Kyle rarely left Paige’s side. His parents checked into a hotel near the hospital, where Kyle would go not to sleep, but to “pass out,” he said.
“I think he was a little bit fragile at first,” his mom, Terry, added. “But I think he was really as strong as he can be. He took about eight days off from school and lacrosse just to be there with her.”
Paige’s uncertain future was what scared Kyle the most. He desperately willed her to wake up. When that didn’t work, he tried to draw the subtlest of a response. After several days, the best Kyle had earned was a blank stare. Paige wasn’t behind her eyes when she first opened them. Still, Kyle said he felt most comfortable talking to Paige alone in her room.
It may have helped that Paige’s mother, Robyn, and the nurses kept her appearance fresh in spite of her comatose state. She looked like “the same old Paige” to Kyle — a phrase both he and Parker said when reflecting on the ordeal. But at the time, they both knew “the same old Paige” floated lost in her own damaged brain.
“It wasn’t extremely difficult to see her in the setting of the hospital,” Kyle said. “But it was difficult seeing my girlfriend, who I love so much, with tubes down her throat and all sorts of IVs.
“But... she looked beautiful.”
The inert body that Parker visited everyday wasn’t Paige. His sister was trapped inside, and he couldn’t get her out. When he tried to grapple with that reality, he wanted to kick a wall.
Gymnastics is a sport that requires a combined serenity of mind and body — arguably more so than any other sport. As the severity of Paige’s injuries gradually took hold of Parker, so did his apathy toward gymnastics. He kept going to practice, but he hardly participated.
At the hospital, Paige’s condition remained critical. Her only movements were uncontrollable spasms through her arms and legs. Two days after the accident, a doctor informed the Raque family that he couldn’t provide a prognosis. Paige could make a full recovery, or she could be a “vegetable” for the rest of her life.
Parker and Paige’s father, Tom Raque, became shrouded in emotional turmoil. Some days, he couldn’t get himself out of bed. It was Parker’s coach, Randy Jepson, who went to the Raques’ rented house in State College, picked Tom up, and took him out to breakfast. Jepson would spend hours talking Tom out of his low spirits.
“I was blaming myself, wondering what I did wrong just from some so many angles,” Tom said. “Letting her go to Penn State. Encouraging her to be a cheerleader. I was blaming myself a lot, and people like Randy were saying, ‘You can’t blame yourself.’ ”
Jepson and his wife, Sue, were among those non-family members who visited the hospital most. The Raques and the Jepsons became close over Randy’s recruitment of Parker and their shared Evangelical Christian faith. They developed a third connection when Paige roomed with the Jepsons’ daughter, Emily, her freshman year.
“[The Raques] were just in a tough situation,” Randy said of Paige’s coma. “They had no one. Their friends, their support system, is nine to 10 hours away in [their hometown of] Louisville. They had no one.”
Jepson served as the Raque family spokesman as news of Paige’s fall reached all corners of the country — and from there, various locations across the world. Her picture was posted on websites, television networks and newspapers. Parker said even a church in the Netherlands had heard about Paige, and members were praying for her.
This outpouring of support for a previously unknown college cheerleader began with Parker. As he rode to the hospital on the night Paige fell, he contacted practically everyone he knew and asked for their prayers. He reached out to his followers on Twitter, spearheading the hashtag #PrayForPaige. Before he understood the reach of his efforts, a photo of Paige was on the homepage of Yahoo! News.
“If it was me, I wouldn’t have gotten that much recognition,” Parker said.
The Raque family leaned heavily on the massive amount of prayers from close friends and complete strangers alike.
“Despite this being a horrible situation, I have to tell you, I felt tremendous peace,” Robyn said. “That God had his hand on this from the beginning. We saw this touch our lives in a spiritual way and with a tremendous ripple effect.”
But for the family’s most deeply rooted emotions, Parker was a “rock,” his mother added. He spent as much time as he could in Altoona with his parents while balancing classes on campus and updating the public on Paige’s condition through social media.
Robyn described herself as “a little bit insulated from what was going on,” so Parker helped to shoulder the cold reality of a situation not even prayers could completely warm. At three weeks, Paige wasn’t dead, but she was certainly still gone. The Raque family was debating whether or not to have the doctors perform a tracheotomy — the procedure would call for a small incision in Paige’s throat, followed by the insertion of an artificial airway into her trachea to help with breathing.
At that point, only the occasional jolt of an arm and a pair of opaque eyes indicated Parker’s sister would return.
“I felt like I had a lot of strength going through the whole situation,” he said. “Paige was in a bad condition for a long time. There was a month that we were sitting there thinking that this could be the most progress she reaches. It was really painful.”
Drawing Paige out
On the scenic drive down Interstate 99, Parker and Kyle found solace in each other.
The pair often carpooled to and from Altoona Regional Hospital as they fulfilled their commitments on campus. Their discussions ranged from the brightest outlooks to the darkest scenarios, but they almost always talked about Paige.
Maybe it helped Parker and Kyle to have these serious conversations because they were, in fact, conversations. The two could only give monologues to Paige in her coma. But even if she couldn’t hear them at the hospital, Parker thought he and Kyle were reaching her.
Twenty-one days into Paige’s coma, Parker and Kyle briefly stepped out of her room as the nurses attended to her. When they returned, she was awake and alert.
“I hurt,” Kyle recalled her saying. “My hips hurt.”
Paige rarely talked again for weeks as her cognitive capabilities returned. She could repeat what people said to her, what she saw on TV, whatever random thoughts popped into her head. Her voice sounded different, too, after she stressed her vocal cords during the fall. Her problem was communicating.
But Paige clutched to consciousness with a silent vigor inspired by Parker and Kyle. Their presence alone was the best way to brighten her day as she remained bed-ridden because of her pelvis. Parker’s jokes never failed to make her laugh. And when Kyle held her hand, she squeezed back.
“Her dad would do things like, ‘Smile if you love Kyle,’ ” Kyle said. “And she would give a smile. Obviously, not the same Paige smile, but it was there for sure.”
Just over a month after she fell 39 feet from a Calder Commons window, Paige returned to Louisville to devote more hours toward therapy than most students devote toward classes, Kyle said. Due to the stressed vocal cords, Paige had to relearn certain aspects of speech in therapy.
Paige also underwent occupational therapy to stimulate parts of her brain so she could reassume the execution of routine tasks.
Finally, she is continuing with intense physical therapy after being stuck in bed for weeks. She also had nerve damage from the accident, so her exercises were often so painful that she barely slept.
But Paige can’t skip therapy like a student can skip class. Every morning, she is back at it without complaint.
“She’s not wallowing in her situation because she knows it could be a lot worse,” Kyle said. “She doesn’t feel sorry for herself.”
Paige plans to return to State College next fall, where she’ll once again live in the town where she nearly lost her life. Her accident also resulted in eight Penn State students being charged with furnishing alcohol to minors. Police have said that Paige herself will not be charged in relation to the incident.
Parker and Kyle are back at their respective sports as well. Kyle has played in all five men’s lacrosse games so far this season, scoring three goals. The men’s gymnastics team competed against Springfield in Rec Hall on Feb. 23, and Parker competed in four events. Paige attended.
But their respective sports became trivial in light of Paige’s trials. At any point, Kyle and Parker could have surrendered to the possibility that Paige would never wake from her coma. As they spoke to her all-but-lifeless body everyday, the two fought her battle for consciousness as much as she did. If they had given up, she might have, too.
“Even before she could understand that we understood, she knew we were there,” Parker said.