Tina Barr has big plans for her daughters’ birthdays this summer. Sophia will be 18 on July 19, and Sierra turns 17 five days later, on July 24.
“I just want to celebrate the miracle that they’re here,” Tina said.
She came close to losing both daughters – who are best friends and inseparable — in a serious car crash on Sept. 10, 2016. It was her faith, bolstered by the prayers of many others, that she credits with what she calls her daughters’ miraculous survival and recovery.
Tina and a group of friends went to an outdoor wedding that stormy Saturday afternoon in Seville, about 45-50 minutes south of her home in Brook Park. “I remember the weather was awful. The tent was shaking and it was raining so hard. I was worried about the girls. I called and texted, but couldn’t reach them,” Tina said, so she put her phone in her purse and went to the buffet line, figuring she would catch up with them later.
In the meantime, Sophia and Sierra, a junior and sophomore, respectively, at Magnificat High School in Rocky River, picked up some friends. The teens were driving in the Rocky River Reservation of the Cleveland Metroparks when Sophia lost control of the car and struck a boulder. The Dodge Neon overturned and landed on its roof.
According to a traffic crash report filed with the Metroparks Rangers, one of the passengers called 911. Emergency responders were on scene within minutes and the teens were rushed to nearby Fairview Hospital. Sophia was in a coma when she arrived and Sierra slipped into a coma soon after. The other passengers were injured less severely.
Tina was not aware of the accident until she returned to the table and heard her phone ringing. It was the parent of one of the passengers calling to tell her about the crash and her daughters’ life-threatening injuries.
“The other parent said he didn’t think either one of the girls would make it and they needed surgery. I was shocked and my body went numb. I could hardly walk,” Tina recalled. A friend drove her immediately to the hospital.
“As soon as we got into the car, we prayed. I decided at that moment to turn things over to God,” she said.
Tina, who is a part-time housekeeper at St. Colette Parish in Brunswick, called the pastor, Father Bill Krizner. “I asked him to get the prayer warriors together,” she said. Tina also called her sons, Nicholas, 25, and Raymond, 21. “Ray was away at school at Ohio University. His girlfriend drove with him to Columbus, where they met her mother and she drove them to the hospital.”
By the time Tina and her friend arrived at Fairview Hospital, word had spread about the crash and people were gathering to offer support. She said extraordinary ministers and some St. Colette parishioners were there before she arrived.
Soon after, Magnificat President Jen Halliday, Humility of Mary Sister Helen Jean Novy, Magnificat’s vice president of mission, and other members of the school administration arrived. As word of the accident spread via social media, family members, friends, neighbors, parishioners and others gravitated to the hospital to pray and keep vigil.
The next day, hospital president Dr. Neil Smith, a Catholic, came by and prayed the rosary with the Barr family and friends. On Monday, the Magnificat school community gathered together to pray for the girls and their family.
It seemed surreal for Tina, who toggled between two rooms in the hospital’s intensive care unit. Doctors suggested that the girls receive anointing of the sick, so she contacted her pastor, Father Jim Stenger, from Mary Queen of the Apostles Parish in Brook Park.
On Sunday night, medical personnel came “to assess Sophia and to harvest her organs while we were praying,” Tina said. She asked them to leave, but they returned the following day. Yet Tina refused to lose faith that the girls would recover.
Tina rarely left the hospital. She connected with Father Deogratias Ruwaainenyi, a Catholic chaplain at Fairview Hospital, who prayed for and visited the girls regularly.
After about a week, Sierra began coming out of her coma. “She wrote on a piece of paper that she ‘slept with Mary’ and kept asking for her sister, so we had to develop a plan to explain things without upsetting her too much,” Tina said. While family members talked outside her room, Sierra tried to get out of bed to find Sophia.”She was intubated and was trying to call for her.”
They explained that Sophia was badly hurt and allowed Sierra to visit her. Even Greg Urbas, St. Edward High School’s wrestling coach, spent time visiting Sophia and encouraging her to wake up. One of her brothers wrestled at St. Ed’s and Sophia volunteered with the program, so she and the coach developed a bond. “He was talking to her on Sept. 25 and she rolled over when she heard his voice,” Tina said, but she remained comatose.
Throughout the 17 days the girls remained at Fairview Hospital, there was a steady stream of family, friends and fellow students stopping by to offer prayers and support. “There were kids from Gilmour, Beaumont, Holy Name, St. Ignatius, Padua, St. Ed’s and Magnificat,” Tina said. “Padua sent healing blankets. The child life specialist at the hospital gave each girl a quilt and the kids signed them with messages of encouragement,” she added. Parents ensured students followed hospital protocol and arranged meals for the family and others.
The Magnificat community organized a fundraiser for the Barr family and remembered the girls at special school events like Big/Lil Sis Day, when they made a fun video for them. And some sports teams, including Magnificat’s, wrote “Barr Strong” on their shoes to show support for the sisters.
On Sept. 27, both girls were transferred to the Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital for Rehabilitation. Soon after, Sophia started responding and began waking up from her coma. “On Oct. 3, she said ‘hi’ to her sister, her first word since the accident. Then on Oct. 4, my birthday, she said ‘I love you,’” Tina said.
But they weren’t out of the woods just yet. Tina said both girls suffered traumatic brain injuries, as well as a host of other problems. They required extensive care and rehabilitation. Sierra was discharged from the hospital in early November, but spent much of the day in intensive therapy for weeks afterward. By the second semester, she was back to school about 80 percent of the time. Tutors helped with the rest of her schoolwork.
Sophia was hospitalized longer and will need three more surgical procedures, as well as continuing occupational, physical and speech therapies. Tina, a single mom, said she is grateful that her sons put their college education on hold during the fall semester to offer her support and to help drive the girls to medical appointments. “I could never have done it myself,” she said.
The girls remain close, but do not remember the accident. “I don’t remember getting in the car,” Sophia said, as she and Sierra held hands and chatted in the Magnificat chapel.
They enjoy leafing through a large memory book filled with inspirational messages from hundreds of well-wishers. Sophia also developed a bond with Father Degratias, who visited several times a week during her hospitalizations and therapies. He offered a special Mass at Magnificat while the sisters were hospitalized.
Tina said she is grateful for the support the family received since the accident. “The leadership of the students and the compassion they showed was incredible.”
“The beauty of her (Tina’s) heart is amazing. She is so loving and faith-filled. Leading a faith-filled life is one of our core values. Tina inspired and drew the most beautiful people to her,” Sister Helen Jean said. “It shows the power of prayer, love and faith. The hospital waiting room was filled with it. Some of the emergency department nurses would come into the waiting area just to absorb some of it,” she added.
“We are companions on the journey. This shows the beauty of what it is to be part of a Catholic school,” said Moira Clark, dean of student life and formation at Magnificat. “The community, in moments like these, is guided by that north star and compass of faith. It emerges so powerfully. There are all types of learning going on that have nothing to do with academics, but with holistic development and the mission of our school,” she added.
“It took root within the larger mission of the Church amid lots of pain, suffering and uncertainty and reminds us of Jesus’ message: I’ll be with you no matter what,” she said. “It’s a real privilege for all of us and an expression of faith lived for so many.”