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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Nursing Graduate Survives Near-Fatal Accident

By Irv Harrell

Bright-eyed, spirited and faithful, Helen "Helena" Ausink carries a smile that can brighten the cloudiest day. Her voice is soft, still scarred from her injury. But her words tell a story of survival, blessings and the power of family and friends.

Helena, who received a bachelor of science in nursing at Old Dominion University in 2011, has been a fixture at Monarch Physical Therapy for the past six months. The Norfolk mother of three has been getting physical, occupational and speech therapy at the clinic as she recovers from a near-fatal accident.

"So often we get so caught up in the negative stuff that we don't see the positive," she said. "God brings good through terrible situations."

On July 31, 2018, Helena, her husband Bruce, and their three girls - Rhema, 10 months; Laura, 2; and Natania, 5 - were heading to the mountains of North Carolina to visit relatives. As Bruce drove the family van down the highway that Tuesday, weather conditions were treacherous.

"It was a bad day," Bruce said. "Lots of rain and lots of flooding."

Suddenly, the family's van hit a patch of water and began to hydroplane. Bruce lost control of the vehicle, sending it sliding down an embankment and into a cluster of crepe myrtles. Bruce was OK, and miraculously, so were the children. But the impact from hitting the trees sent Helena crashing into the side of the van.

Her head was bleeding. She was unresponsive. And they were in the middle of nowhere.

Bruce, who was in seminary school, said he and Helena started out as friends while in the Army. It was passion for their faith that brought them even closer together, he says. That faith would be tested on this stormy, life-changing day.

A motorist who saw the family careen off the highway called 911. Bruce, using his military skills, worked to keep Helena's airway clear while he prayed for assistance.

"The kids were dead silent," he said. "It didn't look promising. If God wasn't there she would have died at the scene of the accident."

That's when what Bruce calls "the first big miracle" happened. Although they were stranded in a remote area, there happened to be an ambulance nearby that had been responding to another accident. That emergency crew arrived quickly, stabilized Helena and whisked her to Vidant Medical Center in Greenville, N.C. She was admitted to the intensive care unit.

Meanwhile, Bruce and the children were taken from the crash site by one of his friends.

Helena had suffered brain swelling. Her diagnosis: traumatic brain injury. She had bleeding on the brain as well. It would be days before the family would know what her medical status was going to be.

As the Ausinks waited, Bruce said support from family, friends and strangers poured in.

"Helena's mother was the difference maker," Bruce said. "I was finishing up school and she was there to watch the kids. We received support from charities. People gave us food, money and an abundance of prayers."

Helena spent two weeks at Vidant Medical Center, unable to talk, with the right side of her body paralyzed. She was then transferred closer to home to Riverside Rehabilitation Hospital in Newport News, where she would spend the next six weeks. It was at Riverside that Bruce said "the second big miracle" happened.

"She started to come back to life," he said with a childish smile. "She said her first words."

While she started to remember things, Helena said she still needed a feeding tube to prevent her from choking.

On Sept. 11, the Ausinks brought Helena home. And the outpouring of blessings for the family continued. Her mom had basically moved in. People donated breast milk for Rhema. A local private school even offered free education for the children.

At that time, Bruce reached out to Lisa Koperna, director of the ODU Monarch Physical Therapy Clinic. Helena had known Koperna since 2006 when she was her therapist after a knee surgery. They had stayed in touch, and when Bruce and Helena married in 2012, Koperna was invited to their wedding.

"We scheduled appointments as soon as I left the hospital," Helena said. "Lisa has long been a family friend. She has always offered wise advice."

Helena started coming to the clinic in September, spending six to 10 hours a week. The impact has been incredible, she said, adding that she is grateful for the time the students at the clinic have given her during her rehabilitation.

"My balance has been much more steady," she said, her thin frame a tribute to her athletic nature. "I've gotten stronger. I had to relearn things as simple as skipping."

Bruce, too, said he is impressed by the care Helena has received at Monarch PT and the progress she has made. "She really looks forward to going," he said.

As Helena's health continues to rebound, she also looks forward to spending more quality time with her children, running in the Big Blue 5K next year and competing in a triathlon.

The Ausinks say they have seen so much good spring from a tragic situation, further solidifying their faith in God. Their latest blessing: Helena is pregnant with their fourth child.

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