The call came early in the morning, and what greeted Wendi and Todd Brake when they arrived at the hospital was shocking — their daughter was covered in blood.
Waking to a Nightmare
“It’s bad; get here as soon as possible.”
The alarming call from the hospital came early on a Saturday, just after 1:00 in the morning. Within moments, Wendi and Todd learned their daughter, Samantha, had been in an accident, that she had been ejected from her vehicle and was in critical condition. As they sped to the hospital, all they could do was pray.
But what waited for them at the hospital was horrifying; their daughter was covered in blood and literally unrecognizable. Within 30 minutes, doctors put Samantha into a medically induced coma to assess the severity of her injuries. They had to find out what they were dealing with, and what they learned frightened Wendi and Todd.
Samantha had four brain bleeds, a shearing injury — her brain had been so violently shaken the nerves were misfiring — and a fracture separating her skull from her spine. Wendi filled out paperwork as her daughter was moved to the ICU, where she was tied to the bed and hooked up to so many tubes the scene resembled something from a science fiction movie.
Soon they saw pictures of the accident and discovered Samantha’s car had flipped. She was crushed beneath the weight of it, and paramedics had to resuscitate her at the scene. The first few hours in ICU were surreal.
“It was like a nightmare. I kept wondering when, or if, I would wake up,” Wendi recalls.
Early the next morning, after spending many hours by their daughter’s side, Wendi and Todd finally went to the hospital waiting room. There they were greeted by an overflowing show of support, prayer and love from family and friends. In fact, the room was so full of loved ones, there wasn’t an open seat.
Could It Get Worse? Yes.
In the days that followed, Samantha remained in a coma, and details of the accident began to emerge. They learned alcohol was involved, and her vehicle had been traveling in excess of 100 miles per hour. The details were painful to hear because they meant the wreck was no longer just an accident; it was the result of a series of poor choices.
As Wendi absorbed the reality, her grief turned into anger. “I remember how mad I was at her choices and thinking, if she lives through this, I may kill her myself!”
Later that week, some friends held a prayer vigil for Samantha. Their pastor approached Wendi and gave her a drawing of Jesus, His nail-scarred hands wrapped around a man who had a hammer in his hand. The artwork was called, “Forgiven.” At that moment, Wendi realized the cost of unforgiveness and let go of the anger and bitterness that had been eating her up — anger toward her daughter, toward her friends who partied with her, bitterness about the bad choices that brought them all to this place.
She says she has never once picked up that burden again.
The first weeks in the hospital seemed virtually hopeless. Dr. Jason Bank, the neurosurgeon on duty, assured them he would do everything he could to help Samantha, but the prognosis did not look good. At best, doctors expected she would be a quadriplegic. Over and over again, the Brakes heard the most difficult words from doctors who understand human limitations: “We will have to wait and see.”
Exactly one week after the accident, Samantha’s kidneys shut down, and she was pronounced brain-dead. Hospital staff encouraged the family to make plans and talk about crucial things like organ donation. There was nothing left for the brakes to do but pray and wait.
On Monday morning, without explanation, small signs of brain activity appeared. Wendi shares, “All the people on the hospital floor knew they were witnessing the impossible. It was God.”
Samantha had spent 7 1/2, long weeks in a coma while her parents and extended family took around-the-clock shifts by her hospital bed. As they had done many times before, they spoke to her and asked Samantha to lift a finger if she heard them.
For the first time, she lifted a finger.
Worried it might be a muscle spasm, they asked her to open her eyes. Just barely, her eyelids opened. They asked her to lift the finger on her right hand, and she did.
Wendi remembers, “At that moment, we knew we had reached a turning point. With tears streaming down our faces, all we could do was look to Heaven and say, ‘Thank you!’ We knew, without a doubt, God had performed another miracle. But we also knew we were in for a long journey.”
Wendi says they were overjoyed, yes, but they were also overwhelmed with the reality of how best to care for Samantha. They thought about a nursing home, but that seemed cruel. Yet, bringing her home without knowing how to care for her seemed foolish. Rehabilitation would have been an option if their insurance had not already capped out. Again, they did the only thing they could do — they prayed.
An opportunity arose at Shepherd Center in Atlanta, arguably the best brain injury rehabilitation center in the country. Samantha received a corporate scholarship provided by Coca-Cola, and it paid for her entire stay. She spent four months in daily, intensive rehabilitation. During her care at Shepherd Center, Wendi and Todd took turns staying by their daughter and traveled back and forth to work four hours away. Sometimes the commute seemed endless, but the Brakes committed to the sacrifice and made it work. Wendi sees those months of coparenting, working and surviving as proof of God’s sufficient grace.
“My husband and I processed differently,” she explains. “He asked lots of questions; I simply prayed and prayed, asking God to do what only He could.”
When Samantha came home, it was like having a toddler again. They had to fully dress and feed her and help her in nearly all of her daily functions. But the milestones were huge blessings. Considering the doctors’ original prognosis, they knew they were looking at a real-life, walking miracle.
His Grace Is Sufficient
Samantha still lives at home and needs daily help for even the most basic functions. She remembers her independence, and her dream is to someday drive again, to go back to school, and to someday live on her own. She gets frustrated when she can’t do things and pushes herself to be more mobile and independent.
Samantha hopes that eventually she will be able to enjoy a more normal life. Even though there is so much more she wants out of life, she refuses to get angry or fall into despair. Instead, she chooses to acknowledge that everything happens for a reason.
Wendi is the assistant vice president at a large bank, working full time during the day and then coming home to full-time caregiving in the evenings. But you wouldn’t know the struggle from her. In fact, anyone who has met Wendi has experienced her laughter and a smile that lights up the room.
So how does she keep smiling through a situation that is so difficult and seemingly endless? Wendi answers that question with a confident grin: “Why wouldn’t I? I could be putting flowers on my daughter’s grave. No matter how dark it seems, darkness does not last forever. I know this.”
Wendi starts each day with a prayer, thanking God for entrusting Samantha’s care to them and asking Him to show her how to let their journey impact someone else’s life. Even in the hardest moments, Wendi says God continues to sustain them.
“As much as I have taught Samantha how to cope with the new her and her limitations, she has taught me that God carries us through what seems impossible. This isn’t a journey I wish on anyone, and yet I am thankful God chose me to travel it. He placed some amazing people in our path, and He brought me closer to Him. I know He has a purpose, not only for Samantha, but for our entire family.”