Irene's Amazing Grace - From Tragedy to Triumph

On September 26, 2002, I went to work just like usual. I had no clue that by 5:15 that afternoon I would have twelve broken bones and would be air-lifted to a hospital I had never seen. It was just two days before my birthday. My daughter Anna and I were en route from Tampa to Ocala to hear Christian comedian Mary Krulikowski. We never made it to the event; instead, while Anna was helicoptered to the hospital, I was cut out of the car and prepared for the next flight.

My busy life was halted and changed in a way I never imagined possible. Every day for 24 years I had worked alongside my husband, Jim, in our printing/publishing business. Before that I had taught school for eight years. With a minister father, I grew up active in the church - teaching classes, singing in choir, directing choirs, speaking, etc.

More recently, I had been involved in home fellowships, Bible study, volunteering in the bookstore, singing in choir, Angel Tree ministry, and much more. My love for music spread to interpretation with line dancing, which I did on a weekly basis. I also walked three miles every morning around our almost-back-yard lake.

In addition to these interests, I mothered our four children and shouldered many household demands. I also enjoyed our three grandsons, and accompanied Jim on business trips throughout the country. Sometimes this included a ride in an ultralight airplane when we were at a fly-in event. When I could squeeze it in, I dared to clean our house and do such things as move furniture.

Battered from All Sides

Leaving St. Petersburg for Tampa that September day, I enjoyed the beautiful weather as I drove. But when I picked up Anna and we dropped her two boys at the babysitter, a huge downpour greeted us as we ran out to the car. We belted ourselves in and carefully took off. My last memory is our stop at the traffic light just before getting onto I-75. Somehow the Lord took my memory all the way back to that place.

Though I recall nothing at all, I learned from Anna and the accident report that we were hemmed in by traffic so that we had no place to go when a GMC Yukon came straight toward us and hit us head-on. Apparently, he hydroplaned from the opposite side of the interstate and crossed over 200 feet of the median to where we were traveling. The car behind us had no choice but to hit us. We were battered from all sides.

Anna tells me she looked over at me and didn't see any movement. My head was completely engulfed in the airbag. She was sure I was dead. Eventually she heard me moaning. All the traffic in the northbound lanes had been forced to stop. Anna handed her voice-sensitive cell phone to a lady and told her to say, "Call Dad's cell."

He Stood There in Shock

When Jim got home from work, he realized his cell phone was off all day. He decided to check it for any messages. He heard, "Your wife and daughter have been in a serious automobile accident on I-75." That was the complete message. He stood there in shock and had all kinds of images about our condition.

Immediately, Jim called the Florida Highway Patrol to learn more about us. While he was on hold, our home phone rang with personnel from St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa telling him to get to the hospital as soon as possible. He was given no specifics, only the fact that we had both been air-lifted. That was enough to let him know our conditions were serious. He called our Bible study leader, Scott Tunkus, who insisted on driving him to the hospital. Jim grabbed my address book and began calling family and friends to request prayers even though he knew nothing about our status.

"When we arrived, they ushered me into a private room," Jim said, "so a hospital representative and the doctor could talk to me. That was scary. The initial report was that Anna was not seriously injured. Irene suffered serious injuries and was having x-rays and various tests to determine their severity. It seemed like a lifetime to me till they let me see her in the emergency room. I wasn't prepared for what I saw. She was laying there half conscious. I could tell she was in excruciating pain. She was crying out to God, saying, 'Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God.' I don't think she realized I was there.”

Jim continued, "Anna had a broken collar bone and a ton of glass in her hair, over her body, and in her ears. The passenger airbag did deploy, but she was sitting farther away from it than Irene was from hers. Since Irene is shorter and had the seat moved up more for driving, she was protected with the airbag fully surrounding her. As days passed, Anna learned that she also had a herniated disc in her neck plus a ligament problem in her right knee."

After my all-night surgeries, one of the doctors talked with Jim to explain my situation. First, he asked Jim if I had been wearing a seatbelt. Jim told him that I set the example for the rest of the family in always wearing seatbelts. The doctor's second question was about airbags. The answer again was affirmative. The car had driver and passenger airbags.

Jim was completely amazed when the doctor told him the airbags saved my life and prevented worse injuries for Anna.

Allen's Death Granted Me Life

We had just purchased a 1995 Honda Accord one month before the accident. Our previous Accord was four years older and did not have airbags. The only reason we even had this newer car was because we bought it from the estate of a dear friend, Allen Neighbarger, who had died in an ultralight crash just seven months before my accident. It's overwhelming for me to realize that Allen's death granted me life. His death made the car available. It's but a taste of what Jesus did for me.

