Hit-and-run victim emerges from coma, suspect search goes on

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by JIM DOUGLAS

WFAA

Posted on August 21, 2012 at 12:19 AM

Updated Tuesday, Aug 21 at 6:35 AM

DALLAS - Kay Riffle leaned over her husband's hospital bed last month, and laid her head on his chest.

"Honey, can you lift one finger?" she softly asked.

She spent more than a month holding a hand that could not hold hers. Trying to coax any response from her comatose husband. Offering kisses he could not return, and losing hope that Mitch Riffle would ever wake up.

She often thought back to the last thing he told her when he left home before the crash: "I love you."

Now, when Kay kisses Mitch in his room at Baylor Institute for Rehabilitation in Dallas, he kisses her back.

"I love you," he tells her. "More than ever."

Riffle emerged from the darkness slowly a few weeks ago; Eyes opening, blank at first.

"He would look at me the same way he would look at nurses," Kay said. "And that's scary because we didn't know if he would ever know who we were."

Then came a sound.

"We gathered around," Kay said. "Lots of jumping up and down, and screaming and calling everyone. Trying to get him to say more."

Now he responds to questions, and recognizes his wife and daughters. Even News 8 reporter Jim Douglas.

A little more comes back each day -- almost each hour.

"That's my youngest daughter," he said, looking around his room and smiling. "And my oldest."

Mitch Riffle recently moved from a hospital to Baylor rehabilitation, where he's relearning his life.

The right side of his head is still swollen and misshaped, where part of his skull was removed. He wears a helmet until doctors can replace the bone.

His grip is getting firmer, and his goals a little higher.

"Push up, Mitch," said a physical therapist, encouraging him to stand and try to take a step.

He stands for only a few seconds.

Around his hometown of Eastland, he's known for strong arms that can build or fix just about anything.

But Riffle's damaged brain and broken body seemed unfixable. His wife said doctors were blunt.

"'Even if he doesn't die, he'll never eat, swallow or do anything,'" she remembers doctors telling her.

Last week, he fed himself for the first time. He's still trying to regain use of the left side of his body.

Bits of personality are starting to poke through -- occasional laughter and smiles.

But the laughter disappears when Kay shows Mitch a drawing of man.

"Honey, who is that?" she asks.

"That's the person who hit me," he replies.

He's never seen the tall, blond man -- only the sketch drawn from the memory of a witness.

Someone who saw a man checking front end damage on a Chevy pickup on June 14. It was just a few minutes after a hit-and-run driver sent Mitch Riffle's small pickup tumbling down an embankment on Interstate-20 near Eastland.

Department of Public Safety investigators have followed leads, but still need the public's help to find a suspect.

"You're perfect to us," Kay tells Mitch. "Just like before the wreck."

He repeats her words back to her.

"Just like before the wreck."

It's not clear how much his brain will recover. Or his arms and legs. But his family's heart is finally starting to heal.

"He can tell us that he loves us, and that's enough," Kay Riffle said. "If we got nothing more than what we have today... that's enough."

E-mail jdouglas@wfaa.com

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