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Texas woman escapes coma, slowly regains control of her life

FORT WORTH — Jennifer Nikirk was six months pregnant and on her way home from her teaching job in Bridgeport when the wreck happened.

She remembers none of it, or the months that followed.

But her parents and sister will never forget: The trauma doctors. The three-month coma. The waiting and praying.

On April 25, 2008, Nikirk, then 34, gave birth to her son, Dylan. Less than a week later, the single mother began to emerge from her coma.

"She didn't know what planet she was on," recalled her father, Don Nikirk. "She thought she was 13 years old and didn't know she had had a baby. She didn't remember she was pregnant or know anything about the accident. It was obvious she couldn't conduct her affairs."

Don Nikirk and his wife, Phyllis, had been trying in vain to handle their daughter's personal, medical and financial business since her wreck on Jan. 29, 2008. But because they hadn't been given power of attorney or been appointed her guardian, their hands were tied, even though she suffered a severe brain injury and was incapacitated.

Seeing no other option, Don Nikirk contacted an attorney to work toward being appointed her guardian, a process he quickly discovered was serious and complicated.

"Guardianship is the last resort," said attorney Jeff Arnier, who is the court investigator in Tarrant County Probate Court No. 2. "It is the most restrictive thing. You are going to strip away their civil rights. And you become married to the court."

On May 16, 2008, Probate Judge Pat Ferchill appointed Don Nikirk as his daughter's guardian, giving him full authority over her estate and person.

After the hearing, Ferchill's staff gave Don Nikirk an orientation and handbook on guardianship, outlining what was expected of him. Among other things, he was required to file an annual report, document every penny he spent of his daughter's money and be subjected to court oversight.

"The court clerk handed me this three-ring binder chock-full of information, and I looked at it and thought, 'Good God, what have I gotten into?'" Don Nikirk said. "Then it dawned on me what was going on. I didn't realize it put the person under the protection of the state."

On Oct. 31, 2008 -- after spending months in a hospital, rehabilitation clinic and group home -- Jennifer Nikirk moved into her parents' house near Saginaw. For the next 11/2 years, Don Nikirk and his wife cared for their daughter and her infant son.

It was expensive, time-consuming and exhausting.

"There is a significant emotional and financial burden that goes along with it," Don Nikirk said. "The little money she gets for Social Security doesn't begin to cover her living expenses or to take care of that little boy. But the guardianship helped protect her. There is just no other way. We couldn't have managed without it."

Over time, Don Nikirk said, his daughter started walking again and helping care for Dylan. Before long, she was enrolled in parenting, speech and painting classes, as well as exercising at the YMCA. Eventually, Don Nikirk said, she started expressing an interest in driving and dating again.

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