A special invitation to prom
By Susan Frick Carlman firstname.lastname@example.org April 28, 2012 7:36PM
Leeslylee Huerta, 23, and her boyfriend of 8 years Jonathan Santos, 23, walk out of Huerta's home in Bolinbrook on their way to Metea Valley's Prom on Friday, April 27, 2012. Huerta was hit by a drunk driver just before her prom 5 years ago and was never able to attend her high school's. "I just want to feel what Prom is," Huerta said. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media
Updated: May 30, 2012 8:11AM
The heart of a dancer beats within Leeslyee Huerta’s chest. Her feet, it always seemed, were meant to step to a catchy beat. She loved all kinds of dance.
Her heart nearly stopped beating five years ago, when a drunk driver changed everything. The feet don’t move anymore.
That didn’t keep Huerta, 23, and her longtime sweetheart, Jonathan Santos, from going to prom at Metea Valley High School on Friday night. As for the dancing — well, it was a little different from what it might have been had the pair gone when Huerta was a senior at Bolingbrook High School five years ago.
“We were making the plans for the limo and the dress,” said Santos, 23, who lives in Plainfield. “And then she had her accident.”
Noise, then pain
Huerta remembers dozing off in the back seat of the van carrying her home from her aunt’s birthday celebration in Chicago in the wee hours of Feb. 11, 2007. The vehicle was older and lacked shoulder harnesses for the rear passengers, but she fastened the lap belt around herself and drifted off. The crash came with no warning.
“The windows blew open, and there was all this big noise,” she said.
And there was pain. A section of her spine was shattered, and her intestine had ripped with the force of the impact.
“I thought I was dying,” she said. “I just remember my aunt crying and trying to help me.”
She drifted through a fog of pain, sedatives and hallucination over the following days. Surgery on the broken back had to wait while the intestine was repaired. She had dreamlike images of her friends at her side, believing they were together in school as if nothing had happened.
“I remember thinking, ‘Why are they touching me? I’m fine,’” she said.
Santos was there, too. Often he wept. She wanted to know what had happened to her body, but he wouldn’t say. She insisted.
“I still felt like maybe I could walk the next day,” she said.
After a couple of weeks, her medical team sat her in a chair. Her back hurt, and she thought standing up would bring relief. The legs would not cooperate.
“I was trying and trying and trying,” she said. “But they wouldn’t move at all.”
Finally, she cried.
Nick Chodzko isn’t the guy he used to be, back in the days when he had his sights set on being a cop. His life also has changed, though not in ways nearly as excruciating or heart wrenching as Huerta’s, since he stumbled into his car at 4:30 a.m. that long-ago February day. He had to be at work at 6, and his girlfriend’s house in Chicago was a long drive from his Chicago Ridge home. Authorities would later measure his blood alcohol content at 0.16, twice the legal limit. In no shape to drive, he wound up heading north on Interstate 55, driving on the southbound side. And then, the crash.
It would be six weeks before consciousness returned. Rehabilitation, punctuated by emergency surgery on a blood clot nestled against his heart, would take much longer.
Discharged from the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago at the end of April, Chodzko knew it would be a long time yet before he walked on his own, but he still didn’t know what had happened. Seated in his mom’s car, he learned that the three people in the van he hit head-on all were wearing seat belts. Only the girl in the back seat was badly hurt.
Until that moment, his recovery had been remarkably rapid.
“I did not want to believe it,” he said in a presentation at Metea earlier this month. “I said, ‘You know, it’s not my fault. I didn’t do anything wrong, so you can’t blame me for nothing.’”
Now he understands that’s not an unusual response for a drinker who has hurt people from behind the wheel.
“Everybody out there is under the presumption that nothing bad is going to happen to them,” Chodzko said last week. “So why not keep doing something that’s wrong, or illegal, or bad for you? When it does hit the fan, you want to deny it.”
Chodzko is in the midst of 400 hours of community service, part of his sentence, that entail talking about his decision to take that predawn drive and the impact it had. He bought Huerta an adapted van with a wheelchair lift — transportation that enabled her to start feeling “normal again,” she said. That cost about $40,000. His lawyer’s bill was another $25,000. In all, Chodzko estimates the incident cost him nearly six figures.
“So $100,000 for a night that I’m never going to remember,” he said at the Metea assembly. “Was it worth it? I don’t know. You tell me.”
He currently doesn’t drive, having lost his license after the crash. He said he could get it back, but because he’s out of work, the $500 fee is more than he can handle right now.