The doctor went on to describe in detail the exact nature of my injuries. He listed all areas for Jim - complete breaks of both left and right fibula and right tibia plus hairline fractures of left tibia (lower legs), crushed right patella and chipped left patella (kneecaps), complete break into three pieces of my left femur and complete break of my right femur (upper legs), complete break of ulna and radius (left forearm), complete break of humerus (right upper arm), several rib fractures, collapsed right lung, and a head concussion.

Jim almost fell over in his effort to comprehend it all. He knew I must have been in a horrendous amount of pain.

From the CT scans, the doctors noticed a dark area inside my body which raised concern. The general surgeon performed exploratory surgery first to check out my insides and palpate all my organs. Finding all to be well, the orthopedic surgeons spent the rest of the 12 hours realigning my bones, inserting rods into the bone centers, and screwing them into place at the ends of the bones.

My lower right leg has a rod from knee to ankle. Both upper legs have rods from hip to knee. My left forearm has two stainless steel plates. My right upper arm had a rod from shoulder to elbow, but this was removed four months later. The rods are all titanium and are secured with titanium screws.

When Jim received this information, it was about 8:00 in the morning. He had been there all night wondering about me and praying for me. I was placed into intensive care where I stayed for eight days.

Depressed and Frustrated

My stay at the hospital was 15 days, and then I was transferred to the rehab wing of a skilled nursing center for 4 weeks. Knowing this was my destination, I became depressed and frustrated. I even tried to get out of bed by myself in the early morning of my transfer date. That was non-productive as I needed the help of two persons to get out of bed.

I really did NOT want to go to that place. My father had ministered at such places and our family went along to sing. I did not want to be there even if it was a rehab wing. I was angry at my husband for allowing this to happen. And believe me, visiting there and living there are not compatible experiences.

Before I left the hospital I had questions for Dr. Roth, my general surgeon. "Will I walk again? I used to line dance, what about that?" I asked. He assured me I would do both. I told him about trying to get out of bed. Of course, he told me that if I do it again, I would probably fall and split my head wide open. His answer was enough to make me choose to be good.

My first day in rehab was Thursday and I received no therapy until Monday. With nothing to do and being stuck in bed, I cried the whole 4 days. I couldn't see out my window. My roommate was anti-social. I couldn't get out of bed without two staff persons lifting me out. Even if I could have been in a wheelchair, I couldn't push myself around because of my broken arms. I was not a happy camper. I slipped easily into a "poor-me" state of mind.

On my fourth day, my bed was moved to the window because my roommate was discharged. God provided me with a sweet Christian roommate called Everlena who was loving and interesting. The first night I heard her softly thanking the Lord for the seconds, for the minutes, for the hours, and for the day. I was amazed to hear this. She could hear me sniffing, and she said, "Miss Irene, are you crying?" I said that I was. She instructed me, "Don't cry! You pray to God!" That was just what I needed.

Part of my therapy included lying in bed with my right leg on a machine that bent my leg for me. The purpose was to increase the angle of bend. When I started with this machine, I could bend my leg 30 degrees. I had to use this two times every day for three hours each time. Talk about a boring thing for Miss Active! When I finally went home, my bend had increased to 55 degrees.

With my home health care physical therapist, we got my bend to 90 degrees; I'm now at about 115 degrees.

Thank God for Capri Pants

My black boot-braces were always removed for therapy. Then I could see my damaged legs. It was not a pretty sight, seeing where the bones had protruded through my skin. I thanked God for capri pants, for I was certain I would never be wearing shorts again in public.

Occupational therapists worked on my upper body movement. My arms were extremely weak. It was soon evident that my right humerus was having a severe problem. I was unable to do even the simplest tasks without great pain. It was very discouraging.

While at the rehab place, the nurse gave me Lovenox injections in my abdomen every morning and every evening. I didn't like this and didn't remember it being done at the hospital. I learned that it had been administered intravenously then. The purpose for this was to prevent blood clots due to the many surgeries I had.

Before my discharge date, the nurse taught me how to give myself injections as I had to continue this at home. She had me practice with a grapefruit. When I was finally ready, she gave me the real thing and watched as I injected myself. I stabbed myself with the needle and immediately yanked it right out because I was so shocked. I hadn't even given myself the Lovenox, so I had to do it all over again. Every time this procedure was done, I could see the long, ugly scar from my sternum to below my navel from the exploratory surgery. It seemed every direction I looked there was some type of unsightly decoration on my body.

Hardships for Irene and Jim

My pride was under attack every time I had to use the bedpan. Oh, how I longed to use the restroom like the old days. I refused to use a bedpan when I went home because I was sick of it. It made a hardship for Jim because he had to lift me onto the toilet as I couldn't put weight on any of my appendages. I soon learned to slide across a special transfer board. This was one of the most frustrating parts of my recovery process. After two months, I was finally allowed to put pivot weight on my left foot. I still needed assistance, but it was easier.

