On September 24, 2019, my wife, Jena, was riding her bicycle while training for her first full Ironman just weeks away. She just got back a couple of weeks ago from the 70.3 Ironman World Championship in Nice, France. The above pic is her (left) and a friend (Shannon) after finishing Oceanside 70.3, where they both qualified for Nice. One thing you need to know about Jena is that she’s a very competitive triathlete. And she’s excellent at what she does.
While riding her bike, she gets hit by a truck going 50mph. Upon impact, she flies 30-50 feet before hitting the ground. She lays on the ground, barely conscious, and asks her friend Brandon, who was riding his bike a couple of minutes behind her, not to let her die. She has trouble breathing and is in excruciating pain all over her body. Flashes of our three kids’ faces bombard her heart and mind. She hangs on for dear life.
When the EMT’s arrive, there is some back and forth on what hospital to bring her to. Stephanie, one of the air medics, took charge and said they are flying her to University Medical Center, the only level 1 trauma hospital in the area. That decision just might save her life.
I get the phone call while at home. I know very little about what happened other than that Jena fell off her bike, that she can move her feet (meaning she’s not paralyzed), her breathing has stabilized, and she was being airlifted to a hospital 45 minutes from our house.
I tell my 17-year-old son, Ethan, what I know about what happened and burst into tears. I then find myself in an odd situation with my son comforting me. Wasn’t I supposed to comfort him? I later discover that everyone reacts differently to trauma.
I then find my 14-year-old daughter, Emma, in another part of the house to tell her what happened. We both hug each other and break down crying. She later tells me that it was both a horrible and comfortable moment.
I leave for the hospital, confused, terrified of the unknown. I experience a flood of emotions that I can’t seem to name or control. I was a total mess.
As I pull up to the hospital, Stephanie, the air medic, tells me that Jena has been cleared of anything life-threatening. Basically, she said Jena is going to live. Thank God. She’s alive. She can breathe. She can move her feet.
What am I about to walk into? I don’t have a clue.
When I find Jena in the ER, I am comforted by the sight of her. She is awake, alert, and able to speak. As I look at the team of 6-8 doctors and nurses packed in the small ER room, the lead doctor gives me all the details about what happened. I didn’t know she had been hit by a truck going 50mph. I didn’t know she flew 30-50 feet. That was all new information. My knees get weak, and my face turns white. The doctors slip a chair behind me and tell me to sit down.
Jena is in severe pain, but all they can do at this point is to give her morphine. I’ve seen her give birth to our three kids, and she has a very high tolerance for pain. This pain was much worse. No matter how much they gave her, it hurt bad for hours and hours. What seems like an eternity.
One broken bone at a time, for several hours, we’re notified of her extensive injuries. I would have liked to get it all at once, but that’s not how things like this go. She ends up having three broken vertebrae, one of which is shattered, four broken ribs (two of which are detached), a fractured sternum, broken sacrum, and broken acetabulum.
The next day she has back surgery, where they put rods and screws in 4 of her vertebrae. The surgery is successful. No complications.
The day after surgery, I go on Facebook to see pics of her 40th birthday party, happening only three days before the accident. The pics were posted days ago, but I am seeing them for the first time. She told me that night was one of the best moments of her life. She was happy and grateful to be surrounded by friends and family. People who loved and cared for her.
I break down in tears. Just three days ago, Jena was on cloud 9. She was alive, grateful for so many friends and family. She was fresh back from Nice 70.3 World Championship, about to do her first full Ironman. Now, her body is broken, beat up, and barely alive. So much has been taken from her.
The next week is a nightmare. It’s full of pain, trauma, and a host of other complex and new emotions unfamiliar to me. For over a week, I’m in constant panic/survival mode. Jena is in constant pain. When she hurts, my heart hurts. Her body is broken. My heart is broken.
I could write a book about the days in the hospital after her accident. For now, let’s just name it what it is — a life-changing horrific traumatic event.
