Lessons From Tragedy

with Leslie Wachter McDonald

Do you ever hear about a situation that just grabs your heart and mind? In March 2011, a schoolmate of Kristen’s, Leslie, and her family were in a terrible accident. We talked about it for days, and did not sleep well after hearing about it.

After losing our little six-year-old Ellie, many people reached out to us. Leslie was right there with words of encouragement. This meant so much to us, because we knew her story. We knew that she was still physically healing and grieving the loss of her husband and son. In her suffering, her heart was full of love and compassion for us and it gave us hope. We can’t thank her enough, and we hope that her story inspires you.

Thank you Leslie for sharing your story with us.

-Todd and Kristen
"Not easy to read. Wasn’t easy to write. Wow, what a feeling to do it!"
- Leslie Wachter McDonald
Leslie, what is your loss story?

On March 22, 2011, my family was on Spring Break vacation in Durango, CO. We were returning from a day of exploring when we were hit drivers side to drivers side, head on, by a retired police officer who was addicted to and high on prescription medications. The accident resulted in the death of my husband, Robert, and my 10 year old son, Jaden.
The McDonald Family
I was knocked unconscious and awoke to my 12 year old son, Kellen, yelling at me. We were able to exit the car even though it was fully engulfed in flames. At the scene of the accident, I kept pleading for people to get Jaden and Bob out of the car. Finally, a brave bystander who had talked to me through the flames pointed at my cross and asked me, “Do you believe in God?” I responded, “Yes.” He responded, “They are in a better place.”

Later when they had me in the ambulance, I could hear the helicopters and chatter from the paramedics on their radios. The hard second confirmation came in that moment. One of the paramedics said, “Three dead on scene and two survivors.” Final confirmation, when they woke me up from my medically induced coma and my mom told me yet again that my son and husband were indeed gone.

Two survivors. Kellen and I were burned over 50% of our bodies. Kellen was transported to the burn unit at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. I had internal injuries that needed immediate attention. Therefore, I was transferred to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. We spent over two months apart enduring painful skin grafts, surgeries, infections and rehabilitation in separate burn units. On rare days, when we weren’t in surgery or recovering from surgery, we would talk on the phone or Skype.

We were eventually reunited in Denver. Me at the University of Colorado Hospital and he at Children’s of Colorado. Now we were only separated by about a half mile. We spent another month and a half healing and getting stronger in rehab until we got to go home to start our new life.
Jaden and Kellen
What do you want everyone to remember about your husband and son, Jaden?

Bob was a great man of great integrity. Family always came first. He sacrificed so much during his life to always do the right thing. He had opportunities to follow his passion, Southwest Plains Archaeology, but instead found a family friendly career path that allowed him to take sick days with his kids and vacation time when his mom came to town. He then went on to advance in a career that was not at all what he went to school for or dreamed about doing. But like everything else, he excelled. He sang beautifully. He took stunning photos. He coached Little League. He loved to cook as much as he loved to watch the Broncos play. However, his single most greatest joy was his kids! He never wanted his kids to grow up without a dad like he did. He was the most excited and proud grandpa I had ever seen when his grand babies were born.
Jaden was born with a heart defect called a coarctation. He went into congestive heart failure a few hours after he was born. He was diagnosed and transferred to Denver Children’s for heart surgery when he was just 4 days old. We always said that even though he didn’t remember any of that, it molded who he was. Jaden loved life. If there was a friend to be met, he would introduce himself, if there was a club to join, he joined. If there was a cool skill he wanted to learn like the piano or judo or baseball, he didn’t just learn it. He mastered it. They wouldn’t let him eat for the first week of his life. So he spent the next 10 years making up for that. He ate everything except polenta! Jaden had two speeds, fast and asleep. One time I was telling Bob about seeing a television show with Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture. One of Randy’s points was people need to decide if they are a Tigger or an Eeyore. Jaden overheard this discussion and cheerfully chimed in that he was definitely a Tigger. Yes Jaden, you were my Tigger. Bob always said that Jaden was his hero.
What impact do you want to leave on the world?

I want to warn people of the addictive and dangerous nature of prescription pain medications. I tell everyone I can. Some day, I would love to support a national campaign of some kind.

I want to facilitate healing for other burn survivors. I do this by being a SOAR (Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery) provider at the burn units for Children’s Colorado and University of Colorado Hospital. I was a physical therapist before the accident. I am still a physical therapist but I’ve learned how to be a burn therapist. I enjoy working with other burn survivors to facilitate their rehab.

I want to give hope and support other widows and grieving parents. I want to reach out and tell my story so others know that there is a path to healing.

I want my husband and son’s legacy to live on in some form or fashion. I’m still kicking around ideas for this one!
What lessons could people learn from your life?

Strength comes out of our worst situations. You truly never know how strong you are until you are tested. I said at the beginning of my recovery that I didn’t intentionally set out on this journey, but I promise to take every step of it with intention.

I know my faith in God is where my true strength has come from. When you are lying in a hospital bed with no control of even your basic bodily functions, your family is gone, you don’t have one familiar face to look at, you only have God. You only listen to God. You only talk to God. Your universe is that hospital bed and God is at the center.

I remember in those moments of “sedation” walking behind Bob and Jaden on the shores of a magnificent body of water. I was desperately trying to catch up to them, calling their names. The only response I got was, “Not yet”. At one point I thought I had died and gone to Hell. I felt like the same day kept replaying over and over and over. Later, I discovered it was just in ICU psychosis.

Then I prayed to die. I figured that had to be way easier. And again, the only response was, “Not yet”. After that, I figured I better start living because God didn’t want me dead yet!

That’s the real lesson with any loss. You are still alive, so Live. Don’t just exist. Don’t just breathe in and out. Don’t just go through the motions. LIVE!

And just because you make that choice to live, it doesn’t mean your not still grieving. There is no “getting over it”. I like to think of it as moving through it. The pain is still there. It still hurts as bad as the first days sometimes. The void in your life is always there. The loss is there whether there are tears in your eyes or a smile on your face.

We who grieve set an example for others, especially our children. They need to see its ok to cry. It’s ok to hurt. It’s ok to be sad. It’s ok to remember out loud. But it’s also ok to LIVE! It’s ok to laugh. It’s ok to have joy. It’s ok to have peace. It’s ok to LIVE without the guilt of being alive. There are so many moments of life to be enjoyed. Grief shouldn’t steal those moments.

I’ve told Kellen many times that if he loses his childhood and his joy to this tragedy then the Evil One wins. We can’t let the Evil One win our Christian hearts.
Leslie and Kellen
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