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Lisa Black receives awardDebbie Johnson-Craig rode with her husband Harold as he drove down Bybees Church Road toward Route 15. They were taking a friend into Charlottesville. It was Oct. 3, 2014. The sun had just set and it was raining.

When he reached the intersection at Route 15, Harold stopped at the stop sign. He planned on turning right, but he hesitated.

Debbie looked to her right. Up ahead she saw a Nissan Altima driving south on Route 15 toward them. In an instant, a van going north passed in front of them, crossed the center line and smashed head-on into the Nissan with such force it shoved it back up the highway. The car spun around and came to rest upon the grassy hill off the road.

A canoe strapped to the top of the van flew off and spun circles on its keel down 15. Cans littered the highway. There were so many cans Debbie thought the driver collected them.

Debbie jumped out, yelled to her husband to check on the van driver and ran toward the Nissan.

Pinned inside was Lisa Black.

Lisa, a former third grade teacher in Fluvanna public schools, now taught patients at the University of Virginia (U.Va.) Children’s Hospital.

“I had just left work and was going to pick up my daughter from camp,” Lisa said. “It was 7:15 and I was almost there. I had just passed a street and thought, ‘I used to have a friend who lived on that street.’ It was raining so I knew my daughter’s practice would be cancelled. I thought, ‘Oh, good. I can just get Chinese for dinner.’”

That’s all she remembers until she woke up with an angel holding her hand.

Three years later, Lisa sees the crash and her recovery from life-threatening injuries as nothing short of a miracle. Fluvanna Commonwealth’s Attorney, Jeff Haislip, agreed, recently presenting Lisa with the Victim Perseverance Award as a part of National Crime Victim’s Rights Week. Because she is the first recipient, it is now called the Lisa Black Victim Perseverance Award.

Van driver
Harold Craig is a Fluvanna County deputy. When he checked on the van driver, Joshua Heinze, then 40, of Richmond, Harold could see Heinze’s injuries weren’t life threatening. Harold could also tell Heinze was drunk – tests later showed Heinze’s blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit.

Court proceedings revealed Heinze had spent the day canoeing down the James River to Scottsville, drinking with his friends. They stopped at a brewery where they continued drinking.

When Heinze decided to drive home, he turned the wrong way, thinking he was driving toward Richmond. Instead, he ended up on Route 15. Heinze didn’t have his headlights on and admitted to checking his phone to figure out where he was.

At his sentencing, Heinze said he never thought he had a drinking problem until the accident. He said he was working through the Alcoholics Anonymous program. It was his first run-in with the law. Heinze served one year in prison and one year on house arrest.

Debbie’s sister is an emergency medical technician, so Debbie knew to keep Lisa still.

“Lisa kept trying to get out,” Debbie said. “She kept saying, ‘I have to get out of here. I can’t breathe.’ I just held her hand and stroked her face and hair. I asked her questions so she wouldn’t go into shock.”

The dashboard rested on Lisa’s legs, pinning her into the car.

Debbie tried to get the driver’s door open. The outside metal part pulled away into her hand, leaving the inside intact. She wanted to get inside the car somehow to be closer to Lisa, but there was no way. Lisa pleaded with Debbie not to leave her.

“I asked her if she wanted to pray, so we did,” Debbie said. “I told her Jesus was sitting on the seat next to her.”

Lisa’s phone, out of reach on the floor of the car, kept ringing. It was Lisa’s then 13-year-old daughter, Loren.

Rescue personnel arrived within 15 minutes, Debbie said. Because Debbie asked so many questions trying to keep Lisa conscious, she gave deputies and paramedics a full run-down of the situation: victim’s name, allergies, and family members’ names.

The first trooper on the scene was Garrett Smith. Lisa had been his third grade teacher. Just before the accident, Garrett had talked to Lisa’s husband, Daniel Black, a Lynchburg policeman, about his career. He had Daniel’s number in his phone. Dan beat them to the hospital. Garrett also dispatched an officer to get Loren.

Rescuers worked for an hour to extricate Lisa. They cut the roof off the car and used the Jaws of Life to get the dashboard off Lisa’s legs.

