Note to reader: This blog is a long post of the story of our daughter Victoria, or Tori, who one year today was in a tragic accident. There are some difficult pictures posted in this blog and we caution the reader as such.
I have heard so often in my religious teachings to “leave it to God” which I have spent my life trying to achieve. In January of 2011, I was told my wife Valerie had cancer. It shook me hard when we got the news. Cancer so often seems like a death sentence. The event proved to be traumatic as I went through all that she meant to me and what life would be without her by my side. It became much easier to rely on Him when I realized that they caught it early enough that the chances of a successful outcome were high. However, on February 17, 2011 I would have to learn what it really meant to trust in God.
It was a Thursday afternoon, shortly before five. The next day was our anniversary of 21 years, and we had a rare time when the four of us were all home together. I suggested a movie and we found one starting at 5:30. We made some last minute necessary arrangements. Most of the children were home, including our 18 year old Laura. Vicki had asked one of our boys to clean up the playroom/computer room. It is a long narrow room, part of an addition to the house several years back. We had recently stripped the old carpet to the bare concrete and then stained it to give it a modern feel. Several months before I had purchased some used office furniture that included three office cubical dividers. The dividers proved to be too cumbersome and the kids did not like them. As a result they were stacked up against the end of the desk. A treadmill was next to them holding them up.
As we walked out my son Jed had cleaned out the corner of the room and moved the treadmill. The three dividers, weighing between 50 and 75 lbs a piece remained firmly against the desk, but nothing to brace them on the other side. The four of us adults walked by, I seeing he was in the middle of the move and did not think it an imminently dangerous situation.
It was at 5:10 in the afternoon, as we turned off of Bangerter Highway onto Northbound I-15. Then we got the first call. Louis called Valerie, “Mom, Tori is hurt! Joseph is taking her to the hospital. Should we call 911?”
“What? What happened? How bad?”
While she was on the phone, my son Joseph called Alina, “Tori is hurt, she had an accident and her head is crushed!” He cried frantically into the phone. Alina was sitting next to me in the van and I could hear his booming voice.
“It is really bad, I don’t know if she is going to make it!”
“Keep driving to the hospital, we will meet you there.” Alina replied.
I immediately got off the exit and turned around the way we had just come.
“The office cubicles fell on her,” Valerie explained to us all as she finished her conversation with Louis. I heard a gasp and moan from Vicki, my wife and the mother of Tori, and I turned around to see her put her head in her hands. We all knew what must have somehow happened. Alina was talking to Joseph still trying to assess how bad it was.
“Is she breathing?” I heard her say.
I could hear him honking, as he said, “Laura’s got her, I don’t know, it’s bad mom, it’s bad, I don’t know what to do!”
At that moment of despair I muttered to myself, “Please God, help us!”
A sense of peace immediately came over me, a sense of calm that felt warm in the face of the panic I was feeling overtake me before that moment. “Peace be still, let it be the Lord’s will.” What went through my mind seemed more of a whisper to my soul than a thought.
“Tell him to drive careful, she is going to be alright!” I instructed to Joseph through Alina. “We don’t need another accident.”
I drove swiftly but controlled. “She is going to be ok.” I assured Vicki with a sense of calm.
As I looked in the rear view mirror I could see Vicki, her ears covered as she tried to pray and shut everything out. We pulled in the emergency roundabout and I immediately got out and left the car for Alina and Valerie to park as I rushed into the double sliding doors.
“We had the infant that is hurt, where is she?” I said to the staff. Joseph and Laura were standing there looking distraught and in anguish but I had no time to speak to them. They tried to follow us back but the staff stopped them, one nurse even tried to stop me, while taking Vicki back.
“I’m the father!” I declared, as we walked back to ER.
To the day, 9 years and 11 months previously I had lost my daughter Kyra. This story we detail in our book, Love Times Three. I had rushed her to the ER, her mother holding her lifeless body in her arms as we had burst into the doors. We had hoped they would save her, bring her back to life. She had quit breathing in her mother’s arms and her mother woke with a start at about 2:00 in the morning yelling out to me for help. We had run every red light in a frantic race to save her, but the look on the ER’s medical team’s faces, their body language told me then that they wouldn’t save her. They tried, they used all the equipment at their hands, but all I could see was my 5 month old infant lifeless on the ER bed.
Now, for the first time I saw my 8 month old Victoria Berlynn, or “Tori” as we called her, in the same position. The body language of the team was one of despair; the look in the staff’s eyes reminded me of ten years earlier. Tori’s head was misshapen, her left side above her ear looked like a softball, blood oozed out her ears and nostrils, and she was limp and gray. The scene gripped tight around my throat as all the memories and pain of Kyra’s death flooded through my mind like a vivid movie being replayed. My knees felt weak and the pain seem to pulse from somewhere deep inside of me begging for release. The doctor looked at the swelling and I heard him grimly say,
“That’s not good, get Lifeflight here now!”
