An Anniversary of Grace: Reflections on Pain & Suffering One Year Later

On Saturday October 10, 2015, Larry was hit by a car while bicycling in Birmingham, Alabama.  On the one-year anniversary of this nearly fatal accident, he reflects on his improbable survival, his trials, and the lessons he has learned through his pain and suffering.

Q:  A year ago today a car hit you while you were cycling.  Let’s discuss your trials over the last year and how you are doing now.  For starters, give us a brief synopsis of the accident.

A:  Yeah, I was planning to do a sixty-mile ride in and around Birmingham.  I had just biked the Columbia River Gorge and the Burke-Gilman Trail out west the previous week.  I was feeling pretty good.  Passing through an intersection on the South Side of Birmingham, a car, failing to see me and thus failing to yield, hit me head-on.

Q:  Do you remember any of the accident?

A:  Thankfully, no.  My first memory is in the ambulance.  I recall a nurse or EMT commanding me, “Stay with me!  Stay with me! Look at me!”  I then lost consciousness again.

Q:  How bad were your injuries?

A:  Extensive.  My neck was broken in three places and my back in four; my shoulder, hand, and all of my ribs on the right side were broken and in multiple places.  My jaw was shattered.  Worst of all, I suffered a skull fracture, lacerations to my face and legs, and massive internal hemorrhaging.

Q:  Yikes.  It is said that you “died.”  Is that true?

A:  Witnesses first on the scene say that I was “dead” when they got to me, meaning that I was not breathing and had no pulse.  So a man rolled me over and started doing chest compressions until I coughed and started breathing again.

Q:  You said on “The Rick & Bubba Show” that you had what is commonly called a “near death experience.”  Tell us about that.

A:  Fittingly, they titled that show “Larry Taunton Returns.”  Honestly, there’s not much to say because it is impossible to describe beyond vague details, but I will try.  At the moment of my accident, though I did not yet know that I had been in an accident, I had this feeling that I was above the earth in a place of blinding whiteness.  I was in the presence of an extraordinary being that, if not God, reflected His glory.  He, It, did not speak.  I had the sensation of being held protectively.  I had no sense of time or even, really, of myself.  Just as I was slowly formulating a question, I woke up in the ambulance and could hear myself saying, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” as the EMT tried to keep me from going into shock.  It was as if my spirit had been commanded back into my body.  I know that all of this sounds a bit strange and I am dogmatic on none of it.  That is, I am open to the very real possibility that all of this was just the result of severe trauma and being knocked unconscious.  I make no claims of being in heaven or in the presence of God.  To say more is to cheapen it since nothing on earth parallels what I saw.  But I take comfort in 2 Corinthians 12:1-5 where the Apostle Paul speaks of a similar experience and of his inability to describe it.

Q:  I have seen the amazing photo that a witness took that shows you lying in the road and a nun standing over you praying.  Have you met the nun?

A:  Remarkably, no.  I am asked that a lot.  I have visited the convent twice in an effort to meet her, but she was gone on both occasions and I’m told the rules of her order do not permit her to contact me.  But if I’m totally honest, I kind of don’t want to meet her.  She has become almost like an angel to me, so she can only go down from here!  As an aside, Robert Evans, the owner of Custom Sign Express, thought that photo was amazing, too, so he made a wallpaper-sized image of it.  It hangs at Latimer House along with the remains of my bicycle as a reminder to me and to others of God’s provision and of the transitory nature of this life.

Q:  You weren’t expected to live, were you?

A: Well, I always expected me to live.  But, no, some nurses and my trauma doc, Laura Heidelberg, have since told me that they did not expect me to live.  The impact of the car had caused severe internal injuries and hemorrhaging, putting tremendous pressure on my heart.  She tells me that I lost 2.5 liters of blood.  That’s almost half the blood in your body.  She says that my survival was “a miracle.”  I will defer to her judgment.

Q:  News of your accident spread rapidly, but I don’t think that many people knew just how serious it was.  They knew you were in the hospital with a lot of broken bones, but few seemed to know that you were, in fact, in the trauma unit fighting for your life.  That information was carefully guarded.  Why?

A:  In retrospect, this was, I think, a mistake.  Why did I do it?  I’m not really sure.  It’s all a bit fuzzy as I was on a lot of meds.  Part of it is certainly that I wanted to comfort my family and those friends who came to see me.  I could tell that they were frightened by my appearance and by my condition.  Some grown men burst into tears upon seeing me.  Four different women passed out or nearly did when they saw me.  Others wept.  So I cracked jokes and downplayed the trauma.  I also think that maybe I was fearful people would write me and my ministry off.  They’ll feel sorry for me, yes, I thought, but no longer want to invest in me.  They’ll view me like an athlete who has blown out a knee: “Too bad, next man up.”  So I didn’t let ML, my assistant, cancel anything.  I pushed to prove that I was okay and got back out in public doing interviews and speaking as quickly as possible and much sooner than I should have.  I should have had more faith in the people who support this work and should have allowed others to let them know that I was clinging to life.  Some of that is just ingrained notions of what it is to be a man: you push, you never stop, you clench your teeth and press on.  Those can be good traits, but they can work against you, too, when your body is broken and your mind overwrought.

