Fighting back: Kansas MMA fighter wakes from coma, recovering from crash

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carmella in ring, courtesy carmella james_1556574979501.jpg-846624078.jpg

WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) – A professional Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter from Kansas, critically injured in a crash, is beating the odds.

Carmella James, 25, was riding her bicycle to work in May of 2018 on Rock Road near 55th Street South when she was hit by a suspected drunk driver, according to the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office.

Carmella’s grandmother said she still remembers the moment the hospital called to tell her the news.

“I turned around in the middle of the road. I made a u-turn right in the middle of the road, got stopped by a sheriff, a highway patrolman,” said LaRene James.

LaRene said she and her son, Carmella’s dad, immediately dropped everything in Oklahoma City and rushed to Wichita.

RELATED LINK | Kansas MMA fighter hit by suspected drunk driver

“As a dad, my heart went to the pit of my stomach,” said Carmella’s dad Brad James.

“It seemed like my breath was taken away,” LaRene said.

LaRene said the hospital staff told them Carmella had suffered a traumatic brain injury and she likely would not survive.

“We both just started praying and praying,” LaRene said. 

FOLLOWING FAITH

LaRene James said faith has played a pivitol role in Carmella’s survival and recovery.

“You know, when she was in elementary school, some of the students used to call her pastor. They would say she was a preacher,” LaRene said.

LaRene said she found herself preaching to nearly everyone who questioned Carmella’s condition.

“Some of the associates, her family from the gym, some of them, and friends that wanted me to let her go and I said, ‘No,'” said LaRene. “God told me he wouldn’t put more on me than I could bear. He told me just trust in him and he will make a way out of no way, so I gave it back to the Lord.”

LaRene said she never doubted Carmella would survive.

Even after spending about two months in a coma, LaRene said she was hopeful.

“A lot of people jumped in on the faith. There were some who still didn’t believe, but like I told them, ‘Watch the God I serve. That’s all you have to do. Watch the God I serve,” she said.

About eight weeks after the crash, Carmella started to breathe on her own.

ROAD TO RECOVERY

Carmella was released from a Wichita hospital about two months after the crash. 

She then spent about nine months at a rehab facility near Kansas City. 

In April, LaRene moved Carmella home to Oklahoma City.

“It’s lovely having her home. It really is. I don’t have to worry so much about her way down there, 5 hours away,” LaRene said. 

Carmella cannot walk or talk just yet, but she is able to express herself.

“She not only is moving her legs, she is moving her arms and she laughs,” LaRene said.

Carmella is learning sign language to better communicate. She also uses a sheet with letters on it to spell out her wants, needs and feelings.

During an interview with KSN in mid-April, Carmella signed, “All of this is crazy.”

Several days after the interview, Carmella was transfered to a rehab facility in Oklahoma City where she will undergo speech, physical and occupational therapy on site.

“She’s a fighter,” LaRene said.

About a week before the crash, Carmella’s coach told KSN she had just signed a contract for a major fight in Louisiana.

“She was going to make it,” Carmella’s coach Marcio Laselva told KSN in 2018. 

Carmella’s dad said it is not likely his daughter will fight again, but he said she does want to become a coach.

“She will let you know God isn’t through with her yet. He’s got something for her to do and he is honoring her dreams,” LaRene said.

WHO IS THE SUSPECT?

Larry Gaines, 34, is charged with one count of aggravated battery while under the influence in the case.

Lt. Tim Myers with the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office said Gaines was driving drunk when he hit Carmella on her bicycle on May 22, 2018.

Lt. Myers said Gaines was arrested the week before the crash for his third DUI. He has since been convicted of the DUI in Derby.

RELATED LINK | Man suspected of hitting bicyclist in Derby, charged with 2 counts of felony DUI in prior incident

A jury trial is scheduled for May 13, 2019.

If Gaines is found guilty, his sentencing could range from probation to more than 11 months in jail, according to the Sedgwick County District Attorney’s Office.

CARMELLA’S FAMILY FORGIVES SUSPECT

Immediately following the crash, LaRene told KSN she forgave the man behind the wheel.

“We have to forgive. That’s what the word says, but we will never forget,” said LaRene during a 2018 interview with KSN.

LaRene said she continues to think of the driver.

“My prayers are still for him,” she said. 

While she has put her anger aside, LaRene said she is hopeful justice will be served.

RELATED LINK | Wichita MMA fighter’s family forgives suspected drunk driver

“I would love to see him go ahead and do some time and while he is there get in touch with the Lord and make a final decision that alcohol is not the answer especially to get behind a car wheel and drive,” LaRene said.

Carmella’s father said it has been difficult for him to forgive the driver. He said he took Carmella’s fighting career away from her.

“So as a dad not to see her still doing this (fighting) that bothers me more ways than one,” Brad said. 

Overall, the family said they are grateful Carmella survived and they hopeful for her future.

“She is still blessed. I am still blessed ,” Brad said.

“A lot of times it’s tears of joy. You never get tired of saying, ‘Thank you Lord’ and sometimes when you can’t think of nothing to say you just give God a wave offering, hallelujah, hallelujah,” LaRene said.

KSN.COM RELATED COVERAGE

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Aaron Nolan is a morning show co-host in Little Rock, Arkansas with Nexstar Media Group's KARK-TV. He has a passion for social media and makes it an important part of his daily routine. Click here to read Aaron's full bio.