After an exhaustive, all-night 12-hour shift in Memorial’s Heart & Vascular Center, Brooke Whittaker, R.N., was looking forward to some much-needed sleep. But as she was heading home east on the Indiana Toll Road around 7:30 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 17, something caught her eye.

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Brooke with Serena at Memorial.

A mangled minivan, smoke billowing from the hood and blown-out windows, rested in the grassy median. The driver, Ester Pecora, who is from Rome and was visiting family in the United States, was westbound when her minivan went off the roadway into the median, struck an emergency vehicle turnaround and went airborne. The vehicle rolled several times.

Brooke immediately pulled her car over and ran to help. Screams of “My baby! My baby!” coming from Ester pierced the air. Seeing that Ester and her husband Claudio were both breathing, Brooke scanned the backseat and spotted a little girl in a booster seat with a seatbelt wrapped around her neck and body. Not thinking twice, Brooke, wearing a sweatshirt and scrub pants, dove through the broken window, untangled the seatbelt from around Serena and pulled the crying three-year-old from the vehicle.

Brooke stood outside the minivan next to the mother, holding and comforting the child for the next 45 minutes. The girl was transported with her mother by ambulance to Memorial, while the father was taken in a separate ambulance.

Claudio was released two days after the crash, while Ester, who had to undergo back surgery, was released after five days. Ester had to remain with relatives in the United States until September 4 due to back surgery, but has since returned to Italy.

Ester is grateful Brooke responded the way she did the morning of Aug. 17. The two formed an instant friendship and are now Facebook friends. Ester even urged Brooke to come visit her in Rome. “Because of my injuries, I could not help my daughter, but Brooke was right there for her,” says Ester. “She was like an angel.”

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Brooke, Serena and Ester.