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Healing and Hope After the Storm

Shepherd Center provides treatment and hope to victims of historic tornado outbreak.

Eleven-year-old Faith Hollon was sick the night of April 15, 2011, so her dad, Steve Hollon, did what he did best. He took care of his little girl. With Faith in mom and dad’s bed watching TV, Steve laid down beside her, hoping Faith would feel better and drift off to sleep in the security of their room, knowing she was not alone. Dad had it under control.

Mom, Karen, and 15-year-old Renae were watching TV, too. But they were keeping an eye on some potentially scary weather moving into southern Alabama near their home in Prattville. By 10:30 p.m., Karen had seen enough to believe the threat of bad weather had passed. Faith was asleep by then so Karen and Steve kissed, said goodnight and went their separate ways.

“Renae and I were in bunk beds in the kids’ room,” Karen recalls. “We weren’t really scared of tornadoes because you never think it’s going to happen to you. Plus, we’d kept an eye on the weather and were supposedly in the clear.”

They were not. By 11 p.m., Renae and Karen felt the beds, the room, the house, begin to shake like an earthquake was hitting. Of course, it wasn’t an earthquake, but it might as well have been. Within hours, Karen would learn the tragic, yet heroic story of how her husband Steve sacrificed his life to save their youngest daughter’s life.

Two weeks later, in Ohatchee, Ala., Chris Rodgers, 34, found himself in a similar situation. Record-breaking tornadoes were wreaking havoc in Alabama, and he had to protect his children.

“I was pretty nonchalant about it at first because we’d never been in a tornado, but after my wife called to tell me to take it seriously, something told me to put our two kids in the bathtub and put a mattress over them,” Chris recalls.

“I went to the back door to look outside, and I saw a black swirl coming. I slammed the door, ran in and got on top of the kids. I told them to hang on to me. I heard a loud boom in my bedroom. I said, ‘Here we go. Hang on tight.’ The wind got under the mattress and knocked me out. I don’t remember anything past that. I woke up in the woods, trying to remember what happened.”

This past summer, Renae and Chris were patients at Shepherd Center at the same time, rehabilitating from serious injuries they sustained in the tornadoes. During their stays, they met briefly and were inspired by each other’s stories of survival and recovery. They share a horrific, terrifying bond – living through some of the worst tornadoes in American history.

Over a period of two weeks, a record-shattering 112 tornados ripped through Alabama. The 45 tornadoes of April 15 were the most ever in a single day in Alabama. That record was shattered 12 days later when 67 tornadoes blew through the state, killing more than 240 people.

A tornado left the Rodgers’ family with Chris paralyzed from the waist down and his children terrified of dark clouds and thunder. And it took the lives of three members of the extended Hollon family, including Steve.

“Something like this is incredibly more difficult for patients who are just dealing with physical injuries or illness, which can be very hard in and of itself,” says Shepherd Center Medical Director Donald Peck Leslie, M.D.

“The post-traumatic stress with these patients can be overwhelming. The good thing about being here is that everyone has a chance to spend significant time with psychological experts who work with them on dealing with the trauma. Shepherd is a safe haven, but when they leave us, as independent as possible, they go back to begin rebuilding not only their lives, but their homes. That’s a lot.”

Chris, who has a T-12 complete spinal cord injury, experienced that challenge in late June. For him, it was good.

For Renae, who sustained a brain injury, it took a little longer and involved dealing with the loss of loved ones.

“We didn’t tell Renae until two days after she woke up (from a coma),” Karen says. “The doctors wanted her to stabilize first. She was writing on her pad, “Why hasn’t my daddy been to see me? I had put her off as long as I could. I told the doctor we had to tell her. She told me she loved God, but asked why did he take her daddy.”

Renae not only lost her father that night, but also her aunt and grandfather. The whole family was very close. So dealing with the loss has been very difficult.

“I’m not mad at God,” Renae says, “but it bugs me that Daddy had to be gone so soon. But I understand that God wanted him, so I can’t be mad that he took him.”

Karen says Renae’s attitude has been better than hers at times. “There are days when I have been mad at God,” she says. “I have asked why my husband. I know God has his plans and a purpose. If somehow, this helps people get closer to God…”

That Karen, Faith and Renae survived as physically intact as they did was something of a miracle, Karen says. “They took me to a hospital and then to where Renae was at the Prattville hospital,” Karen says. “They told me they’d found Faith with my husband. I assumed they were OK because they were going to the Montgomery hospital. Renae, though, was in critical condition. At one point, she wasn’t breathing and they were about to call the time of death for her. Then they saw a heartbeat, and they knew she had at least a fighting chance.

“The next couple of days were touch and go. Her liver was chopped up, she had a broken pelvis, a broken spine, a swollen and shifted brain and a cracked skull. She was in surgery three times because she was bleeding internally in her liver and she was in ICU for 37 days. During that stay, there were a couple of times when they didn’t think she’d make it because she couldn’t come out of her coma.”

Karen, Faith and Renae all know now that Steve died saving Faith’s life. As tragic as it was, they know that Steve died doing what he did best – protecting his family.

“The rescue workers told me that my husband protected my little girl and that he took the brunt of the storm. That’s why Faith only had a broken leg. Without him, she wouldn’t be here. That was my husband. His arm was still wrapped around my little girl, trying to protect her when they found him.”

Chris returned home on June 21 and began putting his life back together. His children, Dustin, 8, and Brittany, 12, are physically well and emotionally happy to have Dad back home.

Almost immediately after returning home, Chris began to understand the merits of the therapy he’d received at Shepherd Center.