At one point, Lisa heard a rescue worker say Pegasus, U.Va.’s rescue helicopter, couldn’t fly because of the rain. Another replied, “I don’t know if we have time to get her to the hospital.”

Lisa heard.

“Fear overrode the pain,” she said. “And the pain was excruciating. I couldn’t breathe and I felt like everything below my waist was on fire.”

When she did get to the hospital, Lisa’s blood pressure was too low for doctors to risk giving her pain medication. They intubated Lisa through her nose because her neck was broken. They inserted a chest tube.
Her injuries included:

  • Broken neck in four places;
  • Broken collarbone;
  • Broken ribs;
  • Broken femur;
  • Collapsed lung;
  • All ligaments torn in left knee;
  • Dissected artery in neck; and
  • Crushed hand.

As doctors worked on her, Lisa thought, “God, I’m just going to hold on.”

She felt like she was spinning and going into a tunnel. “I thought I was going to die,” she said.

Then she was afraid she wouldn’t walk again. “Early on I knew I wouldn’t lose my legs,” she said, “but I wondered, ‘How would I walk?’”

Lisa was hospitalized for a month and endured many surgeries. She received a lot of visitors who helped take her mind off her worry and pain – especially visits from her students, patients in the Children’s Hospital just a few floors away.

“They knew what I was going through,” Lisa said. “One of them said to me, ‘Look, you have tubies just like me.’ That’s what she called the IVs and drainage tubes. And I thought, if she can battle cancer, I can get through this.”

One person she expected to come through the door was the van driver.

“That may have been silly, but I kept thinking if I had done something like this to someone, I would visit them and tell them I was sorry,” she said. “I don’t know, maybe his attorney told him not to. I don’t think about it now.”

Lisa was too critical to go directly to the rehab hospital, but not enough to stay at the hospital, so she spent some time in a nursing home.

She hated being away from her family. Besides Loren, she and Dan have a son who was then 8. Lisa convinced doctors to let her go home with some of the same equipment she had at the hospital. Dan took time off work to care for her.

“He was my caregiver for four months, day and night. He could have said no to me when I asked to come home – he was taking care of the farm and the kids,” Lisa said.
Every Friday the same driver from Priority Ambulance took her on a stretcher to her appointments. They remain friends.

Lisa had to learn to sit up. Then to get her knees to bend. Then stand up. Then walk.

Lisa had been a runner since college. “One therapist said I’d walk, but with a cane,” she said.
Lisa was determined to run again.

She started on an anti-gravity treadmill.

“At first I just fast-walked – it’s how I learned to run again,” she said. “One year after the accident, I ran a 5K. I have to get used to my new legs. One still gets numb sometimes. I try to think about how they felt before [the crash] but I can’t. I have to be thankful I still have my legs.”

Lisa is now back at work teaching her patients at the Children’s Hospital.

She is involved with Mothers Against Drunk Driving and talks to groups about the accident and her recovery.

Lisa helped start a youth group at her church, Scottsville Independent Baptist. The group is one thing that helped her daughter begin to heal from the trauma of her mother’s accident.
The youth group now visits the nursing home where Lisa stayed. “I thought of those in the nursing home who would never leave,” Lisa said. “Now our youth group goes once or twice a month to play Bingo.”

A friend
After watching rescuers work to extricate Lisa, Debbie wanted to follow up and find out what happened to her. “I was hopeful for Lisa, but I wasn’t sure,” she said.
A few days after the crash, Debbie called, then visited Lisa in the hospital.

“We’ve been dear friends ever since,” Debbie said.

Lisa invited Debbie to her church. It took Debbie a while to take her up on the invitation. But one Sunday, Debbie decided to go.

“It was the first time Lisa got up and walked in church,” Debbie said. “I believe the Holy Spirit was with Lisa that day [of the crash]. God put me there that day.”

Debbie believes Lisa survived because she helps so many people, especially the children she teaches.

Lisa, in turn, said Debbie is one of the miracles brought into her life because of the accident.

In fact, when Debbie tells Lisa she’s her inspiration, Lisa says, “No, you’re my angel.”

Debbie feels fortunate to know Lisa. “I’m thankful that Lisa is now my friend and an important part of my life,” she said. “Lisa is a walking miracle. And sometimes she’s a running miracle.”