Recovering accident victim taking part in Junior Miss

Published 6:00 am Friday, January 8, 2010

If Lincoln County Junior Miss were just a standup beautypageant, 16-year-old Tiffany Henderson would have as good a chanceas any of the other girls.

But the judges will ask her to model, and her stance is barelycrooked. They’ll ask her to dance, and her little feet are wobbly.They’ll ask her questions, and the words will come out slow andbroken.

The cute, dark teenager from Caseyville is still recovering fromsevere brain trauma sustained during a fatal accident early lastyear, and her body isn’t ready to make the graceful moves JuniorMiss demands. Regardless, she’s going to put on the dresses, combher black hair over the scar where a drainage tube was hooked toher brain, and compete in the program, which begins at 5:15 p.m.Saturday at Southwest Mississippi Community College’s mainauditorium.

“I know I’m going to mess up on a few things, but that’s OK,”she said. “I just want to do it all and be as normal as I can.”

Tiffany has spent the last several weeks learning the steps andposes necessary to compete in the pageant, but she’s spent the lastseveral months in therapy, relearning how to walk, even how toswallow her food. She’s still taking speech therapy, with her nextevaluation scheduled for this summer.

Regardless of her limitations, Tiffany will be judged on fiveaspects at Junior Miss – self-expression, fitness, talent,interview and scholastic awareness. She’s had to turn down otheraspects of the competition held just for pageantry.

“My dance isn’t as good as it could be, but it’s good for me,”she said.

Of all the aspects of Junior Miss, Tiffany is weaker than thecompetition in all but one area – testimony.

Her recital of the two-page story has moved competitors andonlookers to tears during practices held this week at SouthwestMississippi Community College. The document details life, death andthe certainty of Jesus Christ, which was proved to the Hendersonson March 16, 2009, and the months that followed.

At 15 and one-half-years-old, Tiffany was allowed to drive herToyota Matrix without parental supervision – as long as she parkedit by 10 p.m.

On the night of her accident, she was running late and trying tomake up time on the curves of Highway 550. At 9:45 p.m., she lostcontrol near Macedonia Road.

Tiffany and her friend, Tara Maxwell, were thrown from thevehicle.

Tiffany would be in a coma for the next 18 days, and sheremembers none of the accident or the hours leading up to it.Maxwell was killed.

Tiffany’s mother, 46-year-old Carmen Henderson, got a phone callaround 10 p.m. from a calm, collected family friend, informing herof the accident. Before she could leave the house, she received asecond phone call from a screaming, hysterical friend – Maxwell isdead, and Tiffany is in the ambulance.

“When we got in the car, I just started praying. I prayed forher not to die until I got to the hospital,” Henderson said. “Ijust didn’t want her to die until I got there to talk to her,whether she could talk to me or not.”

Tiffany was stabilized and transported from King’s DaughtersMedical Center to University of Mississippi Medical Center, thestate’s only Level One trauma center. She spent almost three weeksin intensive care, living with the help of machines. She was movedto a private room while her brain went through the “stormy phase,”trying to repair itself.

“I was awake to them when I wasn’t awake to me,” she said.

Henderson could tell her daughter “wasn’t quite there yet.”

“Her eyes were almost completely black, like she was lookingstraight through you,” she said.

The brain’s stormy phase is indicative of recovery, andTiffany’s improvement became obvious when her lifelong cheerinstincts began taking over. Still unconscious, she began to doleft heel stretches in bed.

“She couldn’t move the right side of her body, but that left legnever stopped moving,” Henderson said.

After two weeks, Tiffany came to during one of two times hermother had left the room in more than a month. Her first wordswere, “Where’s my momma?”

Unable to walk and barely able to talk, Tiffany began therapyimmediately. She was confined to a wheelchair.

Today, Tiffany is recovering from the accident and is expectedto continue recovering, but the signs of brain damage – thoughfading – are evident. Her pretty eyes still aren’t working togetherjust right, and she can only manage a two-fingered grip whenshaking hands. She has to stop and think about her words beforepushing them out.

In competition, there will be no allowances.

“She is being held to the same standards as everyone else, andthat’s what she wanted to do,” said Lorin Lewis, chairman of theLincoln County Junior Miss Board of Directors and showdirector.

Lewis said Tiffany’s rehearsals this week have gone well, andgood planning has helped. Given her diminished motor skills, shewon’t be able to perform a cutting dance like many other girlswill. But performing a dance as her talent was her decision.

“Every time she does her dance, she uses a chair as a prop. Itfits right in with her cute little dance, but obviously the chairis helping her with her balance,” Lewis said. “There are a coupleof moves you can tell she’s thinking, but most of it has surprisedme, and it’s quite entertaining.”

Moving herself is difficult, but Tiffany is expected to movehearts with her testimony.

“My personality has been altered and I am not as confident as Iused to be,” the speech reads. “I can no longer participate incompetitive cheerleading. I can no longer help teach and spotyounger girls on their tumbling, but all of that is OK. I am stillalive, and have some independence in my life … Most of all Ienjoy sharing my testimony of how God works miracles in our lives.I am able to share that I am a walking miracle, and I give God allthe glory for it.”

Given her condition, Tiffany could have skipped out on thisyear’s Junior Miss, but she rejected the thought. Competing in thepageant has always been a desire of hers, especially when hersister, 17-year-old Courtney Henderson, competed last year.

She refused special help with her classes at Brookhaven Academy,and she refused to let her limitations hold her out of thecontest.

“I know I’m not going to win or anything, but just being outthere and doing the best I can shows other people they can do it,too,” she said.