On May 23, 29-year-old Rachel Sorace, Lakota, was preparing a barbeque picnic for herself and her children. They had gathered at Scout’s Reservoir Dam on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, in an area where many swim. As Rachel was beginning to cook and her children were wading in the water, her 7-year-old son was suddenly gone. Rachel jumped into the water and found her son in the cold water below. Grabbing him, she pushed him towards the shore to safety, but the water pulled her down, and she did not return to the shore.
Rachel’s mother, Norma Sorace, Lakota, explained that her daughter knew how to swim, but it was early in the year, and the deeper cold water was blamed for her drowning. “I guess it was too much, there was an undercurrent. It’s a dam, and there is an undertow,” she said. “When the kids got in they were pulled deeper. There is a place where it’s only three to four feet wide, and maybe only waist high and then it drops off. Her littlest one went down and didn’t come up. Rachel found him and brought him up.”
“The little guy wasn’t breathing so they were trying to get him to come to. His brother turned him over to get the water out, and then he started coughing. Then they noticed that Rachel hadn’t come out of the water,” Norma said.
The children stood on the grass with a friend of Rachel’s, and dialed 911 three times before they were able to reach emergency personnel. When they arrived, an unconscious Rachel was pulled from the water. What seemed like only a few minutes was determined by doctors to have been at least 15 minutes, judging by damage to Rachel’s brain.
Rachel now lies in a coma at the Madonna Rehabilitation Center in Lincoln, Nebraska, where she is receiving treatment for traumatic brain injury and physical rehabilitation for comatose patients. Norma has taken Rachel’s four children into her care, along with the two children of another daughter she lost in a car accident just three years ago.
“That little boy just turned seven. He was fine, but now he has a traumatic issue,” Rachel’s sister-in-law, Michele Eagleman, Quechan, said.
“Those children saw their mother floating in the water,” Norma added. “The kids are angry. First they blamed each other, now they miss her a lot. I am trying to get them to counseling, we will be setting up something at the school. They are acting out in ways they never used to.”
Brian Dillion, director of Dam Safety in Rosebud, said the area had once been a creek or a watershed that was dammed into a man-made structure. He described the reservoir as a fishery, a place that holds water for the aquifer, and a place of recreation. “Most all people here swim in the dams. What happened to Rachel is not a regular occurrence,” he said. “The water level stays consistent and it’s designed not to fluctuate as a whole. It wasn’t something that happens a lot, it was an unusual situation.”
Right now, Rachel is fairly stable. Her body temperature is self-regulated, as is her blood pressure. “She is not completely gone,” Eagleman said. “You don’t know what is going to happen. You are looking for a miracle. Some people come out months later, some years.”
The doctor told Norma that a lot of people do recover from similar situations, but that Rachel might be in a vegetative state. Norma’s voice began to break; she began to cry but continued, “They wanted me to put her in comfort care, in hospice, right away. They said her brain is never going to come back, she will probably be like this the rest of her life.”
Norma has had glimmers of hope, though. “I know she is in there, she showed me the last time I saw her. I was the only one in the room with her and when I started to talk to her, her eyes opened and her eyeballs moved back and forth until they focused on where my voice was coming from. She tried to move her mouth, she has a tracheotomy, and she started making sounds. She had a cadence of talking.”
The children are making the transition to living with their grandmother in Rosebud tribal housing. Like many in her community, Norma gets by day to day. She wishes the children had more to do, toys, arts and crafts to keep them occupied. “It’s hard; they are all running in different directions,” she said with a small laugh.
Eagleman said that people in Nebraska have contributed beds, mattresses, backpacks, and school supplies, but the family is still facing hurdles. Norma does not drive and relies on others to drive her the six hours to visit her daughter. “This is not the beginning or the end of this, and we want to keep Norma above water,” Eagleman said.
Norma said people have been praying at church, at sundance, “and a friend of ours made a trip to Bear Butte and prayed for two days. People have been very sweet.”
Norma, who will be 60 in January, has not really reached out to her neighbors for help. “I always felt funny about asking for the help. Most people here don’t have the means to do anything. My sister helps and my niece comes and watches the kids when I go see Rachel.”
Norma’s main income is derived from her social security check, which must cover the children’s needs and gas for the 350-mile trip to the hospital. With school starting, the children will need winter clothing, winter jackets, under garments, snow boots, shoes, blankets, pajamas and slippers, sheets, and pillow cases; also non-perishable food like cereals, canned goods, powdered milk.
There are a total of six children, Rachel’s four children and two from her previous daughter’s death. There are three girls, ages 14, 11, and 9, and two boys 13, 11, and 7. If you would like to help them through this transition and financial hardship, hygiene products, bath towels, washcloths, paper products, gas cards, books, movies, arts and crafts would also be welcome. Items may be mailed to Norma Sorace, P.O. Box 694, Rosebud, South Dakota. 57570.