June 08

Mother and daughter reflect on journey to recovery from tragic boating accident


Catherine and her friend, Ali Jimenez.

It must be noted that Catherine is my dear friend, and this was a hard post for me to write. But just seeing how far she has come in the last year is proof to me that we must never lose our hopeful spirits. I love you girl!

It was almost a year ago on the fourth of July, when Catherine Payan and her best friend, Kelsie Karpiak, were heading to Biscayne Bay by a friend’s boat to spend a day on the water with their friends.

But, on the way home from the fireworks show, their boat collided into another two boats, one after the other, killing four people and injuring several others. Among those who died were Kelsie, Andy Garcia and Victoria Dempsey, who were all neighborhood friends.

Catherine pictured with her best friend, Kelsie.

Catherine pictured with her best friend, Kelsie.

Catherine suffered a traumatic brain injury and remained in a coma for five weeks. The left side of her body was impacted and she had to wear a brain catheter because her brain was bleeding. She also broke her upper right arm, her nose and a bone in her neck. Her face required reconstructive surgery.

“My olfactory nerves were severed, so I have no sense of smell. I have temporary memory loss and I can’t really remember the last two years before the accident,” Catherine said.

This renaissance woman will not let a brain injury slow her down. After suffering one of the most life-changing injuries one can experience, she is staying positive and working hard in speech and physical therapy to return to her job as a Realtor in Miami, Florida.  She and her mom both shared their perspectives on what the recovery process has been like. Catherine hopes sharing her experience will inspire others who have been in similar situations.

Catherine Payan is working hard to return to work at EWM Realty.

Catherine Payan is working hard to return to work at EWM Realty.

Catherine Payan

It’s been almost a year since the accident. What has the recovery process been like?

“It’s a daily struggle.  Things that used to seem so easy to me are now extremely difficult. Now when I accomplish something, it’s a really big deal.  I wore flip flops the other day for the first time in 9 ½ months.  May not seem like much, but it was.

I’m much more relaxed and easy going than I was before.  I am more grateful. I feel like God saved me for a reason.  I haven’t figured out what He wants me to do yet, but that will come.”

What are the next steps in your recovery process?

“I need to work on my cognition, multi-tasking, my processing speed, and on teaching my body to learn to listen to what my mind is telling it to do. I have to keep my eye on the prize.  I just need to be patient; for an impatient person that is hard.”

What are some of your biggest goals right now?

“Long term: I want to be independent. I want to buy a house and go back to living on my own. I really just want to make my family proud of me.”

Who is your female role model and why?

“My mom. She’s just so optimistic and easy going. She has a positive outlook on everything. If I tell her a story, she manages to see the light in every bad situation.”

 What advice do you have for women going through a similar situation?

“Never give up. Miracles happen every day. Why not for you? You’re going to want to give up one day, we all go through that, but it is worth it to keep going. There is an end, I promise; and you just wait until you’re making strides every day, it is an unexplainable feeling. I’m sure you are tired of hearing that, but the annoying part is, it’s true. You’ll feel alone, but you’re not; and no, no one knows what you’re feeling, but they are there supporting you. Granted you don’t’ know what they are feeling either. They almost lost you. So think of it this way, every single day is a gift; you just get to do it right this time.”

Do you have a favorite inspirational quote or prayer you like to read?

“Yes, a couple of quotes: God gives his toughest struggles to his strongest warriors. One day, this will all be a part of your past, so make it a good memory.”

You, your mom, and your sister have a very good relationship. Explain how they’ve helped you in the process.

“They keep me positive, grounded and keep my eye on the prize. My sister quit her job to stay home with me. They are my biggest supporters and motivators.  They are heavily involved in my recovery, both physically and mentally.”

Is there anything else you would like to add?

