Easter Awakening

After a car accident leaves his wife in a coma, a husband and his family pray for a miracle.

by
- Posted on Mar 20, 2013

Dewayne, Natalie and their daughters

My alarm went off at 4:30 a.m., as usual. I took a peek out the window. The weatherman had been right. An icy rain fell over the Great Smoky Mountains. The roads would be bad today, no doubt about that.

I shaved, showered and gave my still-sleeping wife, Natalie, a soft kiss on the forehead. Two mornings a week, I'm up before Natalie. This was one of them. She could sleep in a little till she had to take our youngest daughter, Chelsea, to Smokey Mountain Elementary School.

I was at Elders Superette, our family-owned convenience store on Highway 441, by 5:30 a.m. Plenty of time to open the pumps and get the coffee going for the commuter rush, or our country equivalent of it.

In the window I hung a "Live Bait" sign that Natalie had made for me. The colors were in vivid lavender, Natalie's favorite. She uses it every chance she gets.

I was prepping another round of coffee a little after seven when two ambulances and a fire truck shot by outside, sirens shrieking. That's a sound that will get anyone's heart pumping.

They were headed in the direction of Smokey Mountain Elementary School. Probably a wreck, I thought. Hopefully it wasn't anything too serious.

Natalie would have dropped Chelsea off a few minutes earlier.

I turned the radio to the police scanner: "Asheville, this is Cherokee. We need a medical chopper at 441 by Smokey Mountain Elementary School."

A chopper! That didn't sound good. Choppers only flew in from Memorial Mission Hospital in Asheville, 60 miles away. They wouldn't make the trip for anything but a really serious accident. How would they land in this mess?

Right then the telephone rang. It was Alice Pressley, our pastor Ned Pressley's wife. "Dewayne," she said, "I'm on 441 by Smokey Mountain Elementary School. Natalie's been in a wreck."

My hands trembling, I dropped the phone and rushed outside. I was locking up the pumps when Pastor Ned pulled into the parking lot.

"Alice just called," he said, hopping into my car. "I'm praying, Dewayne, I'm praying. Let's go."

Through the fog, the telltale flashing red lights came into view, then the shocking scene: A big Ford pickup had T-boned Natalie's Nissan Sentra, completely crushing it from the driver's side.

I jumped out of the car, suddenly unsure of what to do next. Where was Natalie? Not still trapped in the twisted heap of the Nissan?

Someone grabbed me. I was told she was in the back of the ambulance already. EMS techs crowded around her. One of them—a guy I know—stopped me before I could get to her.

"We're doing everything we can, Dewayne. Chopper can't land because of the fog. We need to get some fluids into her before we take her to the hospital."

I raced over to Smokey Mountain, ran in and pulled Chelsea out of class. Then I called our other daughter, 17-year-old Brittany, on my cell.

"Your mom's been in an accident," I told her, keeping my voice level. I didn't want either of the girls to hear the fear in it. "We need to meet her at the hospital."

We got to our local hospital minutes after the ambulance. "She's getting a blood transfusion," a doctor told us. "We're sending her on to Memorial Mission in Asheville by ambulance soon as we can."

The girls and I were silent, but I never stopped praying all the way there. I knew the girls were praying too. I wanted—needed—to believe that Natalie was going to be okay. That's what I kept telling myself every last mile to Asheville.

By the time we got to the hospital, a heavy snow was falling. It was thundering too—an eerie, ominous sound.

"It looks like she's bleeding internally," the doctor there said to me. "We want to do exploratory surgery to check for any internal injuries."

Soon family and friends started to arrive. I have never been shy about talking to God, and as I sat in that waiting room, I poured my heart out to him.

"All things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive," it says in Matthew. I felt like I needed a physical reminder of that promise. So I wrote it down on a piece of paper and slipped it into my pocket.

Finally the surgeon came out. "Her pelvis is broken, she ruptured her spleen, broke a lot of bones and there are a lot of smaller injuries as well," he told us. "But all of that can heal. The real question is whether her brain was damaged. A CAT scan will give us some answers."

"You can go into the post-op room and see her now," a nurse said to the girls and me. "But just for a minute."

I tried to keep on staying strong for the girls. The last thing they needed right now was to see me cry. But it was hard.

My wife lay amid a mass of bandages and tubes. And I could see that her head had been badly cut. I took her hand and whispered into her ear, "The girls are still young. They need their mother. I need you too."

That was all the time we had.

Then, good news. It seemed that our prayers had been answered. Natalie's CAT scan came back clean.

