Elizabeth Alvarez, nurse practitioner, works in the surgical trauma intensive care unit (STICU). She lost her husband, John, in March 2019 due to a motorcycle accident. After this traumatic event, the thought of going back to work was too painful. Working with trauma patients, she was nervous she would see John’s face every day.
But on her first full day back in the unit, she was welcomed by familiar faces: the Hyde family. It was a reunion that meant a lot to both parties, connected by tragedy and healing.
Everything Happens for A Reason
Debbie Hyde’s life was flipped upside down after her son, Gavin, was in a car accident and received care in the STICU.
Originally from Florida, Gavin is a Marine. At the time of his accident, he was stationed at Quantico. Debbie spoke with Gavin on the phone an hour before the accident. He was on a drive with his girlfriend in his 2012 Subaru Impreza.
Debbie received the first phone call from UVA Health that night at 12:09 a.m. The person asked her if she had a son in Virginia and said a doctor would call back shortly. Debbie has three boys, so hospital trips were nothing new to her. At that point, she wasn’t thinking the worst yet.
Next, a state trooper called to ask for more details about Gavin but couldn’t share any information. This was when Debbie’s stomach flipped, and she started experiencing her own traumatic event. The emotions were welling up, and she knew this was really bad.
Finally, the doctor called, asking permission to perform surgery. Without a lot of details, Debbie and her husband got in their car and drove 14 hours to Virginia. She began to call Gavin’s brothers and grandparents.
The Glue That Held Us Together
Debbie recalls that as she walked into Gavin’s hospital room, his face was covered in stitches due to a large laceration. She sat by his bedside, waiting to meet the doctors and nurses.
Driving through Orange County, he had gotten turned around. GPS rerouted him down a windy backroad. He drove up a hill and curve. He was driving under the speed limit, but it wasn’t enough to stop the accident. Rain caused him to hydroplane.
Gavin had a bleeding spleen and 12 broken bones in his face from his mouth up. Gavin had a traumatic brain injury (TBI) due to the accident. During surgery, doctors made an incision from ear to ear to cut part of the skull. He had nine plates and 32 screws. Afterward, he was put in a medically induced coma. Elizabeth was one of the nurses taking care of Gavin.
Debbie recalls that Elizabeth was genuine from the beginning. “After doctors would leave the room, she was still there to see if we had any remaining questions after processing this traumatic event. She would also inform us when her days off were but would still help if we needed her,” Debbie explains.
Next Steps for Gavin
Nine days later, Elizabeth was in the room when Gavin first woke up. She and the neurologist were stunned that he was awake, as his TBI prognosis was very bad. She asked him to give a thumbs up. He struggled to do it, but they could tell he was trying.
The next couple of days were hard, as Gavin was sometimes able to move and sometimes not. His mom shared, “He’s a Marine. He’s used to commands. Don’t coddle him.” And with that, Gavin got better with his responses, giving more thumbs up, wiggling his toes or shaking his head.
A nurse asked him if he could shake his head “yes or no,” and he shook his head “yes” and then “yes again,” because he was answering her. That’s when Debbie knew he was going to be okay.
As Elizabeth continued her care for Gavin, she built a friendship with the Hyde family. “She was right where she needed to be for our family. She was the glue that held us together,” Debbie shared.
Recovery After Trauma
Gavin was discharged from UVA. He was transferred to a Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital in Florida for the majority of his recovery. It wasn’t close to home for the Hyde family, so Debbie quit her job. After two months there, she packed up their 1971 Volkswagen van and lived in it for four months.
Gavin needed a lot of help at first after this traumatic event. He had lost most of his hearing in his right ear which required a hearing aid as it affected his balance. His vision suffered the most damage, and he couldn’t drive because his depth perception was off.
Once Gavin improved enough, he was moved to an “apartment” with an independent group setting to help transition him to go home. Still a part of the VA Hospital, he and other disabled veterans are able to get comfortable with daily household activities. The program is called Polytrauma Transitional Rehabilitation Program (PTRP) with the goal to help VA patients transition after a brain injury.
Elizabeth and Debbie continued to stay in touch and became friends on Facebook to stay up to date on Gavin’s recovery. “She felt like family,” Debbie expressed, and remembers Elizabeth staying with them during those long days in the hospital. She would offer hugs and support.
Debbie states, “Everyone at UVA Health was amazing, but something about Elizabeth clicked with us.”
