Some memories never fade.
July 8, 2005, Southeast Christian Church member Zack Hornback arrived at University of Louisville Hospital with a traumatic brain injury following a car accident. He was just 15, so bruised and swollen he didn’t look like Zack, a serious but fun-loving student at Christian Academy.
Doctors never said he’d be OK.
Next door, 20-year-old Nia Mitchell was recovering from a 12-hour surgery to remove a malignant brain tumor the size of a golf ball. Her family was devastated when doctors told them the cancer had spread to her spine.
Chances of survival plummeted.
Zack and Nia’s parents met in the hallway outside their kid’s rooms. Both families knew Jesus before tragedy. They held on to Him through it.
When someone came to pray for Zack, they also prayed for Nia. And when visitors came from Nia’s community in Paoli, Indiana, they stopped to pray for Zack.
Both Zack and Nia recovered.
Not long ago, someone asked Nia what happened to “that boy” next door. Now she knows.
On Wednesday, March 18, 15 years after those days at University Hospital, Nia and Zack met at Southeast, face-to-face for the first time.
Neither one worries about canceled school classes, closed businesses, viruses or what could happen next. They’ve lived through life and death. They know their survival is a miracle.
“I have less fear than ever since surviving cancer,” Nia said. “God had a plan. I wouldn’t be who I am today without going through that. I know that not everyone survives, and my heart goes out to them. But no matter what happens, I know He’s with us.”
Zack said he worries about nothing.
“I’m living my second life,” he said. “There’s no fear there.”
Zack was in a coma for three weeks after the accident. Sometimes his eyes were open but didn’t seem to see anything. He could not talk, walk or swallow. He breathed through a tracheotomy in his throat.
Nia wasn’t sure what happened to her neighbor in the hospital, but she heard nurses in his room: “Zack, stick out your tongue. Zack, move your toe! Zack, move your hand!”
Sometimes it was hard for both families to hold on to hope.
As Zack’s mother Eileen fought with authorities to get Zack into rehab instead of a nursing home, one doctor said, “You have to face the fact this is all you’re going to have of Zack.”
Eileen fell to her knees in prayer.
Next door, doctors warned the Mitchells that Nia had a 25% chance of survival. She was a 20-year-old college student when headaches and dizzy spells worsened. She landed in the ER the day her mother found her on the floor, legs and arms drawn in from a buildup of spinal fluid.
In a 12-hour surgery, doctors removed 95% of a brain tumor. The last 5% was too risky.
Nia eventually headed to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. By then, people around the world were praying for both Nia and Zack.
Doctors at St. Jude repeated Nia’s MRI to get a clear look at the spinal tumor. Later they brought two photos into Nia’s room. One from University Hospital showed the shadow of the spinal tumor. The one taken at St. Jude was clear. The spinal tumor was gone, and the Mitchell family rejoiced.
“That was the first miracle,” Nia’s mom, Sharon, said.
Nia went through six weeks of radiation, followed by four months of chemotherapy that caused her to vomit five to six times a day. When she felt better, Nia stayed with younger kids on the floor so their parents could get a break.
Eileen won her fight for more physical therapy. Zack worked hard through 21 days at University Hospital, 66 days as an inpatient at Frazier Rehabilitation Institute, followed by eight months as an outpatient.
The Hornbacks celebrated every milestone—when Zack could breathe on his own, sit up in his wheelchair, answer questions, catch a ball, walk a few steps.
Three months after the accident, Eileen wheeled Zack out of the hospital in time to go to the 11:15 worship service at Southeast. He wore a cowboy hat to cover his bald, scarred head. He still has the T-shirt he wore that day. It said “thunder” across the front.
“Sometimes God whispers, but sometimes He sends thunder,” Eileen said. “Zack was our thunder.”
Zack now works fulltime with his dad in their flooring business.
Nia and her boyfriend, Nate Manship, got engaged just before she left for St. Jude. Today, they are parents to two children. She works as a reading resource teacher.
Both Nia and Zack tell their stories often to encourage others.