"It doesn't look like she suffered any brain trauma at all," her doctor said to me. "With any luck, she should wake up by tomorrow."

That night, the girls and I drove to my parents' house back in Whittier, 50 miles south of Asheville. Another half-dozen miles and we would have been home, but none of us could bear the idea of seeing our empty house with all its reminders that Mom was gone from it.

"Don't worry," I told Brittany and Chelsea. "Mom will wake up tomorrow, just you wait and see."

But she didn't. The doctors ran an MRI, which shows a lot more detail than CAT scans. The news was bad—just the reverse of what we'd heard the day before.

"There's been trauma to the brain," the doctor told me. "It could be irreversible. We just don't know at this point." Then he took a breath and looked me in the eye. "We don't know if your wife will ever wake up," he said quietly.

My mind spun and I gripped the chair until my knuckles whitened. This couldn't be happening. Not to Natalie, who was bursting with life. Not to her family, who loved her more than anything in the world. And not to me, who couldn't imagine the world without her.

On Palm Sunday, three days after the accident, Pastor Ned called on everyone in our church to spread the word about Natalie's condition. Prayer circles sprang up all around the state and beyond.

I tried to stay positive for the girls and they in turn did their best to be upbeat.

"Mom's going to be fine," Chelsea said time and again. "Just wait and see."

We were always careful to be extra-positive at Natalie's bedside. The girls talked about school and their friends. We read aloud from the cards that were streaming in from all over. We hummed "Amazing Grace," my wife's favorite hymn.

But we couldn't tell if she heard us or not. No smile, no words, no squeeze of the hand. No sign of life.

Natalie's niece Courtney brought a stuffed floppy Easter bunny for her, a bright lavender one. Pastor Ned brought an anointed prayer cloth and we pinned it to the bunny.

"Mom's favorite color," Chelsea said. "I can't wait till she sees it."

How could I tell her that that might never happen? How could I prepare them for something I couldn't imagine myself?

Good Friday came. Natalie had now been unconscious for more than a week. The head surgeon called Brittany, Natalie's mom, Nelda, Natalie's sister, Angie, Natalie's niece and me together.

"I need to be absolutely frank with all of you," he said. "Natalie's chances of coming out of the coma at this point are about one in a million."

It was as if all the air had suddenly gone out of the room.

"Is there any other hope?" I asked finally. "Anything at all?"

"Yes," the doctor said seriously. "Divine intervention."

The meeting broke up and we headed back to the ICU to stand a vigil that seemed increasingly hopeless.

Of course, I still had that piece of paper with those words from Matthew that I'd written out on the first day of our ordeal. "All things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive." By this point, it felt like they were written on my heart itself.

I put my head down and prayed a Good Friday prayer unlike any I had ever prayed. God, on this day Jesus put himself into your hands, unconditionally. I am doing the same. If it's your will, I know you can bring Natalie back to us. If it isn't...

Thy will be done.

Easter morning. The girls and I were driving from my parents house to ours to wash up before our return to the hospital. My cell phone rang. It was Angie.

"Dewayne," she said, "Natalie's awake!"

The girls and I forgot all about washing up. I floored it for Asheville. We rushed into the ICU. Natalie lay just as she had when we'd left her the evening before, even down to the prayer shawl and bunny that were nestled on the sheets beside her.

But Natalie's eyes were open. Beautifully, gloriously open, taking in this Easter morn.

We all gathered around her bedside. Brittany leaned in and gave Natalie a wink. Natalie's right eye fluttered back. Then Brittany puckered her lips, blowing her mom a kiss. Natalie puckered her own mouth slightly.

I leaned over and ever so gently kissed her forehead.

Word flew around town, and more friends and family arrived.

"What's Natalie's favorite hymn?" a friend from Natalie's job asked.

I told her.

Halfway through "Amazing Grace," a tear ran down Natalie's face, like a drop of God's grace itself.

There are things that just can't be explained by medical science, only by faith. What happened to Natalie, I believe was surely one of them.

And I'm not the only one.

One of the doctors was very straightforward with me afterward. "This is none of my doing," he said. "This comes from a higher power."

This Easter is the third anniversary of Natalie's accident. Today she is fully recovered. But none of us in the family will ever be the same. I don't think anyone who was in that hospital room that Easter, or during the weeks that led up to it, or anyone who knows Natalie and what God has done for her, will be.

As for me, on those mornings when I'm up before her, I still always give my sleeping wife a kiss before going to work. I linger now sometimes, knowing just how much a kiss can mean.

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