It was a hot August afternoon in 2003. Cherie Stafford’s husband Eric, a plant nursery owner, was where he felt most at home – out in the woods on their Rougemont, North Carolina property.
He was sawing down a towering oak that had been damaged during an ice storm the previous winter. One of the oak’s huge limbs was precariously hanging, but Eric didn’t notice. He sat down his chainsaw and was pushing the tree over when the dangling branch snapped. It came down on his head.
Thus began the journey that Cherie, Eric, and their two children have been on ever since. A journey of hospital stays, rehabilitation, disappointment, small victories and perseverance.
The afternoon of the accident, Cherie found her husband lying unconscious next to his chainsaw and called 911. He was life-flighted to UNC Hospital where it was determined he had massive brain trauma. He was in the neuro-intensive care unit for several weeks then went into rehab.
Their daughter turned 3 while Eric was in the hospital. Their son was 8. With two small children, a husband that needed full-time care, and a job as a case manager for Blue Cross, Cherie knew she had to pick up the pieces and get things done.
A petite and energetic woman, Cherie says, “You don’t just sit around and say ‘I can’t handle this.’ That isn’t helping anyone.”
One thing that helped Cherie navigate through Eric’s care is being a Registered Nurse. She was able to advocate for him in ways that someone without a medical background might not have been able to.
She says, “I can’t imagine what it’s like for people going through something like this without a medical background. As scared as I was, they would have to be even more scared.”
So what advice does Cherie have for people going through a similar situation? “Look around you and get your support system of friends and family. Find someone who can sit with your loved one, so that you can get out on your own from time to time.”
And for the most part, it’s worked out.
Thirteen years after the accident, Eric’s left arm is paralyzed, and his left leg is partially paralyzed, but he’s walking on his own, and he’s able to stay at home by himself during the day. He struggles with his speech, but has kept his sense of humor.
Once a charismatic plant nursery owner who knew all of his customers by name, he now leads a quiet life inside their home, interacting with the kids, throwing the tennis ball for their dog Sammie, and doing word search puzzles.
Their son is now a senior and bio-chemistry major at N.C. State, and their daughter is 15 and in her high school’s marching band. They are a close-knit family, and the kids have always been willing to lend a hand and help out.
Cherie says about her kids, “People always tell me how mature my kids are. They had to be – their childhood ended quickly.” She says, “I think they learned from watching what I’ve been through that you don’t give up. You have compassion. You take what life gives you and you deal with it. You take care of the people you love.”
Each morning Cherie wakes up at 6 a.m. and takes the dog Sammie for a walk on their 7.5 acre property. The trees and shrubs from her husband’s plant nursery – closed for 13 years – are still there. They are tall and mature now, with deep roots. “It’s like another world,” she says of the overgrown nursery, “It’s beautiful. I feel completely at peace there.”
She says, “I’ve learned that you never know what life is going to hand you from one day to the next, so there is no point on dwelling on what the future will hold. I just try and be a happy person.”