A family’s life changed: Eight-year-old still trying to come to grips with loss of friend

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Shavonne Potts
Salisbury Post
What Justen Morgan misses most are the simple things ó playing tag, swimming in his grandmother’s pool and riding the bus.
All of those things he did with best friend Patricia Eleanor “Patty” Burgdoff, who was killed by a drunk driver in a 2006 collision.
Wherever there was Justen, there was Patty. The two friends were inseparable. When the young girl died Dec. 8, pinned in the back seat of a mangled car, Justen was there.
Morgan, then 7, his mother, Shania Thompson, and her husband, Mike Thompson, were heading home after eating dinner at Gary’s Barbecue.
Shania was driving the 2003 Toyota Corolla. Mike sat in the passenger seat and Justen and Patty were in the back. Patty, who was wearing a seat belt, died instantly.
Ross Edward Neese, then 25, of Jamestown, was arrested and indicted by a grand jury a month later.
Authorities said Neese was going 70 mph down U.S. 29 before colliding with Thompson’s car and another car. His car finally came to rest in front of the Corolla.
Neese is awaiting trial on two counts of serious injury by vehicle, a new felony put into law seven days before Patty was killed. He was also indicted for driving while impaired and felony death by a vehicle.
Rowan District Attorney Bill Kenerly said he hopes the trial will begin in July.
The wife of one of Neese’s attorneys was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and the trial orginially scheduled for March, was delayed so the attorney could focus on his wife’s health.
“It’ll depend on when he’s available,” Kenerly said of the trial date.
Shania describes her son as a little shy around those he first meets. He often looked to her and stepfather Mike to help him answer questions.
Justen didn’t much like holding hands and especially not with a girl. But that didn’t mean a thing to his best friend Patty.
“He didn’t want to hold her hand, but she always would grab his hand,” Shania said.
Patty would say she and Justen were going be married some day. Mike wondered aloud what their futures would’ve held.
“To see those two together, you never know where they would’ve ended up,” he said.
The two took speech classes together. Both had a slight speech impediment. Sometimes when Patty talked, Shania would look at Justen for a translation.
“Every time, he knew exactly what she was saying,” she said.
One Valentine’s Day, Patty gave Justen a red stuffed dog. It goes with him everywhere, Justen’s mother said, much to her son’s chagrin.
He named the stuffed toy Patty, he said, because it makes him feel closer to her.
“… like she’s still with him,” Shania said.
The second-graders spent all of their time together. They took swimming lessons together, played outdoor games and fished together.
When Patty was killed, that all ended.
In her coffin, Justen placed a red rose and his favorite picture of the two of them together.
He goes to the little girl’s gravesite, where he’s placed cards, flowers and a handmade necklace.
While there, Justen tells Patty how he spent his day.
“He asks if she’s having fun with Jesus,” Shania said as a tear slowly made its way to her chin.
A wreck that took less than a minute changed the family’s life.
Shania, who was 7 months pregnant, was driving the car. Her only injuries were two bruises across her lap.
The bruises came mostly from the steering wheel. During the collision, Shania tried to stop the car, hammering down on the brakes and at the same time squeezing the steering wheel.
Remarkably, she gripped it so hard, she bent it inward.
The baby, who the couple would name Jaykob, was unharmed. Today, he is a healthy 1-year-old.
Mike had multiple fractures to his spine, two ribs and neck. A stent that was placed inside his heart, collapsed and the procedure had to be redone.
“Nothing hurt as bad as them cutting out a piece of my intestine,” he said.
The pain was so intense, it felt as though his body were being repeatedly cut into, Mike said.
The incision didn’t heal all at once, but bit-by-bit and layer-by-layer, he said lifting his shirt, revealing a long pink scar beginning near his belly button.
“I can never lift over half my body weight. And parts of my body are still numb,” he said rubbing his right leg.
At least once a year, he’ll return to the hospital, where doctors will continue to monitor the stent.
Mike can’t remember the day before the wreck.
“I remember waking up at Duke (University Hospital),” he said.
He jokingly said he’d also forgotten an argument he and his wife had a day before the wreck.
Mike spent time in surgery, then the recovery unit at NorthEast Medical Center and later Duke.
All totaled, he spent 27 days in the hospital.
Mike was dazed during the wreck and tried to get himself out of the vehicle.
He described what was told to him.
“I was trying to push against the dash,” Mike said.
Emergency responders were afraid his attempts to get out of his seat would crush Justen.
“When I would think back on that day, all I could think about was her smile,” he said of Patty.
When Justen was taken from the back of the car, he was not breathing, his stepfather said.
“The first responder hit him in the chest to get him to breathe,” he said.
Justen also had numerous fractures, including a dislocated hip, a fractured skull, palate, eye socket and a concussion. He also experienced double vision for six weeks.
He wore an eye patch over his right eye for weeks.
For some time, he remained in a wheelchair, a precaution doctors were taking so he wouldn’t put much weight on his hip, Mike said.
“The worst part was losing his best friend,” Shania said.
The family said their faith led them to forgive Neese.
Justen thinks Neese should “go to jail for 30 years,” he said shyly.
“In the end, his punishment will be handled another way,” Mike said.
He said he knows what a kind family the Burgdoffs are. “It would have been easy for them to get mad at us.”
“I know what kind of people she comes from,” he said of Patty. “It makes me wonder what kind of person she would have been.”
When the crash first happened, Justen didn’t want to talk about it, Shania said.
Last year, her son was doing well in school, but that changed. He still made good grades, Shania said, but “he would start crying for no reason,” scaring his teachers in the process.
He now talks regularly with school counselors and his principal.
This summer, Justen and his family will honor Patty’s memory through a fundraising event, Mothers Against Drunk Driving Walk Like MADD campaign. The May 24 walk will take place in Charlotte. Justen’s personal goal is to raise $3,500.
The family participated in the walk for the first time last year and raised $3,000. Shania recalled last year’s walk being exceptionally special.
“It was windy, and his was the only candle that stayed lit,” she said.
He came up with this year’s team name ó The Patty and Justen League, because he wanted it to be something that included his best friend’s name.
“He showed such a strong interest. He talked about it for weeks, and he got everybody involved,” Shania said.
Justen has already approached his teachers and principal. Also, Patty’s sister, Danielle, has expressed interest in the walk.
“Someone dying in a drunk driving-related crash is 100 percent preventable,” said Craig Lloyd, executive director of the N.C. Chapter of MADD.
Statistics show North Carolina ranks seventh in the country for driving while impaired-related deaths.
It’s not like a potentially fatal disease.
“The cure is to make a plan before they go out drinking,” Lloyd said.
Lloyd said MADD is not anti-alcohol, but the organization wants people to not drive impaired and prevent underage drinking.
For more information about MADD and to donate, visit www.madd.org/nc
Contact Shavonne Potts at 704-797-4253 or spotts@salisburypost.com.