Gerry Ann Smith cinched up her face into a frown at the mention of the word. Betty Moorefield, her older sister, did the same.
“Hug her? Now why would I want to do that?” Smith said when a photographer taking their portrait suggested they move closer together.
She was joking, of course. Mostly.
Because they’re sisters, tight and bound by blood and circumstance — Smith suffered a serious brain injury nearly 42 years ago — the ladies can get away with that sort of kidding.
But in the next breath, almost in an instant, the light-hearted mood easily can flip. “Gerry is a miracle, I can promise you that,” Moorefield said. “She is a fighter.”
That comes from the tightness of the family and a tenacity of spirit that’s kept Smith overcoming obstacles since that December day in 1977 when she nearly died in a car crash in Surry County. Her recovery required months, years really, of painful, nonstop rehabilitation.
Smith’s is a story of perseverance and familial support. She’s an inspirational figure — even though she never intended to be one.
“Give up?” Smith said, repeating part of the question before answering. “Never. Mainly because my sisters wouldn’t let me.”
Loads of support
The newspaper account of the day that changed the sisters’ lives is straightforward and to the point.
WESTFIELD — Miss Gerry Ann Smith of Winston-Salem is in serious condition at Winston-Salem’s Baptist Hospital as the result of an automobile accident which occurred here Thursday.
Smith was 26, and on her way to work as a kindergarten teacher at Westfield Elementary School not far from where she grew up with her three sisters.
A trooper with the N.C. Highway Patrol said Smith’s 1974 VW Beetle was broadsided by a 1969 Chevy driven by a student at East Surry High School that had skidded out of control on wet pavement. The student was cited for improper passing.
Moorefield filled out that bare-bones account. “It was teen-age boys on the wrong side of the road in a curve. They were racing, but nobody would talk about that. That road was known for that kind of playing around.”
A photograph that accompanied the newspaper story shows the entire left side of Smith’s Bug crumpled by the impact. The Chevy was resting on its side.
It took 30 minutes for members of the Pilot Mountain Rescue Squad to free the people involved. The driver of the Chevy suffered minor injuries and his younger brother, a passenger, had cuts and a fractured pelvis.
The boys would recover just fine with time, but Gerry Ann Smith’s injuries were significantly more severe and her road back would be much, much more difficult.
She spent three months in a coma, her parents and three sisters — Moorefield, Jane King and Faye Gray — near constant companions. She’d suffered a brain injury, a broken jaw and her left side was nearly paralyzed. Her short and long-term memory was affected deeply.
Still, Smith showed signs of her determination.
“When she was coming out of it, she’d hold her hand up like this,” Moorefield said, making the universal OK sign with her right hand. “When we saw that, we about fell over. … She was telling us she was going to be OK.”
But it would take a long, long while. Smith had two months of intense, daily physical therapy in the hospital and another nine in a local long-term rehabilitation facility.
When she surpassed their ability to help her, Smith moved into her own apartment along with her mom. And the rest of her immediate family pitched it to help her continue her recovery at the YMCA, where a man named Whit East worked with her in the pool nearly every day.
“He was a good man,” Smith said.
And when she had gone as far as she could in the pool, they began taking her to the Institute for the Development of Human Potential in Philadelphia to take part in a special program. “It was for kids with brain injuries, but they agreed to take Gerry when they realized how much help she would have with her family,” Moorefield said.
A small color photograph, a cherished reminder of all the hard work, lays it out. Sisters and nephews are shown standing by a small table, each helping her re-learn movements.
Following the deaths of their parents within a day of each other in 1981, the sisters (and their families) grew even closer.
Through moves from apartment to a small condominium and then to assisted living, Smith has had nearly daily visits from Moorefield and Gray, who has health issues of her own, and plenty to keep her busy. (King died in 2004.)
These days, Smith lives at the Brookdale Reynolda senior assisted-living center. She is 69 now, and is the first one to admit she could use a hand. Still, that’s hardly slowed her down.
She leads exercises from her chair every day, and if there’s an outing or activity, she’s smack in the middle of it all. Residents and staff members alike drift by while she and Moorefield were having a portrait taken to describe how she puts a smile on everyone’s face wherever she goes.
“If you want to reach her, you’ll have to call me,” Moorefield said. “She’s never in her room, always on the go. Which is good.”
Smith cracked upon hearing that description. She turned serious soon after when talking about all the hard work she has put into building a life she neither expected nor wanted.
All she wanted to do after graduating from Appalachian State University was to become a teacher, and that was taken from her in the blink of an eye in a car crash.
We’ve all seen news stories about terrible wrecks and heard descriptions of devastating injuries. But unless you’ve been involved in one — or know someone who has — the road to recovery can be a lonely one.
“I’m still mad about it. Real mad,” Smith said.
Moorefield shares her sister’s frustration. “She doesn’t talk about it much,” Moorefield said. “But people have no idea what she’s been through.”
Anger is one thing; self-pity another entirely. Smith allows that she still asks “Why me?” on occasion. But in the next instant she’s back at it — living, working and trying to get the best from every single day she has.
“I’m lucky to have them,” Smith said of her sisters.
The feeling is mutual.
“I can’t imagine life without her,” Moorefield said.
Just no hugging.