Thankfully, we have an incredible amount of support from friends and family. My dad and stepmother take care of the kids. My mom and Nancy take night shifts at the hospital. I do the day shift. Without my mom and Nancy doing the night shift, I would not be able to function as a human. Shannon, a friend of Jena’s, steps up as the point person to help us coordinate all the people wanting to help us. She also becomes like a sister to Jena and me, regularly showing up at the hospital, and calling me daily. A team of people sign-up to feed us dinner for the next month. People buy us Whole Foods and Grub Hub gift cards. A friend pays for laundry service for us for weeks. Another friend pays to have our house cleaned.
The amount of support, love, prayers, and encouragement we receive is beyond anything that we’ve experienced in our entire lives. We’re humbled and grateful for everyone who showed us their un-ending support.
After a week in the hospital, she has another surgery. This surgery is attaching plates on four ribs, so when the bones heal, they connect. From the moment she came out of surgery, things take a dive for the worse. A host of issues are causing all sorts of physical problems.
At this point, my adrenaline is shot. I’ve been in panic/adrenaline mode for longer than my body can handle. I sort of shut-down for a few days. Unending pressure on my chest, feeling as if I’m having an out-of-body experience. Not being able to make simple decisions or perform normal daily tasks. I can barely speak in complete, coherent sentences. When I’m away from Jena, I break down and cry, often without notice.
Jena somehow gets through another five days in the hospital, and she’s finally released.
She gets home only to be overwhelmed by feelings of weakness. When she left the house, she was a strong world-class triathlete. Now, she is weak and broken. And the future was unknown.
Two days later is Ethan’s 18th birthday. We throw a last-minute party, which ends up being a disaster. My daughter Emma has an emotional breakdown an hour before the party. We ask two family members to cook the food as soon as they arrive. They saw it needed to be prepared, so they jumped right in and did it. I have a conversation with Joey, my other son, as everyone is arriving where I rail on him about wanting to miss Ethan’s birthday party for his strength training class. I say some things I later regret. The hospital bed was delivered in the middle of the party, and it looked like it was 30 years old. The mattress was torn and had multiple stains all over. I yelled at the guy (another thing I regret) to give me a refund in front of everyone. It was an uncomfortable and awkward moment. It could have been a scene straight out of a movie. Thankfully, things settle down, and we move on. I think Ethan enjoys the rest of the night. Hardly, the vision I had in my mind for his 18th birthday party.
The following weeks are filled with home visits from the PT, OT, and nurse, and follow up appointments with doctors. And a lot of 45 minute walks around the block with Jena using the walker. She amazes the doctor on her fast recovery, making huge progress at a rapid pace. Jena’s mom stays with us for two weeks to help at home, doing the dishes, laundry, running errands, etc.
Jena eventually gains her independence. She ditches the walker, drives, swims, and eventually bikes. We expect her to continue to recover, but it will be a long road.
A couple of months after the accident, she teams with Shannon and others to form a cycling coalition. The goal is to bring awareness to the community about cyclists on the road. They will also work with the local government to pass safety laws protecting those vulnerable to automobiles, which includes: cyclists, construction workers, pedestrians, etc. People from the cyclist and triathlon community are supporting it too. It’s a grassroots organization that’s just now coming to life.
We’re still unsure about chronic long-term pain, physical limitations, and her ability to eventually run long-distance (something she loves to do). The truth is, we’re still unsure about a lot of things. But all we can do is take one day at a time.
Although it feels like a year, at the publishing of this blog post, the accident took place over four months ago. I’ve had a reasonable amount of time to process the events that took place, reflecting on the life lessons I’ve learned. I wanted to share my thoughts with you. I hope they’ll be helpful to you whether or not you’re going through a difficult season of life.
Here are the two most important lessons I learned…
1/ Every darkness has its teachings.
The musician Trevor Hall calls it, The Fruitful Darkness. In fact, that is both the song title and the name of the album.
I listened to his music back and forth from the hospital and could feel the presence of God in every word. Sometimes, all I could do was breath, ask God for grace in that moment and let Trevor’s words sing to my soul.
His music was a continual reminder that every darkness would teach you something about life, yourself, and others. I wanted to stay open to those teachings and receive them with an open heart.
2/ A traumatic event instantly rips away all the fluff. Your most important priorities are crystal clear.
