The Day That Forever Changed Our Lives: 3 Important Things To Remember When Tragedy Strikes


The Day That Forever Changed Our Lives




        “Other things may change us, but we start and end with family.” ~ Anthony Brandt




There are moments of impact that turn our lives upside down. December 22, 2009, at approximately 11:45am, I received a call from a nurse at the Maricopa County Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona, asking me if my dad was William Stevens. My heart started racing as I affirmed he was my dad. She advised that my dad had been transported via helicopter to their hospital. He had been involved in a multi-vehicle accident. She found my name and number in his cell phone. She insisted I come to the hospital as soon as possible. I asked if she could tell me the extent of his injuries. I appealed with her. I needed to know if he was okay…alive…anything…. Give me something!! I could feel blood rushing to my head and I felt weak in my knees. She wouldn’t give me any information and prodded me about how long it would take for me to get to the hospital. After getting cross streets of the hospital, I confirmed I’d be there between fifteen to twenty minutes. She asked me who Carolyn was and after telling her she was my mom—his wife—I asked if she was involved in the accident, too. The nurse couldn’t tell me whether she was involved in the accident or not and reiterated I needed to get there quickly.




With two of my three children, Sarah and Steven, in tow (it was holiday break from school), we immediately left the house and headed to the hospital. I asked them to look up local news on their phone for any accidents being reported, thinking that if there had been a multi-car accident, it might be on the news.  My son found it in seconds—reports of a twenty-plus-car pileup on highway I-10 in Casa Grande, involving cars and semi trucks, resulting in a number of car and truck fires and initial reports of several deaths.  My heart immediately sunk into my stomach, tears came to my eyes, and I could feel blood going to my head. I immediately took some deep breaths to calm down and continued driving. I couldn’t get there fast enough. I felt I needed to retain composure for my kids. I was the strong one, the one with the level head.  But, what if he were dead? Was my mom with him or was he alone? What if he died and I hadn’t told him how much I loved him and what a wonderful father he was?


I tried reaching my mom at home and my sisters cell number. After leaving messages, my sister, Felicity, called me back within five minutes…yet it seemed like an eternity.  Mom was safe at home. I told them Dad was in a car accident and we were on our way to the hospital. My daughter, Amanda, left work and brought my Mom and Felicity to the hospital. Because the accident site was a direct line to their home and I-10 was blocked for many hours, it took my family several hours to arrive. Meanwhile, my kids were adding more details to their initial findings, reporting that several of the injured were airlifted to local hospitals. We learned later that three people died in the accident, and, although four others were transported to local trauma centers, my dad was the only victim still in the hospital at day’s end.


As soon as I arrived at the hospital, I was taken directly to the main trauma bay. My dad lay motionless on a gurney, his pallor was ashen and there was a tag on the big toe of his right foot.  Oh my God, I thought, my Dad is dead. He didn’t survive the accident. How in the world am I going to tell my mom, sister, and kids that he is gone…just like that? I panicked thinking about the things I didn’t say to him and wanted him to know such as how much I loved him and what a great father he was; how much I adored and respected him. He was my hero. I thought about the horror and unimaginable pain my mom would go through losing her husband of forty-two-plus years. Felicity was going through a tough time in her life already, how would she take it? Who would walk her down the aisle when the time came? Would this put my mom over the edge with her own health and would she progressively decline and die not long after him? How would my kids handle losing their grandpa in the blink of an eye?  My kids looked up to their grandpa. He was consistently present in their lives most of their formidable years and was the primary person they looked to as a male figure in their lives.


I was scared. I was angry. I was confused. I was overwhelmed. I have dealt with a lot of things in my life but nothing; absolutely nothing could have prepared me for seeing my dad like this. For not knowing whether he was going to live or die, or whether he was dead on arrival to begin with.  Suddenly, the burden of the entire family felt like it rested squarely on my shoulders. I felt all alone and wondered at the work of God’s divine hand. I found myself getting out of my heart and going to my head where things were safer, where I felt more in control, where I felt I was more capable of being the strong one for my family, where I could figure things out and solve problems.  This, in part, was what my career involved—solving problems and thinking strategically about the future. I felt that all my years of leadership and every situation I had faced up to this point helped prepare me to handle this situation of a lifetime.


As tears came to my eyes and I started shaking, my dad moved slightly. “My shoulder hurts like hell,” he whispered.  I can’t describe the relief I felt. I realized I wasn’t breathing and took in a huge breath. Relief turned to anger about why he had a tag on his toe. I don’t see many dead people or toe tags, but TV and movies definitely convinced me that only dead people get tags on their toes.