I had wanted to stay with Vicki as she sat there in horror. A social worker was there trying to console us both, but at that moment I had to walk out. “Why had I felt such a peace before? “ I thought to myself, “Why God is this happening to me? I gave up one, must I let go of another?” I searched for meaning and found none, searched for answers but heard nothing. My faith has always been in God. But at the moment I knew that my faith could not be in the outcome I hoped for. The calm I felt was my trust in Him. I had to find it again. I prayed.
“Please God; give me the strength to endure what I must! Give me the strength to be there for Vicki, give me the strength to do this! Give Tori the strength! It is out of my hands now, if You must take her she is Yours, Thy will be done Lord, Help me, in Jesus’ name help me, Amen!”
I took a deep breath, wiped the tears from my eyes and walked back to the room. They had a tube down her throat. The social worker came up to us,
She is paralyzed from the neck down,” he said and before he could finish explaining Vicki said what went through my mind, “Permanently?”
“No, no, I’m sorry, she is chemically paralyzed,” he explained. He continued to fill us in on the proceedings, asking, “Do you have any other questions on what they are doing?” I had many but mostly I just watched in horror. Time seemed to slow down, yet my world was spinning so quickly, it still didn’t seem real as my senses tried to absorb the scene.
“Is my wife able to ride with her in the helicopter?” I asked. By now I saw the Lifeflight medical team there as they assessed the scene and made arrangements to take her up to Primary Medical Center, the regional trauma hospital for children.
“No, I’m sorry there is no room. You will have to drive up there, but please don’t leave until you see the helicopter leave,” the Social Worker replied.
As they prepared her for transport, they had a green respirator being manually pumped for her breathing and I asked what else was wrong with her. The Social Worker then pointed out the X-ray of her chest,
“There appears to be a collapsed lung, see how one is darker than the other, but it doesn’t look like there is a broken neck or spine,” he offered compassionately.
As they wheeled her down the corridor of the hospital towards the helipad, another staff member asked if we knew the way to Primary Medical Center. After I told them I did, again I was told,
“Don’t leave here until the helicopter leaves!” and then, “drive carefully,” was added.
I raced out to the waiting room. My older children were there, Alina and Valerie, there as well. I had no comfort for them. As I walked out and got in my van I saw my neighbors Travis and Zach. We had administered Priesthood blessings together before, an ordinance in our faith in times of special blessings requested of God. These men were like brothers to me and at that moment, I just wanted to get out and hug them. At that point I just wanted someone else to be strong. Val went home with Travis and Zach to take care of the kids. They were all afraid and hurting. I went to pull out and Vicki then reminded me,
“Joe! They said don’t leave until the helicopter leaves!” I froze, realizing then that the chopper had not even started. At that moment it hit me, “They are not sure if she is going to make it! They didn’t want me leaving to Primary Children’s’ Hospital and she not be there.” I looked at the clock on the van console panel. “Please God, please if it is Thy will save her!”
“Come on! Come on!” I mumbled to myself, “Get off the ground.” It was the longest two minutes of my life as I waited for that helicopter to lift off. I reminded myself she was in His hands.
During the forty minute drive to the hospital, the calm returned. I knew I needed more prayer. I began to call a few friends and relatives, people that I figured would gather people in prayer, even those not of my faith. I have always believed in prayer, and the power of united prayer. Those that I called I knew would put out the word.
“Pray that there will be no swelling on her brain, pray that there will be no infection, pray for my baby!” I instructed. I knew that if the swelling got under the membrane it could mean damage.
As we rushed into the Children’s Hospital they were ready for us. Another Social Worker, a blond woman named Barbie met us. She assured us they had things under control and then began quizzing us. I had not thought really about the repercussions of being a “polygamist” even with the pain that had caused us with Kyra’s death.
But at that moment the awkwardness that I have felt so often in my life when quizzed about my family surfaced, but this time I had no time to process the answers. In my younger years the fear of being truthful and causing worse trouble may have been greater, but now I decided none of that mattered. In fact, we were in the process of writing our book and we would be public soon enough anyway. My kids explained what happened, an explanation we would end up giving several times that night and the next day.
My son Joseph had been invited to go with his friends to a movie. But he said he “had a feeling” to come home. He had just gone into his room which is closest to the playroom. Tori, who is an active crawler, had crept next to the dividers unbeknownst to anyone. My son Jed had gone up to make him a sandwich. 12 year old Madison had just sat down at the computer. She backed the rolling chair on the concrete up against the false walls and leaned back on them thinking they were still supported. In an instant they slammed onto the baby; the force crushed her skull on impact and then driving the right front of her skull into the concrete. The skull fractured into several pieces, one piece going down into her orbital socket and penetrating the muscles behind the eye.
