Joel Strain had only recently turned 16 when, on a May day in 2004, the car he was in with his father, mother and younger brother veered over a center lane outside Wichita. His dad had nodded off.
The crash with an oncoming pickup would mangle their car and turn it into a fireball, killing his mother, his 12-year-old brother, Jed, and one of the two older women in the pickup. Joel’s spine was severed, paralyzing the 6-foot-1 athlete’s legs and body below his waist.
Four months ago, on Jan. 23, it was with a horrible sense of déjà vu that Joel sat feeling powerless as the SUV he was driving on a snowy road in Aspen, Colo., slid toward another vehicle that had spun sideways across the roadway.
This time, Renae Strain, 24 — whom Joel had married in Kansas City only nine months before — sat in the passenger’s seat.
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The two shared much in common, starting with a deep faith and a belief that, although bad things happen to good people, God has a plan for everyone.
They shared an occupation. In 2013, they met at the University of Kansas Medical Center as students enrolled in the master’s program to become occupational therapists, a job that often involves working with patients disabled by injuries.
And they shared employers. Renae had gone to work at Centerpoint Medical Center, with Joel working at Research Medical Center, both owned by HCA Midwest Health.
Now, they were sharing a car accident.
“It’s as if God was like, ‘You don’t share enough in common,’ ” Renae said recently.
The vehicles collided, the Strains’ Honda Pilot against a Ford Expedition. Glass sprayed. Airbags exploded. Renae instantly felt intense pain in her lower gut.
“Dear God, protect us,” Joel, 29, remembers praying. “Make sure Renae is OK.”
The ambulance rushed her 70 miles west. From a hospital in Rifle, Colo., she was airlifted 200 miles back east to the University of Colorado Hospital outside Denver. The diagnosis: punctured lung, cracked ribs, torn knee ligaments and a fractured tibia. Most concerning of all: an L1 fracture.
Renae had cracked her back in the same lower lumbar spot that had caused Joel’s paralysis. Luckily for her, her spinal cord was still intact. She could walk and would not be paralyzed.
Also intact: the Strains’ unfaltering faith, imbuing them with a trusting and positive outlook, that all that has happened to them, and will happen, is larger than themselves. As for the reason it has all transpired — Joel’s paralysis, his mother’s and brother’s death, now Renae’s injuries — the Strains are not presumptuous enough to venture a guess.
“Who knows what it’s all about?” Renae said. “I don’t know what it is, and we might never know what it is. I’m just saying, I mean, God doesn’t cause bad things to happen, like, ‘Let’s put Renae and Joel in a car that’s going to explode.’
“But there is sin in this world. Bad things do happen. And there is good that comes from it.”
Close, then closer
At the end of May, Renae returned to regular work for the first time since the January wreck.
Even during the most intense tragedies, Joel said, he was sustained by the notion that God was in control of the details of his life. Raised outside Wichita, in Andover, Kan., he was the fourth of five brothers born to Cathy and Duane Strain. Duane, who worked at the Cessna Aircraft Co., has since developed Parkinson’s disease.
Cathy was 48 when she was killed. She had home-schooled her children. After her death, the family banded together.
“I mean, having my older brothers, my dad, my sister-in-law. We were close before,” Joel said, “but going through that trauma does bring you closer.”
An avid athlete who particularly loved basketball, Joel took college classes at Friends University while he was still in high school and would later go there full time.
It was there that he learned about a Challenge Aspen program that introduced him to adaptive monoskiing for people with disabilities. He became so good, tackling the expert black diamond trails and moguls of Aspen Mountain and nearby Snowmass while seated on a single wide ski, that he worked the ski runs at Breckenridge before graduating from college in 2012.
“Best time of my life,” said Joel who, after college, debated whether to get his master’s degree in management at Wichita State University or get his master’s and become an occupational therapist at KU Medical Center.
“I was like, ‘OK, God, if you open that door and get me into OT school, that is a clear direction,’ ” Joel said.
He got in. He met a young, vibrant woman — Renae Jackson, an Overland Park graduate of Blue Valley Northwest High School and the University of Kansas. She had a boyfriend, but then didn’t. They began seeing each other seriously in 2014; Renae was the first woman Joel ever dated.
