By Brandon HENSLEY
To hear her sister’s voice, Stephanie Bernabel has to press play. Like many young people, much of her life can be found inside her iPhone. It’s in there, in the several videos she has stored, where her sister can be found. Maybe she’s dancing or singing. Maybe she’s cracking jokes with her typical sarcastic sense of humor.
It doesn’t really matter what the videos show. What’s important is that it’s her; it’s the real Karla Bernabel.
Because of what happened, friends and family have no choice but to wait for the real Karla to come back, the one they describe as outgoing, selfless and trustworthy, the one who wants to travel the world and take care of people.
It could take a few months. It could take a few years. Doctors told the family she could make a full recovery because she’s so young, only 25 years old. Then again, it’s possible she stays the way she is for a long time.
“Her life is just kind of on hold right now,” Stephanie said.
The family was nervous when they got the call the morning of Jan. 16, but Stephanie still wasn’t fully prepared for what she saw upon arriving at Providence Holy Cross in Mission Hills. Karla, a La Crescenta resident, was in an accident on her way to work, a nursing clinic in Van Nuys that cares for the elderly. It wasn’t just any accident; Karla was on her Honda CRX, a black and yellow motorcycle she bought three years ago.
Stephanie thought she’d get to Holy Cross and find Karla in a cast with an exasperated look on her face, stubbornly acknowledging her actions. I know Steph, is what she would say. I won’t do it again. It’s stupid.
What she found was worse. Reports are that Karla flew from the bike and, though her helmet saved her life, she suffered brain damage. She underwent surgery and was in ICU, and doctors induced her into a coma. She was transferred to another hospital where she stayed until earlier this month, when she was moved to a rehabilitation center.
Her eyes are now open, but she remains unresponsive. Stephanie said her family was in denial at first, but being reminded countless times by doctors, nurses and administrators has made them understand: Brain injuries are difficult to predict, and there’s no telling when she will improve.
When she isn’t working, Gloria Bernabel spends most of her time by Karla’s bed. If my daughter can’t have a life, then I can’t either, she told Stephanie. When friends and family visit Karla, no one is depressed. Everything is fine. They talk about their day, hold her hand and play music, mostly Spanish Christian and country.
The main thing they do, though, every minute of every day, is wait.
“We have a strong faith in God,” Stephanie said. “We believe that’s she’s in God’s hands, and whatever He has planned, we need to trust Him that everything’s going to work out. But it’s still very difficult. It’s challenging because we love her.”
The foothills community has been there to help. A group of friends set up a page for Karla on the website gofundme.com. As of this week, over $8,500 has been raised for her medical bills. On Tuesday, the Glendale restaurant Scarantino’s Italian Inn held a fundraiser from noon to 9 p.m., donating 20% of the sales, whether from in house or take-out.
The place was packed. Late in the evening Stephanie was there with several people, including her father José and cousins Marvin and Aléjandro Rosa. They shook many hands from supporters and well-wishers. They talked loud and seemed happy. It was, after all, a good day.
MaryJo Scarantino, co-owner of the restaurant, said it wasn’t even a question of whether or not to hold the event.
“What we’re doing is minimal,” she said. “It’s something to get people to open their hearts and support her. This is what we do. It’s about helping people.”
With all of the community support, it’s difficult to imagine a time when Karla wasn’t popular, or well-known. Kt Nagao said that time was over a decade ago at Rosemont Middle School. The two were placed in the same science class one day. Both alone and friendless, as she described it.
They’ve been inseparable ever since.
Nagao deserves much of the credit for organizing both the online and Scarantino’s fundraisers. She isn’t surprised by the amount of donations so far.
“I kind of expected that anyway because she does so much for other people, so it’s kind of coming back to her,” Nagao said. “I’m doing all I can for her because she always does all she can for me and everyone she loves.”
Nagao visits her often. Her bond with the Bernabels is strong.
“They treat me like I’m another daughter of theirs,” she said. “Gloria, she’s a fighter like Karla. That’s where Karla gets a lot of her personality from.”
It’s that personality people hope to see again soon. One of the videos Stephanie has on her phone was sent to her by a coworker of Karla’s from the nursing clinic. In the video, seniors are playing Bingo, looking rather unenthused. But someone’s in the background trying to get their attention. She’s singing karaoke, looking and sounding silly. But she doesn’t care, and it doesn’t take long to figure out who it is.
“That was her way of trying to liven up the mood,” Stephanie said. “That’s Karla.”
To donate to Karla’s medical bills, visit www.gofundme.com/karlabernabel.