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Ella Merrill defies odds after sustaining traumatic brain injury in crash: ‘She’s truly a miracle’

When patients graduate from Mary Free Bed, they’re given a green T-shirt signed by those who cared for them. The messages for Ella Merrill contained a couple of key words: “amazing” and “miracle.” And rightly so.

When Ella came to Mary Free Bed on Dec. 29, the 16-year-old from Edwardsburg, Michigan, was in a coma. Two weeks earlier, she sustained a traumatic brain injury when the car she was driving struck a school bus on an icy roadway. She was taken to Elkhart General Hospital in nearby Elkhart, Indiana, then transferred to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Memorial Hospital in South Bend.

“When she arrived here, she was storming,” said Dr. Lisa Voss, who explained that patients who are storming are unable to control their autonomic nervous system. “She couldn’t control her blood pressure, she couldn’t control her heart rate, she wasn’t controlling her temperature. She would have massive spasms of her muscles.”

While Dr. Voss and fellow pediatric physiatrist Dr. A.J. Rush worked to get her storming under control, Ella developed respiratory issues, and she was rushed to the emergency room at Mercy Health St. Mary’s Hospital, adjacent to Mary Free Bed. She was placed on a ventilator to help her breathe. She spent the next 10 days at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital for care before she was stable enough to return to Mary Free Bed to resume rehabilitation.

An MRI showed damage to Ella’s brain was worse than originally thought, leading doctors to believe she may remain in a vegetative state, Voss said. Arrangements were made to teach her parents how to care for Ella at home.

Then she woke up.

Ella slowly began to regain consciousness, at first crying or laughing, or making small movements.

“Then one morning, as we were getting her dressed, she looked at me and said ‘I miss Sally,’” said her mother, Heather Zile. Sally is Ella’s dog. “She’s been on an upward trajectory ever since.

“Where medicine ends, God takes over. She’s truly a miracle, and we are beyond blessed.”

Ella continued to work hard with her physical, occupational, speech and recreational therapists in Mary Free Bed’s Pediatric Program. She grew stronger, slowly learning to talk, stand and walk again. And her memory gradually began to return.

“I beat the odds,” Ella said.

Indeed, she has. Ninety days after her accident, Ella walked out of Mary Free Bed with her parents and headed home to her family – and to cuddle with Sally.

In this video, you’ll learn more about Ella’s journey from Heather, her nurses, therapists and doctors – one of whom Ella challenged to a game of tennis, all for a container of “extra crispy” bacon.



Wow! I was practically moved to tears by this story. What a miracle! Thanks so much for sharing, and best wishes to you Ella on even more science-defying recovery!

Torry Mckinley

To God be the GLORY!! I seen this family PRAY AND PRAY AND PRAY!!! ???????????????????? TORRY..UA @ MEMORIAL CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL!!! ????????

Barbara Olsen

Dr. Tyler Voss told me about this amazing story. Kudos to all, and Dr. Lisa Voss. ????????????????????
Wonderful !!!!

Matt Boon

Great Video capturing triumph, coordination of multiple medical institutions, and the measures of physical therapy from creative tennis & bacon to the various balancing exercises. We are blessed with incredible medical assets and wonderful caregivers. Thanks for all you do, what a blessing.


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