A turn in the road Jennifer and Jeff Lauer had set out in a pTC new direction -- to pursue a life of renewed spiritual service. They knew there would be obstacles, but never imagined how their faith would soon be tested.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified, do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go."

-- Joshua 1:9

The morning of Saturday, April 26, 1997, was sunny and crisp, spring day so perfect it took your breath away. It was a little after 8: 30 when Jeff Lauer nosed his 1988 Ford Taurus down the winding, two-lane ribbon of road that is Jarrettsville Pike just south of Jacksonville in northern Baltimore County.

In the passenger seat, his wife, Jennifer, had just finished eating a chocolate-covered doughnut when she saw the small, dark car speeding toward them.

In an instant, all other thoughts were pushed from her mind: how pretty the blossoms on the trees looked, how fast the white, puffy clouds raced across the sky, the evangelism seminar they were headed to at Grace Fellowship Church in Timonium.

There was only the small, dark car, fish-tailing across the double-yellow line and sliding, sliding, sliding toward them.

"I knew it was going to hit us," Jennifer Lauer recalls now, her face tightening at the memory. "And I knew it was going to be terrible."

In the next instant, there was an unearthly roar and two tons of metal collided with a fury that was astonishing.

Then, lesser, muted sounds: glass tinkling, a bumper skidding across the pavement, a radiator hissing, a wheel cover rolling across gravel and finally wobbling to rest.

Then, Jennifer Lauer recalls, there was silence. A silence so profound it seemed even the birds stopped singing.

"Do not merely listen to the Word, and so deceive yourself. D what it says."

-- James 1: 22

If the story of the two people in the Ford Taurus were plotted o a bar graph, their solidly middle-class life would be represented by a steady uphill line.

Until last December, Jeff Lauer, 41, had worked for Safeway for 24 years, 14 of them as a store manager. He was making more than $100,000 a year and was on the fast track to a prestigious job at corporate headquarters in California.

Jennifer Lauer, 39, was a stay-at-home mom who often invited groups of women into her home to study the Bible. The Lauers had two kids, 15-year-old Heather and 13-year-old Stephanie, and lived in a large, comfortable house outside Jacksonville, the same house Jennifer had grown up in.

Her parents lived next door; his were a 15-minute drive away.

Maybe Jeff didn't sit down to dinner in a white shirt, tie and alpaca sweater, and maybe Jennifer didn't greet guests with a pot roast in the oven and an apron around her waist. Still, to some, they must have seemed like something out of Ward and June Cleaver's day.

"Life was so good," Jennifer Lauer says. "Why would you want to change?"

But sometimes, we don't get to choose the changes in our lives. Sometimes change is simply thrust upon us. And sometimes, if you're a deeply committed Christian, you feel the hand of God at work. You wake up one morning and feel God closing one door of your life and opening another.

This was what the Lauers say happened to them one weekend in March 1995, when they attended a FamilyLife Marriage Conference at a large hotel in northern Virginia.

The conference was sponsored by the FamilyLife Ministry, a nondenominational ministry based in Little Rock, Ark., that focuses on improving family life and relationships.

They expected to see maybe 100 people when they walked into the glittering hotel ballroom that day. Instead, 3,600 people showed up -- 1,800 well-scrubbed couples committed to working with their spouses to improve their marriages.

The Lauers were mightily impressed. Both felt the seminar's workshops were invaluable, helping them learn to communicate better with each other.

"We thought: This represents everything we believe in! This is really exciting!" Jennifer recalls.

The day after the conference, still exultant, they decided to learn more about the FamilyLife Ministry. And so began a process of exploration and spiritual self-examination that would culminate in momentous decision: They would join the ministry's 317-member staff and become full-time missionaries in Little Rock.

"I felt like God was pulling us," Jennifer says, "and we were supposed to be part of this ministry."

It was not a decision arrived at lightly. Gone would be the six-figure income -- FamilyLife missionaries are expected to raise their own financial support, chiefly from individual donations.

Gone also would be the rambling homestead in the leafy neighborhood, the luxury of having family and longtime friends nearby, the security of a familiar, well-ordered life.

But in December of last year, after months of preparation, Jeff quit his job at Safeway. The Lauers had raised 70 percent of the money they'd need to join FamilyLife.

They now considered themselves full-time missionaries.

The move to Little Rock was just months away.

"This," Jennifer thought with conviction, "is God's plan for us."

All of it -- a new life, a wonderful dream of renewed spiritual service -- was before them as they rounded the turn on Jarrettsville Pike that sun-dappled April morning, and the small, dark car came hurtling out of the shadows.