He proposed in 2015. They married in 2016, having a “mini-moon,” a short honeymoon at the Ozark lakes, but then in October going to Greece.
“It was, like, perfect,” Renae said of their trip to Athens and the isle of Santorini.
Joel is all but convinced that if God had some plan after Joel became paralyzed, getting into OT school and meeting Renae was part of it.
“Then, we got into a car accident,” Renae said.
The worst part
The strength of their faith doesn’t preclude woe, or a hard first year of marriage.
Three weeks Renae spent in the hospital, and three more convalescing at her parents’ home.
The broken spine had her in a back brace for months. The busted leg and torn anterior cruciate ligament forced her to walk with a walker, and she continues to receive physical therapy.
An unexpected perforation of her lower intestine leaked fecal matter into her body. An angry 7-inch scar descending straight down from her navel shows where doctors went in not once but twice to clear out infection and sew up her intestines.
Adjusting to living together as husband and wife has been easy. Given Joel’s paralysis, sex has been hard.
“Quite honestly,” Joel said, “that is the worst part about this injury.”
“We’ll never be able to have kids the normal way,” Renae said.
“It’s just been a learning process,” Joel said, “ a frustrating process. Insecurity.”
For Joel, raised with three brothers and his dad, growing close and vulnerable to the first female since his mother died has fostered unexpected and not always welcome emotions.
“Even to this day, I don’t feel like I’ve fully dealt with the grief of that situation,” Joel said of the death of his mother and brother. “I was probably not emotionally equipped as a 16-year-old boy. … I was learning what life would be like in a wheelchair, what school would look like, how I would drive. I don’t know why, but I’ve told Renae, I feel like it should have been much harder for me.”
“It’s been much harder recently,” Renae said.
Joel conceded that being part of an intimate relationship, being invested in another person’s life as much as they’re invested in yours, has changed him.
“I didn’t cry” but two times, Joel said about the days after the fatal accident. He said he recalled crying in a rehabilitation center after a friend mentioned something that reminded him of his mother, although he can’t recall what it was. He also cried, he said, when he was in the hospital, unable to attend his mother’s and brother’s funeral, and viewed the videotape of the ceremony and saw their caskets in the sanctuary.
“I don’t think I cried for about seven or eight years after that,” Joel said. “I cry a whole lot easier now than I did.”
Renae and Joel both think the word “blessing” is cast about too often and too randomly, turning it into a cliche and robbing it of much of its sacred meaning.
“It’s kind of a silly thing. People use it all the time,” Renae said. “But, for sure, we have so much to be thankful for.”
Renae, for example, is thankful, she said, for the “picture of sacrificial love” she witnessed over the weeks she spent with their family after her injury.
“My mom and my dad and my sister and husband putting my clothes on me, and helping me get in and out of the shower. It was, like, a really neat time that we could come together,” she said. “...Most people will never have that experience with their spouse where you’ll have to tie my shoes for three months.”
“Or not until they’re, like, 90 years old,” Joel said.
Both think that all they have gone through can only make them more compassionate occupational therapists, offering people skills and strategies to help them perform the tasks of daily living: put on a shirt, pull on socks, walk down a hall, find ways to do their jobs.
“I’ve had an NG (nasogastric feeding) tube. I’ve had three surgeries, I’ve had my ACL done. I’ve been hospitalized for 20 days,” Renae said. “I’m going to have a truer empathy for my patients.”
Said Joel of himself, “It would be foolish not to say, ‘He has been living with a disability daily for 13 years. He might have some personal insight.’ ”
Forged by difficulties, those insights stretch far beyond his job.
“I mean, I’m thankful for my wife,” Joel said. “I’m thankful for my family. I’m thankful for the place that I live, the roof over my head, my friends. I’m thankful for perspective.
“I think the longer you live, the illusion of control will eventually evaporate. You realize that there are so many things that are outside of your control. That has not led me to a fatalistic existence, where I say whatever is going to happen is going to happen. It gave me a truer reality on my reliance on God.
“Authentic empathy is a term I use often. To say, hey, I’ve been in dark places, too, and it sucks and that’s real. Don’t deny that you need to grieve something. But the way you feel now is not how you’re always going to feel.”