My priorities were crystal clear: show up for Jena, be there for the kids physically and emotionally, somehow practice self-care, so I don’t go insane and hang on to God for dear life. Everything else didn’t matter.
My wife was a priority. When she hurt, I hurt. Every time she was in physical pain, which seemed to be never-ending, my heart ached. It bled in anguish. At times it was unbearable. My goal was to be there beside her. I was there to serve and love her.
Something shifted deep within my heart, and it stuck. It’s still there now. I have a new depth of love for her. It’s a deep in-my-soul kind of love. A feeling I can tap into at any moment. When I’m around her, she captures my attention. Her very presence ignites something within me. My heart is deeply connected to her in a new and powerful way.
The kids were my priority. They had emotional and physical needs that needed to be met. The first few days, I was at the hospital with Jena, so I didn’t even see them. My stepmom and dad were taking care of their physical needs. But the first night, the kids slept in the house alone. The second night, Nancy stayed at the house with them. We soon realized I needed to be at home in the evenings, and see them off to school in the morning. In those moments, although emotionally drained, I would check in on them as much as possible. I did my best to show up for them.
Jena’s accident was a turning point for us as parents. We became aware of the ways we needed to show up for all three of them in everyday life, in the trauma, and beyond. It was somewhat of a wakeup call for both of us. Beyond Jena’s accident, we live in this weird tension of being parents of teenagers and soaking up the final years of our kids living at home with us, while trying to bring order to the chaos of raising a 14,15 and 18-year-old. We are consistently aware that in 3 1/2 years, all the kids will be out of high school, and most likely not at home in college somewhere. Although chaos is often the norm, they bring life, joy, and love to our lives.
Self-care was a life-line. After about 5-7 days of Jena being in the hospital, I was toast, drained, and running on empty. Actually, beyond empty, in the negative, below zero. I could barely function. So, I had to start practicing some forms of self-care to stay grounded. Initially, that meant basic things like getting a good night’s sleep, making sure I ate food throughout the day, etc. It soon became apparent that I needed more.
First, I needed a healthy coping mechanism. Going to the gym for a workout became that for me. I would have to find someone to be with Jena at the hospital while I went, and I wrestled with guilt about that. But I needed to take care of myself to function and be there for Jena and the kids. So, I just make it a priority.
On one of those workouts, I saw my dad at the gym. I was giving him the newest update on Jena and then just broke down crying in the middle of the gym for everyone to see. I grabbed him tightly, giving him a bear hug as I continued to cry. The last time I cried in my dad’s arms was back in high school. It was embarrassing, humbling, comforting, and healing. It was a moment that I’ll never forget. I’m grateful to have a dad with a big loving heart. He shows up for my family and me, in the trauma, and beyond.
Second, I returned to my practices of prayer and journaling. They would look different than in the past, but they were much needed. My prayers had the theme of “surrender”. I was surrendering the situation to God. Letting go of the illusion of control. I needed the grace to allow what was going to happen each day to happen. Regardless of how horrible it was, I had to lean into the pain of each moment — not inwardly resisting, denying, or ignoring the raw brutality of it all. I had to lean into the pain and suffering we dealt with every day. And I needed God’s grace and presence through it all. Prayer and journaling helped me approach life with this mindset each day.
For many years I neglected self-care. I didn’t exercise, eat healthily, and my life was out of balance. Over the last ten or so years all that has changed. I’ve discovered that taking care of myself helps me more effectively serve others.
Some other lessons I learned:
- God showed up, over and over. He was present in our suffering.
- Where there are weakness and humility, there is strength. At the hospital, Jena was in the raw. It was a humbling experience. Although I am an independent person and like to do things my way, I had to learn to accept other people’s help in order to survive.
- Life is precious. Every moment of every day is a gift. Soak it up.
- You can’t rush your healing. Healing is a process that takes time. Be patient.
- All the little things that annoy me about people went out of the window, and they stayed there.
In closing, I wanted to share two videos of Jena’s progress.
This video is her first 30-second jog on the treadmill, about 3 months after the accident:
This second video is the first time she got back on a bike since the accident. I shot it about 2 weeks ago (3 1/2 months after accident):
Nick Diliberto, Ministry to Youth