It was the early fall, the leaves were gently changing colors, and I sat looking out the panoramic window at Anna’s home in Salt Lake City. As we sat down to talk, Anna rested comfortably in the large puffy couch, wearing sweats and a blue tank top. Her lovely, dark brunette hair was tightly tied up in a ponytail, her legs crossed at the ankles, and she was holding a glass of wine in her right hand. At first cursory look when you see Anna, you are taken by her good looks, but a closer look across her shoulders and down her arms reveals the scars of tragedy. The checkerboard scars don’t diminish her beauty; in fact, as you get to know her they only enhance it. But it is clear there is a story behind those scars. A story of remarkable tragedy followed by inspirational strength through adversity.
Anna loved Noah. In 1997 she was twenty-four years old; he was a year younger at only twenty-three. Joy had finally come into both of their lives, and they saw a future filled with hope and love. Something neither of them had known much of in their past. Noah was an aikido master, having won many tournaments, a great accomplishment for such a young man. Anna was starting to enjoy success as a model.
Life was good.
Noah always drove the speed limit on his motorcycle, something not too many twenty-three-year-olds do. He also insisted Anna wear his black leather jacket when she rode with him. They were in a hurry because they needed to meet Anna’s modeling representative in Barstow, California, to discuss an upcoming shoot. Anna had inadvertently left the jacket in her locker at work and they simply didn’t have time to go get it. Noah insisted they go retrieve the jacket, but after some coaxing and stubbornness from Anna, she convinced him it was more important they be on time to the meeting.
It is amazing that such a simple decision can have a tremendous, lasting impact on one’s life.
In just shorts and a tank top, Anna jumped on the back of the motorcycle, and they were off. At the same time a man driving a produce truck was running very late. He was driving recklessly and trying to make up time. As he came to a stop sign to cross Barstow Boulevard, he gave a brief tap of the brakes and then blew through the stop sign. That is when their two worlds met. Noah knew he was about to hit the side of the truck. Reaching back behind him just before they hit, he pushed Anna down to avoid the direct impact with the truck, probably saving her life. Noah wasn’t so lucky and impacted the truck squarely; he was killed instantly. The truck sheered off the top of the motorcycle’s gas can throwing all of its contents on Anna, and she ignited. She flew through the sky like a roman candle, flying through a tree, which caught on fire, and then landing in a field, some 125 feet away. It too caught on fire with Anna as its kindling. Perhaps most frightening of all was that Anna never lost consciousness.
At that moment she jumped up to go to Noah but couldn’t walk because her knee was shattered. She tried again and again to get to him but kept falling, so she crawled. When she finally reached him, there was only that distant stare of a body without its spirit.
The paramedics arrived quickly and Life Flight not too long after. Anna’s injuries were life threatening, and she needed serious medical help if she were to live. She was flown to San Bernardino Medical Center, which had a good burn ward. It was obvious she would need it. During the flight she started to slip in and out of consciousness.
In addition to serious head trauma and severe third-degree burns over her arms, chest, and head; she had a broken back, knee, ankle, scapula, ribs, and eye socket, with a partially dislocated eye, severed tongue, and shattered shoulder.
Anna was put into an induced coma over the next month. It was felt that the stress of the pain would simply be too much to endure and her body would give out. Anna’s family had been told that the daughter, sister, and friend they knew was gone. She would never be able to hold a job performing anything but the most basic of requirements. There was just too much brain damage. Additionally, with the severity of the burns, the use of her arms would be extremely limited.
When Anna awakened, the challenge of a lifetime awaited her. The severe brain injury and coma left her with an erased memory. Imagine awaking from a sleep and not knowing anyone or anything. She had a faint memory of her two-year-old daughter but couldn’t remember her name, and recalled that football season was just starting. That was it. She couldn’t read; she couldn’t speak. Her father, who hadn’t left her side, was nameless. Her mother, sister, and best friend were all lost in her mind. And Noah? For the time being, there was no Noah.
As you will come to see, Anna is a very driven person. She started physical therapy, working on every part of her broken body. The pain was excruciating at every moment. She began to learn to read again, literally starting with “See Spot run. Run Spot run.” Gentle movements of her arms were performed to try and rebuild her range of motion. Strength in adversity was now required continuously.
