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Despite near-fatal accident, Amber Kirby graduates with her class

Amber Kirby

Amber Kirby (’10) doesn’t remember the night of Oct. 16, 2009, though friends and family have told her it was foggy and damp.

Kirby, a third-year student in the Wake Forest University School of Law, had gone home to Mount Olive, N.C. — about halfway between Raleigh and Wilmington — for fall break. She and a childhood friend were on a back road in Duplin County. Just out for a drive.

Kirby pulled to a stop sign on an unfamiliar stretch of highway. She stopped then hit the gas. A truck loaded with poultry struck her Mitsubishi Montero Sport on the passenger side.

This is exactly where I was supposed to be. If I was at a different school, if I was anywhere else, this would be a completely different story.

She remembers the hospital but has no recollection of the accident and little recall of the month that followed. Her injuries, which included bleeding in her brain and a partially collapsed lung, were severe. Kirby was determined, however, to graduate with her class.

This weekend, she will do just that.

“This is exactly where I was supposed to be,” she says about Wake Forest. “If I was at a different school, if I was anywhere else, this would be a completely different story.”

It’s a story that was nearly never told.

Like most law school students, Kirby’s third year was frenetic. The editor-in-chief of the Intellectual Property Law Journal, she was responsible for helping organize a spring symposium, “Copyright v. Copyleft,” practicing for trial team and chairing the Zeliff Competition with fellow third-year law student Neubia Williams and second-year student Vanessa Zboreak. She was also a research assistant for Professor Alan Palmiter.

But her classes and activities ended after the wreck, which left her in Pitt Memorial Hospital in Greenville for nine days. The Montero’s steel chassis, she says, saved their lives. The driver of the tractor-trailer was unhurt.

“It was really bad in the beginning and they put me in a coma because I was a little combative and so that my body wouldn’t use energy to breathe. There is a month I don’t remember,” explains Kirby, who broke ribs and her collarbone and suffered nerve damage in her right eye, which caused double vision. “That took months to resolve. When I came back to school, I was terrified of going up and down stairs, but that has improved dramatically over time. I still have double vision but it’s in a smaller area now and I have become used to it.

“I’m very lucky. I’m also really stubborn.”

Most worryingly for Kirby was the short-term memory loss. “The recommendation was not to go back to school for fall; I was done,” she said. “But I pulled out all the stops, and it helped that my mom is an emergency room nurse and she was with me throughout the process.

“A brain injury is a very scary thing. I had my anti-trust book and I was trying to do some of the reading I had missed while I was home. I had been highlighting the material the night before, but I didn’t remember anything from what I had read two days before and I was highlighting things that were not important. Everyone was telling me that your brain is not working.”

It’s hard to have lost that time, she adds. “One of my favorite things about Wake Forest is its proximity to Hanging Rock State Park and fall at Hanging Rock is gorgeous. And then I get hit by a truck full of turkeys and miss everything.”

She quit taking the pain medication, deciding instead to buy crossword puzzles, Sudoku and other brain games. She read the Wall Street Journal online and kept a journal, something she started doing when her father died of coronary artery disease on her 17th birthday. “That’s how I worked my mind and what I did to make my brain work,” she said.

Despite her extensive injuries, Kirby returned to law school Nov. 16, a month to the day after her accident. “When I came back to school I was still having trouble with memory, but I didn’t want anyone to know,” she said.

Ann Gibbs, Associate Dean of Administrative and Student Services, told Kirby she could take the rest of the fall off, come back in the spring and finish her last semester in fall 2010.

“Amber is one of my heroes,” Gibbs says. “She is an incredible person who literally willed herself to heal and graduate on time. We at Wake Forest supported her tremendous efforts and did what we could to assist her. While the victory of graduating on time is truly Amber’s, she was fortunate to be within the warm and caring environment of Wake Forest during this difficult time.”

Kirby never really thought too seriously about the offer to take a semester off, “but in the beginning, especially, it was good to know I had that option,” she says with a smile. “I was adamant about graduating. I was going back to Winston-Salem with my roommates Nora (Wolf) and Natasha (Barone).”

Thanks to Lindsay Adamson of Information Services — who taped classes for Kirby — her classmates’ notes and some of her professors, who granted her an extension on certain papers, Kirby not only passed all of her exams, she made Bs.

“Part of having a brain injury is that you are going to make a mistake because you are not going to weigh options,” she said. “I was thinking in circles and I couldn’t trust my instincts. But I wanted to take my exams.”

Passing her exams was a personal test as well. “I became very paranoid and I thought I had lost my critical-thinking abilities,” she said. “I knew I could come back and graduate, but for me coming back and taking exams was a test. I thought I could pass them, but I needed to know I could.”

Kirby says her professors were amazing throughout her recovery.

“Professor Steve Nickles, like so many people, sent me a card after my accident,” she said. “But he included a little bag that he bought for me, the first sale that my classmate Darren Misar’s wife made from her store, which sells bags. He showed his concern and support for me while supporting another student outside of the classroom. That’s what makes Wake Forest great — superiority inside and outside of the classroom.”

Kirby was surprised by the sense of community she felt after the wreck. For example, classmate Laura Dildine wrote her a note, even though they had never been close. “She sent me the most heartfelt message,” Kirby said.

Kirby, who is 26, is preparing to take the summer off for the first time since she started babysitting when she was 13. She says she wants to work in government and be involved in lawmaking to help shape public policy. In the fall, she will begin the LLM program in law and government at American University’s College of Law in Washington, D.C.

“I love public interest and I’m really excited because they have a program where I can get an LLM and a master’s degree in public policy in three semesters,” she said. “I think I’m going to do that.”

Kirby attributes her bright future to everyone at Wake Forest who has supported her over the past three years — especially since the accident. “I just want everyone to know how incredibly grateful and appreciative I am to Wake Forest and everyone here,” she said. “My story is about all the love and support of others. My accomplishments are not my own. They belong to so many other people who have made it possible for me to get this far.

“I will do anything Wake Forest ever asks of me because I am incredibly indebted.”

Kirby wants to dedicate her life to making others’ lives better. “I want to do good my entire life. When it comes to law for me, if I’m not making someone else’s life better, it’s not what I want.”