Painting a new picture
Local artist Lynn Danehy attempts to get her life on track after being hit by a drunk driver
Lynn Danehy smiles as she flips through photo albums that hold hundreds of examples of her past artwork, stopping to reflect on each piece and what it means to her. Her smile fades as she pulls out a recent painting of a friend’s dog and compares it to a similar painting in her old portfolio.
“It’s just not the way it used to be,” Danehy says with a sigh.
The walls of Danehy’s cozy home are decorated with brightly colored upholstery and Disney characters. The self-proclaimed girly-girl has spent a lot of time making this small nook her home.
Her stature matches her residence, as she is petite but not small in character. Her thin brown hair falls just below her shoulders, and her bright blue eyes hide behind her thin-rimmed glasses. This once vibrant woman is soft spoken but has a warm quality and an obvious knack for home design. Yet, there is a sad frustration in her eyes as she pauses to gather and explain her thoughts.
Although she has just recently moved back to Chico, the 46-year-old Danehy spent five years here in the ‘80s as a juggler and a visual artist. She furthered her art career in Sonoma, creating art in all forms.
And life continued to go well for Danehy, who was making “good money” off of her art. That all changed forever on April 12, 2005.
It was a normal night for Danehy. After dinner with some friends in Santa Rosa, she slid into the driver’s seat of her bright-blue 1966 Volkswagen bus, a vehicle she loved. She tossed her long, dark hair back and headed home, east on Highway 12.
At the same time, 54-year-old Raymond Pasquini was headed west in his pickup truck. Pasquini’s reckless driving caught the attention of at least two commuters who followed him and called the fire department. Unfortunately, they could not pull him over in time, and Pasquini drove over the center divide, colliding head-on with Danehy’s bus.
A family who had been following Pasquini rushed to Danehy’s aid. Her head was thrust into the left-front rail of the bus, and her body had broken the windshield. A nurse on the scene saw that Danehy’s head was at a dangerous angle and adjusted it to help her breathe. The fire department soon arrived, and it took several people to cut Danehy’s body free and carry it out of the bus.
Danehy remembers a chill running down her spine when the 911 call was played back in court. The sound of metal and glass breaking was clear even through cell phone reception.
The accident left her with injuries from head to toe—six broken ribs, a broken leg, three missing teeth, a concave skull fracture and numerous minor injuries.
“I woke up not knowing what had happened to me,” she now says. “I thought my face was the same and I was there with my bus. It took about a day to understand.”
Although Danehy remembers little about this time, she can barely look at the photos taken in the hospital after the accident. With a bandage around the top of her shaved head, a swollen face and breathing tubes down her throat, she is unrecognizable.
“Almost every bone in her face was broken,” says Roy Danehy, Lynn’s brother. “It was as if her face was hanging off her skull.”
Danehy spent two weeks in the ICU and an additional two months at the hospital, where she underwent four major surgeries, including on her brain and skull and an 11-hour facial reconstruction. She also received a tracheotomy and a gastronomy and had her jaw wired shut for a little over two months.
However, Danehy’s most catastrophic injury was damage to her brain that severely affected her ability to communicate. In the hospital, Roy kept searching for some sign that his sister would be able to function for herself again.
“The first two months was the worst part,” Roy says. “I just kept wondering if the person I knew before was gone forever.”
Her family waited and watched as she struggled to come to grips with what had happened. After 2 1/2 months in the hospital, Danehy finally gained back some consciousness.
Pasquini did not see the inside of a courtroom until 18 months later, due to four postponements. Four loaded guns were found in his uninsured truck. He pleaded “no contest” to charges of felony DUI and causing serious bodily injury and, on June 12, 2006, was sentenced to six years and four months in prison. According to Santa Rosa police, he had a blood alcohol level of .15 percent at the time of the crash.
Long before the accident, Danehy was an artist and a celebrated member of the Chico community.
She was born in San Mateo and lived in the Bay Area, but relocated to Chico just after her son Jacob’s birth in 1982. Danehy became the only female member of the Catch-it-Quick Juggling Company, performing at birthday parties and community events, and also taught juggling to children at elementary schools in the area. The budding artist even designed and created the juggling balls used in the performances. After five years she returned to the Bay Area to pursue her art career.
Danehy painted everything from murals to old furniture, and her paintings and sketches were full of extensive detail. She would also take old wood and discarded windows and fashion them into beautiful, antique-looking desks and armoires. She was famous for sewing pieces of fabric into old frames, a “hot item” at her small art shop. Danehy also painted three-dimensional murals in people’s homes and places of business, as well as sewing everything from handbags to curtains.
After the accident nobody knew what degree of Danehy’s communication skills would return.
Once she was released from the hospital, Danehy moved in with her son and struggled to keep up with day-to-day activities. Her speech skills were not improving, and sign language was her primary means of communication. She still suffers from intense anxiety, a ringing in her inner ear and chronic knee pain.
Last July Danehy decided to move back to Chico to be closer to Roy and attend Chico State’s speech therapy classes. She also sees a private speech therapist twice a month.
She is now in her second semester in Chico State’s speech therapy program, where twice a week she works one-on-one with a graduate student, relearning the words and concepts that were erased from her memory.
Danehy’s sister-in-law, Jo Danehy, has seen a huge improvement in a few short months.
“In September Lynn would sometimes talk in gibberish and have difficulty with everyday words. Now she can hold an entire conversation,” Jo says.
Danehy’s artistic ability has aided her speech recovery. She draws pictures of the items on her shopping list, then writes the names next to the images, which helps her become familiar with certain vocabulary.
Although the road to recovery is still rough, Danehy has managed to gain some of her independence back. She began taking art classes about a month ago at Butte College, although she found the noise of breaking glass too much to bear in her stained-glass class. She currently sketches and sews, using her antique sewing machine from the 1900s.
Broad concepts are still difficult for her, and she doesn’t know if her painting will ever have the extensive detail she was famous for.
Not being able to work for so long has burdened Danehy financially, too. In civil court, a Sonoma County judge awarded her $10.6 million in damages, but based on Pasquini’s assets, unknown post-prison earnings and lack of insurance, she is unlikely to see a dime.
Despite the setbacks, Danehy is optimistic about her future art career. She is eager to get back to work and is open to any projects that may come her way. Although she might never be able to hold a paint brush the same way, she still illustrates with tremendous talent.
“I know what happened to me,” Danehy says. “And I’m glad I made it back to my life.”