Daniel and I were high school sweethearts. I began calling him "Big Dan" on our very first date and the nickname stuck. Fast forward almost two decades and we were still going strong. A very busy Big Dan is splitting his time between farming 400 acres, breeding Angus cattle, and running his family-owned farm machinery business. His job is physically demanding, dirty, smelly, good ole-fashioned hard work. On the opposite end of the career spectrum, I am a nurse practitioner who prefers a sterile, organized, and climate controlled working environment. Over time, our family grew to include two feisty red headed boys, Tucker and Cooper.
The morning of July 8th, 2016 started off like any other Friday. The typical chaotic rush of trying to get everyone dressed, fed, and out the door on time. The good news was that it was Friday and the weekend was almost upon us. Big Dan loaded a then 2-year-old Cooper into my vehicle and gave us both a quick kiss goodbye and we hit the road headed to daycare. Tucker, who was 7 at the time, hitched a ride with his Daddy to be dropped off at Mimi's house as Daniel made his way up the road to feed the bulls.
A trip to Alabama was on my buddy's potential to-do list. In the world of equipment sales, you never know exactly where you may end up by day's end. At 11:05 that morning, he sent me a simple text, "Fixing to leave." I knew he was referring to Alabama in the text even though it wasn't specifically stated. I was having a busy day at work and did not take the time to send him back a response. As it turned out, those three words ended up being the last communication I would have from My Big Dan. I had intentions to check in with him at lunch, but I hadn't got around to it yet when my phone rang.
That's the moment everything changed...
Big Dan's twin brother, Morgan, rarely ever calls me, so when I saw it was him calling, I knew something was wrong. I could instantly hear the panic in his voice. The details were very few. We knew Daniel and his dad, Everett, were involved in an accident on the interstate. We knew his dad had some cuts and bruises, but he was otherwise pretty much okay. We knew Big Dan was trapped in the wreckage of his SuperDuty F-350 farm truck, but that's all the information we had on his condition. We knew LifeStar air ambulance was on the scene waiting to transport him immediately to the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville once he could be extricated from the mangled mess of twisted metal.
That was the extent of the information that was available, so I went running out of my office door for a 40-mile ride to the hospital knowing nothing more. I was beyond terrified and fought back the urge to throw up. As I drove, my heart was overwhelmed with prayer requests for Big Dan's safety and protection, for those trying to free him from the wreckage, for the flight team as they transport him to the hospital, for the medical staff who would be treating him, but my greatest desire was for Big Dan and our entire family to be filled with a peace and strength that only God could provide.
This was it: Our family was facing the worst crisis imaginable.
Once I arrived at the hospital, the details of the accident began to reach me much faster than Big Dan did. He had been hauling a 12,000-pound tractor on a 31-foot-long trailer. As he was traveling down the interstate, the truck's front steer tire blew and he lost control of the heavy load. Daniel's truck went careening off the interstate, down into a heavily wooded area, and landed against a large cedar tree. Due to the remoteness of the location and the severity of the accident, it took three horribly long hours to free My Big Dan. Amazingly, with the afternoon temperature hovering around 90 degrees and massive internal bleeding, he remained coherent and conscious the entire time until he was loaded onto LifeStar. Once he finally arrived at UT Hospital, Daniel was whisked from one surgery to another for over eight hours as he fought for each and every breath. Our so-called perfect life was shattered, our future plans were beyond bleak, and my heart was broken into a million pieces.
The nightmare seemed to only get worse as time went on. Daniel's severe traumatic injuries resulted in a domino effect of disastrous consequences. Big Dan's injuries included a severed intestine, multiple fractures in his pelvis, tremendous blood loss, liver failure, toxic skeletal muscle damage, possible amputation of his left leg, and multiple infections. Just one of these conditions on its own is life-threatening, but all of them combined is far beyond any worst-case scenario imaginable.
Little did we know it at the time, but we would be in for a rollercoaster ride of twists and turns that seemed to never end. One minute, we would be given positive news about Daniel's condition and the next, it was uncertain if he would survive the hour. We learned to live life one moment at a time. It was much too overwhelming to look out any further than this for what the future held for us. Unfortunately, I became all too familiar with the speech that the hospital chaplain recites when all hope is pretty much gone. There were times that I didn't know what to pray for and all I could do was ask for God's will to be done. I thought it was selfish of me to pray for Big Dan to live when he was so badly injured. Of course, I wanted to grow old with this man, but I am also well aware that there are some things in this life that can be much worse than death. In my head, I secretly planned out all the details for Daniel's funeral service. My heart hurt the most for Tucker and Cooper's sake. I had spent over half of my life loving Daniel, but Tucker had only 7 short years and Cooper barely 2 to get to know how very special their daddy was. How was I going to raise these two precious boys without their daddy? Even in the very darkest places that my mind wandered, I had a peace that transcended all human understanding. I knew that if Big Dan wasn't on this earth with us, he was going to be celebrating in heaven with our Lord and Savior and that was all I needed to know.