"Consider it pure joy, my brothers, when you face trials of man kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance."

-- James 1: 2

Within seconds after the violent head-on collision with the black 1996 Acura Legend, Jennifer Lauer regained consciousness.

The stillness was eerie. Blood was splashed everywhere in the smoldering wreckage. There was glass all over her. Huge chunks of hair lay in her lap.

As she struggled frantically to focus, she recognized the chunks hair as her own.

Her body seemed frozen. Her right foot screamed in pain. She thought: If this is a dream, I don't want to be here!

She looked around and spotted Jeff's legs first. The upper part of his body was wrapped around her in the passenger seat. He seemed lifeless.

"I thought he was dead," she says softly.

But in the next instant, she dismissed that possibility. Another thought elbowed its way into her consciousness: God loves us. It doesn't have to feel nice or look nice. But God only wants the best for us, so this must be the best.

"I felt at total peace as all this went through my head," she recalls.

Then everything faded and her world turned dark again.

Regaining consciousness a second time, she saw a sea of people, pickup trucks, firetrucks and ambulances.

Paramedics were swarming everywhere. As it happened, a training class to treat trench-accident victims was being conducted less than a mile away. Several paramedics, on their way to the class, had come upon the accident.

To some, this would be seen as an incredible stroke of good fortune. To the Lauers, who were in desperate need of the blood-clotting boots the paramedics carried, it was the hand of God at work.

The accident scene became a frenzy of activity.

Firefighters, using the extrication tool called the Jaws of Life, cut through the twisted wreckage of the cars.

Darren Purwin, the 21-year-old Jacksonville man at the wheel of the Acura, who had been headed to his job at a local restaurant, would be taken to the hospital, treated and released. For the Lauers, even though they'd been wearing their seat belts, the situation was far more grim.

Initially, the paramedics couldn't find a pulse on Jeff. Assuming he was dead, they quickly turned their attention to Jennifer.

Then someone noticed an air bubble forming on Jeff's lips, and they started working on him again. Clearly, he was suffering from severe lacerations, several broken bones, a crushed leg, massive internal injuries, and who knew what else.

Jeff never regained consciousness at the scene. The next time Jennifer came to, she was in a State Police MedEvac rescue helicopter winging its way to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

A paramedic, a woman, was crouched over her, working feverishly. As the helicopter's rotors whirred overhead and the sun glinted off the aircraft's glass, a shimmering light seemed to bathe the paramedic's head.

Jennifer thought: "She looks just like an angel."

Groaning, Jennifer announced to the angel that she was about to throw up.

On a stretcher next to her, Jeff lay motionless as the helicopter sliced through the blue morning sky toward downtown Baltimore, the life ebbing from him with each passing minute.

"Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on you understanding."

-- Proverbs 3:5

At Shock Trauma, Jennifer Lauer was diagnosed with a lacerated spleen, internal and external bruising, severe lacerations of the leg and forehead, and a badly crushed right foot.

The bones in her foot were so badly smashed they were as tiny and brittle as corn flakes.

Jeff Lauer hovered near death. Doctors spent more than 10 hours that day attempting to stop his internal bleeding.

His injuries were numerous and severe, the medical report stretching to the length of a grocery list: Brain trauma. Dislodged left eye, with the surrounding orbital bone broken. Broken nose. Broken jawbone. Both cheekbones shattered.

Left shoulder dislocated. Left arm broken. Right arm broken. Right wrist smashed. Fractured hip. Fractured right shin and ankle. Compound fracture of the left leg. Severely fractured left ankle.

The Lauers were placed in separate rooms in the intensive care unit. For five days, Jennifer's injuries prevented her from from seeing Jeff. Instead, she relied on her nurses for terse progress reports, which arrived like bulletins from a war front.

"They kept telling me he was fine," she recalls. "We found out [later] they weren't allowed to say anything, because they didn't want me getting upset."

It was not until the fourth day that doctors were certain Jeff would survive. When his parents arrived at the hospital that morning, Jeff's primary care nurse took them aside and whispered: "Listen, Jeff's going to live. [But] it's going to be a long road to recovery."

On the fifth day, Jennifer was finally taken in her wheelchair to see her husband. Spotting the ghostly figure in the bed, she reeled and suppressed a scream.

Jeff's face was grotesquely swollen and bruised. He had fresh, white casts all over his body and was connected to a mass of tubes: IV lines, a breathing tube, a feeding tube, a catheter and colostomy bag.

"That," Jennifer says softly, "was a very difficult day."

