‘Regardless, We Will Worship God:’ Jeff & Vanessa’s Journey of Faith

By: Kristin Mudge

Jeff and Vanessa Crabtree are a talented and passionate Christian couple who found The Salvation Army while looking for creative faith-based ways to make an impact in their community. They jumped in with both feet, getting enrolled as soldiers, starting music programs and band camps at the corps and regional levels, and then Jeff became a divisional music specialist in the Texas Division for several years, providing vision and creative solutions through programs and the use of technology in instruction.

Feeling called to new challenges and horizons, Jeff and Vanessa moved to Arizona to see what God had in store for them next. Neither of them could have imagined what was coming.

On December 5, 2022, Vanessa was involved in a car accident while loading her car. She was airlifted to a hospital in Tucson having sustained 12 broken or fractured ribs and paralysis below the waist.

A couple of days later Vanessa underwent surgery where the doctor removed a fragment of bone that was piercing her spinal cord. They repaired the area and secured her spine with metal plates and screws. The doctor informed them that there was a hematoma on the spinal cord that would take time to heal and slow down the process of regaining function, saying that healing would take many months and even up to a year.

A week after the accident Vanessa was able to have her first full physical therapy session: learning to get out of bed. She says being upright and sitting on the edge of the bed for the first time in a week (with help) was, “wonderful, scary, and exhausting.”

They were finally able to transfer from the hospital to Barrow Neuro-Rehab for inpatient physical therapy just before Christmas. Vanessa wrote on December 26, “I had therapy Christmas Eve, and again today, the day after Christmas. I’m able to balance a lot better already and am feeling more comfortable in a sitting position. In therapy I played catch—a surprising core workout when you don’t have use of your legs. There may even be some tingling sensations just a little lower than there were before.”

Those tinglings led to a tiny hope for the future and what that could mean for physical recovery.

“Hope is a tricky thing,” Vanessa continued. “Now, hope feels more real, and sometimes offensive. I do hold hope that I may walk again, in one way shape or form. But hope is also different than expectation—I don’t EXPECT that I will walk again. Moments after my accident, realizing I couldn’t feel my legs, I knew it likely meant I’d be in a wheelchair the rest of my life.”

Vanessa explains that her injury is defined as a level T12 incomplete. Everything is normal until just under her bellybutton, where things begin to feel abnormal. “Eventually in my thighs and my knee depending—it’s a little lower on my right side—that’s when I start to have no sensation at all.” She says that at the top of her thighs where she doesn’t necessarily feel her muscles the sensation is like, “your foot fell asleep but is also sunburned at the same time.” She continues on to say that this nerve pain will be just a part of life moving forward. Vanessa spent just over a month in inpatient rehab, learning new skills ranging from getting out of bed, putting on clothing, and even standing in an assisting frame. She of course learned to pop her first wheelie early on in the process.

If you’ve ever met Vanessa, you are fully aware of her sense of determination in all aspects of her life. Physical therapy was no exception. She was bound and determined to work as hard as she could to become independent and return to “normal” life as soon as possible. All that hard work came with plenty of pain and frustration, Vanessa says. “[The physical therapists] all reiterated how normal it is for me to have the feelings I’m having, and that it is okay to have those feelings—feelings of being overwhelmed, frustration, grief, anger, sadness, loss. The difficult feelings are there, alongside my excitement when I’m accomplishing more than I thought I would in therapy.”

Upon her release from inpatient rehab, Vanessa reflected, “As I was experiencing my accident, I thought I was going to die. In that moment, I asked God, ‘Please let me stay.’ I remember taking the first breath after that, being surprised I could breathe. In some ways, now I feel more alive than I ever have—thankful and surprised to be taking part in breathing with all of you. I told a friend that my days sort of feel like bonus days, now. Days I didn’t expect to get. Days that will be very different than I expected before the accident, but days none the less. Can’t wait to see what each bonus day brings.”

And the Crabtrees are fully embracing their new life together, celebrating all of Vanessa’s “bonus days.” Prior to the accident they were both avid hikers and adventurers, planning to soon do mountain summit and Grand Canyon trips. Now their adventures look a bit different,

but no less challenging. Jeff says, “One of our new favorite things to do is check out all the creative ways that others facing similar situations with spinal cord injuries have learned to adapt. Oddly, we have even had fun thinking about how to make seemingly easy tasks doable in the new normal. Simple, daily tasks need a fresh set of eyes to accomplish, like helping Vanessa transfer into our car or into a shower, or even seeing Vanessa’s mind work to figure out how to pedal the piano without the use of her legs. It is refreshing amid our frustration to pause, breathe, and think about the situation differently.”

The couple are not without their share of struggling through understandable pain and doubt. “Advice my friend gave me was to write down everything in my life that is new over the past months… It took me only a little bit of time to fill up three pages of changes,” Jeff shares. “Change is hard and adds more stress to our lives than we can imagine.” Just a few of those changes include moving to be closer to medical care, struggling to find affordable accommodations with accessibility, relearning how to interact physically, and working to find a new place in ministry. “My way of connecting to God in church and community cannot look the same as it did before the accident. Praise God, we can still sing, play music, and lead people in lifting their voices to God, but I need to take time and redefine what being with God means.”

Jeff admits that he has many times felt frustration with God for not restoring Vanessa’s ability to walk. “I have been good at reframing my anger with God for this unanswered prayer with what I believe deep within my soul is the truth; God is sovereign and knows best.” He says, “We’re not placing our hope in walking, we place our hope in Christ and His love for us regardless.”

Always the nature-loving adventurers, the couple spent the summer embracing recreational therapy, connecting with Ability 360 and several other adaptive agencies to go on challenging hikes, mountain bike treks, and kayaking (Vanessa’s favorite). Jeff utilizes his skills and talents to record and edit their adventures, posting them on social media to encourage others who may be going through similar challenges.

The Crabtrees just celebrated their 10-year anniversary this summer, both saying it was extra special because Vanessa was here to celebrate it. Vanessa is also excited to start back up with physical therapy. “The biggest goal right now for that and why I wanted to get back into it is getting leg braces.”

Jeff adds, “With the leg braces, not only can Vanessa stand for periods of time, she’ll be able to walk adaptively potentially.”

Vanessa declares, “If I AM able to walk, fantastic! If I do not, regardless, we will worship God. Life is different, and full of change. Sometimes we celebrate, and sometimes we are weary. But if this experience has taught me anything, it’s that life is worth it.”

You can follow Jeff and Vanessa’s journey and adventures on YouTube at Crabtree Adventures.