Brett Mehlenbacher can tell you what it’s like to almost die. But, through God’s healing power, he can also tell you what it’s like to live! The account below, as told by Brett’s father, Kim, unpacks Brett’s incredible journey of sudden tragedy and the long road back.
On September 24, 2005, Brett was riding his motorcycle somewhere between Collegedale and Knoxville, TN when he came around a bend. For some reason unknown to us, he lost control of his bike and flew off the road. He went down a 10-15 foot embankment and hit something hard enough to put an orange-sized crack in his helmet (probably a tree). We praise God that he was wearing a helmet. He would have been killed without it.
Brett was airlifted to a hospital in Knoxville where he was in a coma for seven days. The diagnosis from the neurosurgeon was that Brett had suffered moderate to severe brain injury. We were told that if he ever woke up he would most likely go to a nursing home for the rest of his life. Thankfully, because of God’s faithfulness, that never even came close to happening.
There are many incredible things I could share about this experience, but to keep it short, let me tell you about three.
(1) God’s Perfect Timing
When we got to the hospital where Brett was, of course we went right in to see him. But after our initial visit, we could only visit him on regular intervals every couple of hours, because he was in neuro ICU. By this time Jodi (Brett’s sister) and some of her friends had come to the hospital, along with Southern Adventist University chaplain, Ken Rogers. As we talked with Ken and became better acquainted, we discovered that there were a number of people throughout the country that we both knew. One such person was pastor Walt Williams, whom we still consider our family pastor, even though it has been many years since he and his family moved away from our church. Eventually, when Ken asked if there was anyone he could call for us to tell about the accident, I immediately said, “yes, please call Pastor Walt.”
Ken stepped out into the hallway and made the call, but quickly came back to say that he had gotten Walt’s voice mail and had left a message. He assured us that we would probably hear from Walt sometime in the morning (it was getting late by then). Ken needed to get back to the University, so after promising to check in with us the next day, he left.
In the stillness of the night we were left to ponder the events of the last couple of days as we tried to settle into the ICU waiting room, getting up at regular intervals to see Brett. We each had a lazy boy, a pillow and a blanket and I remember covering my head and feeling so overwhelmed, hoping it was all a bad dream from which I would soon wake up.
All of a sudden I felt a tap on my shoe. I pulled the blanket away, and there, standing just four feet away from my face was Pastor Walt and Carol! “What are you doing here,” I shouted. He explained that they were in Knoxville moving Carol’s parents up to Michigan, and they would be there all week and would be available to help us in any way they could. I immediately told Pastor Walt that we wanted him to perform an anointing service for Brett, without realizing how providential that was.
God knew all the time who we needed to give us courage as we walked through our dark valley. I probably would not have had an anointing if it had not been done by someone we had felt very close to. Would Brett even be alive today? God knew what was needed and put Pastor Walt right there before we even knew we needed him. After we talked with Walt and Carol about everything that had happened, somehow I began to feel we would be able to make it. Walt and Carol were sent by God, and what an enormous blessing they were.
(2) The Power of PrayerThe second miracle that happened occurred in the events that led up to the anointing. We scheduled it for 7:00 p.m. Wednesday nite. As our friends heard the news everyone wanted to be a part of it and so groups began planning to meet, whatever their time zone, to be in prayer at exactly the time we anointed Brett in Tennessee. We had kids from Union college, Walla Walla University, and Southern Adventist University praying for him. In addition we had churches in Boulder, CO, Toronto, Japan, and Africa lifting him up in prayer. And he desperately needed it.
When we saw his respiratory therapist on Sunday he was most encouraging but as the days rolled by you could see his demeanor drastically changing. Pneumonia had set in, and as in a lot of cases, that’s what eventually kills people, not the accident. By Wednesday morning the therapist came to us in a somber mood. We could tell something was wrong because he couldn’t bring himself to look us in the eye. Suddenly he bluntly blurted out, “he’s not going to make it.” What a devastating blow. But we hung on to God’s promises, and on that night we had the most awesome service for Brett.
Brett did not jump out of bed when pastor Walt finished his prayer. But I felt such a peace, I cannot explain. I gave Brett into God’s capable hands and watched him begin to work out His will for Brett’s life. Brett’s ICU room was packed with not only the 20 friends, students and family who had gathered there but the hundreds of others praying simultaneously in many other places.
