ATLANTA (CNN) — Tasha Bradford made Sylvester “Buck” Storey wait two years before she agreed to go on a date.
When they finally got together, everyone knew it was meant to be. Among the many things they had in common, the couple bonded over their mutual adoration of “Star Trek,” old movies, fried bologna sandwiches and God.
They were married just a week. It was the best week ever. And then, it was the worst.
But even after the accident that took her husband, her leg and part of her colon as the couple returned from their honeymoon, Bradford hasn’t lost her faith.
Happiness to tragedy
From her bed at Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital, where she spent most of November, Bradford smiles as she replays the details of her wedding day.
It was Saturday, October 19. She had turned 31 the week before. It rained that morning; she and her bridesmaids put trash bags over their heads to protect their hair. They ran out to Walmart to pick up lipstick, bought coffee at Starbucks and got ready in the dance hall at High Praise Worship Center in Panama City, Florida.
Bradford’s sister-in-law did her makeup, and her maid of honor did her hair. Before the ceremony, the bridal party sat and prayed for God to bless them.
Her grandfather was the first to arrive, getting ready in his truck. He was the one who walked Bradford down the aisle and gave her away. With Pastor Joshua Gay officiating, the couple took communion, read letters they had written to each other and had their first kiss as husband and wife. “Love Train” played as the new Mr. and Mrs. Storey walked out of the church.
There was tons of food at the reception, held at the home of close church friends. Bradford only got one plate of her mom’s macaroni and cheese before it was all gone, but there was plenty of tater tot casserole, chicken, punch and root beer — Storey’s favorite — and a big bonfire for making s’mores. The newlyweds danced to “God Gave Me You” by Dave Barnes.
For their honeymoon, they drove to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. That week, they posed for goofy pictures at the Hollywood Wax Museum and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!, won tickets to the Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede dinner show and drank hot cocoa at a cozy coffee shop. At the Hollywood Stars Car Museum, Bradford paid extra to have Storey’s picture taken in the General Lee, the car from “The Dukes of Hazzard.”
“That just made him happy,” she says, her hands clasped over her stomach.
On the last night, they ate at Burger King because they had a gift card and watched the Tennessee vs. Alabama football game.
Her voice slows down as she talks about the day after that.
‘This is somebody’s child’
That Sunday, October 27, they woke up in the dark to get a head start on the drive home so they would be back in Panama City for the evening church service. They stopped a couple of times for gas.
He encouraged her to sleep. “I’ll be OK,” he told her.
She remembers telling him she loved him.
Bundled in a blanket because the heater wasn’t working in their 2001 Chevrolet Blazer, she lay back in the passenger seat and closed her eyes as they continued southbound on Interstate 85.
She woke up to the SUV rolling and rolling. It landed upside down in the median on I-85 near LaGrange, Georgia, between Atlanta and Columbus. The car was totaled, but you could still see the words “Tasha + Buck” on one of the backseat windows.
No one knows what happened for sure. Storey was pronounced dead at the scene, but Bradford didn’t learn that until after she was airlifted to a hospital.
She remembers looking down and seeing that her right leg was mangled and her shoe was gone. She was yanking on her seat belt to get out. She remembers screaming for her mom, her grandmother, anyone she knew.
After that, she remembers all the strangers who came to her aid.
Alex Hart, a lawyer who served in the Marines, was first one on the scene. He and a friend were on their way back to Albany, Georgia, from a trout fishing trip when they saw the SUV flip.
When he got to Bradford, he said she was lying on the ceiling, and he could tell her leg was injured badly. He cut her seat belt and pulled her out.
Keith Powell of Tallahassee, Florida, pulled up behind Hart. The state ethics investigator had been driving home with his wife from Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport after a cruise to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary.
They propped Bradford’s head against a stuffed animal and covered her with blankets to keep her from going into shock.
She heard a woman with a sweet voice talking to her. “Is this your purse, pretty girl?” “Do you know where your phone is, baby?”
That was Gail Gentry of Phenix City, Alabama, who had been driving northbound on I-85, on her way to Atlanta for ministry school. She sang and prayed aloud for God to protect the young woman.
A second woman, Carol Aaron, found Storey’s cell phone and started calling everyone she could until she reached a member of their church.
“All I could think of was, this is somebody’s child … I couldn’t leave her,” said Aaron, who lives in Pine Mountain, Georgia. “I would want somebody to do the same thing for my daughter.”
After sheriff’s deputies and a fire department arrived at the scene, Aaron, Gentry and Powell’s wife collected the couple’s belongings that were strewn on the highway.
Bradford was airlifted to Columbus Medical Center in Columbus, Georgia. As she lay in the emergency room, the nurse from the Air Evac Lifeteam who had held her hand in the helicopter told her Storey didn’t make it.
“I said ‘Lord, Peace be still with him, and he’s in a better place.’ And I cried a little,” Bradford said. “I knew God had his side because he was such a good, Christian man. I had no doubt where he was going to go.”