Tears of Joy

My first shower was exactly four months after the accident. I waited until I had started walking even though I had a large shower bench to sit on. The last thing I wanted was to slip and end up in the hospital again. On my first shower day, Jim helped me onto the bench and then gave me my space. I started crying as I showered. This scared him. But I told him I was crying because I was so happy.

Every time I visited my orthopedic doctor, Dr. DiPasquale, I had at least 20 x-rays because I had so many areas to be watched. Two persons would lift me up onto the x-ray table. The area Dr. D watched most was my upper arm, the humerus. This was giving me lots of trouble. Almost four months after the accident, the titanium rod and screws were removed in three hours of surgery.

My Anger - God's Vengeance

With a special x-ray machine a couple weeks later, we were able to see that the broken ends of the humerus still did not line up properly in a straight line. In fact, they moved independently and in opposite directions from each other. When we drove away from this visit, I cried hard and was really angry at the driver of the vehicle that hit us. I wanted that man to pay; I wanted him to suffer. But God reminded me of Isaiah 35:4 (NIV): "Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you." Vengeance was God's prerogative, not mine.

A decision had to be made about my humerus - either more surgery to try to correct the alignment of the bone ends or work on having it grow together as is and do more therapy to strengthen it. More surgery meant I would have a long, visible scar on the front of my upper arm, from shoulder to elbow. The bone ends would have to be filed off and lined up, and then two steel plates would be placed on either side of the bone and screwed into position.

The no-surgery option meant I would need to wear a bone growth stimulator 3 hours a day for 18-24 months. It emits an electromagnetic field that stimulates growth, and there is no pain from wearing it. Dr. D encouraged me to go with the stimulator, which I did. I was so thankful he was not a knife-happy doctor.

Before the humerus rod was removed, I was able to raise my arm to waist height. After the surgery and 18 months with the stimulator and therapy, I could raise my arm over my head almost straight up. I can swim a modified stroke. Even though I have an enlarged bump-like area from the uneven joining of the bone ends, I'm still happy I chose the stimulator instead of surgery. Funny thing is some people say, "Wow! You must be into some body building!"

More Difficult Days Ahead

Two days before Christmas, I went to Dr. D for more x-rays. He said I could finally put weight on both legs. That was the best Christmas gift I've ever had. It meant I could start walking. Yippee! I was so excited, but I didn't understand the difficult time ahead for me in learning to walk all over.

My home physical therapist helped me stand up for the first time using a walker. As I did so, I cried my eyes out with amazement. I was very lightheaded when I first stood. So, it meant I needed to rest, get up again, and repeat. Then I was ready for baby steps. Plus I had to learn how to use the walker. My goal was to add more steps each day. I felt I needed wheels on my walker to at least give me the sensation that I was on a roll. I decorated it with a lovely bow, so it wouldn't seem quite so depressing.

Finally, I was ready for out-patient therapy, a good move which got me out of the house and gave me social contact. My physical therapist (Beth) is a triathlon athlete and she runs the Boston marathon. Beth was a great pusher; no slacking off with her. I liked that. I was soon walking with a cane, learning to walk on the grass and climb the steps into our handicap van so I could abandon the wheelchair altogether. Hallelujah!

During my last 2 weeks of out-patient, Beth had me practice walking in the house from room to room and at our nearby lake, adding a little more time each day. My goal (and hers) was for me to walk around the lake (almost one mile). She met Jim and me there one Saturday evening and we all three walked around the lake, in two segments - walk 23 minutes, sit and rest for 10, and finish it up with 17, for a total of 40 minutes, what I once did in 13 minutes. I could hardly get into the van, I was so tired. But I was happy and determined to get back to my 3-mile walk everyday.

One of my last days there, Beth took me to the stairwell and told me to walk up the stairs and back down. I figured she would be going alongside me, but no. She stood at the bottom, coaching and cheering me on. Instantly, my tears overflowed for the joy of it. Coming down the stairs was next to impossible due to insufficient bend in my right knee, but I did it!

Daring to Drive Again

The next big feat was to tackle driving. Though I did not remember any part of my accident, I was afraid. Someone could hit me again just like before. I figured an industrial park empty of people on a Sunday afternoon would be a good place to practice. I was certain my legs would give me the most difficulty, but my arms turned out to be more troublesome. My enjoyment of driving has gone down, and I find myself praying a lot, especially if I'm hemmed in with traffic. Also, I'm very particular about not riding in a car that has no airbags.