Looking For Silver Linings Every Day
Elizabeth didn’t pick nursing as a career. It chose her. She originally thought she would go to school for education, but then her grandfather got lung cancer. Being one of his caregivers, she started taking him to his appointments.
His doctor thought Elizabeth was already a nurse because of the knowledge and questions she would ask during his care. His assumption sparked the idea of actually becoming one. She changed her major to nursing and received her degree from St. Luke’s School of Nursing. In a critical care float pool at a hospital in Pennsylvania, she found her love for trauma.
Elizabeth and her husband John’s story is like your favorite romantic movie. One of the doctors she works with, Jeff Young, MD, is in a band. One night, he invited Elizabeth to his show.
Conveniently, John’s brother brought him to the show too. As soon as Elizabeth walked into the room, she felt this energy and saw him across the dance floor. She waved for him to come over and dance with her. He said no. So, she walked over to him and started talking. It was love at first sight.
They both had two kids from previous marriages. John was so kind and patient. “He was my best friend, and we never argued about anything. It was just easy with him,” Elizabeth shared, emotionally. They got married with a religious ceremony that they shared with their loved ones. They were prepared to spend the rest of their lives together.
Elizabeth and John loved going on hikes together. During one hike, they got a phone call that their offer on their dream house was finally accepted.
But they never got the chance to move into their dream home.
Life is Really Unfair
Soon after that hike, Elizabeth and her two kids arrived in Greece for spring break, They had just landed when she received a phone call. John, who was 38, was in an accident while riding his motorcycle on U.S. 29. He passed away before emergency units could arrive.
Elizabeth couldn’t believe this was real. She had just saved a patient a few weeks prior from a bad motorcycle accident. Now her husband was gone.
Back at home, Elizabeth took time off work and never thought she’d go back. It was too hard to think of her patients, their traumatic events, and not see John.
But she realized being a trauma nurse was her greater calling and where she belonged. John would want her back in her unit and helping others. She made the decision to go back to work, but gradually. “There’s a light on the other side of the tunnel, even though it feels like you’re going to die.”
The Light On The Other Side
There’s a long list of people who helped Elizabeth during this difficult time. But Elizabeth came back to work slowly. First, she would visit the hospital for an hour, then eventually stay longer. Jeff Young, MD, and another colleague, Michael Williams, MD, would walk around with her, holding her hand when needed. When they noticed it had become too much, they would suggest another time to visit.
Eventually, she made her way back to her unit. On her first official day back, she had some special visitors.
Even before John’s accident, Debbie and her family had been already planning a trip back to Virginia to visit everyone involved in Gavin’s care. After seeing on Facebook what had happened, now it was even more important to them to come to support Elizabeth.
On Elizabeth’s first day back, the Hydes would be in Charlottesville. It was a bittersweet reunion. They took pictures together. However hard it is for Elizabeth, Debbie’s grateful she did return to work, “She’s truly an amazing nurse. She’s making a difference.”
The Hyde family also visited other people involved in Gavin’s recovery to thank them. These included the first responders, the tow truck company from that night and so many others. They visited the site of the accident to try to find closure to this traumatic event.
While visiting, they found out that the rescue squad was at a temporary location the night of Gavin’s accident, putting them within a couple of miles of the accident. If they were at their actual station that night, it’s unclear how Gavin would be today. The timing was everything.
Gavin wanted to be a Marine from a young age, but as of last July, he retired. He still fulfilled his dream. He’s grateful for all the help they received by the USMC, the Veteran’s Affairs, Semper Fi Fund and Operation Helping Hands. Now, he’s considering gunsmithing or becoming a state park ranger. He is no longer with his girlfriend but he still has the best support system.
Support After Loss or Trauma
There’s no right or normal way to deal or process loss or a traumatic event, but we can help support you.
Patience And Support
Elizabeth is grateful for the STICU team for all their patience and support. She also identifies with her patients on a different level after her loss and experiencing a traumatic event she’s still recovering from.
She finds silver linings every day. “They can be harder to find, but they do exist,” she shares. Elizabeth also works on self-care, trying to find joy in things she & John used to do together. She’s back to running and going on their trails.
“Every day is tough, losing your best friend so young,” Elizabeth says. It’s been a growing experience for her children and brought her family closer together.
Elizabeth continues to spread her kindness every day with her patients. Even after losing John, she wouldn’t choose any other path.