Taylor Norcross was asleep in the passenger seat when her fiance’s car slammed into a moose on the Maine Turnpike in Gray on the night of Nov. 4.

She doesn’t remember how the 1,000-pound animal went over the top of the Infiniti sedan, ripping the roof off and hitting her head.

It would be two weeks before she surfaced from a medically induced coma at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, where doctors and her fiance, Frank Gatto, braced themselves for the worst.

A severe brain injury could leave her with a permanent disability, unable to live a normal life and, at the age of 27, facing decades in a nursing home being tended to by others.

But Norcross amazed everyone when she began writing, talking and walking shortly after regaining consciousness.

The Auburn woman had already beaten the odds and was well on her way to recovery.

When visited by a reporter at the hospital in December, Norcross was subdued, uncommunicative and often confused.

“My memory sucks. Sorry,” she would often say, struggling to remember events from her life or who had visited her in the hospital that day. A journal entry she had written was filled with non sequiturs and lapses in logic.

At her mother’s home in York County last week, she was an energized woman, waving her hands – fingernails painted purple – while she talked in animated, excited tones about her future, her hazel, almond-shaped eyes bright and inquisitive.

“I definitely feel more like myself,” Norcross said. “I’ve been telling my friends, ‘Taylor is back.’ ”

Striking a moose at high speed on a dark Maine highway is every driver’s nightmare. Records compiled by the Maine Department of Transportation show that 327 car-moose collisions occurred in the year that ended last Sept. 1. Fifty-five of those accidents resulted in human injuries, including one fatality.

Norcross could have been another, as doctors determined that when the moose peeled the car open like a tin can, it likely hit the left frontal lobe of her brain.

Dr. David Burke, one of the Central Maine Medical Center doctors who treated her, compared the brain to Jell-O in a shoe box. The impact was like someone had violently shaken the box.

After the collision, Gatto, who emerged unscathed, called Norcross’ name and when she didn’t respond, called 911. Within minutes, emergency crews arrived, and she was rushed by ambulance to the hospital.

Norcross’ relatively quick road to recovery began when she was wheeled into the CMMC emergency room, where a team of dozens of medical professionals began working on her.

EXTREMELY CRITICAL CONDITION

“When she got here, we evaluated her brain function based on the Glasgow Coma Scale, which goes from 3 to 15, with a score of 3 being functionally brain-dead,” Burke said. “She was a 4.”

The medical term for Norcross’ injury was a diffuse axonal injury caused by blunt force trauma.

In non-medical terms, she was in critical condition and in danger of dying.

Taylor Norcross with her fiance, Frank Gatto, last week in York. Norcross left New England Rehabilitation Hospital of Portland after the holidays, and she says her memory and ability to do menial tasks have improved. Her survival after a near-death accident also has her thinking about college and a career. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Taylor Norcross with her fiance, Frank Gatto, last week in York. Norcross left New England Rehabilitation Hospital of Portland after the holidays, and she says her memory and ability to do menial tasks have improved. Her survival after a near-death accident also has her thinking about college and a career.
Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

It would have been a staggeringly short life for Norcross, who enjoys snowboarding, surfing, water-skiing, horror novels and dressing like a zombie bride for Halloween.

She has the word “princess” tattooed on her knuckles, one letter on each knuckle, and she sports several other tattoos. She liked to party, held menial jobs through her 20s, and has a 7-year-old daughter from a previous relationship who lives with her father in New Hampshire.

Doctors worked overtime to stabilize her brain, which is crucial to give the brain the best chance to heal on its own.

That included putting her in a medically induced coma, removing fluid from the brain to reduce swelling and pressure, giving her medication to control seizures and pain, and keeping the correct amount of oxygen flowing to the brain.

“We’re doing all these things to give the brain a chance to rest,” Burke said. “We can’t fix what’s already damaged. Now all we can do is stop a secondary injury and do everything we can to preserve the good brain that’s left for the best chance of recovery.”

Burke compared the brain to a circuit board for a television set. If a few of the wires are severed, the television may not work. But unlike a television, the brain has a capacity to heal on its own.

At first, signs were not encouraging.

“If you yelled ‘Taylor!’ she might open her eyes, but she wouldn’t look at you,” Burke said.

About 10 days after her injury, doctors told the family to be prepared for a lifetime of struggles.

“She had potentially a terrible prognosis, to be in a vegetative state, unable to interact with other people,” Burke said.

Page Masse-Brown, her biological mother who stayed with her during her recovery at the hospital, said they were bracing for the worst.

“When they told us she could be in a vegetative state for the rest of her life, we all had to collect ourselves,” Masse-Brown said. They had a rule that only “positive energy” was allowed in Norcross’ hospital room. If they started to despair, they had to go for a walk or grab a cup of coffee.

Then, on Nov. 18, she awoke from her coma, looking around, smiling and gesturing toward the nurses. She puckered her lips to give Gatto a kiss.

A few days after that, she started whispering words, and then one day in early December, she shocked visiting family and friends.

“It was very dramatic,” Gatto said. “It was like someone had flipped a switch. She pulled her tracheotomy out and was very confused and agitated. She started saying, ‘Where am I? What happened?’ ”

Ever since then, Norcross’ improvement has been quick and dramatic.

“She has made unbelievably large cognitive advances,” Burke said.

Doctors and therapists say her recovery is probably in the top 5 percent for all such injuries, although because not much is known about how the brain heals from injuries, it’s difficult to predict how someone might recover.

“She has a great chance for an extremely good recovery. We couldn’t have said that when she was first here. We are all so very happy for Taylor,” Burke said. “This is why we do what we do. Outcomes like Taylor’s are what we live for.”

PUTTING BRAIN TO WORK

Once she was discharged from CMMC in mid-December, for two weeks she was an inpatient at New England Rehabilitation Hospital of Portland. She performed so well that she left the rehab hospital after the holidays.

Since then, Norcross has been living with her brother in Kittery, her biological grandmother and adoptive mom, Deborah Norcross, and with Gatto.

Norcross said her long-term memory has improved, although she can’t remember the autumn months leading up to the accident, but she can remember the summertime and the events of her life before that.

Thomas McOsker, a therapist at New England Rehab, gave her some memory and rhythm tests on the computer when a reporter visited her in December. She also would write down the events of her life, write about the accident and keep journal entries of what she did every day. They also played cards and McOsker would ask her to remember the cards in the discard pile. The tasks worked on her short-term memory and abilities to focus and multi-task.

“Every single day I see improvements in her,” Deborah Norcross said. “She is so very stubborn and determined.”

Taylor Norcross will continue outpatient therapy this month at River Ridge in York County.

The car driven by Frank Gatto had its roof sheared off when it hit a moose on the Maine Turnpike in Gray in November. Courtesy of Frank Gatto

The car driven by Frank Gatto had its roof sheared off when it hit a moose on the Maine Turnpike in Gray in November.
Courtesy of Frank Gatto

Norcross said she can now remember things that happened during the day, and can do menial tasks without any problems.

“I washed the dishes the other day, and I did a great job,” she said, laughing. “I didn’t drop a single dish.”

Norcross said she realizes she’s been given a second chance at life, and she wants to make the most of it.

A voracious reader, she has always loved writing and wants to write a book. She said she’s also contemplating going back to school to obtain a degree and pursue a career, although she’s not sure yet what she will study.

“I survived this accident when maybe I shouldn’t have,” Norcross said. “I feel like, ‘Wow!’ I really have to do something great with my life now.”