As time passed some of her memories were returning. The love for her two-year-old daughter began driving her, and Anna felt the pace of the therapy was too slow and began working on her own. She simply felt that unless she pushed harder she would never get out of the hospital. Her daughter needed her mother, and time was of the essence. The catheter was removed, and a bedside commode was the next step. She decided to skip that step and walk to the bathroom. With back brace, knee splint, and arms outstretched in burn dressings, she rose from her bed and pushed to the restroom. She must have been quite a sight. Exhausted when she entered the bathroom, she was startled because she thought there was someone else in there. She quickly realized that it was her own reflection in the mirror. She had not looked in a mirror since the accident. The one-time model was now burned and covered in bandages to the point where she didn’t recognize herself. She passed out, and the nurse found her lying on the bathroom floor.
After only six weeks in the hospital, Anna decided it was time to go home. It was sooner than the doctors wanted her to leave, but ultimately it was her decision. She felt that she would heal quicker by being with her daughter and having the support of her family. She had started remembering Noah and her love for him but hadn’t been able to give it much thought. In fact, many memories had been coming back slowly.
The doctor now felt that they could hasten that process with medication. For Anna, this was one of the most horrifying moments yet. Shortly after the medication was given, she started having a flood of memories coming at her from all parts of her life. There was no order or progression of thoughts. Some of the memories were terrifying and came at random and without explanation.
It was at that moment when she really remembered Noah.
“Where is Noah?” she asked her father as she was going home. Scared of adding pain to his daughter’s already painful life, he deflected the question. He wanted to tell her at home and in the company of her best friend, Dante. Anna deep down knew the answer to that question but was unable to think about it. When she arrived home, she asked her father again, this time in a firm, committed voice. “Where is Noah?”
Upon her father’s answer, Anna no longer had just her physical pain to endure but the tremendous emotional pain from the death of the person she adored.
As she tells me this story some fifteen years later, her eyes fill with tears and her voice shudders. That didn’t happen during the graphic description of the pain she endured from the burns and broken bones. It happened when she thought of Noah. I suspect Anna’s greatest pain was the loss of Noah, a wound that never totally heals.
The next several months would be filled with unbelievable pain and anguish. The broken bones and torn tendons and muscles all began to heal. It was the brain injury and burns that would take the time and be the greatest challenge. Amazingly, Anna was able to get her first job as a home health aid only four months after the accident. After about a year she decided she needed even more independence, so she moved from Victorville to San Diego. She was on her own and building a new life. She loved to volunteer at the local burn center, giving hope to those just starting their painful journey.
As I spoke to Anna about the years of recovery and her strength in adversity, I was amazed at the repeated references to how grateful she was to so many people, and also to God. She remembered one of the first thoughts she had after the accident was one of gratitude to those who had saved her life. It became clear to me that Anna chose to be grateful rather than bitter and angry. That gratitude was certainly one of the great healers in her journey. Think about it, there was much to be angry about. She had lost her career, the love of her life, her physical and mental capacity. But she chose to find things for which to be grateful. Perhaps gratitude is one of the first steps to showing strength in adversity.
Anna decided she wanted to go back to school and become a massage therapist. Apparently she hadn’t listened to the doctors when they told her she would only be able to do menial tasks because her brain would not function. Further, being a massage therapist would require tremendous strength, especially in her arms. Something that was supposedly impossible. Every weekday Anna would drop her daughter off at day care early, go to school for half the day, go to work until 6:00 p.m., pick up her daughter, care for her for a couple hours while trying to study some, put Brianna to bed, and believe it or not, go back to work for a few more hours. On Friday evening she would drive three hours to her father’s home, leave her daughter there, and drive back to San Diego and work long hours all weekend. Sunday night she would make the same six-hour round trip again. This from a woman who just a couple years earlier was fighting for her life and still was healing from her injuries.
