Nearly one year after losing most of her family in a tragic head-on car crash, Deb Henson of Tarkington is sharing how the loss has changed her life and the lives of her surviving daughters, Jordan and Brianna.
Every day on her way to her home on Tarkington Prairie, Henson passes the roadside memorial on CR 2285 that serves as a reminder of her family’s tragedy.
“For the most part, I just drive straight by and I try not to look at it. There are days that it draws me to it,” she said, adding that the memorial was created and is maintained by friends. “About a week or so ago, I was coming home from a doctor’s appointment, and it hit me. I was on the road at about the same time of day they were when the accident happened. I began wondering, ‘What did the guy who hit them see? Did they know what was coming?'”
On Jan. 23, 2019, the night of the accident, five members of the Henson family – father Mark, daughters Brianna, Jordan and Jessee, and granddaughter Lily – were on their way to services at CrossWay Community Fellowship Church in Cleveland.
Henson planned to meet her family at church after work instead of making the drive home first. At around 7 p.m., her family had not arrived, so she used a phone app to check the GPS locations of her husband and children’s phones.
“I thought maybe they got a late start. My husband liked for us to go into church as a family, so I was waiting in the parking lot for them to get there,” she explained. “At around 7:15, I looked at my phone again and saw they were still in the same place. I thought maybe they were stuck behind an accident or somebody was riding a tractor down the road. It’s a two-lane, farm-to-market road, so you never know. When I checked my phone again about 5-10 minutes later, they were still in the same place.”
As worry began to set in, Henson tried calling her family’s cell phones, but she got no response.
“My stomach started rolling. I decided to drive to where it showed they were on the map. As I was heading down Highway 105, an ambulance passed me going the other direction. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Please God, don’t let that be my family,'” she said.
She saw a medical helicopter that was landing on the road further ahead of her, so she knew there were multiple victims from whatever calamity had taken place. Afterward, she found out that the ambulance that passed her was transporting her daughter, Brianna, to Conroe Regional Medical Center.
“I pulled onto the road where the accident happened and fell into a line of vehicles. No one was coming from the opposite direction, so I knew that traffic was stopped. Finally a car came through. I flagged them down and asked what was going on, and told them I was trying to find my family,” she said. “The driver said, ‘Ma’am, I don’t know anything except it’s a really bad wreck.'”
The other driver related to her that the vehicles involved in the crash were red and gray, which worsened her fears as her family vehicles matched the descriptions.
A few minutes later, still roughly a half-mile from the accident crash, she flagged down Pct. 5 Deputy Constable Laci Pierce and shared her concerns that her family might be involved in the crash.
“Laci asked me what my name is and how many people would have been in the vehicle. She asked me their names. When I answered, she told me to turn off my car. I knew something was wrong then. I just didn’t know the extent of it,” Henson said.
According to Henson, she was escorted by patrol car to the accident scene, where she was placed inside one of the state police vehicles and told that Mark and Jessee perished in the crash, Jordan and Lily were airlifted to Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston in grave condition, and Brianna was sent to Conroe Regional Medical Center with non-life-threatening injuries.
“From where I was sitting, I could see Brianna’s car. The top part of it was missing. Thankfully, I didn’t see any of my family members still in the car. I was told later that I took three hours for emergency responders to cut my husband out of the car. I wouldn’t have wanted to get closer to the scene. I didn’t want those images of my family in my head,” Henson said. “I know there are some people who need to see those things to understand everything, but I knew in my heart that even if I had seen it, I still couldn’t make sense of it.”
After a few minutes, her pastor, Rev. Bobby Trayal, arrived and helped her get through the next painful hours. The next two days are still a blur as she mostly remembers that Jordan’s welfare and survival became her paramount concern.
“For those first 48 hours, it was all about making sure Jordan lived. Being there by her side and making sure that the decisions made were good, that was my focus,” she said.
Jordan suffered a traumatic brain injury in the crash, along with breaking numerous bones in her face and body. Some of the injuries were not immediately visible, except to a parent who knows their child.
“They let me go into the emergency room after they cleaned things up a bit. I will never forget the smells and sounds going on in that room, and just the way Jordan looked. There was the smell of blood and antiseptic, and I don’t know if you can smell it, but you could sense the chaos that had gone on in that room,” Henson said.
Jordan’s face was swollen and her nose appeared to be pushed back into her skull, according to Henson.
“Someone who had never met her would have thought there was nothing wrong by looking at her, but I am her mom and I knew,” she said.
