LINCOLN, NEB. (CNA/EWTN News) - 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 were 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, 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 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. In an entry dated Dec. 13, one day after the accident, Brad responded to the prompts in his journal:
Today I feel: "Great, it was starting out to be a good day, until Nikki Shasserre called and told me the news. After that a mix of scared, sad, mad, happy."
Spiritually I: "Am overwhelmed by the huge support you have received from all over the country. I feel consoled during a moment of great trial."
Magical moments (comfort, peace, and love): "You opened your eye and looked at me!! That was huge. I was so thankful to know I had communicated with you and was able to show my love for you and show you I'm there for you."
It was Brad's faithfulness that kept Ashley going in the hard months of recovery and therapy to come.
After UNMC, Ashley was flown down to Atlanta to continue her treatment - it was closer to her parents, who live in Knoxville, Tenn., and was highly recommended for brain trauma recovery.
Brad kept his job as an aide to a state senator in Nebraska, but flew down to Atlanta every Thursday through Sunday to be with his fiancé.
"That was beautiful to me and exactly what I needed to keep fighting and to keep doing frustrating therapies," Ashley said.
For a while, even the basics were extremely difficult. She had to re-learn how to write, eat, walk, do long division - but Brad's visits kept her looking forward to the weekends.
"I remember seeing him every Thursday and just being giddy, when you're going through something so life-altering, being able to cling to normalcy is exactly what you need," she said.
But May 16th, the day they had originally planned for their wedding, was harder than most. Brad flew down to be with Ashley, and they went to a church to pray.
"I'm not a crier, I'm just not, but that day we went to the chapel and I just broke down, and I walked out of the church and he came after me and he said 'What's wrong? I'm still here, we're still going to get married,'" Ashley recalled.
She told Brad about all the doubts she had - doubts, she thinks now, that came from Satan.
"We didn't have our wedding rescheduled, I didn't know when or if I would go back to work, I still wasn't approved to drive, and I just kept thinking: Am I worth it?"
"I remember he took my hands and said, 'Ashley, I still love you, I love you just as much as when I asked you to marry me, I'm going to marry you, and it's not going to be today, but it will be as soon as it makes sense, as soon as you get back and we get in our rhythm, it will be then.'"
And it was. The next week, Ashley found out her release date. She entered a driving program, and was approved to start working again part-time. As the improvements kept coming, Ashley and Brad started re-looking at wedding dates.
They settled on Dec. 12 - exactly a year after the accident.
"It was Ashley's idea," Brad said. "She wanted to conquer a sad day and remember it with joy, or in her words 'kick the accident in the face.'"
"I think some people question like why would you want to do that, so many hard memories will be evoked on that day, why would you want to have the happiest day of your life kind of conflict with that?" Ashley said. "To me, that was the point."
It was a cold December day in Nebraska again. There had been a blizzard the day before Dec. 12, 2009, the day of Ashley and Brad Stevens' wedding.
"I guess you should expect (a blizzard) in December in Nebraska," Ashley joked. Nonetheless, friends and family from all over the country were able to make it.
"It was just a party," Ashley said. And the FOCUS team - half of whom had been in the car with Ashley - were in the choir loft. They sang and played Bethany Dillon's "Let Your Light Shine", which the team had listened to together, per Ashley's request, at a meeting a week before the accident.
The truck driver was there too.
"Seeing the church surrounded by people that had stood by our sides whether its prayers, meals, visits, and just having a party, it was a way of saying I'm still here, that God healed us, healed me, and performed a miracle," Ashley said.
The Stevens have now been married for almost 6 years, with two beautiful little girls. They travel in between Tennessee and Nebraska often, so the girls can get to know both sets of grandparents.
They still have their ups and downs, like any couple, but in large part because of the accident, Ashley never doubts that Brad is in it for the long haul.
"Marriage is hard," Ashley said, "but it's part of the cost, and when you sign the marriage license you know that. The vow, 'in good and in bad, in sickness and in health,' obviously Brad's already lived the in sickness and in health vow out before we even walked down the aisle."
"The best advice we can offer for marriage prep is to take a step back, and evaluate your relationship," Brad said. "And (if) there's not much about God, there's not much about how the relationship has challenged you to be better, change habits or to find joy in sacrifice, then there's a disconnect."
There are reminders of the accident - Ashley permanently lost hearing in her right ear, she suffered nerve injuries and lost partial control of her right hand. But at the end of the day goodness prevailed, Ashley said, which is why she is working on a book telling her story.
"God gives us all different gifts," Ashley said. "And I don't have the gift of musical ability, or anything artistic, at times I don't have the gift of extraversion, but I do have the gift of a cool story. And I have the gumption to share it."
"The point (of the story) is that God always wins," she said. "And that may not look like the win that has always played out in your head, but he's faithful, and he works miracles in our lives, and we can't forget all he's done in our life."
These days, the Stevens are looking forward to settling in Nebraska as their oldest starts school. As for Brad, he's thankful that after everything, they're able to have a normal life.
"Ashley is a rock star and I thank God for her and the family we have together."
Photo credit: Sam Caplat on Flickr