I asked the doctor about the extent of my dad’s injuries. He explained that my dad was still being evaluated. Thus far, they knew he had a shoulder injury of some kind since he had been complaining about shoulder pain. The bones in his right elbow protruded out of his skin. My dad asked me the same questions; groaning the same thing every five to ten seconds or so. He was thoroughly confused—to say the least.  In one second, he didn’t know where he was or why he was there, and the next second he would ask where my mom was, all the while telling me he hurt like hell. Then the loop of questions would start all over again. I asked the doctor if there was a way to determine the extent of his confusion.  Is this normal? How long will this go on, I pleaded?  The doctor replied that the confusion is very normal, particularly when someone had been as banged up as my dad. And so our concern about possible traumatic brain injury began.


With my dad’s foot tag now removed, I got Steven and Sarah, let them know what was going on, and prepared them for what to expect. Then, they each went in to visit him one at a time. Watching my kids stand there with my dad, I couldn’t help but get teary eyed. My dad was a father figure to Steven. Raising my kids virtually alone during Steven’s life, my dad filled the gaps for him. They spent a lot of time together. My dad encouraged everyone’s education. He was a trusting person to ask life’s sometimes-embarrassing “man” questions. My dad taught Steven about gun shooting and they would often go to the range. He would help my dad around their house; keep my mom company, watching over her when my dad worked nights on the weekends. Steven was the only one of my children who continually wanted to make the hour-long trek to Casa Grande and spend the weekend with his grandparents. As Steven stood over my dad, I felt his immense pain, sadness, and helplessness. While he tried to be brave for my dad, reassuring him that everything was going to be okay, Steven looked as if his main lifeline were being severed from him. In that defining moment, I realized that Steven, my baby boy, was a young man now. He was a responsible, caring and loving young man and he was vulnerable, angry, scared, and sad seeing my dad in such an injured condition. When he came out of the room, we hugged and cried together.


It was my Sarah’s turn. After seeing her brother come out of the room, she almost didn’t want to go in and see her grandpa because she was even more scared about what she would find. Nevertheless, Sarah fought back her tears, took a deep breath, put on her strong face, and entered the room to stand at his side. Sarah is not normally one to show emotions. My dad reached for her hand and didn’t want to let go. He asked her the same questions he had asked Steven and me…again and again and again. I was so proud of her for being so patient.  She touched his arm, then his head and they continued holding hands. He kept looking to her for answers and wouldn’t let go of her hand. She looked over at me with tears coming down her face. I think the magnitude of the situation caught up with her when she realized he didn’t remember Steven being there just minutes before nor remembered me being there a few minutes before that. Suddenly, she wanted out…out of the room. She couldn’t handle seeing her grandpa like that anymore.   She came out of the room crying, wiping the tears from her face and wept, “What is happening to him? This is not okay.”


My dad was transferred to Barrow’s Neurological Institute at St. Joseph’s hospital around 10:00 pm the night of the accident. Being one of the top neurological hospitals in the world, I felt my dad was in excellent hands there. I can’t tell you how many odd questions he asked.


In Critical Care, my dad needed immediate surgery to fix his protruding elbow bones. Doctors were concerned about infection and they quickly took him to surgery shortly after midnight. As our entire family sat together, I sat agonizing over the magnitude of the situation; my body was consumed by the sound of the wall clock second hand beating in my head. Every minute seemed like eternity.


Many nights thereafter, as my head hit the pillow, a rush of emotions would rise to the surface and I cried. Despondent and with a heavy heart, I prayed for strength to help all of us through this; to carry and guide me…guide us through this difficult time. I knew there were lessons to be learned. Disheartened, I couldn’t believe something like this happened to our family. I just wanted to wake up and this nightmare to be gone. Nope! It wasn’t a nightmare; it was real. The following day, December 23, 2009, doctors discovered my dad’s brain was bleeding. I would have been surprised had it not been bleeding!


Despite my continued recovery from a November 14, 2009 surgery, I was hopeful I could balance staying with my dad in the hospital and getting adequate rest. Felicity was involved in a car accident on November 21, 2009, and suffered a collapsed lung, broken ribs, a dislocated hip, and a broken ankle. After surgery and discharge, she was out of work for an unpaid six-week recovery. As a result, she was unable to be a partner in caring for our dad.