“I had to get used to a lot of things again and some new things,” he explains. “I really didn’t realize how spoton the therapy was until I got home and started seeing it play out.”

Chris, his kids and his wife Kristi are all recovering from the emotional trauma of the tornado. With varying degrees of certainty and detail, both Dustin and Brittany remember the storm hitting and remember being tossed into the spinning air. The last thing Chris remembers is the initial thud of the impact.

Meanwhile, what Kristi most remembers is an overwhelming sense of being out of the loop and unable to help her husband protect their home. She was working in her job as a nurse when the storms were approaching. She called Chris and insisted that he take the weather warning seriously. So she did play a vital role. It just didn’t seem like it at the time to her.

“I called him because I knew he could be pretty nonchalant about it,” Kristi says. “I told him what I had just seen on TV, how this tornado was tearing up everything in its path and that it was coming to Ohatchee. Twenty-five minutes later, I couldn’t get him on the cell. I kept trying and was worried, but was also hoping maybe just the cell towers were affected.”

Kristi got a call 15 minutes later from an acquaintance: Her house had been hit. The kids had gotten out and were accounted for, but were injured. The caller said she hadn’t seen or heard word of Chris.

“I just lost it at that moment,” Kristi says. “Time just seemed to stop.”

The tornado destroyed the family’s home. Pictures show a bathtub with almost no standing structure around it. Chris, Brittany and Dustin were all lifted into a funnel cloud, spun around and thrown more than 140 yards from where they started. Brittany has the best recollection of the event.

“I remember Daddy telling us to get in the bathtub because a tornado was heading our way,” she says. “Dad said, ‘Don’t move for anything. I’ll be right back.’ Then I heard the tree smacking the house and I was spinning in the air. I woke up on the ground, screaming. Everything happened so fast.”

When the storm had done its damage, Chris awoke somewhere in the woods, he recalls. He could hear his children calling for him, but they seemed calm. Chris was not. He wanted to get to his kids, particularly his son, who has Type 1 diabetes and needs medication. But he could not move his legs, though he desperately wanted to get to his kids.

About 15 minutes after Kristi got the first call, the acquaintance called her back, this time with news that was encouraging and frightening at the same time.

“She said the paramedics had Chris on a stretcher, but that she had no idea how bad it was,” Kristi recalls. “My daughter looked OK, she said, but my son’s arm was pretty messed up.”

Kristi called the police, the sheriff’s office and elsewhere. No one had information, and with trees down everywhere and more bad weather on the horizon, she wasn’t able to leave.

And not knowing who was in which hospital, she wasn’t sure where she’d go if she could. It was more than two hours before Kristi found out where her family had been taken.

“I headed there not knowing anything,” she says. “When I got there, they were prepping my son for surgery, and they wouldn’t let me see Chris. They told me he couldn’t feel anything from the waist down. As a nurse, I knew what that meant.”

It wasn’t until late July that Renae went home, a few weeks before school started back. After completing inpatient therapy at Shepherd Center, Renae spent most of July undergoing intense speech, occupational and physical therapy, as well as counseling and therapeutic recreation therapy at Shepherd Pathways, the hospital’s outpatient treatment program for people with brain injuries.

This multi-disciplinary approach is commonplace at Shepherd Center, but Renae was getting a little extra attention.

“We wanted her to get out in the community, having some outings in public, swimming, working on her vision and motor and cognitive skills outside of Pathways,” says Shepherd Center speech-language pathologist Sara Levis, CCC-SLP. “Renae was doing amazingly well, but she needed a fair amount of functional therapy. When she was using her hands, it took her longer to do things than she wanted. And she quickly could get off task if there were any distractions.

“The part of her brain that was injured impacts high-level attention, calculations, math skills and communicating thoughts in writing. She had no problem telling a story or letting her feelings be known verbally. She was just struggling putting that onto paper.”

Renae’s spirits were incredibly high during her therapy, Levis says. Knowing that writing and working on a computer were areas in which Renae needed attention, Levis and her patient often logged onto Facebook, where Levis helped Renae write notes, form complete thoughts and work on the motor skills of typing on a keyboard. In those sessions, Levis says she was able to see the innocent, happy-go-lucky girl inside of Renae.

Shepherd Center psychologist Jill Koval, Ph.D., has counseled hundreds of patients, all of whom have had a heavy burden thrown upon them. But like Dr. Leslie, she thinks tornado survivors are in a class of their own when it comes to the gamut of emotions.

“It is gut-wrenching when you see that a patient’s home has been destroyed completely,” Dr. Koval says “Most other patients at least have a home to go back to.”

But in cases like Chris’ or the Hollon’s, there is one thing that may aid in the recovery process, and that’s the hero component. “Knowing that, I think it changes the impact of the recovery,” Dr. Koval says. “Chris is paralyzed from the waist down, but knowing his actions were able to protect his children helps with his grief and loss. He was on a mission to protect. And accomplishing that seems to help with the grief and loss he sustained.”

Both Dr. Leslie and Dr. Koval recommend follow-up psychological services in traumas of this nature. For instance, Renae desperately wanted to be out of the hospital and back around family and friends, Karen says. But she dreaded it nonetheless – knowing that going home meant going back to her life without her dad.

“Challenges like that are going to be formidable for anyone who went through something like that,” Dr. Koval adds. “Fearing tornados will probably never be totally overcome for these people. But it can become manageable.”

Both the Rodgers and Hollon children experience fear and angst when dark clouds appear and thunder rolls, their parents say. Truth be told, so do the adults.

“We’ll have a storm shelter before the end of the year,” Chris says emphatically.


Written by Bill Sanders
Photography by Gary Meek

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.