Aug 18, 2015 / 04:01 am
It was a cold December day in Nebraska, and Ashley Stevens was riding in a car with four other women.
It was the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the women and the rest of their FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) team was headed to a retreat center near Gretna, Neb. when a large truck smashed into their car on Highway 6 near the Platte River, several miles east of Lincoln.
While the other women had minor injuries – a broken shoulder, whiplash, cuts and bruises – Ashley was life-flighted to the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha in critical condition.
She had sustained major head trauma, and had significant swelling and bleeding in her brain among other injuries.
Brad Stevens, Ashley’s fiancé of just a few weeks, got the call from Nikki Shasserre, a staff member at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Newman Center, who had hosted an engagement party for the couple three weeks prior.
Get to the hospital now, Ashley’s in critical condition.
Father Robert Matya, the chaplain for the UNL Newman Center, had been on his way to the same retreat and was able to be with the women at the scene, praying with them and comforting them. He then rushed to the hospital to be with Brad, a former student he’d known for years, and was with him to receive the grim diagnosis.
“I remember very distinctly arriving at the hospital, and Brad and I went in to sit down with the doctor, who told us that he didn’t think it was going to be possible that Ashley would survive at that point,” Fr. Matya recalled. “He was just trying to be honest with us.”
That was around 10 in the morning. By 3 p.m., Ashley was heading to surgery. Father stayed with Brad and Ashley in the ICU that night.
From the very first moment, Father said, the way Brad handled the situation was remarkable.
“What was beautiful about watching Brad in that experience was that he was just unwavering from the first moment on, in terms of being at her side. There was never a question of his dedication to her throughout the whole experience, and that was the case not only on that day of the accident but throughout the entire process of her rehabilitation,” he said.
Brad’s faith in God had been what initially attracted Ashley to him. They were both working as Residential Assistants in the Husker Village dorms, and during the long walks patrolling the halls on duty nights, she would pepper him with all of her questions about Catholicism. A devout Protestant, Ashley was amazed at how well Brad could defend and explain his faith using scripture. She became “like a little sponge,” she said, soaking up knowledge about the Catholic Church.
A few years after they became friends, and in the early phases of their dating relationship, Ashley became Catholic after taking classes at the Newman Center and developing strong friendships there.
The day of the accident, dozens of friends from the Newman Center and beyond had arrived at UNMC, offering meals and prayers and whatever support they could. Word spread quickly, and more prayers and support started pouring in from UNL students and the Catholic community around the state – and even the world.
Ashley, who does not remember “literally a single day” of the entire month she spent at UNMC, said she has only heard and read of the tremendous outpouring of love that occurred within those first days and weeks.
“I was submerged in prayer,” she said. “From holy hours at the Newman Center, across the country, there people I didn’t even know were surrounding me with prayer that I’m so thankful for.”
“It’s amazing seeing God’s love through so many instruments you know when you’re quite literally helpless.”
Slowly, Ashley started making improvements, though for a long time it was uncertain exactly how healed she could be. She had a stroke while at UNMC, and it was uncertain for a while whether she’d ever be able to walk, or hold a job, or take care of future children.
“I can’t even imagine Brad, just three weeks after getting engaged, and my parents just sitting by, not knowing if I’m going to make it and if I did, what would be the end result? How much of Ashley would they get back, would he get back?” she said.
Even the tiniest glimpses of hope, however, made Brad “just giddy excited,” Ashley said.
“Even if I was just able to squeeze his hand or open my eyes and look at him, or just try to smile, anything gave him glimpses of hope that I was going to make it,” she said.
A gratitude journal Brad kept at the time proves his incredible hope. …