Q:  Rick Burgess said that when he saw you the first time that he thought you would die.  But when he came back “it was like talking to Lazarus.”  

A:  Yeah, well, more than he then knew.  The story of Lazarus is quite fitting here.  In that story, Jesus appears on the scene days after Lazarus’ death.  Mary and Martha say to him “If you had been here,” indicating their belief that Jesus could have prevented Lazarus’ death, but now it was too late for him to do anything.  Jesus resurrects Lazarus to demonstrate the truth of this statement: “He that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.”  As you noted, witnesses say that I died on the scene.  Doctors say that my survival was a miracle.  I am grateful to an Almighty and Merciful God.  The word “resurrection” has taken on added significance in my life.

Q:  What do you make of all of that?

 A:  I am still learning what happened.  With each new detail I learn just how miraculous my survival was.  I think the Lord wants me to know that this wasn’t simply due to luck or physical strength, but something that He did—and for a purpose.

Q:  Perhaps this is a morbid question, but what hurt the most?

A:  Hard to say.  All of it was awful.  I was shattered.  Literally.  It’s not just the pain, it was the helplessness.  Even when I was released from the hospital, I still couldn’t brush my own teeth or comb my own hair because I couldn’t lift my arms.  I couldn’t bathe myself or get dressed on my own.  I couldn’t even sleep in a bed because I couldn’t get into it or breathe in a prone position.  I walked with a cane.  It was a physical fulfillment of John 15:5: “Without me you can do nothing.”

Q:  And now?

A:  Still all of it hurts, just not as badly.  I can’t sit in, say, your typical wooden chair for very long and I get up and down like an old man.  The pain is constant, but manageable.  Luckily, I have a great physical therapist, Kareth Dow, who has made my recovery her mission in life.

Q:  Amazing, really, since you don’t look like it.  I mean, looking at you, it would be difficult to tell that you had been in an accident of any kind.

A:  So people tell me.  But I can feel it.  My appearance is deceiving.  That said, I do recognize that the Lord has done something quite remarkable in restoring me.

Q:  Are you fully recovered?

A:  No.  It’s a long process.  I just had my thirty-second CT scan and umpteenth MRI.  At this point, the focus is on my head.

Q:  Do you mind telling us why?

A:  I suffered what is called a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).  That simply means a severe concussion.  They are evaluating the severity of the injury.

Q:  Tell us about that.

A:  Well, when the car hit me, I was slammed against the windshield and roof of the car, collapsing both.  As an aside, I am proud of the fact that they had to tow the car from the scene of the accident.  Unfortunately, they had to tow me away, too.  Anyway, I was unconscious for 20-30 minutes.  That’s a long time.  But I was a fanatic about wearing a helmet and wearing it properly.  That probably saved my life.

Q:  Does this affect you now?

A:  Yes.  Blessedly, my powers of reasoning and speech have not been impaired, but I have memory issues.  That is, I don’t have difficulty remembering that the Battle of Hastings was in 1066, but I occasionally have difficulty remembering other things.

Q:  How does that make you feel?

A:  This has been upsetting to me because I am used to remembering almost everything and sometimes people expect me to remember things that I simply don’t remember—a name, a face, a conversation.  Social settings can feel stressful.  Last night one of my former staffers, Hannah Dow, regaled me with funny stories from the early days of Fixed Point, and I confess I didn’t remember some of them.  It’s a bad feeling, but the neurologists say that it is part of the healing process and is short term.  Unfortunately, I still remember Kick Six and the Carter Administration.

Q:  What has the Lord taught you through this?

A:  Too much to discuss here.  Let it suffice to say that I am currently learning a lot about vulnerability.

Q:  What do you mean?

A:  I’m not sure I can explain as I am still evaluating it myself.  An accident like this leaves you vulnerable in two ways.  The first is physical.  For months, due to the severity of my trauma, people couldn’t touch me, and, boy, I could’ve used a hug.  I was also terrified of someone bumping into me because I was just that fragile.  So, once I was up and in public, I acquired a habit of moving through crowds cautiously, with my hands out protectively.  I still do that.  Somewhere in there is a metaphor for my emotional and mental state.  There’s vulnerability.  I’m adjusting to my ‘new normal.’

Q:  Do you think this is something the Lord wants you to learn?