Jordan’s injuries required a six-month hospitalization and Henson stayed by her side, taking time to attend the funerals of her family members and to manage her home, which was being renovated at the time of the accident.
“We were living in a shop on the property. It’s an office area. The hubby and I were staying there and the girls were living in another building. It was close confines, putting that many sisters together in a small space, but the house was not livable at the time,” Henson said.
Neighbors and church members, who embraced her family after they moved to Tarkington from Midlothian, Texas, in 2018, helped Henson with caring for her animals and other tasks.
“I’ve heard about people moving to small towns and how hard it is for them to fit in. That was never our problem. My husband was not the kind of person who would be ignored. Anybody who knew him knew he was a personality. He was funny and he liked to laugh at himself. When he asked me to marry him, he promised me I would never be bored. He said I can’t promise you all these great things, but I can promise you will never have a dull day, and he was right,” said Henson, smiling at the memory.
Henson credits her faith in God for seeing her through the last year, even though there were days that were unbearable.
“They say God never gives you more than you can handle, but there are times when I think He has me confused with someone else. I am not Ruth or Job. When something like this happens, you have two ways to go. You can either hate God or cling to Him. For me, I couldn’t hate Him. I just couldn’t. He has the answers,” she said. “I believe God takes things like this and uses them. I don’t know His purpose or how He is using it. That’s where my faith has to be strong. I have to trust that He has my best interest in mind.”
Employed as a division order analyst for XTO, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil, Henson is blessed to have good medical insurance and an understanding employer who lets her do the bulk of her work from home. A home healthcare nurse assists Henson in the care of Jordan part of the week, but the rest of the time those responsibilities fall on Henson.
Jordan is still unable to feed herself and has difficulty swallowing, so a feeding tube provides her with the nutrients she needs to survive. She is unable to verbally communicate but can respond to simple commands using her hands, as long as her arm is supported and she isn’t having spasms, a side-effect of the traumatic brain injury.
According to Henson, Jordan can still read, spell and do math, and is taking homebound high school classes through Tarkington High School, where she was the mascot for the varsity cheerleaders at the time of the crash. Jordan has nearly enough credits to graduate high school this year, but Henson has mixed feelings about it as it means she will lose the opportunity to have teachers working with her.
“They’ve told me that she potentially could walk with her class without getting her diploma,” she said. “I think she would like to be with her own classmates, so I am leaning toward that.”
Until recently, Jordan was undergoing therapy to help her stand, but those plans were set aside when she developed a pressure ulcer that resulted from being bedridden most of the day. Treatment of the pressure ulcer requires the use of a special bed that rotates a bedridden patient throughout the day, which Henson has been unable to afford with all the other medical expenses and bills.
“I’ve got to tell you, this whole thing has been more financially overwhelming than I ever thought. I am fortunate to have a good job with good benefits, I know, and if you told me that trying to get something as basic as a hospital bed for a pressure ulcer would be a problem, I wouldn’t have believed it,” she said.
According to Henson, her insurance plan will not pay for the sit/stand feature that is needed for Jordan’s motorized wheelchair.
“They paid a portion of the chair but not the sit/stand feature that will lift her to a vertical or standing position. This offloads the pressure from her butt and helps her strengthen the muscles in her legs and back, so that when she gets to the point where she starts learning to walk again that her muscles are strong,” she said.
Whether Jordan will ever regain what was lost is uncertain. Doctors have reportedly told Henson that Jordan’s recovery is dependent on her brain rewiring connections to parts of the body that are not working.
“She has some command of her arms and legs but it’s a slow thought process for her right now. There is a considerable delay from when you tell her to do something to when she actually tries it. Also, her muscles have atrophied some, so they are not strong,” Henson said.
Henson is reluctant to accept financial help but says she is ready to “cry uncle.”
“We’ve got several big expenses with the bed and chair. The chair feature and the peripherals that go with it are $27,000. That’s not the full wheelchair. That is just for the feature,” she said. “The bed she needs is almost $36,000 brand new. I found a refurbished one that is $11,000. That’s still a lot of money. I am going to try shuffling things around to see if I can come up with some money, but it’s not what most people have sitting in their bank accounts.”
A Go Fund Me page that was activated in January to help with funeral expenses is still open, Henson said, and anyone who wants to help pay for the medical equipment that Jordan needs can still make donations by going online to https://www.gofundme.com/f/love-and-help-for-the-families-in-need.