Teams inspire coach to recover

by Sonja J. Keith

Rebecca Vines knows how quickly life can change. One minute she and family were traveling to a birthday dinner. In the next, her vehicle was hit head-on, and she was trapped, worried that she might die while her family watched.

Rebecca is an elementary school physical education teacher and high school volleyball/softball coach in the Riverview School District in White County. After 10 years in banking and selling insurance, Rebecca returned to school and earned her bachelor’s degree at Harding University for a new career. She was inspired by her 20 years as a volunteer coach and by her work with youth at First Baptist Church in Heber Springs.

Rebecca and her family, including extended relatives, were traveling from their home in Quitman around 5 p.m. Aug. 14, 2015, to a Conway restaurant to celebrate her oldest son’s 18th birthday when the accident occurred.

Rebecca was driving her son’s truck as they topped a little hill, and the driver of an oncoming Toyota Tundra crossed the centerline near Springhill on Hwy. 65 and hit the vehicle head-on. Everyone in her vehicle had their seatbelts on, which she credits with saving their lives. Her entire family, in a vehicle ahead of her and two behind her, saw the accident.

“I remember everything. I never lost consciousness. I remember the impact,” she said. “There was no reaction time.”

The impact forced the engine in Rebecca’s truck into the cab and on to the front seat, trapping her and her mother, Kathy Westerman. Other occupants were her youngest son, Corey; sister-in-law, Jamie McGruder; and nephew, Matt Moffett.

“As soon as we hit, our vehicles caught on fire.”

The driver of a dump truck was passing through the area and came upon the accident. He came to the aid of those in the accident with a sledge hammer and fire extinguisher. “That was before any other responders were there.”

The weight on Rebecca’s lap was tremendous, but she does not recall being in pain, probably because she was in shock. “I knew my legs were shattered, but the pressure was kind of keeping that in check,” she said. “I tried to be patient. When you’re in that situation and there is smoke everywhere, my biggest fear was that it was going to catch on fire and I would burn to death in front of my kids.”

Despite the circumstances, Rebecca remained calm. “I never panicked. People told me over and over, ‘You are so calm.’ But when your kids are there, I knew if I panicked, they would panic,” she said. “The only thing I did was I repeatedly would say, ‘Please get me out of this truck.’”

Driving in the far right lane, the truck came to rest on a small hill. The incline meant Rebecca’s torso was trying to fall out of the truck, but she was trapped as firefighters from Conway, Greenbrier and Beaverfork worked to free her. “There was a first-responder who held me up so I could sit straight. I have asked several people because I have to find this guy. He was awesome. He didn’t have to do that, but he did.”

She said four men held on to the back corner of the truck to keep it from flipping. “There were men everywhere, trying desperately to do everything they could.”

As the rescue operation continued, Rebecca’s family stood nearby and would talk to her. “My boys would say, ‘We love you Mom.’ ‘It’s going to be OK, Mom.’”

Ultimately, a cable was wrapped around the engine and pulled by a tow truck to free Rebecca. “I was the last one they got out. I was trapped for about 45 minutes,” she said. “They said I screamed really bad (when freed).”

Rebecca’s mom suffered a broken rib, a foot fracture and a knee injury. Her sister-in-law and son were bruised from the impact. Her nephew suffered a head injury and was taken by air ambulance to Arkansas Children’s Hospital. He lost his vision for several months, but it has since returned.

Rebecca’s injuries were extensive: a fractured left elbow and right wrist, a shattered left femur and right tibia and a crushed right foot. She remembers hearing medical personnel talking about the extent of the external injuries to her legs, so she decided to just keep her eyes closed. “I remember when they put me in the chopper my husband saying repeatedly, ‘Tell them don’t do anything with her leg, don’t let them amputate her leg.’ Apparently, when I got there, that was their first thought, to amputate my right leg from the knee down.”

Rebecca was taken by air ambulance to Baptist Hospital in Little Rock. “I never thought I was going to die. That never crossed my mind,” she said. “I just kept thinking, ‘What are the boys doing?’ ‘Are the boys OK?’ ‘How are they handling this?’ I guess that just kept my mind busy, just worrying about them.”

