Heather’s Story

Written By Sarah Chesek

Video By Jules Jackson.

“When people tell you to live life to your fullest, you never know what’s going to happen or it can be taken from you in an instant, oh did I really experience that,” Heather Kounthapanya, a senior at UTC said. 

In the late evening of Sep. 16,  Kounthapanya was struck by a car while crossing the road with her friend, Athena. “I just wanted to get dessert,” Kounthapanya said. She never could have imagined how her life would change in such an instant. 

Kounthapanya started college believing she wanted to enter the health field, but after a semester, she switched her major to Communications to pursue her passion of film. She expresses that she loves doing anything that may challenge her and make her a more well rounded person. 

Her interests stem from film to freelance photography. Two of her favorite projects she completed included a documentary of a painter and a photoshoot she did for a musician’s album cover. Both artists she made quick connections with, and was able to create beautiful work for them both.“Those have been really exciting for me, getting to meet new people and getting to help each other,” she said.  

Along with a passion for film and photography, Kounthapanya was an athlete. When she came to college she wanted to try something new and did not realize women could play rugby. “I needed something new in my life for college, I thought sure why not and signed myself up,” she said. She explained UTC’s rugby team was a community she needed in her life. 

Heather Kounthapanya steps out of her car with assistance from her mother. Friday, November 11, 2022. (Photo by Haley Bayer).

While recalling the accident, she explains how some days it is easy to tell people about what happened, but other times it is incredibly painful to do so. “Some days it’s easier to talk about, some days it’s not. A week ago, I could tell people that I walked across the street and got hit by a car…I could say that with no emotions…I was in the mindset to move forward,” she stated. 

Kounthapanya remembers three major things from the accident – seeing the headlights from the car, waking up in the road and seeing everyone looking at her, and finally waking up in the ICU talking to Athena about who to call for her. 

“The whole accident was a complete blur to me, I remember phases of being in the hospital,”  Kounthapanya stated. She explains that some memories from the accident came to her days after words including talking to staff and the excruciating pain she was in. 

She explained she believes it’s a good thing she doesn’t remember everything. “A lot of people have told me that it’s real brain power, it’s your brain’s way of protecting the human body from trauma,” she said.

The car that hit Kounthapanya fled the scene. A bystander saw this and followed the car to take a photo of the license plate. No one has been charged for the accident; however, she explained that law enforcement did find the car that hit her and confiscated it. 

Heather Kounthapanya engages in physical therapy at STAR Physical Therapy. Friday, November 11, 2022. (Photo by Haley Bayer).

The women remember hearing the car accelerate through the intersection. “It makes me sad, hurt, confused, to know that somebody could just hit you, not know if you are alive or dead, and then just go,” stated Kounthapanya. 

Kounthapanya suffered major injuries to her left hip; she had to have extensive surgery that included five screws implanted in her hip. As of now, she has lost feeling in the left side of her left leg.  She also suffered a skull fracture that doctors have said can heal on its own, but it will take several months. 

Since the accident, the Kounthapanya family has converted her bedroom and bathroom so that Heather can move around easier and so everything is more accessible. 

After starting physical therapy, she has gained the ability to get in and out of bed by herself and shower by herself.  Kounthapanya has temporarily lost the ability to walk, but her biggest goal as of now is to walk again. 

Heather says reminding herself of the positives helps her during her recovery process. “I am a very optimistic person…I always try to find the good in bad situations,” she said. Kounthapanya reminds herself of those who helped her during and after the accident and claims those memories help get her through her recovery. 

Heather Kounthapanya’s life has completely changed since the accident, yet she continues to keep a positive attitude about her recovery and future. To donate for medical costs, visit https://www.gofundme.com/f/heather-kounthapanya

Audio By Eli Rushing.

One Too Many Times

Written By Kate Hixon

The corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Carter Street is the site of a hit-and-run that injured Heather Kounthapanya. Sunday, November 20, 2022. (Photo Matthew Cook).

