A Determined Actress Pulls Her Daughter from the Depths of a Coma

updated 11/16/1981 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/16/1981 01:00AM

At 48, British actress Joan Collins is a well-polished sexpot whose credits include more than 50 mostly B movies (Land of the Pharaohs, The Stud, The Bitch), three marriages and three children. This fall she becomes a regular on ABC's prime-time soap Dynasty, where she is cast as the sultry, pouty ex-wife of tycoon Blake Carrington. But for the past 15 months Collins has been quietly but totally engaged in a poignant personal drama. On Aug. 2, 1980 Katyana "Katy" Kass, 9, the daughter of Joan and her American husband of the past nine years, film producer Ron Kass, was hit by a car in England while the child's parents were out of the country—fulfilling a mother's classic nightmare. The child suffered a skull fracture and severe injuries to the brain stem, which left her in a deep coma. The early prognosis was "poor"—doctors did not expect Katy to survive for more than a few hours. But Collins and Kass doggedly set out to prove the experts wrong. After months of round-the-clock TLC they were able to bring her from their London home last August to L.A. There she has been doing "well" as a third grader in a private L.A. school while Joan shoots her Dynasty episodes. Collins discussed the long fight for Katy's life with PEOPLE'S David Wallace.

For a start, you never believe it is going to happen to your child. We have always taken Katy on our travels, but this one time we left her behind. She stayed with a girlfriend in the Berkshire countryside while Ron and I and my eldest daughter, Tara Newley, took a Friday flight to Paris, where I had to look at some costumes. At about 5 p.m. on Saturday Katy ran into a road and was hit. Nobody in England could find us. They had lost the name of our hotel and our phone number. They finally reached us at 2 a.m. Sunday.

Hospitals never tell you very much. When I heard the word "critical" I got hysterical. Katy's schoolmistress was with her, and everybody was being very calm, trying to make us feel good. But we were in anguish. There are no flights out of Paris at 2 a.m. We called everybody we knew with a private plane, but no luck. Finally we raised an English friend who flew over and picked us up at Paris' Le Bourget Airport at 5:30 a.m.

You cannot envision what it's like to see your child lying in a coma in an intensive care ward, with her head shaved, tubes coming out of everywhere, eyes closed, not moving at all and one arm bent way back because of a contracted muscle. It was such a shock. She looked like an object. I pressed her hand. "Katy," I said, "if you can hear me, squeeze my hand." She squeezed back, and I knew she knew I was there. I just know she did!

"What are her chances?" I asked the doctor. His eyes filled with tears, which was really upsetting, and he said, "Sixty to 40 against." That is when Ron and I broke down. We sort of fell on each other and cried, and then we said, "Katy's not going to die. She's not. She's absolutely not!"

The doctors had originally wanted to do exploratory "brain boring"—what a term! But first they called Central Middlesex, a top hospital in London, and instead decided to rush Katy there by ambulance. She was then put through a brain scan, and the neurosurgeon in charge, Robin Illingworth, decided an operation wasn't necessary. Instead he took an aggressive, brave approach, giving her steroids to reduce the brain swelling, along with other drugs. She was also put on a respirator.

Illingworth thought that if she survived the first 48 hours, she would probably recover. But he also said Katy could be in a coma for six weeks. An eternity!

At first we thought that at some point she would wake up and say, "Hi, Mommy, hi, Daddy, where am I?" like you see on TV. But we soon realized it's a fine line between being in a coma—the closest thing to death—and recovering. Acting on instinct, Ron and I borrowed a mobile home and parked it on the hospital grounds so we would always be near Katy. We decided we would constantly talk to her, touch her, turn her and play music for her, and each of us took bedside shifts from morning to night. We chattered on ceaselessly and played all kinds of recordings, from the sound track of Grease to Peter and the Wolf. We were in touch with Philadelphia's Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential, which advocate helping comatose patients by stimulating their senses of touch, sound, smell and even taste by such things as putting mustard on their tongues and clapping wooden blocks. The days of tiptoeing around coma victims in a darkened room are past.

On the sixth day after the accident Katy was running a risk of infection and had to be taken off the life-support machine. Physicians stood by in case a tracheotomy was needed. Others were skeptical but Illingworth believed she could breathe on her own. When the respirator was removed, Katy started heaving—and breathing. People said it was the first time in 14 years they had seen Illingworth smile.

The first big breakthrough came on the eighth day. I returned from an errand to find a note from Ron on the mobile home: "Come quick, she's opened her eyes!" It was like Christmas and birthdays all at once. I rushed to the intensive care ward, and her eyes were indeed open—but completely blank. They weren't following me!

After 10 days Katy was moved into the children's ward, although progress was scarcely visible. Despite intravenous feeding she lost 20 of her 70 pounds. She was so weak and pale that some of our visiting friends would go off and just sit in their car and cry for an hour. I cried every day myself, though never in front of Katy. I refused to allow anybody to be negative around her. Once I was talking to Katy when an intern interrupted, "You've got to stop this. You're making yourself sick. She's not going to get any better." I took him out of the ward and hissed, "Please don't speak in front of my daughter like that. She can hear." Then I fled to our van and had screaming hysterics for 10 minutes. I punched the wall so hard I sprained my wrist and had to have it taped up.

People who had been in the same situation as Ron and me wrote to us with good advice. Many of them prayed for Katy. I'm half Jewish, but I've never been religious, and I had not realized how many of my friends are believers. One Catholic lady came to the hospital and announced that Katy's "going to recover" and urged me to please God by giving up some cherished bad habit. I gave up chocolate, an addiction of mine. I couldn't give up cigarettes or wine—they kept me going.

Katy's coma gradually lightened until, in the fifth week, we brought her home for a brief visit. Although she didn't speak, she was propped up in a chair, and we fed her mashed food. When it was time to go back to the hospital, Ron carried her down the stairs. Katy screwed up her face as though she wanted to cry, but she couldn't. No tears would come.

After six weeks Katy came home for good—the doctors felt it would hasten her recovery. Just like a newborn, she had to learn everything from scratch, and we had to have day and night nurses. Luckily, Britain's National Health Service paid most of our hospital bills.

On Katy's fifth morning home—the 47th day after the accident—the nurse placed her on the middle of our bed, as usual. And, as usual, her eyes were just staring. But Ron and I, standing on either side of the bed, were sharing a joke. We were both laughing when suddenly Katy laughed too—though sounding like a person with laryngitis. Excited, we kept the joke going, and she kept on laughing.

Other advances followed. Katy had been an avid rider, and one day when I held up a horseshoe in front of her, she whispered "horseshoe"—her first word since the accident. We put in more time with her than ever, and every day there was a new achievement. After about four weeks at home, she took her first steps. In late October she wrote her first words: "Dear Mommy and Daddy, I love you very much." Perfect, if a bit wobbly.

Last January, with the doctors' blessing, Katy returned to school. Her speech is somewhat measured, she has a small memory problem, and one eye is still partly dilated. I urge her to keep practicing her running and dancing. I think she is okay as she is, and I support her. She does lash out in frustration once in a while, but she also has this most extraordinary spirit. In six months—or a year, or maybe two—I hope she'll be exactly as she was. Remember how far she has come. She was inches from death. She has been to a place that none of us will see until we die. It's like she was there—and was called back.

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