“I was screaming, ‘Jesus make it stop!’ but I just kept going faster and faster,” said Judy Buttles, now living in McKinney, Texas, as she remembered the horror of her car hydroplaning. “It didn’t stop and I hit a rock wall head-on,” a towering embankment cut from basalt and hard soil along Washington state’s Interstate 90.
It has been more than a decade since the vivacious brunette’s life went upside down on that highway as she traveled home to Kennewick, Wash., from a piano convention in Spokane. There to watch one of her former piano students in concert, Judy planned to make a round-trip that summer day in 2005.
The late June evening stretched long with ample light for an easy drive, but then it started to rain with force.
“I’m going at least 70, too fast for the road conditions, I know,” Judy said almost apologetically, remembering how her powerful car was suddenly flipping over multiple times.
Then came the final impact. Shattered glass. Crushed metal.
With Sprague Lake in view, Judy saw only oozing mire, her head slammed through the driver’s window. Suspended by her seatbelt, her body hung loosely where air bags had not deployed.
“My head was trapped in the mud — and I’m very claustrophobic,” Judy said, reliving the panic she had immediately felt. “Then I heard God’s quiet voice say, ‘You don’t have to worry about claustrophobia now. I’ve turned it off.’ “
To this day she recalls how she actually tried to again focus on her phobia, not believing she’d been truly released of it as the paramedics and rescue teams arrived. But fear was gone, her heart and mind at peace.
A paramedic seeing the weight of her vehicle pushing Judy’s face deeper into the mud, heroically lifted the car barely enough so she could breathe more easily while they cut the car apart. What they found as they extricated Judy was a face bloody and cut. But what they also saw would be devastating for the piano teacher. She had used her hands to protect her face.
“A chunk of the metal from the car was embedded in my right wrist,” Judy said. “On my left hand, parts of it were crushed, and my little finger and thumb had been amputated — only hanging by a thread. The back of my hand — the glove — was gone.”
Rushed to Spokane, Judy was unaware of the extent of her injuries.
“At the hospital, I wasn’t worried,” Judy said as they brought in their best surgeon and team. “I thought I’d moved my fingers while trapped upside down in the car. How bad could it be?”
Then came devastating words.
“The doctor said, ‘You’ll never play the piano again,’ “said Judy, emotion even now bringing tears.
How could this be? She had loved the piano since she was 2 years old and gently fingered the keys for the first time as her parents watched at a friend’s home. A tiny little girl who knew from that moment she was born to play.
But there had been no piano at her house.
“My parents had a coffee table with an open Bible figurine, and I’d pretend to play on it,” Judy said, her smile spreading at her childish innocence and longing.
In time, her wish came true when an accomplished pianist, fresh from college, moved right across the street from her parents’ home. By 9 years of age, Judy was a church pianist.
“Back in the day, there was only a piano at my church and they could sing a cappella — or there was me,” Judy said with a laugh, minimizing how she was known early on to be a determined and exceptional student of piano. “My parents told me my piano teacher talked to them after the first couple of weeks of lessons and said, ‘You don’t have to work her so hard,’ but they told her it was all me.”
That resolve would serve her well after the horrific car wreck years later. She was flown to Harborview Regional Medical Center in Seattle with husband Stan on board. There, Judy’s first emergency surgery was followed by another to restore her mangled left hand.
Could the impossible be possible?
“Dr. Vedder said, ‘You can try to move your fingers now,’ ” Judy said of the moment the rigid bandages finally came off. “But my fingers wouldn’t move. It was like trying to move your elbow backwards.”
The reality of what she had lost overwhelmed her. To never play her classical favorites was unthinkable for the highly trained musician.
“I was in a pit of despair,” Judy said. “Once every hour I was allowed to try to move my fingers. I like a challenge, but I ultimately gave up.”
Judy reached across the miles to her dad, the phone call filled with anguish. In the end, he promised to pray faithfully for his daughter once every hour.
“God came into my mind that night as I slept,” Judy said about the feelings she awoke with the next day. “I suddenly had an attitude change. God and I are going to do this.”
Seeing her renewed enthusiasm, the doctor told her she could work at moving her hand all day rather than a limited amount of time. By the end of July she could move the two fingers, but she could tell something was wrong. Her fingers were curving, claw-like, and so steel pins had to be surgically inserted.
“Before I could leave to go home after that surgery, my fingers had to be up straight,” Judy said about the difficult news and then additional words that sent her into a downward spiral. “My doctor said, ‘We’ve tried everything and if your fingers don’t start moving by the end of the week, they never will.’ ”
By the last week in August she went home again. Still, there was no movement in her left hand, only intense pain. Her fury built even in the midst of her prayers.
“I was hugely demanding and angry, wondering why he’d take this gift away from me,” said Judy, reflecting on one brash moment in prayer. “I told God, ‘Give me my music or I’ll never love you again.’ ” It was a statement she said that crossed the line.
That’s when Judy said God showed up, giving her a vivid mental picture of what her life would be without him, dark and empty. And then she clearly heard these words: “I want you to surrender this whole thing to me.”
Stunned, she understood clearly. “I finally had to tell God, ‘I’m willing to let my life be whatever you want it to be,’ ” Judy said. “My fingers were healed in an instant. One moment the pain was terrible, barely under control with morphine, oxycodone and Tylenol and then my stuck fingers were set free from their prison.”
In the quiet that followed, Judy took her seat on the piano bench, tears streaming. And within moments, all 10 fingers were playing.
“On my last visit to my doctor, two years out from my surgery, I showed him a DVD of me playing the piano,” Judy said. “At the end, he said, ‘This is completely against the odds. What we’ve just seen and heard should have been impossible. I don’t even know how to explain it.’ ”
But Judy does.
Today Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven and Mozart resonate from her grand piano as this consummate pianist plays — touched by the healing hand of God.
About the writer: Lucy Luginbill is a career television producer-host and the Spiritual Life editor for the Tri-City Herald in Kennewick, Washington. In her column, she reflects on the meaning of her name, “Light Bringer.” You may contact her at [email protected]