An accident took much from Lilly Barnett. But her determination, and the support of family and friends, have given this young girl hope.

By Jessica Gordon  |  Photograph by Carolyn Watson
From the May 2015 issue

Kid-LillyBarnett Profile in Courage (and Love) - Delaware Beach LifeOnce you hear Lilly Barnett’s story, chances are you will never forget it. It has elements of both fairy tales and nightmares, and at its core, it’s a testament to the strength and resilience of the human spirit and the power of love.

A tragic accident that claimed one life and altered countless others is neither the beginning nor end of Lilly’s story. But it does divide her life — and the lives of her mom Kelly, dad Bryan and younger sister Summer — into two very different chapters: before July 26, 2011, and after. 

It was a warm Tuesday night when Bryan Barnett kissed then 9-year-old Lilly goodbye as she headed out for dinner with her grandmother. “I told her I loved her and watched her be-bop out of here,” he recalls. “Four hours later, I was in a helicopter.”

The helicopter was carrying Lilly to Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Children’s Hospital (often referred to as A.I.) in Wilmington. She was unresponsive and clinging to life after a motorcycle traveling more than 120 mph slammed into the side of Lilly’s grandmother’s Lexus sedan as she crossed Route 1 near Milford. The motorcyclist died at the scene. Lilly’s grandmother suffered minor injuries, but the young girl in the back seat on the passenger side took almost the entire force of the collision. She suffered extensive injuries, from broken ribs and collapsed lungs to a bruised liver.

The most serious harm, however, was to her brain. She had suffered a severe traumatic diffuse axonal injury (DAI), which is a major cause of persistent vegetative state following head trauma. 

“It’s basically shaken-baby syndrome in an older child,” explains Bryan. Based on what they saw at the time, doctors at A.I. told Bryan and Kelly that their daughter, in all likelihood, would need to be fed through a tube and breathe with the help of a ventilator for the rest of her life.

“It was a very overwhelming, helpless scenario,” says Bryan, remembering that even though he was surrounded by family at the time, he had never felt so isolated. “It was the loneliest part of my life because I love Kelly deeply and there was nothing I could do for her. Even though we were together, there was nothing I could do to assuage what she was feeling.” 

Weeks and months of heartache and dealing with the shock of such a sudden, life-altering event followed. Many of the Barnetts’ questions about their daughter’s future were unanswerable. 

But Lilly fought back, defied the odds, regained consciousness and made amazing progress during her time at A.I. When she finally came home in December 2011, nearly five months after the accident, the Barnetts remained committed to doing whatever they could to aid her recovery. 

That included trying to improve her strength, so they got in touch with Sasha Westray, owner of The SW Studio in Lewes, to help with increasing Lilly’s core strength and balance. Lilly enjoyed spending time with Westray, and the Barnetts felt it was beneficial, so they sought more strength training for her. “That’s when we called Paul,” says Kelly. 

Paul Timmons, owner of The Firm Fitness Center near Rehoboth Beach and a friend of the family, was honored they thought of him. However, “my first response was ‘no — this is not what I do. I am not qualified for this,’” he recalls. “But out of respect for Bryan, I agreed to at least chat [with] and meet Lilly.” 

Timmons says it took about 30 seconds of conversation for him to decide he would do what he could to help. It wasn’t long before he hit upon an idea: to introduce her to indoor rowing.

“Rowing requires the coordination of multiple joints in a cohesive manner,” Timmons explains; from a muscular and neurological perspective, he thought it would be a good fit for her rehabilitation.

He was right.

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