According to a study conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety in 2018, there were about 737,100 hit-and-run accidents in 2015. That amounts to a hit-and-run occurring every 43 seconds in the US. Approximately 1 in 5 pedestrian deaths are caused by hit-and-run accidents.

Unfortunately, what happened to Heather is all too common. FlockSafety.com estimated that only around 10% of hit-and-run accidents are ever solved, usually due to a lack of evidence.

Heather said that she was not the only person admitted to the hospital in Chattanooga that night for being hit by a car. She was informed that four other people were taken to the same hospital that same night having been struck by vehicles. Someone in the ICU next to Heather was hit by a motorcycle in a hit-and-run.

Even though the vehicle that struck Heather has since been confiscated after someone reported the liscene’s plate number, the person behind the wheel has not been caught. Heather explains that the entire legal process has moved extremely slow.

“As of now, that’s all I know. That’s all my lawyer knows,” said Heather. “It’s a very slow progression of how we move forward from the situation in a legal stand point. We just got really really lucky that somebody caught a picture of their liscene’s plate.”

Heather’s family lives by the mantra that everything happens for a reason, but Heather struggled to find an upside to what happened to her. She later realized that in spite of the trauma, Heather has learned how to better process her emotions. “I think it’s important for me to feel,” Heather explained.

One of the things regarding the accident that hurts Heather the most is knowing that there are people out there that are able to live with themselves after hitting an innocent pedestrian with their car and driving off.

“It makes me sad, hurt, confused to know that somebody can just hit you, not know if you’re alive or dead, and just go,” Heather explained. “There are a lot of cruel people in the world.”

The individual that did this to Heather did not even brake their car. Heather tearfully explained that she heard the car accelerate in the middle of the intersection before driving off, leaving Heather lying on the road with no regard for her life.

In Tennessee, fleeing the scene of an accident that resulted in injury is classified as a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to 11 months and 29 days in jail, a $2,500 fine and suspension of the offender’s license. The Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office is actively working on the case. Heather and her family hope the party responsible will be held accountable.

Meet the Storytellers

Haley Bayer is a senior at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and is currently majoring in Communication with a Women’s Gender and Sexuality minor. Haley is a storyteller with experience in social media, photography, audio, and design. In the future, Haley looks forward to working in Media Management. She is a hardworking and persevering individual who aspires to use her voice in Rising Rock to share moving stories. To contact her for work, email fsb315@mocs.utc.edu 

Jules Jackson is a visual storyteller currently pursuing his Bachelor of Science degree in Communication at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He has a passion for film as a way to share important, thought-provoking stories. In addition to his creative work, he also does videography for ArtsBuild, a grantmaking and fundraising organization for artists living in Hamilton County, Tennessee. He can be reached via email at julesjacksonartist@gmail.com.

Sarah Chesek is a writer studying Communication at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She currently holds the title of Head News Editor for The Echo, UTC’s student newspaper. Sarah is a hard working and compassionate individual, who is passionate about civil rights issues and hopes to bring light to them through her writing. To contact her, email vxw726@mocs.utc.edu

Eli Rushing is a Senior studying communications at UTC. He is a jack of all trades thanks to skills in writing, broadcasting, and audio editing. Eli has worked as a Sports Contributor at the Sparta Expositor and is currently covering prep and college football for The Chattanoogan. He hopes to continue in that field after graduation. He can be reached at eli.rush@icloud.com.

Margarette (Kate) Hixon is an entertainment writer and communication major at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Kate loves to immerse herself into pop culture, including everything from music to television to comic conventions. Her passion for writing and sharing what she loves with the world is what inspires her blooming career as a writer. Kate has written for the University Echo and plans to further her career in journalism. To contact her for work email her at vyq258@mocs.utc.edu

Matthew Cook is a senior at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He is currently majoring in Communications with a Business Administration minor. Matthew is a photographer with experience in videography and audio recording. He is also a Staff Photographer for the UTC Echo publication. In the future, Matthew looks forward to working in some facet of the photography industry. To contact him, email ggf458@mocs.utc.edu

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