Triumph Over Tragedy

Triumph Over Tragedy

Teresa Harman Bell appears to have it all–she’s a professional pharmacist, a wife, and the mother of four. You would never guess that a car accident 17 years ago, while she was a UT Martin student, changed her and her family forever. Bell may be haunted by the disastrous car crash, but thanks to friends at UT Martin and in the Martin community, her good memories outweigh the bad.

Bell was influenced to enter the healthcare profession by her aunt, Annie Sue Clift, a former UT Martin nursing faculty member who was also involved in the fateful accident. “I’ve always been very close to her, and from the time I was little, I wanted to be a nurse or be in the medical profession,” Bell says.

Her aunt introduced Bell to UT Martin when she was just a toddler. “She used to bring me to the nursing department and let her students do some kind of developmental test on me. I was their test subject,” she laughs. Bell later participated in the university’s Pacesetters Summer Honors Program, where she met faculty members Ernie Blythe and Bill Zachry. She eventually earned a University Scholars award to attend UT Martin starting in fall 1990.

Her first year in college brought Bell into contact with Bub and Mary Cole, who would later affect her life and the lives of many UT Martin students. Bell was one of four students who spoke to the UT Martin Development Committee on behalf of honors programs. The Coles were there, and they were impressed.

“You could almost see a halo around her head,” Cole recalls. The owner of Cole’s Do It Best Center in Millington, Tennessee, decided to set up four University Scholars awards. Bell didn’t learn about the scholarship until later, when the Coles’ generosity would make a profound difference in her life.

Bell was on her way to earning a spot in pharmacy school when life took a tragic turn. In July 1991 she and her family went on vacation to Virginia Beach, Virginia. She and her brother, Tim; their aunt, Annie Sue Clift; and Teresa and Tim’s parents, Bob and Ruby Harman, decided to return to Tennessee by driving all night. Somewhere between Crossville and Cookeville, with Tim behind the wheel, something terrible happened.

“I remember waking up from the noise and vibrations from the ridges on the side of the interstate,” Bell says. “My brother hit the brakes, the right-front tire blew out, and the van went into a roll. I don’t remember the impact or any of the events at the accident scene.” Officers said the van rolled at least three times, once end-over-end. The crash ejected her aunt, her mother, and Bell.

Clift’s neck was broken, leaving her paralyzed. The roof of the van collapsed on Bell’s brother, causing brain and spinal-cord damage. Her mother was seriously injured when she skidded on broken glass and asphalt. Bell suffered multiple injuries, including a broken femur and a kneecap smashed into six pieces. Her father was the only passenger to avoid hospitalization.

Her aunt and brother were airlifted to Knoxville. Bell and her mother followed by ambulance. “We all ended up at UT Medical Center in Knoxville,” Bell says. “We could not have received better care. They were absolutely wonderful to us.”

Her aunt battled pneumonia and other complications, and her brother fell into a coma. Even though his brain swelling eventually eased, he remained unresponsive, and doctors advised the family to prepare for long-term care. “My aunt improved. I think she was fighting for the sake of my brother,” Bell says. “She felt if she let go that he would blame himself, and at that time we didn’t know how he was going to recover. It was a fight for life for both of them.”

Bell had several surgeries and was discharged from the hospital with fall semester fast approaching. She was confined to a wheelchair with a cast on her arm, but she convinced herself that if she returned to UT Martin, her parents would have one person fewer under their care.

A decision was made to move her aunt to a Memphis rehabilitation center, so her mother returned to West Tennessee with Clift. Bell’s father stayed in Knoxville with her brother. Bell went home to stay with friends until school started. Soon after, her brother began to improve and gradually emerged from his coma.

Returning to Martin was tough, especially since Bell couldn’t walk or drive. To her amazement, an entire community stepped in to help. Ernie Blythe (since deceased) and Bill Zachry, along with friends from church, took charge. “There was an overwhelming number of friends who said, ‘I can take her to class at this time, and I can pick her up at the end of class and take her to this one, and I can take her back home.'” A church friend volunteered to drive Bell to Memphis when she needed to see an orthopedic physician.

Friends also took her to physical therapy, where she struggled to improve strength and range of motion in her leg. She didn’t regain full use of the leg until after another surgery in December of that year. “I would not have been able to come back to school. I would not have been able to make it to my classes, physical therapy, and back home again if it had not been for this army of people who were willing to help me,” says Bell, who is still moved by the outpouring of assistance.

Aiding her recovery was some unexpected good news: she was the first recipient of the Coles’ scholarship. “I was blown away that the Lord had worked that out, because I was already going through so many emotional upheavals,” she says.
“It would have been easy for her to throw up her hands and say, ‘This is it,'” says Bub Cole. “But she fought it, and she fought it. She [overcame] everything. I admired her back then, and I admire her today.”

Bell completed her work at UT Martin and was accepted early to the UT Health Science Center College of Pharmacy. She graduated in 1996 and since 1998 has worked at Schnucks in Memphis, where she’s a pharmacy manager. She and her husband, Duane, a sheriff’s deputy in Cross County, Arkansas, have four children, including a set of twins.

Like Bell, the rest of her family members were never the same after the accident. Her aunt lives with Bell’s parents. Although Clift has limited use of her arms, she is confined to bed and has never returned to UT Martin where she taught from 1973 until the time of the accident. Bell’s brother, who still has problems with vision and balance, also lives at home and works for his dad.

Bell marvels at how her family has adapted, but she especially admires her aunt. “People come to cheer her up. But when they leave, they find she has cheered them up. She is an amazing person.”

“The Campus That Cares” was once a marketing theme for UT Martin. The words are more than a slogan to Teresa Bell, who knows firsthand what happens when a community steps up to help a friend.