Initially Madison did not know anyone was under there. Tori did not make a sound. Sabrina, who is 8 was in the room at the same desk when she heard the fall, “Was a baby under there?” she asked.
“No, I don’t think so,” Madison said doubtfully, and then she lifted part of a wall divider up to see the baby’s leg. She screamed and lifted all of them up, much too heavy for her under normal circumstances. Sabrina screamed as well and grabbed the baby. The screams brought Joseph out of his room and Laura from upstairs.
“Call 911!” Joseph initially yelled.
Laura said, “There is no time! Grab the keys!”
They knew time was of the essence, a decision that would prove to be critical in saving her life.
Barbie led us into the ER area, only letting Vicki and I come in. I did not like that Alina had to stay behind but now was not the time to press it. Barbie said they were making a plan for brain surgery. The trauma team was evaluating CAT scans but they had her stabilized she explained.
“What about her collapsed lung? How is she breathing?” I asked, remembering the scene from Riverton.
“She did not have a collapsed lung,” she responded, “She is breathing stable, but is in critical condition.”
“I saw the X-ray, they told me she had a collapsed lung?” I was still trying to process everything; they had not yet let us view her and at that point I figured if she was breathing on her own she was still alive and had a chance.
“They did not find any collapsed lung. Perhaps they only temporary collapsed it when they put the breathing tube down her in Riverton,” she offered. She wasn’t a Doctor and I just took her word for it. But with the peace that filled my soul on the way up, it was my first sign of hope that perhaps a miracle was in the works.
The doctors then took me in. It was still hard to look at her. The pain of seeing her hurt washed over me. I reached out and touched her feet as the team was around her.
“I am here for you, baby,” I said, hoping that somewhere in there she could hear me.
I then turned to the CAT scan and the doctors.
“Good news,” they told me,” the scan is looking positive on her brain, but we are concerned about the swelling on the left side, we may do surgery there, but the right side definitely has major damage.” They then showed me the area; there was a pocket where the brain was supposed to be against the skull. “This is an area of concern, an area of infection that we will have to fix. We need you to sign these papers authorizing surgery.” I signed without taking the time to read.
They escorted me down the hallway to the operating room, using their badges to open the automatic double doors. At the entrance of the operating room I met Dr. Marion Walker. He was a short stocky man, with short gray hair and a white doctor coat on with his name embroidered in black. He had big hands as I shook them, and I wondered if I met him on the street if I would pick him out as a surgeon. He was quiet, and seemed humble which at once put me at ease.
“I am going to go ahead and open up both sides,” he said, “I think while I am in there it is best to try to fix both sides at once.”
“Do what you think is best, you are the expert,” I said, “May God be with you.”
“I expect it will take me a couple of hours,” he offered, “You can wait in the waiting room and I will call you when we are finished and let you know how she is doing.”
Vicki and I walked in to the waiting room. It is set aside for ER visitors, and was not the main waiting room where I had left the rest of the family and friends. There was supposed to be an attendant at the desk but no one was there. The room was empty, except to my right I saw one young man sitting down, his face in his hands. He lifted his head and I recognized at once who he was.
“Hi, James, sorry to run into you here.” He looked very tired and stressed and looked like he could use a friend. I had first met him in 2006 when he was a young kid. I learned then his father is my grandmother’s brother, making us distantly related. The last time I remember seeing him was at his wedding. He had been in the waiting room for 8 hours he informed me. His wife had not wanted anyone else to come in, including their four month old, as the operation was so risky; a pig aorta was being put into her heart.
“She was supposed to have the surgery previous to now,” he explained, “but against the doctors wishes she got pregnant first. When it was time to deliver the baby they warned us that they would save her over the baby if it came down to it. We were very concerned, and prayed about it. When they cut her opened for the C-section I watched her heart rate go to normal for the first time, and as soon as the baby came out the heart rate went back to its erratic rate. It was then that her cardiologist told me he had never seen anything like it in his 26 years, and that she must be a special girl,” he finished, and I could see the tears in his eye as he relived the emotion.
“She must be special,” I agreed, “we will pray for her.” The story both touched me and inspired me. It reminded me again how much all is God’s hands. I began praying, and shortly I was joined by other friends and family as we slowly took over the waiting room. We would learn that his wife’s surgery was successful, and I took comfort watching him
All the worst thoughts kept running through my mind as two hours turned into three and beyond. I wondered if something had gone wrong. What if the swelling got worse and there was lasting damage? I knew I should prepare for the worst, but I thought of all the people who were praying for her. My phone was overwhelmed with texts, and my family informed me of hundreds more pouring in.
