Two strangers in unlikely meeting form lifelong bond

January 24, 2013

LIMA — Last spring, they met at a horrific car accident scene.

But despite the unfortunate circumstances, a unique friendship blossomed.

Last weekend, Brenda Keller and Carlie Cook reunited for the first time since that day, when two complete strangers held hands and prayed to give one another a bit of comfort.

Keller vividly remembers the fateful March 7 evening.

She was working as a nurse practitioner in Columbus at Ohio State University Wexler Medical Center, making frequent commutes there from Lima. Driving through the bustling Interstate-270 traffic during rush hour, she spotted a three-car accident without emergency crews and decided to pull over.

That’s when she found Cook, glassy-eyed and trapped inside her husband’s sports utility vehicle. The vehicle somehow had made a 180 degree turn and was facing traffic. A guard rail pierced the center of the vehicle like an arrow shot from a bow.

“It looked like a bomb went off inside,” recalled Keller, 54. “There was fabric hanging from the ceiling, the upholstery kind of hanging down. The seat was broken and Carlie was lying in the seat kind of like this,” she said, sitting crookedly back into her living room chair.

Cook, who was 29 at the time, was seriously injured. Several ribs were broken on her right side, causing a collapsed lung. The accident also lacerated her liver and broke her shoulder blade. They talked for several minutes until crews arrived. Brenda fished for information in case Carlie would lose consciousness, so she could at least tell emergency personnel what she knew. During that time, she learned her husband’s name is Tyler, and they have a 2-year-old daughter, Camryn.

“I asked if I could pray with her because she was getting weaker, and I knew she was anxious because she couldn’t breathe very well,” Keller said. “She said yes, and reached over and grabbed my hand and held my hand.”

The thing that they both remember most during their meeting is holding hands and praying.

A chance meeting

After Keller left the scene that day, her husband, Tom, called to let her know that Cook was in critical condition but stabilized, according to the 11 o’clock news. Keller began a prayer chain with friends for Cook, since she was so shaken and worried about the incident. She then called the ICU the next day and spoke with Cook’s mother. At that point, Cook was on a ventilator. Keller left her phone number.

“It was just the strangest thing because we were total strangers,” she said. “I hoped that God would let her get through this so she could raise her little Camryn.”

She called again a week and a half later to check up on Cook, and she spoke with her briefly.

“Thank you for praying with me,” she recalled Cook saying on the phone that day.

“You remember that?” Keller asked.

Once Cook was well again, she and her husband began searching for Keller, but with no luck. In all the confusion, her mother lost Keller’s contact information. But when Christmastime arrived, Cook wrote to one of Keller’s friends, who sent her a get-well card in the hospital and had been praying for her. Cook wrote in the card, “I think about Brenda every single day of my life and I’m so grateful.”

“Because she said that to her, my friend Andrea was able to give me Carlie’s address,” Keller said. “So I sent a Christmas card and I mailed an ornament to her. And then she sent me a card back.”

Since then, they have been talking and texting one another frequently. Keller showed a picture message she sent of her daughter Camryn, now 3, wearing a black polka dot swimsuit, at one of her first swimming lessons.

A long awaited reunion

Almost a year later, Keller and Cook reunited for the first time on Saturday, the Cook’s making the drive up from their Dublin home. Cook and her husband, Tyler, greeted Keller with a dozen pink roses. The thank-you gift with a large heart on the vase sat on her coffee table.

“I’ve never been more terrified in my life,” Cook recalled, sitting on Keller’s living room couch. Doctors initially had not given much hope of her survival. She’s lucky to be alive, but is still recovering from her injuries. “I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like without you there.”

Cook’s husband Tyler got out his smart phone and began showing pictures of the vehicle. Keller occassionally dabbed her eyes with a tissue.

“I felt helpless,” Keller said, since she lacked the medical equipment to try to help out more.

“You did a lot though, you helped a lot,” said Tyler Cook, 28.

He said that they had switched cars that day, in order to give her wife’s Nissan Maxima an oil change. Keller said she had driven an extra exit from where she was staying that day to pick up bread from her favorite area bakery. Even the way they had gotten back in touch was unusual.

“Makes you think someone else is in charge,” he said.

Cook said having Keller in her life is one positive thing to take away from her car accident.

“We live in a world that’s so fast-paced and self-absorbed. People need to slow down and help others,” Cook said. Looking up at Keller, she added, “You did not need to stop that day… I’ll never forget you for that.”