CHARLOTTE, NC (Theoden Janes/The Charlotte Observer) - Colleen MacDonald wasn't even supposed to be in Charlotte that night.
She should have been in and out that afternoon, after a quick change of regional jets at Charlotte Douglas International, on her way back to Beaufort, S.C., after visiting friends on Oak Island.
But a mixup with the airline caused her to miss her flight; the next one wasn't till the next day, so she accepted the airline's offer of a free room at the Sleep Inn Airport near Billy Graham Parkway and I-77.
Though she remembers none of this, just after 9 p.m. on the night of Jan. 5, 2016, the 39-year-old mother of two apparently left the hotel to grab a snack at a nearby Circle K.
And there on Tryon Street, her one-hour-layover turned one-night-stay changed again: According to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, a vehicle struck MacDonald as she was walking across the street, then fled the scene – leaving her bloodied and broken in so many places that doctors would have to operate on her eight times over the next 23 days.
She would spend the next three months being nursed back to health in Charlotte.
More than two years later, MacDonald still hasn't recovered physically or financially, she says, and she and her family remain haunted by the random, violent instant that has linked her to Charlotte forever.
She is struggling to re-enter the workforce, continues to face physical challenges as a result of her injuries, and barely has enough money to keep a roof over her head. Her oldest daughter still simmers with resentment. Her father, who lives in Texas, agonizes over the fact that he can't do more to help.
And her sunny optimist of a mother, who lives in Virginia, clings to the belief that the perpetrator too has been tormented by the memory of the accident these past two years – and that he or she might, any day now, confess to the whole thing.
'Part of me expected her to cut loose'
Colleen MacDonald's life wasn't exactly on the upswing before the accident – partly for this incredibly unlikely reason: Nine months earlier, her teenage daughter had been badly hurt by a hit-and-run driver, who also was never caught.
In March 2015, while she was living in a Phoenix suburb with her husband, Alex, and her daughters, Chelsea and Victoria. Chelsea (then 19) was hit riding her bike to work in the rain before dawn. The driver did not stop to help. Chelsea says she suffered internal bleeding and kidney failure, and spent several months on dialysis.
Later that summer, Colleen decided to leave Alex, and took the girls to Colonial Beach, Va., to stay with her mother, Carol Bartlett, and stepfather, Gary. That fall, she headed alone to Beaufort, S.C., where she found a roommate, landed a job at the Marine Corps Exchange on the Parris Island military base and started saving to get a place so Victoria (then 15) could join her.
Then 2015 turned to 2016, and tough times got exponentially tougher.
It's a wonder, really, that Colleen is alive. The impact of her body against the vehicle and the road left her with a severe brain hemorrhage, a chest hemorrhage, facial fractures, eye socket fractures, skull fractures, rib fractures, a broken arm, broken back bones, a broken tail bone, a collapsed lung, arterial bleeding – the list goes on.
Put diplomatically: "Her injuries were very significant," says Todd Chapman Jr., the OrthoCarolina doctor who performed surgery to repair her spinal injuries three days after the accident.
Her father prefers cruder terms. "Oh, she was – if i may use colorful language – she was f----- up," Jim Frazier says. "I don't know you can get any worse and not be dead. And part of me expected her to cut loose."
He talked to her as she lay unconscious, three days after the accident, in intensive care at Carolinas Medical Center – and says it almost felt like a goodbye. "I'm here," he told her. "I love you, and if you decide that you can't do this, I wouldn't blame you. If you need to go, feel free. Don't worry about any of us."
But one day at a time, a team of doctors put her back together. (Says OrthoCarolina's Chapman: "She's one of those people that I look at and I'm like, 'Wow, we are doing a really good job with our trauma care now.' ")
She spent a month in ICU and the step-down unit, learning to swallow again. She spent a month in inpatient rehab, learning to talk again. She spent a month living at Hospitality House of Charlotte while going through outpatient rehab, learning to walk again.
On April 4, Colleen left Charlotte and returned to Virginia to continue her recovery with her mother, her stepfather, and her daughters by her side.
She has pieced together health insurance benefits, personal fundraising and money from a CMPD victim's assistance program to get along, but she was out of work for about 21 months, wasn't eligible for unemployment benefits and hasn't yet qualified for Social Security Disability Insurance.
Still, after she was finally medically cleared to work this past fall, she was eager to regain some independence. So she headed with her younger daughter to Jacksonville, N.C., where she had lived for several years while her husband was stationed at Camp Lejeune.
But she quickly discovered that no one there would give her an apartment because of her financial situation.
Eager to help, her dad – an out-of-work illustrator who says he is as broke as his daughter – suggested a GoFundMe fundraising page.
"She didn't want to do that," Jim Frazier says. "I said, 'Why not?' And she goes, 'It's one thing if you're in the hospital, but here I am two years out, and it's embarrassing, you know?' I said, 'I understand. How do you think I feel not being able to help you out myself? But my sense is that if you're gonna let pride hold you back, then you just don't need the money.' And she goes, 'No, actually I am desperate, Dad.' "
The GoFundMe efforts raised more than $3,000 – not a fortune, but enough to get her and her daughter into a small apartment. She returned to work for the first time since the accident about three months ago, getting a part-time job at a department store. It requires being on her feet, so she is assigned to shifts that are four or five hours long at most.
A few weeks ago, she had a setback: She lost control of her left leg, and had to start relying on her walker again. That's made getting through a workday even tougher.
"I'm a tough bitch, though," Colleen says. "I have been fighting, fighting, fighting, and I'm not planning on stopping."
'I'd probably just give them a hug'
Hit-and-run crashes can be tough to solve if there is no evidence on the scene, Charlotte-Mecklenberg Police officials say. In cases involving pedestrians, they're even more difficult: Since damage to a vehicle when it hits a body is not as bad as when it hits another car, there are typically not as many car parts left behind.
CMPD never had a good lead to go on in Colleen's case.
So she and her family can only wonder: Where is the person who hit her, now? Does he or she ever think about the person who was hit? If so, do they carry guilt? Or have they purged the accident from their conscience – which, of course, would mean they actually have no conscience at all?
These are questions that keep Colleen and her family awake at night – sometimes, simply, because they're still angry.
"Apparently, it happens a lot," says Chelsea Lippens, tersely – she's the daughter of Colleen's who was hit and left in 2015; today she still only has 30 percent functionality in one of her kidneys. "And just – I don't know. I like people in general a little bit less. Because anyone could be that a------ that drove off."
But Carol Bartlett, Colleen's mother, doesn't see it the same way.
"I mean, I'm 66 years old, I've lived a long time, and ... anger doesn't really accomplish anything."
Instead, she clings to the hope that the person who hit Colleen will eventually be identified. She's not looking for justice in the form of punishment as much as she is hoping for insurance money that would make her daughter's life more comfortable.
"I watch probably too many of those ID (Investigation Discovery TV) shows, and you see that on anniversaries, years later – sometimes even way later – when somebody has committed a crime, they come forward and tell somebody," Bartlett says. "I just really believe that anything can happen."
What does Colleen have to say about all of that?
"It would be great. I could use the insurance money. But ... I kind of don't want him to (come forward), because he'll be facing prison time and I don't want to put somebody in prison.
"I've only been mad a handful of times. Like the other day, when my leg stopped working, I got a little angry. I get a little angry that I can't dance anymore, I can't do things that I want to do ... I'm just not the badass chick that I once was."
But, she says, she's not vindictive. And she's thought about what that driver must have been thinking. What would keep someone from stopping, after hitting her with such force?