You could also call this piece: They cut off my antlers!
Editor’s Note: I have to admit that I was vested in hearing Brianna’s story. First, she kindly answered our usual questions. Second, she shares her experience with a traumatic brain injury. Be sure to read the second half of this. Having experienced a brain injury myself in 1998, I was very much moved and inspired by her witness. I’m sure you will be, as well. –Jennifer
Where did you grow up and how did you end up here?I grew up in the Los Angeles area and moved to Phoenix after college. I had an internship out here the summer before graduating, and they offered me a job. I graduated from USC in December 2016 and moved out here in February 2017.
What’s your job?I work in civil engineering—designing water, sewer, and storm drainage/hydrology systems and site layouts for new developments/architecture. Technically, I can’t call myself an engineer until I pass my licensing exam, though.
Why are you at Roosevelt?I am at Roosevelt because Billy invited me that first Sunday when I moved back here three years ago. I wasn’t sure what to expect or where he was at theologically, but Roosevelt exceeded all my expectations so I kept coming back. Not to mention, people at RCC immediately embraced me and became my family during a lonely move.
How long have you been here?
Three years—since February 2017. That’s so wild! It feels like it’s been a decade, but also like I just was in LA.
How long have you been a Christian?I was raised by godly parents and knew Christ intellectually from a very young age. But, as most who grow up in the church, my faith was purely head-knowledge and did not become a surrender of my heart until much later, which happened in phases. I wrestled with some serious questions during high school, and almost wanted to disprove the Bible. However, I grew up in a predominantly Chinese church. One beautiful part of that culture was the logic and serious academic study of Scripture that I don’t often see in most American churches. My church pastors had done SO much research and were able to answer my questions in ways that I could not refute. I grew confident that nothing could disprove the Bible, and I really began to surrender to Jesus in a significant way during my senior year of high school. Once in college, I grew a lot in Christ, church, and with an amazing Christian roommate.
A decisive moment in my Christian life happened after my freshman year of college while I was in Montana on a mission trip to the Blackfeet Reservation. I had gone there mostly for selfish reasons—for the beautiful outdoor setting and to do a cross-cultural mission trip without having to raise money to go overseas. But, despite my impure motives, God wrecked me that summer. I loved Him before, but at such a shallow and selfish level. He confronted me inescapably with haunting questions: Do really trust me? Will you give up your dreams and do WHATEVER I ask?
Through that summer and the next in Montana (2013 and 2014), God used Native ministry leaders at my church up there to break my pride, soften my heart, and challenge me. I slowly said yes to God, often reluctantly, and accepted what felt like an impossible, even impractical and stupid, call to do Native American ministry with the goal to eventually move to a reservation long-term. I really mark my Christian walk in two phases – pre-Montana and post-Montana.
What are your hobbies?Hiking/backpacking, traveling for as cheap as possible/planning trips, singing, reading.
Name two things on your bucket list.
See the great Sphinx and Pyramids at Giza.
Start a church or revive a church on the reservation.
What is your favorite book?
Too many! So in categories (other than the Bible):
Spiritual: The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer
Fiction: Lord of the Rings (anything in the Tolkien canon)
History: Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides
What is your favorite movie?
Also Lord of the Rings trilogy. No contest.
And now the personal stuff!
What happened? Where were you going? What date did it happen? 2. Do you remember it happening?Friday, September 28, 2018, around 9:00 pm . . .
Billy and I were driving from Phoenix to Las Vegas to visit his grandma. We were somewhere between Wickenburg and Kingman in the middle of nowhere. We were listening to a John Piper sermon on interracial marriage.
I rounded a curve going 75+ mph and apparently saw a family of javelina crossing the road. I instinctively swerved to avoid them and lost control of the car. I only remember the very, very beginning, and I don’t even remember seeing the javelina. I only remember skidding out, and realizing I had lost all control of the car. I saw a sign out of the corner of my eye, and as we careened toward it , my last thought was, It’s going to come through the passenger window and kill Billy!! Then I blacked out, and I don’t remember anything until coming to in the hospital. Hence, we think the sign actually hit my head, instead of Billy’s.
We hit the median curb and rolled 5-6 times across the road, landing on its side on the opposite shoulder. I was blacked out and not breathing. Billy was conscious the entire time. He thought I was dead and began to weep. He says it felt like a lifetime before I started breathing, like a car trying to start, and I came to a little bit.
I couldn’t hear anything because my ears were full of blood, and I couldn’t really see him. I picked up my opposite arm from outside the car window and held it up, limp and smashed, yelling for help. It was about then that two guys showed up who had seen us roll. This was a miracle because we had not seen any oncoming traffic in a good hour.