The Medicine I Needed

What's in the well comes up in the bucket, and so it was with my emotions. I had many days of feeling sorry for self. One of those was interrupted by a phone from my brother in Tennessee. I don't know why I even bothered to answer the phone. I sure didn't feel like talking to anyone. But his call was the medicine I needed.

Worry - I did that when I was left at home alone. Would Jim come back? Would something happen to him? Anxiety - I rehearsed my accident over and over, especially at night. How could this possibly happen that I don't remember it? Surely it must be a bad dream. Yet pictures of my crumpled-up car proved it. And I knew that my body was not the same.

A verse came to me from Solomon in Proverbs 12:25, "Anxiety in the heart of man causes depression, but a good word makes it glad." (NKJV) It was like God was telling me to give a good word to others, and especially those who are suffering in any way. He reminded me of how good words from others had encouraged me. I knew I needed to lighten up.

This opened the door to humor. I discovered what a healer it is. Suddenly I remembered one of my dad's many sayings, "Keep laughing." My husband and I read the comics every day, and we try to make each other laugh often. It is a great stress reliever.

Several facets about the accident were actually pretty comical. I remembered how obsessed I had been with wondering what clothing I was wearing at that time - especially underwear. I just didn't remember what I was wearing and I wanted to know. Jim couldn't understand it, but we had a good laugh about it. You see, my mother had always told us kids, "Make sure your underwear is clean and not beat up. You never know when you might be in an accident." Mother is deceased, but she no doubt would have been more concerned about me than about my underwear.

Focus Forward

The greatest comfort for me was to count my blessings; to focus forward, and not look back. The accident was history. It couldn't be undone. First, I was so grateful that Anna was not injured more. She had two young boys to take care of. Had she had my injuries, it would have been a terrible thing for her.

God provided me with the best doctors. Our church women's group helped me for seven months with over 200 hours of service. Our men's group helped by building ramps for my return home. I was blessed with flowers, books, cards, gifts, and many visits from family and friends.

I'm grateful for the car we had just purchased, for the airbags, for the helicopter lift to the hospital, for minimal scars, for personal growth, for my family drawing closer, for my church friends, for new opportunities for ministry, and the list goes on. Also, I'm told that God painted a rainbow over the accident scene an hour after it occurred.

Surviving this, my fifth and worst accident, I know God has work for me yet on planet Earth. The first book I read after coming home was Lisa Beamer's book, "Let's Roll," in which she describes God's providential love in what transpired on the United flight that was brought down on Pennsylvania soil on September 11, 2001. This book helped me accept God's sovereign allowance of my accident. He knew the road we were traveling. He knew it was raining. He knew the driver of the GMC Yukon was hydroplaning and heading straight toward us. He knew I was hemmed in on all sides.

At any time, God could have changed the components. He could have diverted the Yukon. He could have made a way for me to avoid the situation. But, for whatever reason, He allowed the natural course of events to occur that day. Knowing the effect it would have for me and my family, He nevertheless permitted it to happen.

Going back and fretting about it does not undo the event. It does not make life different or better. I must trust my Sovereign Lord in His promise to never leave me nor abandon me. I know that I cannot fully understand all the "whys," but I'm at peace accepting His sovereign love.

Isaiah 55:8,9 (NKJV) tells us, "My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways," says the Lord. "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts."

Attitude Adjustment

Perhaps the biggest change in my life is my attitude adjustment orchestrated by my Savior. I can be truly thankful only by remembering that all things come from God, including my attitudes. This means that I must live in the belief that God is working for good even when it seems totally not good and that everything is falling apart. My decision to be thankful gives meaning to my pain.

I am reminded that God offers me untold blessings in this hurtful experience. He is there to provide comfort for me each day. What God has promised in the midst of my pain is real life, real joy, incredible growth, and unbelievable beauty. He has not promised the absence of pain.

Do I have physical pain? Yes, I have pain everyday. But I have made a conscious decision not to go there. If I go there, I may not come back. We can cradle the pain of our past and the pain of our present and allow that pain to surround us each day if we so choose. But I don't believe that is what God wants us to do. He wants us to bring our pain to Him and allow Him to remold us into a beautiful vessel fit for His use.

My personal resolve is to live in relationship with Jesus in such a way that He can turn my troubles into triumphs. I want to surrender myself each day to my Maker and serve Him daily as He indicates. When I focus on the Lord, the negative stuff that has happened to me holds less importance. He helps me focus on what I can do, not on what I can't. Robert Schuller says it well, "Look not at what you've lost, but look at what you have left." Being thankful and counting our blessings is much more rewarding than mulling over things that we cannot change.


Contact Irene for Speaking Engagements