Woman forced to give birth after Pacific Coast Highway crash comes home after months in hospital

Norma Shea remembers a “wall of black” coming at her while she was sitting in the back seat of a Honda Civic waiting to make a left turn from Pacific Coast Highway onto Cherry Ave in Long Beach on Feb. 9. Then, shards of glass appeared to float by her face, as if in slow motion.

The next thing she recalls was pleading with any “guardian angels” who might be listening for the safety of her baby. She was eight months pregnant.

Most everything else for the next two months was a blur, Shea said. She was bedridden, continually in and out of surgery and separated from the baby, her first-born, Oriah.

“The first time they let me go see her in the NICU she opened her eyes when I said her name,” Shea said Tuesday, April 12, the day after she was finally able to return home from the hospital. “But then, I was out of it for weeks.”

Shea and her partner Joseph Harris had been heading back from a veterinary appointment for her dog Willow, a Doberman mix on the day of the crash. Harris was driving a Honda Civic in the left turn lane on Pacific Coast Highway at Cherry Avenue at about 4:22 p.m., according to police, when their car collided with a Dodge Ram that left a driveway and crossed several lanes of traffic.

Oriah was born via emergency surgery the night of the crash, as doctors learned her supply of oxygen had been severed in the womb. She was eventually released from care after a week of treatment.

“We had spent so long preparing for a home birth, but I always kept in mind that something might happen and she could be born in the hospital,” Shea said. “But never like this.”

The new mother remained in the hospital for over two months with a punctured lung, 17 broken ribs and injuries to her diaphragm, kidney and liver. At times, she needed a ventilator to help her breathe and struggled with the discomfort of having a tube down her throat.

“I was just in my own personal nightmare,” Shea said. “Because of all the drugs and the things I was going through, I thought I would never see her again, my family had abandoned me and every horrible thing you can imagine. I was just in it.”

The hardest part of her recovery was being absent for the first two months of her daughter’s life, Shea said. She wondered if the newborn would even recognize her when she eventually came home.

But things reached a turning point when Shea awakened one day to find her mother, Paula Shea, waiting in her hospital room.

“She was like, ‘You’re awake! You’re awake! You’re here! You made it!’ ” Norma Shea said. “And I don’t know if I hallucinated that or not. But things changed after that, and as I started hearing more from my family.”

When Shea was finally discharged, she was beyond relieved to be in her own home and surrounded by loved ones. Her fear of being somehow estranged from her daughter after their ordeal melted away as the baby instinctively cuddled in her arms while they slept that evening.

Oriah was healthy and slightly above the average weight for a baby her age as of Tuesday, but will need to be monitored as she develops, her father Joseph Harris said.

Shea spoke softly, a bandage over the tracheotomy scar on her throat, as she sat in a rocking chair with her daughter in her arms on Tuesday. She was so weak that she could barely walk from one room to another, and her breathing was assisted by oxygen fed from a tank. It will be at least a few more weeks before she is strong enough to be up and about and changing diapers.

“Oh, but I will definitely play violin again,” Shea said confidently, mimicking the strokes of a bow with a sore arm. “That’s one of the big goals moving forward.”

Above, Norma Shea performs a haunting violin piece during rehearsal for “Dark Harbor” on the Queen Mary in Long Beach.

The new mother said her experience over the past two months has changed her in more ways than she can list. On one hand, she now feels somewhat anxious while in automobiles, especially near large trucks like the one involved in the crash that injured her. She and Harris want to replace their totaled compact car with a vehicle equipped with stronger safety features. The crash remains under investigation.

But gratitude is what comes to mind most when she looks back at her ordeal. She can hardly believe she survived the crash, still vivid in her memory. She might have lost hope of ever recovering from her traumatic injuries if not for the reassurance of her friends and family.

“Now, I just want to heal enough to be able to walk my daughter around and eventually go hiking,” she said, “start the next chapter of our life, really.”

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