Called according to his purpose

In the midst of struggles, Harrison and Hayley Waldron choose joy.
By Hayley Waldron | 

Looking back, you might think our story started Aug. 14, 2015 — the day of the accident. But to really explain how the Lord prepared me for the life I live now, I have to go backward some: back to my childhood and the loving, supportive atmosphere my parents created for me; back to arriving at Harding and the blessing of interacting with peers and professors who were molding me and making me better; and back to when I met Harrison.

Harrison and I both signed up to go to Harding University in Greece during spring 2013. I remember seeing him in the cafeteria, and I didn’t know who he was. I saw him and thought, “He’s the most handsome man I’ve ever seen! I’m going to marry him!” As I got to know him, I found this really interesting person with a lot of cool perspectives. He grew up in Georgia for a good part of his life and also in Mexico and Honduras as a missionary kid, so he’s fluent in Spanish. He didn’t live the most normal American life, and I thought he was the best thing ever — and I still do. It was one of those things where I was going to to marry him unless something really bad happens. I was always really confident about that.

I went through a bumpy time, both in my faith and in my relationship with Harrison, after one of my really good friends from Harding died in a car accident. It was a time when I felt so confused about why God lets bad things happen to people and why he didn’t intervene. I was mad for a long time. It made me realize that I’m not immune to suffering. I struggled to hold on to God and say, “OK, this is terrible, but I still love you and praise you and glorify you.” It was difficult. Harrison was really amazing through that time. That was another thing that really solidified our relationship I think. He was there. He was loving me unconditionally when he didn’t have to.

When we got back from HUG, we were like, “Let’s get married!” So we did! May 31, 2014, was the best day. I remember so vividly saying my vows to him and thinking, “Finally, I get to make this man my husband, and we get to be a team in life forever.” We finished our last year at Harding, and it was a wonderful environment to build a marriage in. We graduated in May 2015 and decided we would move back to Nashville, Tennessee, where I’m from. Harrison graduated with a degree in oral communications with speech and drama licensure, and he had been accepted into Lipscomb University’s Master of Fine Arts for film and creative media. He’s super talented. I graduated with a degree in psychology, and I also had been accepted to Lipscomb in a master’s program for counseling, so we felt all set to do life. We were going to be professionals and have three kids and a golden retriever. Because of his missions background, we were really excited about the idea of foreign missions and thought we had our lives paved out. We wanted to live for the Lord, and our purposes were good.

“Aug. 14, 2015. This was a bad day. This was the day Harrison got hurt.”

But that is not what happened. Aug. 14, 2015. This was a bad day. This was the day Harrison got hurt.

We were in New York state for our friends’ wedding. I was a bridesmaid; he was a groomsman. We were at our friend’s farm for the rehearsal dinner. Someone asked Harrison to get on the ATV. At first he said no, but then later he agreed.

I was back with my friends getting my bridesmaid’s gift and having a nice time when somebody said the guys had to tell me something outside. I didn’t have enough time to process what they would need to tell me, but when I saw the looks on their faces, I knew something was really bad. They said Harrison has been in an accident on the ATV. I didn’t think; I just ran. I remember thinking, “I’m going to die,” because the adrenaline had taken over, and I was running so fast I couldn’t breathe.

The ATV had fallen into a 10-foot ravine, and when I got to Harrison, he was laying at the bottom and unconscious. I don’t know what I did. I just remember saying, “I don’t know what to do. What do I do? What do I do?”

I called my mom and sister-in-law. Those were hard conversations. I saw a life flight helicopter coming over the trees, and I remember thinking, “I really hope that’s not for Harrison.” It landed in the field across the street. I didn’t know what was happening. I couldn’t breathe; I couldn’t function. I thought I was going to die.

They got him into the helicopter and took him off to a trauma hospital in Erie, Pennsylvania. I followed along in the car. When we got to the hospital, the doctor told me it was really bad. He wanted to perform a surgery where he would remove part of Harrison’s skull to let his brain swell. The doctor wasn’t hopeful. He really thought Harrison was going to die. I didn’t have much hope either. I prayed. I’m not sure what I prayed, just that the Lord would come be with me and help Harrison. Help us. I’m so grateful to have good friends who stayed by my side all night.

He made it through surgery, and for the first time I had hope. He was alive. All of the scans of his body came back perfect. The accident had shaken his brain and injured the brain stem. I remember when I finally got to go in and see him, the nurse said for me to be very gentle and not overstimulate him. Three hours ago I was messing around and joking with him and now I had to be careful not to overstimulate him. I wanted to go back to fix all of this, to say “Don’t get on the ATV,” to save all of this suffering. But I couldn’t.

