Finding Footing in Upended Life
Car accident blinded him, injured her
Susanne Tso, Special for The Republic, Jul. 22, 2006
Abbreviated version re-run in all editions on Monday, July 31
It can take years to build a life but only a second to topple it. That's what Steve and Kristi Welker learned after a car crash took Steve's sight and left Kristi with lingering medical woes.
What makes their story unique are the circumstances of their lives at the time of the accident and their decision to find the good in the tough hand life dealt them.
The Ahwatukee Foothills couple's long road to recovery and the hope they gathered along the way has become a book by Steve, The World at My Fingertips, published this month by OPA Publishing of Chandler.
"The reason I wanted to write the book was that I think in life a whole lot of people have disabilities of one sort or another," said Steve, 50. "I wanted to tell my story so that people could see how I was able to overcome my disability and that with God's help anything is possible."
This wasn't the message the couple had in mind when they taped the Leeza Gibbons NBC-TV talk show prior to the 1994 accident. Steve and Kristi, who were unable to conceive, planned to discuss the impending birth of twin boys by surrogate. The boys were conceived through in vitro fertilization using eggs donated by Kristi's sister and Steve's sperm. The embryos were implanted in the womb of a friend. The Welkers wanted to discuss their surrogacy experience, which they dubbed "an act of love."
But two days before the show aired and a couple of weeks before the boys were born, tragedy struck. The couple were on 68th Street north of Curry Road in Scottsdale on their way to visit the surrogate mother at a hospital when a driver who had slipped into a diabetic coma slammed into their Jeep Cherokee at 60 mph.
Kristi suffered head injuries, broken collarbones and a crushed foot. Steve suffered so many injuries his life hung in the balance for days. In and out of consciousness, Steve says he didn't realize he was blind until weeks after the crash.
"Before the accident, I was a real control freak," said Steve, a Phoenix native who then managed an insurance agency."I micromanaged my life and did everything the way I wanted to do it. I picked my friends, my career. I had everything wired until April 30, 1994, and in a second, the apple cart was turned over."
Lying in critical care units at separate hospitals, neither Welker was able to attend the birth of their babies or cuddle them until weeks after the birth.
"We were at the pinnacle of where we wanted to be," said Kristi, now 46. A Missouri native who moved to the Valley in 1991, she had a pharmaceutical sales job, but her doctors told her it would be too difficult because of her damaged left foot. "All of a sudden our lives were turned upside down and I felt like we had two choices. We could either sit back and be depressed about what life had handed us or we could say, 'What is my passion and purpose in life and how can we make this beneficial for other people?' "
The couple chose the latter and squarely faced Steve's battles with depression, physical therapy and new life in darkness. They looked for good in any corner they could find it.
Along the road to recovery, Steve opened an insurance agency, which he ran for eight years before selling it. Kristi returned to college to obtain a master's and then a doctorate in psychology. She has a practice in Ahwatukee Foothills.
"If you think it's happened for a reason or you can find good in it, it helps," Kristi said. "That's what I tell my clients, too. There is something good that will come out of this. We may not know it now or next month but that really helped propel us to get through it."
Intent on using his story to encourage others, Steve has became a volunteer speaker for the United Way and has addressed audiences including corporate brass and sports teams such as the Phoenix Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks. He is a member of the board of directors for the Arizona Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired and a volunteer for the blind.
"Sure, there are things I can't do, but, conversely, there are things I'm doing now that I wouldn't have done," Steve said. "I wouldn't have written a book or gotten involved with the Arizona Center for the Blind or met the kind of people I've met through the United Way. I wouldn't have become a speaker."
He says the accident "completely changed the tone and direction of my life."
Nine-year residents of Ahwatukee, the family lives in Ahwatukee Custom Estates and attends Grace Community Church in Tempe. Steve has found ways to shoot hoops, wrestle, swim and play board games with his boys, Dylan and Colton, now 12.
Experts say tragedies such as the Welkers experienced can doom marriages, but if not a marriage may actually be strengthened. The couple says their lives and marriage are richer now than before.
"You kind of reach that stage of existentialism," Kristi said. "It's almost as if you rise above just being married. Our love went beyond what either one of us think it would have. If he can overcome what he's overcome and our family be strengthened in spite of that, then anything's possible."