So far Chodzko has spoken to more than 20 high school groups, as well as jail populations that include accused drunk drivers, and he sees the conversation continuing well beyond the point where he has satisfied the conditions of his sentence. He said after a presentation at Plainfield North High School, a line of 60 to 70 students, nearly all of them boys, waited to speak to him one-on-one.
“The way I discuss my experience and what happened, I think it does hit people,” he said.
The regret he experiences every day is palpable.
“There’s a lot of things in life that I wish I can be,” he said at Metea. “But there’s one thing in my life right now that I wish I would never be, and that one thing is to be a convicted felon.”
For Huerta, forgiveness didn’t come easily — until another life-changing development came into her life.
Throughout much of Chodzko’s three-year series of court appearances — every one of which she attended — she couldn’t bring herself to speak to the man responsible for her devastating injuries.
“The first time I saw him, I was full of hate,” she said.
He never even looked at her, she said, even when they were inexplicably placed in adjacent seats. But she kept showing up.
“I really wanted to be there, so this guy could see how bad it was,” she said. “That’s the best advice I could give to anybody in this situation: to just be there.”
And then she found out there was a baby growing inside her.
“Everything changed,” she said. “I stopped hating him.”
The baby named Ketzaly — the Aztec word for beautiful — came into the world on May 3, 2010. Medically speaking, the birth was uneventful.
“It was a miracle,” Ketzaly’s mom said, beaming and sitting a tiny bit taller in her wheelchair.
Also rather miraculous is the friendship that has begun to develop between Huerta and Chodzko. They met at Morton Arboretum about a month ago and spent three hours just talking.
“There were a lot of things I didn’t know about him,” she said, noting that he was under pressures she hadn’t been aware of before. “I told him that I didn’t hate him anymore. I knew that he’s a good person and he’s trying to do some good.”
The long talk was healing for Chodzko, too.
“It felt amazing, to get that out there,” he said.
Huerta also has done some public speaking about her ordeal, including a talk before about 100 drunk driving offenders at the DuPage County Jail. It was rough.
“It was hard for me to see so many drunk drivers in there,” she said. “It felt like I was seeing Nicholas’ face on every one of them.”
Huerta found that the kids she met at the Metea presentation were much easier to take. After she and Chodzko sat in the school cafeteria meeting with students, a small group of kids approached her and handed over an orange piece of paper. On it was an invitation to their prom, all expenses paid.
Assistant Principal Joy Ross spearheaded the idea after meeting Huerta and hearing her story.
“I thought, ‘You know, we need to invite that girl to prom,’” Ross said.
Donors in the community made sure every detail was covered. Huerta’s dress — a dreamy cloud of sparkles and pink tulle that fits as if it was made for her — came from Tinamarie Nelson, who owns Crown Royalty Pageant Resale in Aurora. Makeup came to Huerta’s house mid-day Friday, compliments of Jillian Dirks and Eirabella Salon Services. Dirks, who is Nelson’s daughter, also works with DUI offenders through DuPage County State’s Attorney Robert Berlin’s office.
Two students enrolled in Metea’s vocational cosmetology program, Amber Moore and Crystal Wilson, covered hair and nails. Santos’ tux was courtesy of Black Tie Tuxedos; the corsage and boutonniere came from Andrew’s Garden Floral Couture; Ross and her friend Alexis Griffith donated accessories; and the limo was compliments of Limos Without Limits, LTD. To make sure the couple have more date nights, Francesca’s Passagio and Outback Steak House both provided gift cards.
So how does it feel to be going to prom at age 23?
“Trying to go back, at 23, it does feel a little strange,” said Santos, who admitted that he had doubts about the invitation at first.
“I feel really good, because they invited me,” Huerta said. “And I didn’t get to go to mine.”
Healing, and grace
With a busy toddler to look after, the possibility of more miracles helps keep Huerta moving ahead. It was difficult not being able to teach her tiny daughter how to walk.
“One time she fell, and I felt really bad that I couldn’t pick her up,” she said.
Although her Medicaid coverage for physical therapy is waning, and few local providers accept the aid any longer, she works at home on building her strength. With help from a pair of locking leg braces and a specialized walker, she has managed to spend a few minutes at a time upright and out of the wheelchair. Going farther will require building more strength.
A chiropractor also is helping her heal. She’s able to kick her left leg a little bit, and she’s hopeful.
It’s even getting a little easier to hear music. After the accident, it only depressed her.
“I was like, ‘Why would I listen to music if I can’t dance?’”