It was exhausting, and Anna was running out of energy and money. It was time for her final exam. This exam involved a detailed description and function of the human anatomy. It would challenge the most advanced of medical students, not to mention someone who had to relearn to read “Run Spot Run” just a year or two earlier. She was down to her last seventeen dollars and had to pass the test so she could get a higher-paying job in massage therapy. If she didn’t pass, she would not be able to continue because the test cost $250 to take and she had no resources left to pay for it. She had no other choice but to pass the test. Anna was scared to death as she opened the exam. She did her best to try and recall the many things she had studied so hard to learn, and after a couple hours completed the written exam. When it was time to get the results, she could only envision having failed and having to move back to inland California with her father, emphasizing the things she had been told. “You will never be able to hold a job…your brain is too damaged to achieve much in this life…you will never really be independent.”
She failed the test.
All she had been told was true, she thought. As she walked out of the room with tears streaming down her face, obviously very upset, her instructor, James, stopped her. “Be here tomorrow at nine o’clock,” he said. She tried to inquire as to why, but he simply restated, “Be here tomorrow at nine o’clock.” Tomorrow was a Sunday and the school was closed on Sundays. Anna wasn’t sure what to expect but trusted her teacher. She showed up on time, and James had unlocked the door to the school and to his classroom. As she walked in, he asked her to sit down and he placed the test in front of her. Anna started to explain that she just took the test yesterday and failed. James stopped her in mid-sentence and said with a wink-wink inflection, “You didn’t take this test yesterday.” He told her that he knew she understood the material and asked her to take a few minutes and get her head clear to take the test. Then he said, “Now take the test,” suggesting that she could take the test and pass it this time. Still she opened the test with the anxiety of failure from the day before. James talked gently with her on the first couple answers, not helping her with the answers, but helping her to have confidence in her mind and herself.
She scored a 98 percent on the test. Sometimes having strength in adversity requires help from those around us.
To this day the kindness of her instructor, James, remains a pivotal moment in her life. She now knew that her brain injury could not hold her back from success. It was true that she may have to work harder than most people. But she knew that she could achieve great things, despite her injuries and despite the things she had been told by people who should “know” better. She was grateful for James teaching her that, perhaps the greatest lesson he could have taught her.
Anna next spoke to me about her spiritual journey through her challenges. She had been raised in a mildly religious home and always felt a connection to God, but hadn’t developed her relationship with him.
When I first met Anna several years ago, I knew I had met a highly spiritual person. I could just feel it. I had no idea what her story was; I just felt this unconditional love emanate from her. It was only after having known her for a few years that I could understand why she was this way. In our discussions about her accident, she repeatedly referenced her gratitude to God for his help and for providing wonderful people like James to help her. I asked her if she ever felt angry at God for putting her through this challenge. She acted almost confused at the question. You see, for Anna, God, Source or Higher Power, only represents the path by which she overcame her tribulations. He saved her from her tragedy. You see, Anna understands that she and God are inseparable; they are one, and together they can achieve anything. She also believes that she is one and part of all people, who are also one with God. This gives her a tremendous love for people. That is what I felt those years ago when I first met her.
By developing her relationship with her Higher Power, and making spirituality a part of her life, she found a positivity that surrounded her regardless of her challenges. She was able to take that positivity and become more than just the person who nearly died from a tragic motorcycle accident. Her accident would not define her; it would only be something she went through. Many people become defined by their tragedy. By that I mean it becomes something that is attached to who they are. Strangely, when that happens, people can be stalled in their healing.
By labeling who they are by what they have gone through, it can make them relive the process, or even nurture their own ego for having endured the tragedy. I found this to be true after my wife died. I became the poor widower with three very young children. You begin to play the part and stay in that role. It feels good because you get sympathy and accolades for being a “survivor.” But in reality you remain a victim of what happened to you. When you are a victim, you lose control of your life. To attain true happiness you must be responsible and control your life.
Anna continued to grow spiritually and intellectually as the years passed by. Physically, she is quite remarkable. She had always been very strong physically and had confidence that she would again be so. Throughout her rehab she worked intensely on building her strength. Last time I checked, the primary requirement for being a massage therapist is having extraordinary strength in one’s arms. Is there a less likely field in which Anna would be successful? Maybe being a female kick boxer. Oh wait, did I mention that Anna is also a kick boxer and personal trainer? Yes, in addition to being a successful massage therapist, she is a certified personal trainer with amazing strength and agility…and a kick boxer.