All I could do was be the best wife I could be for Harrison. I did what I thought he would do if it were the other way around. I stayed and hovered over him. I read him miracles from the Bible and asked him not to give up. The prognosis wasn’t good. A couple of days after the accident, he could flex his toes and squeeze our hands, but we didn’t know if he was in there or if it was reflexive.

For three months, we waited. I wondered if he would remember me, if he still knew anything at all, or if he was even in there. It was a nightmare. I’d wake up and go sit in a hospital. We went to several places trying to get him well enough for rehab. It was a long, awful three months of uncertainty. It felt like evil had won.

There were a lot of days were it would have been so much easier to not get out of bed and crawl in a hole, but I got up. I was not letting this beat us. I was not going to lose my faith to my fear. I prayed, Lord, please if you’ll just let Harrison wake up, I know we can do this together. We are such a great team. Please don’t let me do this alone.

On Nov. 20, we were sitting in the Shepard Center in Atlanta, and they brought him an iPad to try to type on with a stylus wrapped around his finger. They asked him to write his name. And I don’t know if I didn’t understand what was happening, but then from the corner I hear “H-A-R-R …” and I couldn’t believe it. He could communicate. The next thing he typed was “I love you.” He loves me! He didn’t forget who I am. It was one of the best days of my whole life because I had lost something so dear to me, and I didn’t know if it was gone forever, and it came back. He came back. And I was so happy.

After that we learned that he could hear the entire time he was comatose/vegetative — since the day after the accident. He just couldn’t communicate to us that he was there. It was amazing to hear him recount some of the things that people had said to me beside his bed. There was one day where I was suspecting that maybe he was there. I was crying and overwhelmed next to him. My mother-in-law came in, and she said, “Oh, are Harrison’s eyes watering? It looks like a tear.” I was like, no way. And we thought maybe he was crying because I was crying.

Here’s what Harrison remembers from that time: “My most awful memories I have are some of my earliest ones. I remember hearing that I would probably never wake up and could even die as the doctor spoke to my crying wife. It was horrible hearing Hayley cry especially because I couldn’t comfort her and tell her I was fully aware and trying to communicate my awareness.”

Let me share some statistics: 90 percent of people in an accident like this die on the spot or close after. Of the 10 percent who live, only four percent wake up. And nearly all of those who wake up have really terrible, cognitive deficits. You don’t often see somebody whose body doesn’t work well but whose mind is so sharp. That’s why Harrison is so special. I truly believe that God did this miracle, and I believe he has so many plans for Harrison because of the way he saved his mind.

Harrison had to go through a lot of therapy after he emerged. We knew he was in there, but his body wasn’t working for him. This was going to be a marathon; it was going to be for the long haul. After he emerged, we did two more months at the Shepard Center. After a couple months of therapy, we got to go home. It was such a good day. Harrison said he was tired of living in a hospital, and it had been five months. We had to redo some of the house to accommodate him, so it had just gotten finished when we got there.

We were living back with my parents — I was 23 at this time — and we hadn’t been out of the house that long. It was easy to fall into old habits and old roles. So I had to draw some boundaries. We had to rearrange our family system, and that’s been difficult. I feel like a child and very dependent, and I need help, but I’m not helpless. We are so grateful because when I said we were coming home, my parents didn’t even think twice before agreeing. For all of their sacrifices and love from both families, we’re so blessed to have families who are so supportive and loving.

We wanted to hide away until we were normal, but it doesn’t work like that. We decided we were going to make the best of it because that’s what we Waldrons do. That’s Harry and me. We choose joy, and we choose to do the hard stuff.

During and after the accident, we were incredibly blessed by the church around us. I have never experienced the church in this way until this happened. [Vice President for Alumni and Parent Relations] Liz Howell sent out this message to somebody up near Erie, Pennsylvania, where Harrison was in the hospital first, and all of these Harding alumni came out to help us. Down in Atlanta, it was the same story. We did some treatments in Jackson, Tennessee, and people would come and bring us meals and pray over us. The church there rented us a hospital bed and built this ramp on the house where we lived. They took care of us. In all of this, I realized that God will see you through, and he will often use his people to pick you up and help you. I love the church in a much different way now because of that.

The treatments in Jackson were to improve the communication between Harrison’s brain and his body. The doctors take out fat from his belly, get stem cells out of it, and inject those into his cerebrospinal fluid, and the stem cells go into his brain and help form little connections. This is a difficult process, and that’s why it has been such a long, hard recovery.

