Brad Edwards was a laid-back teenager without a care in the world when he hopped into another Vilonia student's truck after football practice that rainy day in April 1999.
Just minutes later, his life almost ended and was changed forever.
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Cindy Edwards was at a bank in Conway when she saw the ambulance racing back from Vilonia. She didn't know it, but her 16-year-old son was inside hovering between life and death.
She saw her husband, Rick, in his truck, flashers on, waving his arm out the window to get her attention. He had been home when the state trooper pulled up in the driveway to tell him about the accident.
"I knew it was one of the kids," Cindy, a mother of four, said. "Boy, that was a nightmare."
She felt her world falling apart as her husband told her Brad was seriously injured in the accident. They raced to Conway Regional Medical Center.
"It took forever for them to let us go back. It was just horrible. He was just lying there, lifeless. They said he was Code Blue when he came in. They just said head trauma."
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Brad, who was never supposed to live, much less walk or talk again, remembers the accident well.
"I was with a guy I didn't know very well," Brad says, speaking slowly, struggling to get all the words out.
Brad was in the middle of the front seat, wearing his seat belt.
"We hydroplaned," and another vehicle "T-boned us," Brad said.
"My head hit the dome light so hard I bent it. It shattered the light and bent the cab metal."
He repeated "bent the cab metal," finding it hard to believe.
"Every doctor said there was no hope. I'd never wake up or anything. That doctor didn't know Brad Edwards," he said, smiling.
He said he was "out for a month, just lying there."
He was hospitalized for 171 days.
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Cindy said Brad was in a coma for two weeks. He was taken to UAMS Medical Center almost immediately from Conway Regional Medical Center.
The prognosis wasn't good. "Doctors didn't expect him to be what he is today," she said.
The doctor told her he'd seen people in Brad's condition pull through and people in better condition die. The doctor told Cindy only God held that answer for Brad.
"Everybody was praying for Brad," she said.
Two weeks later he was moved to Arkansas Children's Hospital. "You never realize it until you're there at Children's there are so many teenagers ... the ones who come in from wrecks and four-wheeler accidents, and so many of them paralyzed. And a lot of them don't have the support we did here in Conway," Cindy said.
Cindy and Rick Edwards practically lived at the hospital, and Cindy's parents, Charles and Betty Hightower, helped take turns staying with Brad.
"We started off with like a newborn baby," Cindy said. "He couldn't move, couldn't lift his arms, he couldn't speak. We didn't hear his voice for months," she said.
The doctor said to talk with Brad as if he could understand everything. "I joked with him, played music. We turned him every 30 minutes. That went on for months," she said.
He had casts to help straighten his legs, underwent painful therapy and several surgeries on his arm and hand.
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"It took months," Brad recalled. "The worse pain," he said. However, "I didn't have a bruise or a scratch on me." The injury to his brain was enough.
"The first thing I tried to say was 'om, om.' I was trying to say Mom."
Everyone was excited the day that happened.
He also remembers the day he stood up. Brad's brain injury had affected his growth.
He was about 5-foot-10, his parents thought, but when he stood up, he said, "Dad, where'd you go?" He was looking at the top of his dad's head. Brad was now 6-foot-5.
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Cindy laughed when she recalls the incident. "That was so scary. We were thinking he was about 5-10 or 5-11. We thought, well, he's sliding down the bed. We never got him up, because he just couldn't. A nurse nailed a board on the end of his hospital bed, because his feet kept hanging off."
When he finally stood up, "He shot up over Dad's head and he said, 'What!'"
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Brad, now 22, said one day his father just got tired of him being in the hospital, and insisted his son was going home.
Then the question became how everyone was going to take care of Brad. For a long time, Cindy stayed home and had an aide come in and help her take care of Brad so he could finish high school, which he did.
Vilonia High School Principal Ed Sellers said, "Brad's a neat young man. He overcame a lot of adversity. He was always real cooperative and willing to do anything he could do to be a positive influence at school.
"Everybody loved Brad, and he liked all the kids," Sellers said.