“All coma situations are different. I‘ve been told mine is very unique. I blinked first instead of moving a toe or finger. So people would ask me to blink once for yes or twice for no. I won’t lie; it is an every day battle. Even typing this is a challenge, but it’ll all make me better. I have down days all the time. I stay positive thanks to my mother, sister and family, but it can take over sometimes. I just have a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that there was an accident, my best friend isn’t here and my life is totally different. I can’t remember my last birthday and I just celebrated my 25th. I feel like that is a pretty significant birthday, and yet I’m still not used to that age. Like “25? When did that happen?” I have come to terms with the fact my life is different, and I have embraced it. I share a room at night with my mom, and when she isn’t there, I feel like something is missing. I also lost 35 pounds in the hospital, so I’m getting used to this new body; but still, I look at myself in the mirror and don’t think that it’s me. That is where the whole “one-day at a time” thing comes in to play. I’ve been very blessed with very good friends that have stuck around during all of this. It is a lot to handle, so the fact that they are all part of my support system is great. I know they have dealt with a lot, losing Kelsie, and then not knowing if they were going to lose me. Throughout all of this, my faith has been strengthened. I feel like in order to get through it, you need something to believe in.

You need to have faith that it will get better, or that it might not be the life you planned for yourself, but it is God’s plan, and I’ve learned to be grateful because it is a life nonetheless, and others weren’t so lucky. I can still hear my nephew’s laugh, or talk to my family, no matter what it’s about. I can still do a lot of things, differently, but I can do them; which is a blessing in and of itself.”


Mary Payan (sister, left), Patty O’ Connell (mother, center) Catherine Payan, right.

Patty O’ Connell, mother

What was your first thought when you learned your daughter had a traumatic brain injury? 

“Upon arrival at Ryder Trauma Center, we were given a purple bag courtesy of Mothers Supporting Brain Injuries (or something like that).  In it was a blanket, a bottle of water, a deck of cards and two books about traumatic brain injuries.  That’s how we found out.  I had no idea what a brain injury was.  I flipped through the book and had to put it down.  It was simply too much to take in.  We were numb and sick and terrified.  ‘How does something like this happen to our family?'”

Tell us a little about ways your life has changed. How has your family been handling the recovery?

Our lives have been forever changed in countless ways.  We are acutely aware of our blessings, and the infinitely sad truth that other families were not as fortunate as we were that day.  We have learned to take things one day at a time.  There were weeks when we had to take it one hour at a time, so we had no choice but to internalize that lesson.  We’ve learned that God gives us strength in the moment, and not to borrow fear or worry from tomorrow.  What we have is today, and it has to be good enough.  We have learned about our community of family friends.  We went three full months without having to prepare a single meal.  We benefitted from thousands upon thousands of prayers that were said, and are still being said, for Catherine.  We were absolutely lifted up, and sometimes literally held up, by so many.  We’ve had our share of fear and sorrow.  We’ve mourned the life that Catherine knew before her accident.  She mourns who she used to be, and what she used to do.  We were told that when one has a TBI (traumatic brain injury), he or she will not be the same person they were before the accident.  It’s true. This lovely Catherine is new to us. She is new to herself.  Can you imagine what that must be like for her?”

 If Catherine ever feels discouraged, what do you/family to to cheer her up? Are there any life mantras you look to for yourself? (i.e. inspirational quotes?) 

“Catherine is rarely discouraged.  When she is, we remind her of how far she has come.  Her faith in God is strong, and she leans on Him.  She believes she is meant to do something special with her life – that God has a purpose for her.  She is, however, brokenhearted.  She deeply misses her dearest friend who passed away in the accident.  There is little we can do to help with her grief.  It’s a personal process that she is working her way through.  She sometimes feels as though Kelsie is with her, and Catherine is encouraged by knowing she will see her again one day.”

If you could use three words to describe how your daughter has handled her recovery, what would they be? 

“With courage and strength and gratitude.  She inspires us every single day.”

Have you learned any life lessons throughout the process?

“We’ve learned that every single day counts.  We’ve learned that God answers prayer.  We’ve learned that we are a part of a huge community of faithful, caring, true friends – some of whom we have never met.  We’ve learned patience.  We’ve learned perspective.  Catherine says, ‘This is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.'”