After a car crash, doctors said Courtnie Bush was brain dead. Now she’s graduating. ⋆

Like many teenagers, Courtnie Bush looked over her high school class schedule two years ago and had serious doubts that she would be able to make it to the graduation stage on schedule. But in addition to balancing math and science classes, Bush had to navigate other lessons – like how to walk and regain her ability to learn new things.

On Dec. 27, 2020, Bush, then 15, was in a car crash that claimed the lives of two people in the vehicle she was in, including her boyfriend of three years, Jaxon O’Reilly Kocher, 15.

Bush was in a coma for 22 days. Her family said she was initially thought to be brain dead by doctors, but eventually she woke up and gave her mom a thumbs up.

Now on Friday, the Onondaga resident will receive her high school diploma from Eaton Rapids High School and plans to attend Saginaw Valley State University in the fall.

“I always knew that I was a strong and determined person, but I guess this accident opened up my eyes to how strong and how motivated I am,” Bush, now 18, said. “Once I’ve set my mind to something, I’ll get it done no matter what’s in my way.”

Courtnie Bush, 15, following the car accident on Dec. 27, 2020. | Photo courtesy of the Bush family

Bush was left with numerous physical injuries from the crash, including a traumatic brain injury, and required more than a dozen surgeries. She initially saw seven different therapists a week for various forms of recovery.

A dedicated athlete who previously played basketball, softball and soccer and did figure skating, Bush was eager to escape the wheelchair she was confined to for four months. Every day, she asked her parents if she could ditch it.

“I told them like, ‘I can move my legs fine; why can’t I walk on them?’”

When the day finally came to see how she would do standing out of her wheelchair, Bush said she pulled out all the stops.

The physical therapist asked her to try standing up, and she did 10 repetitions of that. By the end of the first day out of the chair, Bush said she walked up and down her driveway.

“I was like, ‘I can tell you right now that I am going to get back to sports,’” Bush said. “And I ended up doing that. I was back the last three games of the basketball season. I scored a layup in basketball and then in my very first game back to soccer, the very first game, I scored a goal.”

A new normal

Bush slowly reintegrated back into teen life: She saw her friends, got a driver’s license, worked a job at the local grocery store and went to school. She has had to zip out for medical appointments at times, but she was dedicated to the goal of graduating at the same time as her twin brother, Kyle.

“My brother was a big help. It sounds weird, but we always like, pick on each other,” Bush said with a laugh. “We always say who’s best at what and everything … and so he was a big help to get me to where I am now with his little nudging.”

She said she can laugh about some things now.

“Seven months after I was pronounced brain dead, I ran a 5k in 46 minutes,” Bush said with more laughter.

Courtnie Bush, 16, runs a 5k race on July 31, 2021. | Photo courtesy of the Bush family

Bush worked to the point that 99% of the time in her physical education at school, she’s doing the same things as the rest of her peers, said Robert Ribby, her personal fitness teacher at school.

“She has fought back and never once felt sorry for herself or wanted anybody else to feel sorry for her,” Ribby said. “She does not take anything for granted … just from a personal level, you just look at her and you go, ‘What an outstanding young lady.’”  

Ribby’s father-in-law also sustained a brain injury, which he said helped inform how to best support Bush.

“Walking through that process with him … there are many different varying degrees of [brain injuries],” Ribby said. “She’s [Bush] still independent, strong-willed, very friendly and bubbly. It just might take her a little bit longer to get that message across.”

The Brain Injury Association of Michigan estimates that about 58,500 people in the state sustain a traumatic brain injury (TBI) each year. Car crashes account for 30% of TBIs in Michigan, according to the state health department.

The back of Courtnie Bush’s shirt she and her family wore at a 5k on July 31, 2021. | Photo courtesy of the Bush family

Brain injuries are highly individualized and require a complex system of care from professionals that can address the needs of patients, Michigan Brain Injury Provider Council Executive Director Tom Judd said. 

“Courtnie, she’s a wonderful success story and I’m sure a lot of it has to do with her hard work and the support system she has around her, that’s key, but also the key is access to the appropriate rehabilitation and appropriate care,” Judd said. “Unfortunately, we’re seeing people who have been injured since 2021 not have access to that care if they’re injured in a car crash because providers cannot provide the services needed at the reimbursement rate that was set forth in the auto no-fault reform.”

Starting in summer 2021, thousands of car crash victims have not been able to access proper care due to a bipartisan law signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer that changed Michigan’s no-fault auto insurance law, according to the Michigan Public Health Institute. The change resulted in care providers facing a 45% slash in reimbursement rates from insurance companies for providing services to victims.

The long way to recovery

Before all seven colleges Bush applied to accepted her, she had to catch up on classes and relearn how to perform in school in the months following the crash.

“There were some moments where if I would get a bad grade on a test or something like that, and I started thinking to myself, ‘Oh, my God, I’m never gonna be able to finish this. I’ll never pass. I’ll never be able to graduate on time.’” 

Courtnie Bush, 15, participates in a full day of physical, occupational and speech therapy at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital in Grand Rapids on Feb. 3, 2021. | Photo courtesy of the Bush family

Her processing speed and ability to retain information had been severely impacted by the accident. She needed more time to learn and complete tasks, said Bush’s special education case manager, Dawn Copeland. But Bush was able to communicate her needs to her teachers, which Copeland said was a great help for the school to get her on track.

“All the teachers were on board with helping out in any way they could. Teachers were going way out of their way to help her after school, shorten assignments to accommodate things for her and do online lectures so that she could have a video of it so that she can replay it,” Copeland said. “This community does rally around their own. … Everybody just really pulled together behind this family.”

The car crash, which involved four students from the Eaton Rapids High School hit the whole community hard, Ribby said. He coached football for Bush’s boyfriend, Kocher, who died in the accident. Ribby’s son was also on the team.

“When that child is the same age as your own child it makes you take a pause and really do some soul searching,” Ribby said. “The community definitely rallied.” 

Courtnie Bush, 18, holds a picture of her boyfriend affixed to her graduation cap. Her boyfriend, Jaxon O’Reilly Kocher, died in a car accident on Dec. 27, 2020. On the back of the photo there is a message that reads, “I know you would be here today if heaven wasn’t so far away.” | Photo by Anna Liz Nichols

On the two-year anniversary of the car accident, Bush said she wanted to get her mind off of the grief of the loss of Kocher and go to basketball practice with her friends. But she had never driven on snow or ice before; when her car hit unplowed road, it slid and hit a tree – 50 feet from the Grand River.

“That was really frightening. It did not help that it was on the two-year anniversary. I stayed in my room and cried for the rest of the day,” Bush said. “I eventually got back behind the wheel. It took me a little bit to be comfortable with it when it was still snowy and icy out, but I got back to it and I’ve told myself ‘if the roads are not plowed, you’re gonna go the long way.”

This is not the life path Bush expected when she was 15. She’s going to a different college than she planned on with Kocher, and she’s nervous that the professors might not understand that she can do the work – but she may need support. She still would like to be an interior designer, just like she did at 15, but she’s going to Saginaw Valley State University as an undecided major to leave room to pursue other fields of study.

She said she hopes anyone who might find themselves in a similar position as her, having both good days and bad, victories and defeats, would know that though the work ahead of them might seem daunting, “nothing is impossible.”

“It will take a lot of work and you’ll have a lot of downfalls and setbacks,” Bush said. “But eventually you’re gonna get there and live the life you always wanted.”



authored by Anna Liz Nichols
First published at

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