Jeff had been in and out of surgery throughout his first four days at Shock Trauma. Now, as Jennifer watched, doctors were evaluating his eyes and preparing him for surgery to set his broken cheekbones, fix his nose and reconstruct his eyes. This involved taking him off the painkiller Percocet so he could communicate and respond to instructions.

"It was a horrible, horrible thing to watch," Jennifer Lauer says now. "You could tell he was in excruciating pain."

At the end of the visit, as she was wheeled through the long, cold hallways back to her room, she fell apart, crying hysterically.

"I'd been hearing that he was doing so well. ... I remember feeling so deceived by that," she recalls. "I thought: 'He is not doing well. He's in critical condition. ... He could still die!' "

That night, with Jeff facing eight hours of intensive maxillofacial surgery the next day, Jennifer sat in her hospital bed and prayed.

Soon, she says, a warm feeling of peace washed over her, much like the peace she felt after the first terrifying moments in the wreckage.

"I slept like a baby -- five solid hours," she says.

Jeff's surgery went well. But because of his devastating injuries and the painful arch bars stabilizing his loose teeth, he was kept constantly sedated, first with morphine, then large doses of Percocet.

From this point on, his healing would be glacially slow.

Doctors used this analogy to explain his brain trauma to Jennifer: It's like taking a balloon with a rock inside and shaking it. The brain actually gets bruised.

The trauma caused him to feel constantly agitated, and impaired his ability to think clearly. Time and again, he attempted to pull out his IV lines, eventually requiring doctors to secure his arms.

Jennifer explains: "His brain was telling him: Hey, you have all this stuff around you! Get rid of it! Pull the IVs out! Throw away the pillow!"

Jennifer, still weak and recovering from her own injuries -- it would be 18 weeks before she could walk on her own again -- checked out of the hospital after a week and went to stay at her parents' house. She returned to the hospital daily, often with the children, to be with her husband.

The visits were draining, often overwhelming. Wracked by pain herself, Jennifer wondered if their lives would ever return to normal, if the damage caused by Jeff's brain trauma would be permanent.

"[He] would act like he knew us at times," Jennifer says. "Then at other times he'd say: 'Heather, who's that girl next to you?' And of course the girl was Stephanie."

At such times, Jennifer would beat back the panic welling inside and remind herself of what the doctors said: Above all else, the healing process takes time.

"I was told it would be a year before we could pick up the pieces of our life," she recalls.

After three weeks, the doctors recommended that Jeff Lauer be moved to Kernan Hospital in Baltimore and its Traumatic Brain Injury Unit to begin therapy.

Jennifer was skeptical. She thought the doctors at Shock Trauma were moving too fast. On their recommendation, however, she and a friend visited Kernan to inspect the facilities and learn about the work being done there with broken bodies and broken minds.

When they pulled into the parking lot, the two women clasped hands and prayed.

"We prayed that God would give us confirmation that he wanted us to come here," Jennifer recalls.

A few minutes later, when Jennifer gave her name at a nurse's station, the nurse said: "Gee, that sounds familiar. Excuse me for a second."

A moment later, an occupational therapist named Susan Walcher came out to speak to Jennifer.

"I've been waiting to meet you," Walcher said. "We thought you might be coming here."

Susan Walcher, it turned out, was a fellow member of Grace Fellowship Church. After hearing about the Lauers' accident, she had advised the admitting staff at Kernan to notify her if anyone named Lauer called or came by for information.

"That was my confirmation," Jennifer says. "God had placed his people there to give me comfort."

"The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective."

-- James 5:16

Jeff Lauer's first three weeks at Kernan were a nightmare.

Still heavily sedated, he resisted the three hours of daily speech, cognitive and physical therapy ordered by the doctors.

Jennifer was exasperated at the way the staff pushed her wounded, groggy husband to participate; after all, a friend had overheard a nurse say Jeff held the Kernan record for the patient with the most broken bones.

"You're going from a hospital where their main concern is medical to a place where they expect the patient to do things for himself," Jennifer says.

But this is the nature of a rehab hospital, where doctors and nurses mix the positive-thinking feel-goodism of Norman Vincent Peale with the no-nonsense demands of Marine drill sergeants.

Therapy for Jeff involved such exercises as putting puzzles together, looking at various shapes and trying to match them to corresponding holes, using his hands and arms to move a plastic slide over a curved bar above his bed.

The doctors were constantly engaging him in conversation to determine if his brain was processing information correctly. They peppered him with questions: "Who was our first president? Do you remember who I am? What day of the week is it? Is it Friday, Saturday or Sunday, Jeff? What month is it?"