Their names were Angel and Raul. They held open the smashed windshield, and helped Billy climb out. They had found his phone, which had flown out in the dirt, so he called my mom. They had already called 911. If those two guys hadn’t been there, or had arrived even five minutes later, I would surely have died. I know this because the surgeon who did my surgery said I was within five minutes of death when I arrived on his table. A fun fact is that when I got to read the police report months later, I saw that Raul was the only witness listed from that car, which is strange, because they included everyone else, from medical staff to a few bystanders who showed up later. But Angel is not on the report. I got chills. I looked for both of those guys on Facebook and couldn’t find either. Was he an angel? Were they both? Who knows, but after the flood of miracles that it took to keep me alive that fall, I would not be shocked.
Anyway, the cops came and quickly realized that they needed the jaws of life to cut me out. That took another half hour to arrive from the nearest town. The medics knew that if they took me to the nearest rural hospital 20 minutes away, no one there could save me. They figured my only shot at making it was one of the best trauma brain surgeons in the west, who resides on- call in Phoenix. They loaded me onto a helicopter and took me to Phoenix.
Apparently, I was conscious enough to tell Billy that I loved him as they flew me away and just took him to the nearest hospital. When I landed in Phoenix, they drained my brain of blood, took the right half of my skull apart into 8+ pieces, reassembled it with a few metal screws and plates on the back table, and reattached it. They shot me full of an insane amount of morphine, put me to sleep, and prayed that I would make it through the night.
Were you “with it” from the beginning?I remember waking up and seeing Billy’s phone number written on the white board in my hospital room. I wondered how they got it. I thought Billy must be dead. Apparently, the entire first day, I would wake up and panic, and ask if Billy was dead and they would tell me he was fine and that someone was going to pick him up. I would drift off, and a few minutes later wake up and think he was dead again. Finally, he arrived in Phoenix thanks to dear friends who drove up and got him. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the moment I saw him the first time. I’m sure it was beautiful. But I do remember just realizing that he was sitting there in the room with me every time I woke up and that was such a relief.
The following two weeks were strange mixes of reality and morphine-induced dreams and hallucinations. I kept howling, DAD! They cut off my antlers! Why did the cut off my antlers?! for several days. Which, in retrospect, is hilarious! I remember at one point saying it and having a moment of clarity thinking, Wait, this must be an analogy. I didn’t have antlers, did I? But it felt like I definitely must have had some antlers to have this throbbing pain on my head. I think it was also connected to my hair being shaved too, which I had so treasured.
After a week and a half in the Phoenix hospital, my parents asked if they could move me to a hospital near their house in LA so that when I got out, I could live with them and do outpatient recovery for as long as it took. We all wanted Billy to finish his degree at ASU in December as planned as there was no way that he could take care of me full-time, drive me to appointments, and also finish school. The doctors consented and my family friends who I grew up with loaded me into their luxury RV and drove me across the desert.
By the time I was transferred to LA, they were beginning to lighten my morphine doses and I was much more with it. I remember everything from the LA hospital and only snapshots from Phoenix. I was then in the hospital in LA for a week before moving back in with my parents for the first time in years. I lived with them and my two youngest siblings for two months before coming back to Phoenix in December prior to the wedding. Though it was hard to be separated from Billy, we flew him out almost every week and did marriage counseling via Skype with Tom and Barbara Campbell. It was a delight to live with my parents and siblings before getting married. I got to be around them more than I had been in a good six years or likely will be again. I had to learn dependence like I was a child again for quite a while and it was hard, but so good for my pride and my walk with the Lord.
What practical or physical differences do you notice now?My practical life now is miraculously hardly any different than it used to be. I still need to sleep a lot more than I used to. I used to be pretty good at getting up early. I was never a morning person per se, but I was disciplined and excited to do quiet times in the morning. Now, no matter how long I sleep, every single morning is a struggle to get up. That has gotten easier and I have increased in stamina throughout the last year, but I don’t think I’ll ever have the resilience I once had to stay up late and get up early. For an entire year, until this past September, I was on a drug that helped with headaches, but it also was an anti-depressant. Last summer when I was weaning myself off of it, I found myself much more emotional and angry due to withdrawals from it. However, after my body adjusted to not having it, I have not struggled with depression or anxiety any more than I did before the accident. That has been a huge blessing because I was not sure what to expect after getting offof it. Most doctors told me I would struggle with depression, but overall I have not.
Besides being married, how did your life change — in terms of beliefs, activities, job?