A hard road
After that, all she can remember was people shoving things in her mouth and putting IVs in her. They flew her to the Atlanta hospital, where her mother and grandmother saw her for the first time.
“I just wanted to get there. I just wanted to get to her,” said her mother, Rhonda Cooper of Panama City. She had been driving to church at High Praise when she got the call that Bradford had been in an accident but had no idea how bad it was.
When Bradford arrived at Grady, “it wasn’t clear she was going to make it,” said trauma surgeon Bryan Morse.
Her vital signs were unstable — her blood pressure low, her heart rate high. A bedside ultrasound showed she was bleeding internally from her belly.
She was in the operating room within minutes, where the Morse’s team worked to stop the bleeding. Because the blood supply to her colon had been cut, the right side of her colon was dead and was removed.
At the same time, a second surgical team was working on her mangled right leg. It was fractured in multiple places, and she had torn the main arteries, veins and nerves.
Vascular surgeon Ravi Rajani got the blood flowing back to the limb, but her leg was damaged so badly it couldn’t be saved.
Bradford was moved to the intensive care unit and received a massive blood transfusion.
Two days later, they removed her leg.
“I hate that she lost her leg, but I still have her … I can live without a leg and I know she can too, because she’s a trouper,” Cooper said.
On Wednesday, Bradford was discharged from Grady to a hospital closer to her Florida home. After a few months of physical therapy, Morse said she’ll learn to use a prosthesis and “move on with her life.”
In time, he expects her to make “a pretty full recovery.”
“She’s been a miracle to everybody,” Morse said. “She’s really an inspiration to all of us and a reminder of why we do what we do. To see her recover from this and still maintain such a positive attitude has been refreshing.”
There have been some bumps in the road.
Bradford has struggled with bouts of nausea and vomiting during her stomach’s healing process. Her mom posts daily updates on Facebook. She keeps a hopeful tone but is real about the details.
“We had to clean where her stitches were twice last night,” Cooper wrote one morning. “She has such strength while they’re taking out her stitches and pulling out gauze in her open wound and poking her with needles to get blood and shots every day this goes on. I’ll see tears running down her little face, and I hate to see her go through this, but so thankful she is with us still.”
Bradford’s been working hard. By the time she left Grady, she was able to get up out of the hospital bed and go to the bathroom with her walker, stand and wash her hands and get back in bed. On good days, she wheeled herself to the post office to check for packages from loved ones, all the while posting optimistic and light-hearted updates on Facebook about her progress.
She calls her stump Jack because she says it looks like Jack Skellington from “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
‘God has a plan’
Emotionally, she grieves the loss of the life she was just starting. Now, instead watching TV and playing with her cat in the little townhouse she planned to share with her new husband, she’s wondering what the future holds.
First, she’ll be transferred to a rehabilitation hospital to learn how to do things like put on clothes, bathe and balance. After that, she’ll move in with her mother. It will be a while before her leg has healed enough for a prosthesis. Until then, she’ll get around with a walker and wheelchair.
On a table in her hospital room sits a book of painted, handprint flowers from the toddlers in her church’s day-care program where she and Storey taught twice a month.
“I think about having children … it hurts. All these other people are having kids,” Bradford said. “But God has a plan. I think of all the beautiful children in church I got to teach. That fills a void. It makes me want to strive even harder, to work my legs to where I can sit on the floor and play with them.”
A church acquaintance set up a campaign on the crowdfunding site GoFundMe to try to ease the family’s financial burden.
Bradford has health insurance, but that won’t cover all the bills for medical, rehab and therapy. Storey had been a commercial fisherman for years and had recently switched jobs to be home more with Bradford. He had no benefits or life insurance. Bradford’s mother has also had to take an extended leave of absence from her job. She and Tasha’s grandmother have been staying in a hotel near the hospital.
So far, about $10,000 has been raised.
Among those sharing her story are the people who helped her at the scene of the accident. Tasha and her mother regularly exchange Facebook posts and text messages with several of the witnesses.
Gentry, who stayed while the paramedics were on their way, searched for days until she was able to track Bradford down at Grady. She has since become a friend.
“I wanted to make sure she survived,” Gentry said. “I began to wonder if maybe her injuries were worse than I thought. Once I met her, I loved this girl. I want to see her prosper — I want to see her overcome all of this.”
“I don’t think it was an accident that we ended up there at that time to be able to help at that time. I just think God does that sometimes,” Powell said. “It’s something you never expected, but it happens and then you feel kind of a kindred spirit to them. You realize how fleeting life can be sometimes so when you have connections like that, you want to follow up with it.”
Bradford calls them her angels.
“When they pulled me out of that car, I didn’t know where they came from. All I knew was peace and comfort,” she said. “It feels like God put them there.”
While she was in the intensive care unit, she had a dream where her husband appeared at the spot where the accident happened.
“He said, ‘I can’t stay, but I just want to tell you goodbye, and I love you,’” she said. “God has a greater plan than I’ll ever know. I know with time and healing, he’ll send someone my way who will love me for me.”