Published December 31, 2013
Happenstance often has a way of turning a life upside down -- and so it was with Colleen Mason.
To understand her story, it's probably best to tell it that way -- upside down, starting with the moral, which might go something like this: When your voice is silenced, keep your spirit singing -- one day it will find its voice again.
Except in Colleen's case, her spirit and her "voice" were one in the same.
"I grew up singing -- everywhere and all the time," the 32-year-old mother of three said, deftly alternating young daughters on her lap in their modest Bourbonnais, Ill., apartment. "My grandfather was a singer on a local California TV and radio station. My mom sings and plays the piano, and I was always in the choir and in shows in high school.
"I just thought, 'Why would I do anything else?'
"God had gifted me."
Her faith -- and the chance at a near-free college education -- pointed Colleen's passion for singing to nearby Olivet Nazarene University, a small Christian school about an hour south of Chicago, where her father was the baseball coach.
But what we plan to do in life often is sidetracked by what life has planned for us.
"February 12, 1999," Colleen said, "It was my senior year of high school. I was in the traveling choir, in a car with three others and we were on our way to sing in Reddick, Ill.," a tiny village of just a couple of hundred people not far from Colleen's hometown.
"We hit black ice," she said. The rest is a blur.
"It took 45 minutes for the ambulance to arrive. There were so many accidents that night. When they did, they had to use the Jaws of Life to cut me out."
Colleen was transported to a local hospital, where doctors found the force of the crash had ripped a 6-inch tear in her aorta, the largest artery in her body -- and she was bleeding to death.
"They flew me to Loyola [University Medical Center] in Chicago," she remembered. "My parents drove there -- there were about 25 people with them in the waiting room, and the surgeon said, 'If I don't come out to speak with you, she's going to be all right.' "
If not treated immediately, a ruptured aorta is almost always fatal -- the pressure of blood rushing from the heart to the rest of the body is so great that even under the best of circumstances doctors have little time to make a repair -- and in Colleen's case, hours had gone by.
"My parents prayed and my mother later told me she experienced 'a miracle' -- the miracle of the peace in knowing God was in control, and that if I was going to die, she had to accept that."
Doctors later said Colleen had experienced her own miracle -- a tiny membrane around the aorta was holding back the blood from rushing out of her heart and into her body.
Six hours later, a nurse -- not the surgeon -- came out to talk with Colleen's parents.
Doctors had fixed the tear and put her into a coma to help with her recovery.
"I came out of it on Valentine's Day," she smiled, cuddling her youngest daughter.
"I had other injuries -- five breaks in my pelvis, a punctured spleen. I was in a wheelchair for about three months."
While she was recovering, Colleen noticed something else wasn't right.
"My voice -- I can't talk, something's wrong," she told doctors. "They downplayed it -- but I knew something was wrong."
A throat specialist told Colleen that one of her vocal cords wasn't moving, and that it most likely was damaged when she was intubated -- a tube inserted down her throat -- for surgery. The doctor told her to keep trying to sing -- see if she could get it moving again.
Meanwhile, she started her freshman year at Olivet, taking music classes -- but her voice was gone, along with her passion.
"I'd sit in choir and do nothing -- it sounded like I had a really bad case of laryngitis, people would ask me if I was sick."
Eventually she underwent a vocal cord implant procedure.
"I was miserable," she said, "I cried out to God, 'If this is what you have for me, this isn't right'."
With her dream gone, she went back to Olivet the next fall, changed her major -- and in the process, changed her life... on the very first day of the very first class that she wouldn't have taken if not for that accident.
"Tony walked into class -- late -- and chose the seat next to me," she remembered. "He was good looking, had a great smile..."
Colleen was smiling, too.
"We became very good friends... and I knew he was the man I was going to marry. I think I knew immediately, that very first class.
"Meeting Tony that day," she said, "was not an accident."
"I know you," Tony told her, explaining that he'd prayed for her when he and the rest of the small Olivet community had heard about the accident.
He would later tell Colleen, "The girl I prayed for" the night of the accident turned out to be "the girl I'd always prayed for."
They got married in 2003.
After a brief attempt at a life in Hawaii, they returned to Olivet, where Tony is studying to be an ordained minister.
Meanwhile, Colleen found a new passion -- and has given it her voice.
"In having three daughters, I discovered the special relationship that breast feeding creates between a mother and child.
'I wanted to help other nursing mothers, so I got involved with La Leche League," the breast-feeding advocacy organization. "I wanted to become a 'leader,' someone who educates women about breast feeding," which she does by conducting classes in the surrounding community and through social media.
"Tony is involved, too" she explained. "We're both doing what we can to 'normalize' breast feeding in America. It's just as important for fathers to understand -- during the birth classes men tell Tony, 'I'm so glad you're here.' "
Meanwhile, another challenge awaits Colleen and Tony in the new year.
"We're getting ready to go back to Hawaii to start a church," she said.
And again, thinking back to the day she met Tony -- that first day in a class she never would have taken if not for that accident and the loss of her voice -- she said, "This is what we were meant to do -- who we're meant to be.
"And being who you are is the loudest voice you will ever have."
George Kindel is managing editor of FoxNews.com, and is on a journey around America in search of stories that celebrate the Christmas spirit and New Year's hope. If you have a story to suggest, write him at: email@example.com.