A:  It would seem so, but this is still unfolding for me.  I have certainly learned a lot about suffering.  That was a weakness in my defense of the Christian faith, but I feel well versed on the subject now and can empathize with other sufferers.  People who have suffered or are suffering are all around us.  My mother may have ovarian cancer; my father-in-law has pancreatic cancer; my 27 year-old daughter-in-law had to have open-heart surgery earlier this year; anyone who has read The Grace Effect will know that my daughter, Sasha, has suffered more than anyone I know; a member of my staff, Emily Lassiter, lost her husband in a plane crash two and a half years ago—all of these things serve to remind me that we live in a fallen world and until the Lord redeems it, people will continue to suffer.  So I look forward to the day when all sorrows cease and death shall be no more.

Q:  Any positive things to come out of your accident?

A:  I can’t bite my fingernails anymore since my jaw has been reconfigured.  Does that count?

Q:  Hmm … not what I had in mind.

A:  Too trivial for you?  Yes, there are many positives.  I have already mentioned several of them.  While this year has been extremely difficult, it has also been a year of great blessing.  I have been the grateful recipient of an extraordinary outpouring of love.  Lauri, the kids, my mom and the staff were terrific.  I also heard from people I haven’t heard from in years.  That was pretty cool.  Many churches, Bible studies, and people prayed for me.  In such a time, you discover who cares about you and the depth of their love.  Today, ML shared with me the many emails that people sent while I was in ICU.  I had not read them before.  Very moving.  I have only gotten through about a quarter of them, but they are so encouraging.

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Cake sent to Larry by Diane Olexa and her staff at Olexa’s Cafe upon his release from the hospital.  His mouth was wired shut and he could not eat it, but he nonetheless loved the sentiment behind it.

Q:  Anything else?

A:  Yes, I have also learned that my faith and my body are quite durable.  This knowledge will serve me well.  In one of the advertisements for the movie The Revenant, there appeared this line: “I ain’t afraid to die anymore.  I already done it.”  I identify with that statement.  Incidentally, the word revenant means “one who has returned from the dead.”

Q:  Did you have any doubts?

A:  About what?  God’s love or his Sovereignty?

Q:  Yes.

A:  None.  I have never suffered from doubts the way some people do.  I am grateful for this.  But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t occasionally wonder why the Lord should allow me to suffer quite so much.

Q:  What did you conclude?

A:  I conclude that His ways are often inscrutable; that He is infinite and I am finite; that “now I see through a glass darkly, but then I shall see face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know in full.”

Q:  Why do you think the Lord kept you alive?

A:  That’s the big question, isn’t it?  John Lennox, who was here last week and is a kind of mentor to me, put a lot of emphasis on this question in an effort to prompt me to think about it a bit more than I have: “By any reasonable standard you should be dead, Larry.  But the Lord didn’t allow it.  Why?”  The inference, of course, is that God isn’t finished with me yet.  One obvious answer to the question is that the Lord wants me to continue the work in which I am engaged, though there may be other reasons as yet unknown to me.  But as John and others have pointed out, it is more than a little interesting that my body should have been broken so severely while my mind was left intact.

Q:  You have said that “pain changes us.”  Has it changed you?

A:  Yes, I think so.  Some changes are, perhaps, temporal.  For instance, being in pain most of the time is apt to put you on edge a bit.  I have always been an intense, driven personality.  Or so I have been told.  But Lauri says that I am more intense than ever …

Q:  That’s a frightening thought!

A:  … [laughing] Yeah, well, it is what it is.  I suppose I feel an impatience.  I have one eye on eternity and I don’t want to waste the time I have or miss opportunities to make a difference.  But in other ways life is sweeter.  I’m a bit more pensive.  Some things that I thought really mattered just don’t matter as much to me now.  You find yourself reflecting on relationships past and present, mistakes you’ve made, and things you would do differently.  Perhaps that all sounds cliché.  I’ll be able to give a more complete answer in five years.

Q:  Are you riding a bike again?

A:  Yes.  Now, before people freak out, let me say that I am not doing it anywhere near cars.  It has helped me to put back on some of the muscle mass I lost.  I was, you may recall, skeletal.  I lost nearly forty pounds in the months following the accident, and I wasn’t overweight at the time.  I have put some of that back on and that’s a good thing.

Q:  A final question.  I know that you are still learning and that all of this is, as you said, “still unfolding for you.”  But if there is one takeaway for you, what is it?

A:  I think it is this: were I an atheist, I would, perhaps, attribute my survival to luck, good medical care, and my own physical strength.  These things alone.  Now while I was in reasonably good shape at the time of the accident and had a superb medical team—and have made every effort to seek them all out to offer them my gratitude—I don’t think that luck had a thing to do with my survival.  As a Christian, I believe in a sovereign God who gives us “life and breath and everything.”  That means that I believe that nothing happens, including a bike wreck, that is beyond His control.  That comforts me.  I don’t feel a need to know the Lord’s purpose in it.  I trust His purposes and it fills me with a tremendous sense of mission to know that I am alive because He willed it.  That is true, really, of all of us.  But it has a special kind of meaning in my life knowing that I was well on my way to the “other side of the river,” so to speak, when he called me back to shore.