PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Cayla Wilson died with her parents by her side, her mother holding one hand, her father holding the other. Two tears rolled down the 27-year-old woman’s face as she took her last breath, her mother said.
She was at OHSU, the same hospital where Denise and Bill Wilson had rushed almost eight years earlier on April 15, 2010.
They had just learned that a driver high on methamphetamine had veered into oncoming traffic and slammed his Jeep head-on into their daughter’s Buick.
Cayla, then 19, had been on her way to an interview for a job cleaning houses and was five months pregnant. Doctors said she would remain in a permanent vegetative state. Her baby was delivered by emergency C-Section five weeks later.
Most Read Nation & World Stories
- Trump leads aggressive, all-out GOP drive to save Kavanaugh WATCH
- Coddling parents of Chinese college students stay close by in ‘tents of love’
- Kavanaugh’s yearbook page is ‘horrible, hurtful’ to a woman it named
- Rosenstein still has his job _ at least till Trump showdown
- Debunking 5 viral rumors about Christine Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh’s accuser
The intervening years nearly crushed the family under the weight of grief, exhaustion and financial strife, but their story is one of resilience, love and compassion. Their daughter’s funeral was Saturday in southeast Portland.
“It was all about making sure Cayla had the best care,” Bill Wilson said.
“Everything revolved around Cayla,” Denise Wilson said.
The case drew public outrage after the man who hit Cayla Wilson showed no remorse, shouted expletives at his sentencing hearing and complained about not getting to smoke cigarettes in jail.
Cayla and her daughter got a $9.3 million settlement from the city of Portland and Clackamas County after authorities failed to take him off the streets for driving with a suspended license. At the time, it was believed to be the largest government settlement for a personal injury case in Oregon.
The Wilsons cared for their daughter at home in Gresham for all but her first two years in the hospital and a rehabilitation center. Bill Wilson quit work to help his wife look after their daughter. They went on welfare, lost their home in Gresham through foreclosure and nearly ended up divorced.
But they ultimately got back together, and they said, are now stronger than ever.
They’re raising Cayla’s daughter, JaiKyla, now 7 years old. Her premature birth caused mild cerebral palsy, but she’s thriving as a healthy and inquisitive second-grader, court records show.
“Their strength as a family and as a couple has been one of the most inspirational stories in my career as a prosecutor,” said Chuck Sparks, the Multnomah County chief deputy district attorney who prosecuted the driver who struck Cayla.
Denise, 49, and Bill, 52, Wilson refused to believe Cayla’s brain damage was as extensive as doctors said.
They saw Cayla behind her blank eyes. She made noises in an effort to communicate, they said. Twice, they’re sure she said, “Mom.”
They said Cayla worked out a system of closing her eyes for a moment to answer “yes” to questions.
“We have pictures of her smiling at her daughter,” Denise Wilson said. “She would light up at certain people.”
While JaiKyla played with dolls next to her mother’s bed, “Cayla would look at her the whole time,” Denise Wilson said. “I definitely believe a mother-daughter bond was there.”
Around-the-clock care for Cayla meant administering medications, changing her undergarments, feeding her five times a day through a tube and turning her every two hours to ward off bedsores.
When sleep deprivation took its toll, Denise and Bill Wilson called on a close-knit group of others —Cayla’s older sister, other relatives and friends — to help by taking some of the shifts.
Jack Dean Whiteaker, the 52-year-old driver who struck Cayla, was found guilty of second-degree assault and driving with methamphetamine in his system. He was sentenced in 2012 to 11 years in prison.
In a recorded phone call from jail to his mother, Whiteaker complained about missing out on cigarettes and women while behind bars and said he hoped Cayla would remain in a coma for the rest of her life.
With Cayla’s death, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office is considering whether to prosecute Whiteaker for homicide. He could face years more prison time with a manslaughter conviction.
Denise and Bill support pursuing the charge against Whiteaker, hoping that it might keep him off the streets for the rest of his life. Whiteaker’s criminal history goes back 35 years and includes drug possession and reckless driving.
“God wants us to forgive, but the way this man came into the courtroom and the way he was speaking, how can we forgive?” Bill Wilson said.
A month after Whiteaker’s sentencing, the couple filed suit on behalf of their daughter and granddaughter against Clackamas County for failing to revoke Whiteaker’s probation for heroin possession. He had skipped scheduled visits to the probation office, ditched drug treatment and lied about his employment.
The lawsuit also faulted the city of Portland after one of its police officers twice responded to 911 calls from people about Whiteaker hours before he struck Cayla Wilson. The officer didn’t arrest Whiteaker even though he was acting erratically, scaring customers at a Southeast Portland Blockbuster video store, running through strangers’ yards and staring into a woman’s window. Whiteaker also had driven to the area with a suspended license.
After attorney fees, medical bills and other expenses, $4.6 million was transferred into a fund for Cayla and JaiKyla Wilson. None of the money went to Denise and Bill Wilson, except for a $1,000 per month stipend for their costs in caring for the two as their guardians, according to court records.
Years of caring for Cayla and earning little or no income caught up with the Wilsons. The conservatorship didn’t help with house payments, they said. In 2015, they lost their home in foreclosure, according to court records.
They moved into a rental house, paid for by the settlement money after a conservator approved the expense, so Cayla and JaiKyla could have a home, the Wilsons said.
The emotional and financial strains were too much. Denise and Bill Wilson separated for more than a year, with Denise moving out of the family home. The court appointed an attorney to act as Cayla and JaiKyla’s guardian.
“We were arguing and fighting,” Denise Wilson said. “We’re not perfect. We make mistakes. We went through a lot of grief. But we found our way back to each other. It took some time.”
“It became such a struggle,” Bill Wilson said. “She felt like it was all on her. Because I’d just take off, because of my depression.”
Last summer, Denise Wilson moved back home.
“I said, ‘Look, if you want to be a part of our lives, you’ve got to move back,'” Bill Wilson said. “It was just meant to be.”
In January, they celebrated their 31st wedding anniversary.
That same month, Cayla and JaiKyla Wilson’s court-appointed guardian reported that the two have received excellent care in the Wilsons’ home. She believes the Wilsons can work through their issues to become guardians again.
Then in February, Cayla Wilson developed an infection. She suffered seizures. Surgeons removed extra fluid that had accumulated in her skull.
Weeks later, they told her parents that she had suffered major bleeding around the brain and would soon die.
Five days later at 2 a.m. March 30, she did.
Bill Wilson thinks his daughter had had enough.
“She seemed exhausted,” he said. “I think she was just like, ‘Guys, I’m tired.'”
Her immediate and extended family got to say their goodbyes.
Denise and Bill Wilson said they plan to focus on their son, now 19. He was 11 at the time of the crash.
Bill told him they’ll go fishing, camping and take trips — things they couldn’t do before because they worried about leaving Cayla.
“I said, ‘Son, let’s venture on another journey,'” Bill Wilson said. “Cayla will always be with us.”
Denise Wilson said they also will continue to dote over JaiKyla.
“She is a firecracker,” Denise said. “She makes life so much better for us. Our daughter left us a gift, and that’s JaiKyla.”
Information from: The Oregonian/OregonLive, http://www.oregonlive.com