Indiana couple’s bond grows stronger after devastating accident
It’s the phone call all of us dread — that someone you love has been seriously injured.
That call came for the Murphy family and Larissa Whiteley of Indiana on Sept. 30, 2006, when they learned Ian Murphy had been rushed to a Pittsburgh hospital with a traumatic brain injury following an auto accident.
Ian, a communications media major at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, had been on his way to a job. He was saving up for an engagement ring for Larissa.
The couple, then both 21, hoped to get married in December of that year after they graduated from IUP, where they met in 2005.
Immediately after such an accident, those impacted by the news enter into a “giant hole of uncertainty,” says Pittsburgh brain surgeon Dr. David Okonkwo. “You don’t know whether this person who means so much to you will live or die or be forever changed.”
The news for Murphy and his loved ones got worse, before it got better.
With Ian in a coma and failing four of five brain-activity tests, the family was told to prepare for a funeral. They asked the doctors not to take him off life support, a decision for which Ian later expressed gratitude.
By every metric, in the fall of 2006, Ian Murphy should not have survived his injury, says Okonkwo, professor of neurosurgery at the University of Pittsburgh and Murphy’s treating neurosurgeon.
“Instead he has thrived,” Okonkwo says. “The quality of life as it stands today is a direct result of the extreme commitment that Larissa and the rest of the family and friends have made to his recovery and his activities of daily life. They are an inspiration that renews faith in your fellow man,” he says.
“Their story borders on the unbelievable, on a miracle, and is completely about love and faith in God. He made this miraculous recovery from a horrific accident, giving him a chance to have a more meaningful life,” says Dr. Ivan Tarkin, chief of orthopedic trauma at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital. “I very, very much underestimated what love brings to the table and friends and family rallying around him, working and being optimistic with him. Otherwise, he might be in a long-term care facility with worse mental and physical limitations.”
Now, Larissa and Ian Murphy, who married in 2010, have published “Eight Twenty Eight: When Love Didn’t Give Up” (B&H Books, $15.99), in which they chronicle their story.
They chose the book’s title to honor Ian’s dad’s birthday of Aug. 28, their Aug. 28 wedding day and the Biblical verse from Romans 8:28, which has been a source of strength for them: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
An eight-minute video telling their story, combined with a 2014 update video, “The Story of Ian and Larissa,” have been viewed on the Internet more than 10 million times.
They have received worldwide media attention, including stories in the Washington Post and the U.K.’s Daily Mail and exposure on such mainstream television programs as “Inside Edition” and a filming visit to Indiana by Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions.
‘What love is all about’
After the accident, Larissa kept up her studies at IUP while commuting for months back and forth to Pittsburgh. The Murphys virtually took up residence in a waiting room at UPMC Presbyterian, where Ian was in intensive care for seven weeks. He then was moved to a step-down unit and, finally, to the Children’s Institute in Shadyside, before returning to the family home in Indiana to continue therapy.
After Ian’s seven-month hospital stay, Larissa moved in with the Murphys to continue caring for her boyfriend and began a blog (IanandLarissa.com) to share Ian’s progress and a candid look at their lives. Steve Murphy, Ian’s father and a former pastor whom Ian and Larissa considered their strongest advocate, was a regular contributor to the blog until he died from brain cancer in 2009.
A wheelchair provided mobility for Ian, who could not speak for two-and-a-half years. He progressed through several forms of nonverbal communication, from blinking to using his foot to indicating with his hands.
In 2010, Ian proposed to Larissa. Because Ian needs assistance with life skills, a judge had to deem the marriage was in Ian’s best interest.
Larissa blogged at the time on DesiringGod.org: “The judge said, ‘You two exemplify what love is all about. I believe that marriage will not only benefit you both but our community and hope that everyone in this city could see your love for one another.’ ”
Joe Ryer, a youth pastor at their church, conducted their pre-marital counseling.
“It was difficult. Most books on marriage didn’t fit very well,” he says. “It was sort of like counseling a couple that already had been married a long time and dealing with sickness and suffering. They went into marriage with their eyes wide open, fully aware of the challenges. Larissa decided to go for it anyway, which is part of what interests people in them. They had to approach the normal roles of husband and wife in a totally different way.”
Mark Altrogge, their pastor at Sovereign Grace church in Indiana, presided at the 2010 wedding, scenes from which are part of the viral video.