I was still dealing with the emotions of almost losing Felicity and the same week, we learned our mom had breast cancer. Out of sorts, I plugged along, remaining focused on the tasks at hand. I felt powerless and sullen.  I couldn’t deal with this news right now, as I was recovering myself. Now that my dad was involved in this tragic accident, I felt discouraged and dejected, unsure how I would possibly handle everything before me. Despite feeling like I was spiraling out of control, I had to focus on my dad right now.


My head swirled with my perpetual ‘to do’ list of things I needed to do. My heart and body, however, had a different idea. Sleep. I was paralyzed and unable to do anything. Literally. I found myself staring at piles of papers, bills, and school notes from my kids and all I could do was sleep, cry, or stare at the piles. Somehow, I mustered the courage, strength and determination to handle the massive responsibility before me.




1.   Be thankful and grateful for the little things in life. For one day, we may wake up and realize these are the big things. Always know the immense strength and power we have within to handle traumatic situations. While I wasn’t sure why my dad was spared this day or the full extent of his injuries, I soon realized the extent of my dad’s strength and determination, as well as ours.  I have an entire tele-series dedicated to all aspects of gratitude. If we wake up each morning and simply say “Thank You” it is enough to spark a grateful heart.


2.    Live each and every day as if it were your last… for one day it will be! There are no promises of a tomorrow. It is often overstated and this experience taught me just how real this is. Say I love you every single day to those closest to you. Whether the tragedy is a devastating diagnosis, illness, or disabling injury, such as what my family experienced, or senseless acts or natural disasters, your life can change in the blink of an eye.


When tragedy strikes, are you ready…really ready? Do your loved ones know who your Power of Attorney (POA) would be? Do you have your will, trust, medical/health care wishes up to date? Does your family know where these important documents are? The more you can prepare ahead of time should something happen to you, the more you help your family through an already trying time. You love your family enough to ensure things go smoothly and according to your wishes, so make sure all your “I’s” are dotted and your “T’s” are crossed. In the case of natural disasters, such as the recent Oklahoma tornados that raged throughout Oklahoma City, I recommend sending a copy of these important documents to a relative, trusted friend, attorney or someone at least 75 miles away from your home (300+ miles is preferable.) This ensures that if your entire city is whipped out, these documents are preserved. I worked with a disaster recovery project while working at the University of Phoenix and I just thought of this for my personal life. Go figure…


When one person dies or suffers a debilitating injury or disability, the ripple effect is far and wide. When senseless acts of violence take lives in an instant, it is beyond heartbreaking. It is unconscionable. We will never truly understand the method behind this madness. Massacres in CT, CO, WI, MA, and LA prove that every day is truly a gift. Hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, tsunamis etc… we never know what tomorrow holds.   


3.  As much as I know we would like to, we can’t shelter kids from pain. We must all walk our own path and there are some things we can’t kiss and make better. While we can certainly be there for them and help them how we can, this is where we trust and have faith…faith that everything will work out someway…somehow. When we experience grief and loss; whether death or non-death related loss, we may wonder why ‘it’ happened. We want answers and we want them now! The truth is that wanting to figure it out creates a cycle of more wanting to figure it out. The resisting and wanting to figure things out makes us attract more resisting. I know this is easier said than done in some circumstances; however, the more we can welcome our feelings and continue welcoming them until they subside is an important step to moving through difficult times. With welcoming comes emotion. Go through boxes of Kleenex. Crying is a fabulous release. This is one of many strategies I use for grief and loss…and support. When our kids feel pain, we feel pain. Ensuring they know they are loved unconditionally and have a strong support system where feelings are welcome is probably one of the best next things to our kiss and make it better strategy.


Blessings for a long and healthy life,




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Tandy Elisala

Family Caregiver Coach, Cancer Empowerment Advocate and Chief Inspiration Officer at Center for Inspiring Greatness | Empowered Family Caregiver
Tandy Elisala is passionate about helping family caregivers go from being overwhelmed and stressed to empowered and calm. Tandy went through cancer four times and learned how to heal using conventional, complementary, and alternative therapy. Tandy left her corporate career to take care of both parents simultaneously while raising three kids as a single mom. She took care of both parents for 2 1/2 years until their respective deaths. Tandy now teaches what she learned on her journey. Tandy is a family caregiver coach, a multiple best-selling author, inspirational speaker and mom to three adult kids, one angel dog and one diva cat.

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