About the easiest thing Mindy Keesee knows how to do, is smile.
Thanks to a devastating car wreck 22 years ago, however, even smiling isn't a cinch.
Keesee is the smiling cashier at Brownwood's Goodwill Industries, the greeter, the lady who, if she's not behind the counter when regular customers come in, they fear something is wrong.
“Yes,” Keesee said, smiling, “I was one of the first employees this Goodwill store hired when it opened. No one's been here as long as I have.”
Keesee doesn't remember the near fatal car wreck she had at Wingate in 1990, when she was headed back to Texas Tech for the second semester of her sophomore year. She's been told the story enough that she can repeat it.
Three people were in the other car, and one of those three died. Keesee's car flipped, and when investigators arrived, they found her hanging upside down, suspended by her seatbelt. Her jaw was badly broken, but she's been told she must have been conscious because she responded to questions by answering “uh-huh” (affirmative) and “unh-uh” (negative).
Keesee's understanding is that for years that traffic intersection at Wingate had been a problem, and lots of accidents happened there. After her accident, a blinking light was installed at the intersection.
She was taken by ambulance to an Abilene hospital and from there air-lifted to Baylor Institute for Rehabilitation in Dallas.
“I was in a coma for three months,” Keesee explains. “They said I would open my eyes and stare, and go back to sleep, but I don't remember any of that. I don't remember waking up. I really don't remember anything for almost a year leading up to the accident. I've just pieced it all together from what I've been told.”
Keesee's jaw had been wired shut for so long, she not only had to relearn how to talk, she had to relearn how to make noise. In fact, she had to learn to do again just about everything she had ever known – except smile.
She never forgot how to smile.
“I've always been a positive, happy person, and that didn't change,” Keesee said.
Almost a year of therapy followed Keesee's waking up, and though she doesn't remember the therapy clearly, she remembers she “had fun, but it was like a school.”
And Keesee had much to overcome. She had a brain injury which affected her balance and cost her the vision in her right eye (the pupil never dilates). There were other broken bones besides her jaw.
Keesee points out that she's had two or three surgeries on nine of her 10 toes, and now they're so afflicted with arthritis, she can predict the weather changes better than a pro.
There's an indention at the base of her throat, a scar from the breathing tube. Keesee said she struggles because of short-term memory problems, and her body thermometer is sort of out-of-whack.
“If I get too hot … look out,” she said, but she was smiling when she said it.
Keesee had been an A+ student at Brownwood High. Her dream was to be a doctor and she was in pre-med in Tech when she had the accident.
Keesee does warn in all seriousness, “Brain injuries are no fun. I would hope everyone would think and watch out when they're driving. Things can happen in an instant.”
Keesee is a member at Coggin Avenue Baptist Church and sings in the choir there. She's learned to be independent and is proud of that. She's even started to drive again and is licensed to drive in Brown County.
Her brother, Carl Keesee, a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper, rode with Keesee until she was ready to test, and being able to drive really boosted her ability to be independent, she said.
““I was going to be a doctor, but right now I just hope I'm helping people,” she said. “As a cashier, I work with a number of people and I always try to be happy and friendly. Hopefully, in that way, I witness to people.”
But Keesee confesses one of her discoveries.
“When you've been physically injured – big time – anger makes it worse. It was like I was reborn. I have a good attitude in life because I'm alive and I praise God for that.
“I believe I must be here for a reason, and I don't want to mess it up.”