In terms of my job, I had recently started a new job three months before the accident. They gave be unpaid leave and told me I would have a job when I recovered. They sent me flowers in the hospital and checked in every few weeks. However, after our honeymoon when I was supposed to start back at that job, they let me go. They say they ran out of work, which I do believe because they laid off others. However, some of it was probably the fear that I wouldn’t be able to perform well after a traumatic brain injury and, then if I couldn’t keep up, ADA laws wouldn’t really let them fire me. Which is fair.
So I had an extra unanticipated month off of work. Thankfully, we had enough money from wedding gifts to live on for a month as I applied around. This actually ended up being SUCH a blessing. Billy had graduated from ASU right before the wedding and began an M.Div. at Phoenix Seminary in January. I was able to go with him to audit all of his classes for a month, and it was such a sweet time in our marriage and walk with the Lord. My current company hired me in February 2019 and I can honestly say, it is the best job I have ever had. I enjoy it far more than the job I lost because of the accident. God works all things for good.
In terms of my spiritual walk, nothing dramatically changed, but the things I already believed were grounded and deepened to a stability and confidence and lack of fear I never had before. My love for God’s people, the church, grew exponentially. I sometimes forget honestly. But then, God hits me with something that brings back a memory from the hospital and I am floored and convicted and my whole life priorities seem to fall back into place.
My outlook on all things in my life is different now. There was one major event in 2019 that demonstrated how my thinking has changed. On March 28, 2019, six months to the day after my accident, at the same time of night, on a similar rural road, my ex-boyfriend (who was my high school sweetheart for four years) died in a rollover accident. The police report for his accident is eerily similar to mine, but with different outcomes. We hadn’t talked in a few years, but our families are very close. They came to my wedding. His sister visited me in the hospital. I was completely devastated. I was wracked with guilt. Why did I live and he didn’t? Especially when I had wanted to die? I wanted to go to Jesus and his family would give ANYTHING to have him back, so why couldn’t it have been switched?! I never would have wished that on Billy and my family, but watching his family’s devastation was so hard. It was exacerbated by the knowledge that I know they saw and deeply felt the similarities between our accidents and must have been asking the same questions. They watched the miracles in my life. They saw God save me and watched my wedding glorify Him.
His funeral was the hardest day of my life. However, my accident framed how I saw his accident. It framed tragedy with hope in a way that I did not have before. I FELT Jesus in the hospital. I knew He was better than anything and everything on earth. So when I saw Tyler go to Him, I could honestly rejoice for him in a way I wouldn’t have been able to before. I had a sense of God’s sovereignty that made it simultaneously easier and harder to swallow. I know God could have saved him, but He did not. But I also know that God works suffering for good. I know that His presence is better than the misery on earth.
You guys decided to get married pretty quickly–you were already engaged? What thoughts were going into that? Were you scared–for yourself? For Billy? (I remember all kinds of weird thoughts surrounding my own marriage but I waited a looonnnnngggg time and spent a lot of time depressed.)
We had been engaged exactly two months on the night of the accident. When I found out Billy wasn’t dead, I was overjoyed to see him! But I was severely worried that I was going to be mentally delayed and/or that I would forget him completely. I tried to tell him not to feel obligated to stay with me if I never recovered. He told me there was no way that he was leaving no matter what.
We had already set December 29, 2018, as our wedding date before the accident and I was working on planning the wedding on the reservation. I did not know if I would be well enough to still get married on that date, but wanted to. As I seemed to be recovering miraculously fast, we decided to keep it. I also knew I could not live alone in Phoenix yet. I would either have to stay with my parents until the wedding and keep pushing it off, or get married so I could live with Billy and he could take care of me. That seemed best.
Also, we saw an opportunity for the gospel that had not been so huge before. Because the wedding was a testament to God’s power and miracles, because it was so close to the accident, people came who otherwise would not have. Over 400 people came to our wedding and heard the gospel preached while seeing its practical power. Potentially one hundred+ people came who would never have walked into a church otherwise and that was what we wanted more than anything else at our wedding. We also wanted it to be sort of a thank you and celebration for the myriad of people who had been there for us, brought meals to our family, and carried us through.
I was definitely a bit scared, mostly that I would be a burden to Billy, just because I had to do life slower for quite a while. I had to sleep a lot, had to have him remind me to take medication, and put ointment on my head, etc. However, he was so gracious through it all that I was usually able to push away my insecurities. I had known that I wanted to marry Billy since the month I met him, so I had been dealing with our issues and my fears for a couple years before getting married and I was ready. It was a relief and actually made life so much easier.