Her last memory was of being in the ER and seeing her children.

For the next two weeks, Rebecca was in a medically induced coma and had multiple surgeries to repair broken bones. “Those two weeks were much harder on them than they were on me.” She was in the Critical Care Unit for 14 days, followed by a week and a half in the intensive care unit.

“I woke up on my husband’s birthday (Aug. 28.),” she said. “I remembered the accident. I didn’t know where I was or what my injuries were.”

Rebecca recalls that when she woke up she was told that her players were “going crazy and want to see you.” The teams showed their support in various ways, including the creation of special “Believe in Vines” T-shirt jerseys worn on game days and special fundraising efforts. They also sent Rebecca photos of players wearing the shirts.

Teachers and staff at Riverview also showed their support, wearing green shirts (her favorite color) on surgery days and giving her sick days. “I never imagined the response. I would often say I feel unworthy,” she said. “So many people have been so amazing. It builds your faith in humanity. They just treat you like family. I’m very blessed to be here.”

As her condition improved, Rebecca was transferred to the Heber Springs hospital. She had to remain with no weight-bearing on her leg for nearly four weeks. “It was hard mentally. Before the accident, I would walk nine to 11 miles a day. Teaching PE, I’m never sitting,” she said. “I just could not wrap my head around I couldn’t get out of this bed.”

For her rehabilitation, she chose Conway Regional Rehabilitation Hospital and transferred to that facility Sept. 30. “I did some research and asked some of my friends who are therapists where they would go for rehab. I wanted to recover faster, so I went there.”

Rebecca described her stay at the Conway rehabilitation facility as a “great experience” and was especially appreciative of therapist Jessica Sanders. “We were really a great pair.”

Rebecca remembers standing on her feet for the first time, for only 10 seconds, and asking Jessica to be honest with her about whether she would be able to walk again. “She would say, ‘Yes. You’ve just got to do the work.’”

On Oct. 22, Rebecca was finally able to go home, with outpatient rehabilitation sessions three days a week in Heber Springs until February. She had two goals during rehabilitation: be home by her anniversary on Nov. 22 and resume work after the Christmas break. “A lot of people worked with me and helped me tremendously, or I wouldn’t have.”

Rebecca wanted to be back at school for the softball season because she had coached the seniors for three years and didn’t want to miss their last year. “That is one of the reasons I had to recover faster,” she said. “The girls on the team were much of my inspiration for recovery.”

Rebecca returned to half-days at school in January, with full time beginning in February.

She recently completed her sixth surgery resulting from the car accident. She continues to have some limitations, including kneeling. “I don’t know that I’ll ever be 100 percent, honestly.”

One of the biggest challenges for Rebecca, who previously was very active, was keeping herself positive. As progress was made, there were also setbacks, including an 8-inch long blood clot after rehab. In the hospital, her caregivers told her recovery would be like taking two steps forward with one step backward. “Those backward steps were really hard for me because I just want to go forward, forward, forward. That’s the way my brain works. I’d have to sit back and tell myself that my body needed me to slow down.

“It’s important to me to show my girls not to be hard-headed but to be strong and just do the work in whatever situation.”

Rebecca credits her support system as key in her recovery. She said rarely was she alone, with someone always there to take her to therapy. Many meals were also provided to help her family. “There was always somebody doing something for me.”

The support she received through her sports family was especially meaningful. “Missing last year was so hard,” she said, adding that parents would text her on game days. “It gave me something to focus on.” Her players would regularly touch base with their coach. “We communicated all the time.”

Other teams showed their support, and game officials sent cards. The family felt support from the Heber Springs School Districts, where her sons attended school. “It was overwhelming. It really was,” she said.

As she reflects on the last year, Rebecca is thankful for her family, friends, students and co-workers. She is also looking forward to the school year and sports seasons ahead. “I never thought I’d be where I am right now,” she said. “I’m just someone trying to survive my situation.”