Jeff couldn't answer a lot of the questions. He was weak, uninterested. As with many brain trauma patients, his personality had changed. He was angry much of the time, paranoid, often disoriented.

One time, he saw a bunch of balloons hanging over the TV in his room and wanted to know who the tall person in the shadows was. Another time he was convinced he was in the waiting room at Sears.

Then, two things happened to brighten his mood somewhat.

First, the painful arch bars were removed from his face. And then, three weeks into his stay at Kernan, he asked to be taken off the painkillers that had made his world so hazy for so long.

The doctors worried that he wouldn't be able to handle the pain.

"If I can't," Jeff told them grimly, "you'll be the first to know."

"From that point on," says Jennifer, "you could see he was starting to feel better. His memory was getting clearer. He was beginning to joke around a little."

This was evident the day they brought another brain injury patient into his room. Highly agitated and disoriented, the patient was given to constant outbursts where he'd yell "Peanuts!" and "Get me out of here!"

Finally, Jeff called the nurse over and said: "Get some duct tape, put it over this guy's mouth and put it on my bill."

In the days that followed, Jeff's progress was slow, if steady.

At the Lauer home outside Jacksonville, Jennifer and a band of devoted friends began readying for the day Jeff would return home.

A local bricklayer donated a sidewalk for Jeff's wheelchair. A local contractor donated a ramp for the wheelchair. At cost, another local builder widened and renovated one of the downstairs bathrooms, making it handicapped-accessible.

Other friends helped Jennifer convert the dining room into a bedroom, since Jeff would not be able to venture upstairs for quite a while.

On June 24, Jeff Lauer finally came home. All told, he'd spent nearly nine weeks in the hospital since the day the small, dark car came careening across Jarrettsville Pike on a perfect spring morning.

"Oh, it was exciting!" Jennifer says of Jeff's first day home. "Very exciting!"

But there was an undercurrent of anxiety surrounding the day as well. Jeff was healing, but far from healed.

There is a picture of the homecoming, snapped in the first giddy moments after the ambulance backed into the Lauers' driveway. In the photo, the ambulance doors are open and Jeff has just been wheeled out on a hospital bed, a strap across his waist and another strap securing his legs.

Jennifer stands to his right, on crutches, her right foot in a thick cast, the foot held carefully off the ground. She is smiling broadly. Heather stands slightly behind Jeff's left shoulder, Stephanie to her left. Both girls are smiling, too.

Jeff Lauer, pale and unshaven, a cast on his right foot, an external fixitor securing nine pins in his mangled left foot, is not smiling.

Instead he wears a look of uncertainty, a man trying to re-familiarize himself with a world he once knew, a world turned upside down.

"And without faith, it is impossible to please God, becaus anyone who comes to Him must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him."

-- Hebrews 11:6

So much has changed for Jeff and Jennifer Lauer; at times, it seems as if they are just now awakening from a long, fitful dream.

It's been 3 1/2 months since Jeff Lauer returned home. He is still in a wheelchair, unable to walk because of the external fixitor holding the bones in his left leg in place as they knit.

He will require one more operation: abdominal surgery to reconnect the large and small intestines so that he will no longer need a colostomy bag.

The healing process has been slow and arduous. But doctors expect him to make a 100 percent recovery.

Of the ordeal, Jeff insists: "I've been blessed. All I've lost is time."

Jennifer's Lauer's right foot still pains her; she will require more therapy.

A few days ago, a fund-raiser billed as "Love the Lauers" was held at the Hunt Valley Marriott to help defray some of the enormous costs the Lauers may ultimately face as a result of the accident. Insurance covers only so much; the family has additional medical expenses and wants to repay some of the costs borne by those who helped renovate their home.

According to Baltimore County police, Darren Purwin, the other driver, was given two tickets for failure to control speed and crossing a double yellow line.

He pleaded guilty to both charges and paid a $180 fine. He declined to comment for this story.

A few weeks ago, Jennifer Lauer wrote a letter to Darren Purwin and dropped it in the mailbox of his family's home.

It was a short letter, four paragraphs hand-written on lined paper. She wanted to assure Purwin that the Lauers are not angry at him, or bitter.

She also wanted Purwin to know they have been praying for him.

So far, there has been no response.

As for the Lauers, they are preparing to resume the life that was put on hold when the small, dark car burst into their path.

As soon as Jeff is fully healed, they will move to Little Rock to begin their work as missionaries.

God's plan, they say, must go on.

Donations to defray the Lauers' expenses can be made to: FamilyLife, P.O. Box 160, Timonium, Md. 21094-0160, or by calling 410-584-9472.

Pub Date: 10/19/97

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