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Cindy said Kathy Hall had attended the Liberty Church of Christ with them for years, but Cindy had never heard of My House Inc. It is a nonprofit, United Way agency that includes a group home in Mayflower for developmentally disabled men and provides services for the developmentally disabled in their own homes. Hall is the agency's director.
Kathy told Cindy she thought My House could help Brad.
Cindy said it has made all the difference.
"Oh, wow. Kathy and they have lifted such a load. Parents don't realize what's out there. There's nothing to guide you. That door opened up," Cindy said. "Kathy calls me continuously. It's all the time. It's something new, or something we need to change. It's awesome."
Brad wanted to be independent, and with the help of My House employees, he is. Brad lives in his own home in Conway.
Brad's first roommate and direct-care provider through My House was his best friend since elementary school, Brad Cowger.
Brad Edwards said he and Cowger played all kinds of sports together in high school. "He helped me more than any of them (direct-care providers). He got me able to walk better," Brad Edwards said.
Brad Cowger, who is now a physical education teacher at Florence Mattison Elementary School, said he heard about a job at My House after Brad Edwards' accident.
"I just thought it'd be great to help. I just thought I could help him get better," Cowger said.
When Cowger first started working with him, Brad Edwards couldn't tie his shoes, comb his hair or take a shower by himself. Now he does all that.
"Basically, what I did was push him," Cowger said. "We were good friends, and we had that relationship where I could challenge him. Things were difficult, but he felt really rewarded when he got something done."
Cowger also took his friend to play miniature golf, to the movies and get-togethers with friends.
His goal was to "normalize" his friend's life.
"It's not just me - the employees of My House have been working with him," Cowger said.
In working with people who are developmentally disabled, "the most important thing is to remember they want to be treated like anybody else. They don't want to be treated special. If you find ways to challenge them, they will do it," Cowger said.
Cowger said another Brad, whose last name is Thomas, is Brad Edwards' roommate now.
Brad Edwards was at Cowger's wedding in June. "He said a wonderful prayer and it touched a lot of people," Cowger said.
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Ginger Shearer, another of Brad Edwards' companions, said she has seen him improve tremendously in the past year.
She helps him cook simple meals and shop.
"He's never complained," Shearer said. "Since I've known him, he's more self-confident," she said.
He has the perfect personality for the job he loves, serving as a greeter at Wal-Mart on Dave Ward Drive. Although he was painfully shy before the accident, now he never meets a stranger.
Brad has to use a wheelchair, because he tires easily and can fall. He proudly puts on his blue greeter's vest from 4 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday and stations himself at the front of the store.
"Welcome to Wal-Mart. Have a good day! High five!" Brad demonstrates as he sits on the couch in his home, the vest nearby.
"I'm the best greeter in the history of Wal-Mart," Brad said with a smile.
Shearer added: "He's modest, too."
My House employee Dave Ezell goes with Brad to Wal-Mart to make sure he's OK during his shift.
Brad said his job is to "inspire everyone around me," and he'd like to write a book. And be on Oprah.
His boss at Wal-Mart, manager David Passalaqua, said Brad succeeds in serving as an inspiration. "He's very uplifting to the associates who work here, maybe more so than to the customers." Passalaqua said Brad has a positive attitude and enjoys coming to work every day. "He does a great job for us."
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Cindy said My House allowed her and her husband to go back to work and let Brad be independent. "He said, 'Mom, I love you, but I want to be my own person.' I worry about him dearly, but I know Brad.
"He's more positive than most of us who don't have disabilities. That's what keeps me going. He doesn't get down," Cindy said.
"That boy has climbed over obstacles that you can't imagine."
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Brad doesn't see obstacles. He quickly tells anyone who will listen that he wouldn't change a thing.
"I love my life. It's a blessing from God. Look what he went through," Brad said, holding the crucifix on the chain he wears around his neck.
"I know God saved me during that bad wreck to be a shining light in his love. We all have obstacles to deal with in our lives. Mine's my body. I wouldn't want my life to be any different."
(Staff writer Tammy Keith can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 505-1238.)
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