Well, Brett made it through the night, and the next morning his respiratory therapist came to us and exclaimed, “what did you do last night?” Even before we could react and answer him, he repeated his question with an urgency that was uncharacteristic to his usually calm nature. “What did you do last night?” When we explained, his face looked puzzled. “The pneumonia is gone,” he said. Then he turned and walked away. Praise God for what he did for Brett and what he was starting to do in one respiratory therapist’s life.
(3) Through the StormThe third miracle occurred after Brett left ICU and was in another part of the hospital. He was going through the different phases of recovery from a traumatic brain injury. One of the phases is an event called “storming.” This occurs when the brain tries to tell the body what to do using neurons and pathways that have been damaged. Typically, something akin to a seizure happens which can last for hours at a time and often has to be medicated away. This was true in Brett’s case as well. There were many times although when he would begin a “storming” session and I would come along side him and bend over close to his ear and repeatedly whisper in his ear that I was there with him, that Mom and I were with him always, that we weren’t leaving his side and would see him through it all. Even though he was still in a coma-like state, he would calm right down and be at peace. I’m still marveling at the spiritual implications of this. God guarantees us his abiding presence, through thick and thin he will be with us and deliver us from all evil.
About 10 days out the “storming” sessions turned markedly worse and for a day or two were almost nonstop. We repeatedly pressed the doctors about this and about the possibility of doing an MRI. They said, “We don’t do that here. MRI’s are more of a prognostic than a diagnostic tool.” They had done a lot of CAT scans, but no MRIs.
At the outset of the CAT scans, I vowed that I would go through as much of it with Brett as I could so he wouldn’t be frightened. I am sure at times they must have seen two heads on their scans, as I would be trying to reassure Brett by whispering in his ear that it was OK.
Finally, we were at our wits end. One night about 11:30 p.m., while sitting in Brett’s room, with the lights out and the temperature cool (the best environment for a brain injury patient), the door swung open and in walked a little gal who turned out to be part of the neuro team. As I explained our concerns, especially the one about wanting an MRI, she exclaimed, “I’ll order one right now.” Great, I thought, then I reminded myself that in hospital time that means next week. She then left and we settled in for another long night.
To our surprise, about 15 minutes later, the door to his room swung open and two orderlies come charging into his room, gurney trailing, ready to take him for his MRI. I began to explain to them that it was one of his worst days and there was no point in taking him down now. For an MRI, especially of the head, the patient has to lie on a table for 45 minutes, practically motionless to get good pictures. No problem, they said, if it dosen’t work we will just bring him back.
So, at about 1:00 a.m. the orderlies and I wheeled Brett down through what seemed like the bowels of the hospital to the MRI area where we were met by a technician. As we approached the doors to the imaging room he told me, even amidst my protests, that I could go no further. I had carried my Bible with me (I had been praying through the Psalms) and so I retreated to an empty waiting room and began to read and pray. I expected in short order to see him wheeled out ready for the return trip. I waited five minutes, 15 minutes, 30 minutes and then finally about 40 minutes later the tech came out and approached me. He said, “What a time we’ve had.” I knew what he was going to say. But his next words caught me totally off guard. “We tried to restrain him, we tried straps, we tried wrapping him in a blanket, nothing seemed to work, we tried everything. Then I laid his arms across his chest more to just stabilize him until we could put him back on the gurney, and he quieted right down. He has laid motionless on the table now for 30 minutes and we’ve gotten some good pictures. We’ve found another brain bleed.”
Within 24 hours Brett went in for surgery to relieve the pressure of fluid on the brain that was actually causing his brain to shift. If left untreated, that could have been fatal. Again and again we have praised God for his miracles, not only during Brett’s month in the hospital in Knoxville, but his subsequent stay for six more weeks in a rehab hospital in Denver where God arranged for the right person to work with him in therapy. Then for our move to Collegedale, when he was ready to start back to college. We praise God for the strides he has been able to make all along the way.
The Journey Continues
We have had countless people share with us that his story has restored their faith in prayer and in God, to which Brett has replied, “Then, I would go through it all again.”
Through this whole experience, which is still unfolding as we speak, we have learned that God will watch over us each step of the way until we reach the other side.
Kim Mehlenbacher writes from Colorado.