But Harrison is the most determined person I have ever met. When he would build something for me, like a coffee table or bench, he would not rest until he was finished. He would not come in to eat or drink. He wouldn’t move from that spot until he was finished and happy with it. That has served him so well in this process because he has to keep working and pushing through. He is able to see past our suffering and past what’s happening on the earth and able to see it for its eternal quality. I can’t help but think that God made Harrison and me for each other and for this purpose — that he saw that this was going to happen and said, “Let me prepare this woman for him.”

“I can’t help but think that God made Harrison and me for each other and for this purpose — that he saw that this was going to happen and said, ‘Let me prepare this woman for him.’”

Harrison doesn’t give up, and he is making really good progress. He is standing in his stander and is able to roll and push himself up on his stomach. He has a bike that his wheelchair hooks onto. It has electrodes that stimulate his muscles to help him pedal with both his legs and arms, and as time goes on he can start to overpower it and pedal on his own.  His mind is super sharp. He’s bilingual, so he can still type in Spanish. He has spoken a few things, but nothing consistently. He’s swallowing, but it’s not efficient enough. There are a lot of obstacles when you get a brain injury, but he is not letting those get in his way.

There’s a lot of uncertainty as we are two years out now. Sometimes I look 10 years into the future and wonder where we will be, but there’s no guarantee. There’s no knowing, which can be a really scary place, but I’ve gotten used to it. The bottom line is we’re going to surrender to this new life and this new plan God has laid before us. This is not what we wanted at all, but sometimes God lets us have these opportunities to glorify him. People always told us that God was going to have a special purpose for us. I was not thinking that this would be what it was. But we know God’s got us, and he has great plans for us.

I have a quote from Harrison that I love. This is what Harrison wants people to know. “God is good and has done great things for us during this long, difficult journey.” God’s faithfulness to us during this has helped us be more faithful to him. We know he’s got this taken care of. He’s cared for our every need before we even knew we had them. He’s given us grace and love and incredible support.

Someone asked me once how my purpose has changed. I said my purpose hasn’t changed; it’s become more clear to me. Because Harrison got hurt and because we hurt so much, my purpose is coming to greater fruition. When God presents you with a different opportunity or a different path than you wanted, if you take the path, you will be blessed beyond measure, more blessed than you could ever imagine.

I’m so happy to be living it for the Lord — even when it hurts. God has done great things in my life, and I know if he loves me and he loves Harrison, which I believe he does tremendously, we’re going to be OK. He’s going to give us meaning in our brokenness. And one day when we’re all completely whole in heaven, it’s going to be amazing. I believe we’re going to see some fruit from this trial, which is what our lives are all about. It’s about getting people to heaven and living this wonderful life for eternity. It’s what I signed up for when I gave my life to Christ.

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His mother’s perspective

Harrison’s father, Phil, and I live and work in Honduras as missionaries. On the day of the accident, I had driven eight hours from Honduras to Guatemala where I was going to speak at a women’s conference. I did not have phone service. Once I arrived and connected to the internet, I had several messages from my husband and Hayley’s mom.  I called Phil, who was in Honduras and had received the news of the accident from our youngest daughter, Laura, who was in Texas. Phil very calmly told me that Harrison had been in an accident on an ATV and was being life flighted to the hospital. I have never received news so painful and frightening. I recall screaming out, “No!” I knew I couldn’t make the flight to Erie, Pennsylvania, on my own, so I traveled back to Honduras to leave with Phil. We were in constant communication with Hayley and her parents, and by the time we left for the airport we knew that Harrison had undergone brain surgery and that the next 48 hours were critical. I remember begging God to allow me to see my son alive one more time if he was going to take him. We finally arrived in Erie at approximately 4 a.m. on Sunday. God had granted my request to see my son alive, but seeing him in that state was harder than I ever imagined.

This journey has been, and some days continues to be, the greatest faith challenge of our lifetime. Phil and I naturally wondered if one day we might have to bury one of our children, but in our wildest imagination we never thought of having to go through something like this. One of our counselors calls it “ambiguous grief.” That explains the struggle. We are so thankful to God for his miraculous provision for Harrison (that includes giving him Hayley and her family) and for sustaining him. We are so thankful he is alive. But we struggle every day with missing who he was and longing to hear him talk and being hugged by him. He always made us laugh, and we miss that so much. We continue to hobble along, glorifying God in the valley, focusing on doing his work in Honduras, and trusting him for more miracles.