This is not to say that Anna’s struggles are not ongoing. At times she has memory loss and moments of complete confusion. But she presses on in those moments and radiates a spirit of positivity that I have rarely seen. It took years of intense dedication and both physical and emotional endurance, but Anna today is a remarkable woman who has risen above life’s greatest challenges.
But what about Noah, the love of her life? She never felt that she would meet someone like Noah and accepted that as a part of her life. She met good men who wanted to spend their lives with her. She hoped she could feel a love for them, enough love to have a good, lifetime relationship. But they would never be Noah. It just never quite worked out. Until Dan.
She had known Dan for a few years. Both of them were in different places in life and they never considered each other romantically. Dan was someone she enjoyed talking to mostly as a client; she was a lovely woman from whom Dan received massage therapy. But then it changed. Dan spontaneously asked her out, they dated and quickly fell madly in love and married.
Recently I attended Anna’s fortieth birthday party. It was a remarkable event. Dan had rented the ballroom at a hotel, hired a live band, and invited friends who flew in from all over the country to be there, because they love Anna and Dan.
After a few hours of dancing, Dan stood in front of the crowd to offer a toast to his sweetheart. He talked about how he had waited so many years, had gone through so many experiences, hoping to find her. He had been in love before but still never felt what he felt at that moment, absolute true love for Anna. He adored her.
The beautiful thing is that as I am sitting with Anna and she is sitting on that big fluffy couch in her sweats, legs crossed, holding a glass of wine, her eyes sparkling as she talks about meeting the love of her life…again, Dan.
Life is filled with challenges that require strength in adversity. Most of us will never have to endure and overcome what Anna did. This is not to minimize our own challenges. All of us at some point will deal with difficulties that may seem overwhelming.
Shortly after the death of my wife, a person said, “At least you didn’t get divorced.” He had the strange belief that my healthy, loving marriage that was torn apart by death was not as bad as going through a divorce. I remember being completely stunned by that comment.
While I still think that comment was not the best thing to say, it is clear that it was a difficult moment, and it was his attempt at consoling me. Additionally, I have a very different viewpoint now than I did all those years ago when my first wife died. I have since gone through a devastating divorce. The pain truly was extraordinary. I loved my wife very much but knew that it was the right thing to divorce her. The pain was very different from the death of my first wife, but it really was just as intense. In my wildest dreams, I never thought a divorce could be as painful as the death of a spouse. In my case, it was.
After the divorce I was laying on my bed and tears were streaming down my face. I was really hurting. After some time in this emotional state, I sat up to try and catch my breath and regain my composure. As I sat on the edge of my bed, I almost subconsciously reached over and grabbed a red ball that was sitting on my nightstand. My thoughts were elsewhere, but I just started bouncing the ball against my wall and catching it. I bounced it and caught it again. I did this several times. Then I stopped and looked at the ball. I slowly reached over and opened my nightstand drawer and pulled out a black Sharpie marker. Pulling the cap off the top, I carefully wrote on the ball, “I BOUNCE BACK.”
“I bounce back.” That was it, that is what I would do. That was a pivotal moment of my life. It was at that time I decided that my life would change and I would find joy. I would show strength in adversity. It was at that moment I started my journey to discover how I could be happy during the difficult times of adversity with which life challenged me. While it has taken a few years of growing and tremendous effort, I can truly say I am unbelievably happy, even though, at this time, my life is filled with adversity.
Trust me, you may be in financial ruin, struggling from the death of a loved one, be sick or alone, in a job you hate, or simply, just painfully sad; but you can still rise above it and find joy. You can find strength in adversity. Find something you are passionate about and participate in it every day; find love for yourself and others. Look for opportunities to provide service. Don’t let fear dictate your actions. Allow yourself to be free of your past, and you will feel joy.
I know this isn’t easy and you may require the help of others. Simply, strength in adversity can be your greatest challenge in life. There are times when you may not feel so strong. There will be times that negativity and sadness will creep into your life. Remember your goals, engage your Bounce Back strategies, and move forward.
By the way, the red ball still sits on my nightstand and reminds me every day that I Bounce Back.
If you enjoyed this article on strength in adversity, you may enjoy 7 Steps to Happiness also by Jack Ryser. You also may enjoy some of the inspiring stories at Story Corps.