Our home became the hospital. The trauma team became our family. Our lives were forever changed. Thanks to one of our ICU nurses who introduced me to the CaringBridge website, I was able to share each and every step of our journey as it was happening in real time. Being able to directly manage the information about Big Dan's condition eliminated the possibility of unnecessary rumors or gossip from spreading. Thanks to this means of communication, we received daily encouragement from others. We were also given stories of hope from people who had walked a similar scary path. It was comforting to know that we were not alone, even if it may have felt like it.
Daniel was almost unrecognizable in the days and weeks following his accident. Initially, I remember being afraid to look at anything except for his face because his injuries were so alarming. Out of all the traumatic wounds, it was hardest for me to see his left leg. It had taken the brunt of the crash and was black as tar and swollen beyond recognition. His leg was so heavy that I could barely lift it up while someone else slid a pillow under it. In the days to follow, my buddy gained almost 75 pounds over the course of a 72-hour time frame. He required liters and liters of fluids to keep him alive as a deadly infection raged havoc in his already battered body. He looked like a balloon that could burst at any moment. Big Dan’s skin and the whites of his eyes also turned a bright yellow color because of his liver failure. He practically glowed in the dark for weeks. Once the swelling subsided, the even "bigger" Big Dan then slowly began shrinking. He struggled to eat a diet high enough in protein and calories that was necessary to heal his many wounds. With his drastically declining weight, he looked emaciated and frail. In the hospital, Daniel's highest weight was 308 pounds and his lowest was 174. That's an unbelievable 134-pound weight shift!
I was given the unwanted responsibility of making each and every medical decision for my buddy. I had to make decisions that no 35-year-old wife and mother should ever have to make. The odds were not in our favor that this situation was going to turn out good. I remember telling an unconscious Big Dan not to worry about me or the boys, we would be okay. Even if in my own heart, I still hadn't convinced myself of this yet. I also encouraged him that if he did chose to take on this battle, I would be by his side each step of the way.
For months, my life revolved around making sure Daniel's nutritional needs were being met, that he was turned every two hours to prevent bedsores, that his wounds were properly cared for, that he was always clean and dry, that his range of motion exercises were being done to prevent any further stiffness, that his dignity was always maintained, and anything else I could do to make sure he had only the best care possible. Being Big Dan's advocate turned out to be the hardest, but most critical role l have ever held thus far in my life. I quickly became disconnected from the real world. My Mom moved into our house and became Tucker and Cooper's primary caregiver. I did not leave the hospital for 28 straight days. Some people viewed me as a devoted wife, while others thought I was downright crazy. I didn't care what anyone thought of me. I had invested 19 years in this man and I was going to fight with every fiber of my being alongside My Big Dan as long as he kept fighting for himself.
183 days in the hospital, well over a dozen surgeries, and 75 plus units of blood products later, my buddy is still with us following that unforgettable July day. According to one of his trauma physicians, Big Dan was the most critically injured patient at UT Hospital that had ever lived to tell about it. He is a living testimony of survival. By God's grace and Daniel's fierce determination, he continues to face each day with a desire to defy the odds. We didn't wish for this adventure, nor did we ever expect something like this to happen to us.
But, it did.
We have looked death in the face, we've took several turns in the fiery furnace, we have had our future plans turned upside down, we have been tested to the core of our beings, but I can honestly tell you that we are better individuals because of this journey. We love deeper, we forgive easier, and we cherish every moment this life has to offer.
Our pastor says that God often uses obstacles as opportunities to bring glory and praise to our heavenly father. To put it mildly, we've sure had our fair share of "opportunities" to share with the world how God has carried us and continues to carry us through this valley. From a medical standpoint, Daniel shouldn't have survived, but he did. From an emotional standpoint, we could've gave up and quit, but we didn't. From a religious standpoint, we could've turned away, but, instead our faith grew stronger.
We would like to send our sincerest gratitude to everyone who has walked this journey with us. The countless number of medical professionals who have shared their talents and passion for helping others will always hold a special place in our hearts for the part they played in helping Daniel. Our community has rallied around us and showed us the genuine goodness of humanity. The support of our family and friends has been utterly amazing. They continue to overwhelm us with their generosity, loyalty, encouragement, and love beyond anything we could have ever imagined. There aren't enough words to describe how blessed and humbled we have been by the outpouring of love and support that we have received. We will forever be more than grateful for each and every act of kindness.
Today, Daniel continues to spend countless hours each week working to improve his strength and mobility. Relearning how to walk again with a severely damaged left leg has proven to be a daunting task. Big Dan is currently using forearm crutches and has high hopes of advancing to a cane in the future. As the days go by, we are adjusting to our new "normal" as best we can. Occasionally, Big Dan will apologize to our boys for not being able to do something with them because of his physical limitations. Without fail, Tucker always has the same response: It's okay Dad, we're just glad you're here. A simple statement from a little boy, but there couldn't be a more perfect answer! I'm sure glad he's still here too!
This is definitely NOT the path that we would have chosen for our lives, but we CAN choose to make the best out of our circumstances and that's what we will continue to do. As Big Dan keeps fighting this battle, we will keep trusting that God has bigger and better plans in store for us....and we can't wait to see what He is up to!
It has truly been my pleasure to share Big Dan's story with you. It is a story filled with courage, hope, perseverance, faithfulness, and love. Above all, Daniel's testimony is confirmation of our God's great mercy and His amazing grace.