Eighteen months ago Robin Abel planned her daughter's funeral. Today the Renton woman is helping that same daughter, Maria Federici, regain...

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Eighteen months ago Robin Abel planned her daughter’s funeral. Today the Renton woman is helping that same daughter, Maria Federici, regain her life.

The two have celebrated little things since a horrific accident crushed every bone in Federici’s face 1 ½ years ago. Little things such as relearning how to swallow, talk and walk that together add up to a continuing recovery that has far exceeded what doctors initially predicted.

This week Federici and her mother are celebrating a major milestone. “Maria’s Bill” became law Sunday. It increases penalties for failure to secure a vehicle load on a public highway and makes it a criminal misdemeanor if someone is substantially injured by an unsecured load.

That’s how Federici nearly died.

On Feb. 22, 2004, she left work in Seattle and drove toward her Renton apartment. Just ahead of her on I-405, an entertainment center fell off an open trailer. A plank bounced and crashed through Federici’s windshield.

Abel remembers the phone call, a voice on the other end saying her daughter had been critically injured.

“Maria’s Law”

“Maria’s Law” increases penalties for failure to secure a vehicle load on a public highway. It is a misdemeanor and considered criminal negligence if all or part of the load shifts or falls and causes substantial bodily harm to another. Conviction could mean one year in jail and $5,000 in fines.

At Harborview Medical Center, the staff told her it looked hopeless. Abel signed organ-donor papers, went home and prayed. Four hours later a nurse saw Federici move. Abel returned to Harborview and began a bedside vigil.

Months of slow recovery followed.

First came a surgery to stabilize Federici. Then, during a separate 15-hour operation, doctors used titanium plates and bone from Federici’s hip to reform her face. Two more surgeries were to follow.

Federici, whose determined independence had her working at 15, was suddenly unable to feed herself or move around unaided.

“What happened to Maria is devastating,” said Dr. Joseph Gruss, a cranial-facial surgeon who assisted in the surgeries. “She went from being an attractive young woman to being blind with terrible facial injuries.”

Abel took a leave and then resigned from her job so she could care for her daughter. She has gone through most of her savings and is selling her possessions to cover their living expenses.

Being home isn’t a sit-down job. In addition to nursing and helping Federici retrain her body, Abel helped get “Maria’s Bill” passed in the Legislature. She called and wrote letters to legislators and traveled to Olympia to give a speech to House members. She’s cried and argued with doctors about Federici’s care, never satisfied with the status quo. She negotiated the bureaucratic red tape to get disability payments for her daughter.

“It’s what a mom does,” Abel said. “I had to be there for her. From the time I went back to the hospital, it has been a leap of faith. I’ve been the one believing Maria will get well.”

At first doctors said Federici might never talk, see or hear again. She started talking soon after that. Her hearing is perfect. Three months after the accident, Abel was told Federici might always need a feeding tube and should go to a nursing home. Instead Abel brought her once-independent daughter home and began encouraging her to eat, even though she still can’t fully open her mouth.

“I believed if you made her hungry enough, she would eat. It worked. We started with smoothies and pureed foods,” Abel said.

During the most recent surgery, Dec. 23, doctors repaired an atrophied lip, removed scar tissue on her throat and cheek and gave Federici a new nose. Her first steel-and-bone replacement nose kept breaking off and was painful.

“I’ve been real squeamish all my life, but you overcome your own fear and nausea,” Abel said. “This is my daughter. As a mom, you can’t afford limitations.”

Abel, who divorced Federici’s father a number of years ago, shared the nursing duties with pros, friends and family members. She’s proud that a private nursing supervisor once complimented her, saying she has earned a nursing degree by experience.

These days Federici walks around the house and yard. She has resumed a social life. She believes she can see gray and black forms in her remaining left eye. Her right eye was pulverized in the accident. She’s becoming more active and more aware, asking more questions about what happened. Her once daily headaches have lessened.

“I used to take six pills a few times a day,” Federici said. “Now I’m down to one nerve medication. Everything has gotten better.”

She dresses herself and does her own hair and makeup. She’s learned to use a computer for sight-impaired people, and she’s learning to operate a Palm Pilot. Although she can’t see her creations, she’s developing an artistic streak, using beads to make jewelry. This week she and an aunt went shopping.

“We call it retail therapy,” Federici said.

These days Abel wavers between delight at seeing how Federici’s independent spirit still soars and worry about her daughter’s future because of the impaired sight and short-term memory problems.

“As her mother, I believe Maria’s going to recover fully from the brain injuries,” Abel said. “She’s come so far and she’s such a fighter.”

Federici worked fast food and then retail to pay her way through college and buy her own car. She majored in speech communications at the University of Washington, graduating just a few months before she was injured.

“I don’t call it an accident,” Federici said. “It was an incident caused by an idiot. I don’t remember it. My memory was wiped out from Christmas [2003] to the end of May [2004].”

She has shelved her dream of going to graduate school and becoming a teacher or restaurant manager. Right now she’s focusing on becoming independent again and moving out on her own.

“I’ve got to move forward,” Federici said. “You can’t rely on other people. I just want to be normal, to not have people recognize me in the grocery store or mall.”

Federici is still angry that the driver in front of her didn’t secure the load of household goods in the trailer. He did not have insurance or a valid driver’s license.

Abel understands that anger and still fumes because, she feels, the driver never accepted responsibility and never apologized. She sat in court when he was fined less than $1,000 for the accident, which has already cost more than $1 million in medical bills. Medicaid and Social Security disability benefits cover most of the bills.

Federici, who was working as a bartender, had no health insurance. Some medical professionals, such as her longtime dentist and several doctors, have donated their labor and expertise. Fund-raisers and donations brought in more than $100,000 and helped pay a portion of the bills that Abel and Federici faced.

“That’s one reason why we wanted Maria’s bill made into law,” Abel said. “If it had been a criminal act, Maria could have applied for criminal victim compensation.”

Abel, who is about to return to work, credits King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng for getting “Maria’s Law” enacted. He spearheaded the project and helped Abel find bill sponsors.

But it was Federici who stood beside Gov. Christine Gregoire when the bill was signed into law May 13.

Abel watched proudly. She plans to lobby Congress to make it a national law.

“I want anyone loading something in a truck, in a car or in a trailer to secure it. Secure it like everyone you love is driving the car right behind you,” she said.

Sherry Grindeland: 206-515-5633 or sgrindeland@seattletimes.com