“It was all I could do to keep from bursting out crying at numerous spots during the ceremony,” says Altrogge, who has known Ian all of his life. “I still get choked up. They genuinely seem joyful and cheerful and committed to one another. I guess many people would have decided not to get married. I can only see God giving that kind of care and strength to persevere as well as they do.”
Larissa credits the encouragement of her husband, both pre- and post-accident, for her spiritual growth. She does not believe that Ian would have left her had she been the one in the accident. “Walking away from my best friend was never truly an option,” she says.
“Not many people are brave enough to fight like they have. Not many people choose to love through such hardship,” says sister-in-law Beth Murphy of Indiana. “It’s beautiful to see.”
Caleb Murphy, one of Ian’s brothers, agrees. “They’re living what love actually is, which is living for the other person before themselves, and that’s powerful,” he says.
‘We are normal’
They were and are a very normal couple in so many ways, says friend Matt Croce of Edgewood. “I imagine it would be difficult to go through such a tough situation and be open and honest with so many different people about the struggles they face. I think people feel inspired,” he says.
The couple recognizes that their lives are part of a much bigger story, says Ian’s longtime friend, Mark Persson, now of Fredericksburg, Va., who has fond memories of pick-up football and baseball games with him in Indiana. “He still takes time to poke fun at me,” Persson says.
“There’s a lot that Ian can’t do, so just getting to be together, and just existing in each other, is one of the greatest joys,” Larissa says.
Any time they have together is fun, she says. “Ian makes me laugh, a lot. We don’t do that many (outside) activities per se, but we never really have. Even before the accident, we would just sit around for hours and talk. We didn’t need to be out doing things.”
They remain involved with their church, and Larissa, who works full time in marketing at a bank, serves on a few nonprofit boards. The couple regularly hosts family members and friends at their home and spends as much time as they can with their nine nieces and nephews.
“I hope very much that someday they will have children. They will be amazing parents,” says Mary Murphy, Ian’s mom.
Her son paints as part of his therapy and sells his work on etsy.com to raise money for his physical therapy, which consumes a lot of his time. He stays involved with an independent film company, Vinegar Hill, that he and his best friend founded.
People who knew them did not try to discourage marriage, Larissa says, but they did ask the hard questions, “like if this was really what we wanted and if we felt pressure because of the public attention our story has gotten.”
The couple is surprised that so many have been drawn to their story.
“I know how each day feels to live, and it doesn’t always feel that interesting,” Larissa says.
“And not everyone suffers from traumatic brain injury,” Ian says. “People see that we are normal, when they might have expected us to be super godly.”
“We are not heroes. We are simply choosing love,” Larissa says.
She does not feel that she has to be the strongest one or bear the most burden in this union. “Not at all. Strength is the ability to keep going when every obstacle is in your way, and that’s what Ian does. He’s incredible for not giving in to bitterness or disbelief,” she says.
‘A lot of patience’
Ian has full situational awareness and knows exactly what is going on, says his neurosurgeon, Dr. Okonkwo. “He laughs at jokes and gets the sarcasm but has not yet fully recovered his abilities to express himself with clarity,” he says.
Communication “requires a lot of patience for both of us,” Larissa says. Her husband has to struggle to properly enunciate and is often asked to repeat himself. “But he can say everything he needs to say,” she says.
He still faces “a ton” of challenges, she says, and every day is a battle.
Short-term memory is an obstacle, and he only has active use of one arm. A very common result of traumatic brain injury, she says, is that he continues to have trouble initiating movements, speech and other actions. Because of his vision, it is difficult for him to read or write, “but he can narrate to me,” Larissa says.
There is positive health news.
After successful leg surgery in May, Ian is working on walking.
“It was a heroic decision to undergo an operation that is normally not done, and there was a chance it would fail and make him worse,” says his surgeon, Dr. Tarkin. “Ian is one of the toughest and nicest men I’ve ever met. And you don’t really meet many modern women like Larissa.”
The couple has tackled Ian’s health challenges with courage, grace, class and tenacity, Okonkwo says.
“We were told that within three to five years, he’d get back what he’d get back,” Larissa says. “We’re on year eight, and God hasn’t stopped healing him.”
Theirs is such a compelling story, says Larissa’s sister, Lisa Rheam of Belleville, Mifflin County, because others ask themselves, “Would they do the same? Would they love enough to stay by their partner’s side, or would they walk away?”
“Mostly, their story appeals to our desire to believe that there can be love that doesn’t fade or pass away when things happen that are out of our control,” Mary Murphy says. “We all want to be loved that way, the way God loves us.”
Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or [email protected].