Finally, Dr. Walker came in. Vicki and I accompanied him to a private room.
“The surgery went well,” he offered quietly, so quiet I expected a “but” to follow. “There was no swelling under the membrane. There was a tear in the membrane but no penetration of bone into the brain, and I sewed up the membrane. Her scans look good, I think you could have her out of here by the first of the week.”
I stood there in shock. It was better than I dared to accept.
“She is going to be ok?” I asked incredulously.
“I don’t know how to explain it, the only thing I can think is the energy of the skull breaking absorbed the impact and preserved her brain, but if there is no real swelling or infection I don’t know why she won’t be okay physically.” I wanted to hug him at that moment, but instead offered him a warm handshake.
“Thank you, Doctor,” I said.
He offered to come by the next day, but couldn’t promise how she would be neurologically. But the joy that overcame me was hard to contain. I shared the news with the rest of those in the waiting room, It was our first hope, and it was nice to have my wives around me so close. I called Valerie who was home with the kids, and my mother. My children were in trauma also and I just wanted to hug all of them at once in that moment.
We then were escorted to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, or PICU. The sight on seeing her gave me joy, and I took a picture on my phone. At the time I shared it I was full of joy and thanksgiving and did not realize how traumatic it looked to others. To me it was much better than she looked four hours earlier.
They had a sleeping room available for us the first night, a luxury I would come to miss the rest of the stay. I talked Vicki into sleeping after she pumped her breast milk.
“I will stay with her,” I offered. I knew if I had her focus on being a mother she would sleep. “I will wake you at five to pump some more and give me a spell.” After our family Doctor, Carla Foster came in and expressed amazement that she was doing so well thus far, Vicki finally agreed to go lay down.
In PICU they have one nurse assigned full time to your infant. The breathing tubes, IV’s, and machines are hooked up keeping her monitored and alive constantly. I just sat there stroking my baby, mostly on the legs as the hook ups made it difficult to touch other areas. I couldn’t quit giving thanks to God, touching her or talking to her. For four hours I stood by her side.
I had Travis bring up some consecrated oil, something we use in our Priesthood Blessings, which I kept in my pocket. I knew they were used to blessings there, but I wanted to be in the room alone with her. As the nurse took a rare break and left the room I pulled the oil out, anointed her head and gave her a blessing. I prayed that her healing would be complete, and that her mental and brain functions would return to normal. As soon as I said, “Amen,” the alarm on the monitoring unit went off, and I looked to see her heart rate beating loudly. She moved for the first time ever so slightly. The nurse quickly came in to check on her and reset the alarm.
I wondered if at first there was something wrong, but her heart steadied, and the nurse checked on her and determined she was fine. At that moment that was my cue, I knew she would be alright. I felt like her spirit needed rest. Vicki or I would remain by her side constantly. I did not want any mistakes made with her, and I wanted her handled with care, but each time the professionalism of the staff, the nurses and the doctors continued to amaze me. She would have two more CAT scans, each time with positive results to the amazement of everyone.
Four weeks after her injury, she began crawling and back to cruising along the furniture. The therapist who had seen her before her release was amazed at her recovery, and told us she was more advanced neurologically than his nine month old. We still are told there could be problems, but our faith remains firm. One year later she is talking, walking and shows no signs of the accident, except a scar that is hid beneath her thick hair. It is a testament to God. I am moved to thank all those who have prayed and still pray on her behalf, on our behalf, and especially acknowledge our Father in Heaven.
Every smile, her recognition of me, her putting a cracker in her mouth, and even every breath is a miracle, not just with her but with all children. We are dependent upon our Father in Heaven for all that we have, and while we know this intellectually, it is this experience which has reminded my soul of the truthfulness. There are some that may dismiss what happened with her has luck, chance or a tribute to modern medicine, but I am reminded of President Washington, when talking about the successes he was having in the Revolutionary War, his words then are applicable even today:
“The hand of Providence has been so conspicuous in all this that he must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith and more than wicked that has not gratitude to acknowledge his obligations.” George Washington.
There are numerous other miracles and testimonies of peoples prayers too numerous to tell here, but the family wishes to thank all those who have touched our hearts, with their generosity, their faith, their love and support. We are moved in ways that have forever changed us.
P.S. Our son Caleb, like many of our children was deeply moved by the experience. You can hear his song here off of The Mighty Sequoyah Relative Album, that he wrote the first night after her surgery. It is very moving and to this day she responds to the song when she hears it.