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After horrific brain injury, running to a reaffirmed faith

Erica Baggett holds the medal as the first woman to finish the Shepherd Center 5K held Oct. 4.

FRANKLIN, Tenn. (BP) – Four years ago Erica Baggett nearly lost her life. She also marks it as the day she received a great gift.

An avid runner, Erica completed the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in Nashville last April. She had already finished her first half-marathon the year before in Kentucky and wanted to accept a greater challenge. With a goal of one day participating in the Boston Marathon, she is signed up for the upcoming Thanksgiving Turkey Burn, a half-marathon in Spring Hill, Tenn.

That would make you wonder why she was so emotional after finishing a fairly nondescript 5K earlier this month.

It’s because that race was hosted at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, which treats those with traumatic brain injuries. It’s the place where not that long ago Erica’s family was told to be ready; she likely would need help for the rest of her life with simple tasks like showering and brushing her teeth.

In the same way she has exceeded that prognosis, Erica not only finished the 5K that day. She was the first woman to cross the finish line.

An unforgettable day

“I remember nothing,” Erica said.

Erica Baggett makes the final turn in April 2021 to finish the Kentucky Derby Festival Half-Marathon, held in Louisville. It was her first half-marathon.

She doesn’t recall the drive with her husband, Josh, and little boy, Hall, to Oxford, Miss., to watch their Ole Miss Rebels play Auburn on Oct. 19, 2018. She doesn’t remember unbuckling her seat belt and turning around to try and calm Hall, fussy like toddlers get on a road trip.

She doesn’t remember the semi-truck striking their Nissan Rogue on the passenger side nor getting thrown through the window and landing about 40 feet away. The next two months were spent at the Memphis ICU trauma center before being transferred to Shepherd, where she began to emerge from a two-month coma.

“Bits and pieces,” she said. “I remember some things from that time.”

Josh and Hall were injury-free from the wreck. Erica, however, had experienced a traumatic brain injury (TBI), occurring when a sudden, external, physical assault damages the brain. She also suffered from a level 3 diffuse axonal injury (DAI).

A level 3 DAI happens when the brain shifts or rotates inside the skull. It includes focal lesions to the brainstem as well as the corpus callosum, a bundle of some 200 million nerve fibers that allows the left and right sides of the brain to communicate. It is the connector for physical coordination and the taking in of complex information that requires both hemispheres to work in harmony. 

Also, it must be noted, corpus callosum is Latin for “tough body.”

The old Erica

“Help yourself to a navy outfit.”

It goes without saying that brain injuries are different than those requiring a bandage or cast. They affect a myriad of motor and cognitive functions. One of the big worries was even if Erica were to heal, would she still be Erica?  

That answer came the day her father walked into her room at the Shepherd Center wearing a polo shirt and shorts of the same navy blue hue. It demanded commentary.

“I hated it and have always been sarcastic,” Erica told Baptist Press.

Erica, Josh and Hall Baggett go on a family beach trip. Photo from Shepherd Center

Josh was there as a witness.

“He had been coming in and asking how she was, but she wouldn’t reply with anything that really made sense,” he said.

But that day, “never has a daughter roasted her dad so good. He recognized it was the old Erica.”

Progress came, but was measured differently. She learned how to talk and swallow. Eventually the danger of her falling subsided. But confusion remained.

“Physically, I’m OK,” she said recently. “But I still struggle with anxiety. Thinking can be like … scrambled eggs in my brain. I can get overwhelmed trying to process things.”

After being released and going home with Josh and Hall to Franklin, Tenn., Erica was convinced for three months that they were still living in Oxford, Miss., where she and Josh met in college.

An in-town visit with her dad made Erica pack for a four-hour drive and refuse to accept they were at his house minutes later. Once driving down Broadway in Nashville, seeing the old Ryman Auditorium made her remark how much Memphis was trying to look like Tennessee’s capital. About a half-dozen times, Josh had to call one of their favorite restaurants back in Oxford and cancel the order Erica had placed for pickup.

A reaffirmed faith

The couple each made a profession of faith as children. As big a test as the accident may have been, the years since have strengthened that faith.

“This injury has been the greatest gift I never asked for,” Erica said. “It’s helped me get my life back on track and showed me what’s important.”

It also got her more into Scripture while discovering a new hobby.

Erica had slept so much while healing at the hospital that, essentially, she and Hall were on the same schedule. She’d wake up at 4 a.m. and want something to do. Josh suggested she begin walking.

“I started walking a mile around the neighborhood. But soon, I got bored with that so I started running,” said Erica, who attends Rolling Hills Community Church in Franklin with her family. “I got bored with one mile, so I made it three.”

Although a three-sport athlete in high school – basketball, volleyball, switch-hitting shortstop in softball – Erica had never taken up running. But her passion for it grew over the miles. So did her playlist, which included the Bible.

“All of this has helped me re-establish my faith. It’s become so real to me,” she said.

Her father-in-law, Bruce Baggett, knows this to be true as well.

“She is a miracle,” said Baggett, associate pastor at First Baptist Church in Monroe, Ga. “In conversations with Erica, I truly believe God spared her life for a reason. Not only is she a wife, a mom, a daughter and a sister, she has a new mission in life. I share her amazing story with everyone who will listen.

“Josh is the strongest man I know. I watched him navigate the most difficult situation that a husband could face. During her recovery, he patiently worked with her while not knowing what her recovery would look like. He did it by faith in God and because of his love for his wife and family.”

More work to do

Erica’s husband, of course, has had the best seat to watching her recovery.

“Sometimes I was so exhausted early on that I didn’t know what to think,” Josh said. “Then, I saw her progress and God working in her. It reaffirmed my faith and continues in seeing what she accomplishes.”

Erica, a social work major at Ole Miss, is a Community Relations manager for Rehab Without Walls, a national company that provides occupational, physical or speech therapy for those healing from neurological injuries or diagnoses like Parkinson’s Disease.

“I’m very passionate about this because I’ve lived it,” she said. “I want to give back to the next survivor and caregiver.

“God wasn’t ready for me to come home yet. There is more to do on this side of heaven.”