— Donna Waldron, Harrison’s mother

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His sister’s perspective

After I heard about Harrison’s accident, my mind was racing to understand what was happening. I remember feeling like I was underwater. Everything was muffled and foggy. I couldn’t breathe, and I didn’t know what to do. I hid in the closet because I wasn’t ready to tell our friends. My mom was without a phone in Guatemala, my dad was in Honduras and is just generally bad at answering the phone, and they were still unaware of the accident. I called and called and no one answered their phones, all the while I was feeling more and more desperation and fear. Finally, one of my dad’s good friends answered me. Telling my parents and big sister about the accident was the hardest thing I’ve had to do.

“It’s hard to accurately describe the depth of the anguish I felt when I thought I was going to lose my big brother.” —Anna Waldron

It’s hard to accurately describe the depth of the anguish I felt when I thought I was going to lose my big brother. It’s an emotional pain so intense that it physically hurt my body. I couldn’t sleep or eat for a couple of days. I wouldn’t describe myself as an emotional person, but when Hayley called about the accident I felt like the flood gates had opened, and my tears were never going to end.

The days following the accident were some of the darkest days in my faith. They also were the days that stretched and grew my faith exponentially more than I ever thought could happen. I believe that a large part of that growth and understanding came from experiencing God’s people and how they rally together to care for those who are hurting. Though we are an imperfect people, we serve a perfect God, and the church working together is a good taste of what a perfect heaven is going to be like. Because of God working through people who also hurt and struggle, I have been shown how great it is to be a part of something bigger than me or my family.

— Anna Waldron, Harrison’s sister

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Her mother’s perspective

Hayley and Harrison seemed to connect both on a spiritual and intellectual level very early on in their relationship. Their commitment to each other and God has been unwavering throughout their entire relationship, and their marriage and faith has been strengthened through their suffering. It is a beautiful thing to see how much they love each other and to witness their commitment to serving God while finding joy even in their current circumstances.

After the accident, we received so many visits both in Erie, Pennsylvania, and in Atlanta from strangers and friends alike. Messages flooded in from around the world to let us know that Harrison was being prayed for constantly. Christians from all over the country sent cards and items they thought might be helpful. When Hayley and the rest of the family needed a place to stay in Atlanta, close friends of the Waldron family took all of us into their home. Churches from around the Atlanta area provided food multiple times per week for several months. Friends from our home congregation, Tusculum Church of Christ, and other close friends pitched in with their individual skills to help renovate our house before Harrison came home from the hospital. As we transitioned home, our church family and friends met all kinds of daily needs while we found our new normal. When we sought new therapies in Jackson, Tennessee, Campbell Street Church of Christ provided us a place to live, meals and most especially friendships that will forever be special to us.

Our day-to-day home life consists of not only meeting Harrison’s daily needs but also providing him with as much therapy as possible, which we carry out ourselves at home. We aid Harrison in swallowing therapy, bicycling with his arms and legs, standing, and sitting as well as head and trunk exercises. All of these are in addition to intermittent out-of-home therapies such as hyperbaric oxygen therapy, autologous stem cell transfers and ongoing speech therapy.

We are so thankful for all of the prayers and support from various entities and people around the world during the past two years. We pray that Harrison and Hayley can continue to share their faith as they persevere on their journey of hope and healing.

— Lisa Smith, Hayley’s mother

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A friend’s perspective

Hayley and Harrison were new into their relationship when we spent the semester in Greece. So, we had been able to see their relationship change and evolve during that time, which is a very different situation than on campus in Searcy. This experience adds both positives and negatives and is a situation that adds other stressors to relationships. We saw them work through this time and finish the semester closer than when it began and more rooted together. Once back to campus, I remember noticing the joy and energy they had in their relationship. They were soon engaged and married while still students at Harding, so we were able to witness this time in their relationship as well. It also seemed like they had settled beautifully into their busy married life and were managing classes, internships, social lives, and all the other things that are part of a student’s senior year experience.

After the accident, I saw the fierce love that Hayley had for Harrison I recognized early on. She demonstrated such strength in caring for him. She continued to draw on family and friends who encouraged her and who she could safely reach out to and trust for guidance and support when needed. All of these things were parts of their early relationship that we had seen glimpses of but were now being seen in such a difficult experience. The level of maturity seen in both Harrison and Hayley this past two years has been from the Lord. They have navigated so many things that many of us who have been married much longer than them have never had to face. Their dedication to and love for one another has been so clearly evident: Hayley’s fierce love and support as not only wife but also caregiver and Harrison’s strength and fight to not give up, and taking any chance he has to affirm his love for his beautiful wife that has never wavered. That is beautiful. That is Godly, Christ-centered love.

— Amy Baker, spring 2013 Harding University in Greece visiting professor and instructor of communication
sciences and disorders

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