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Tamika Savoy

Apr 01, 2016 03:42PM ● By Nicole LaCour
Strength, hope and love in Catahoula

Tamika Savoy sat in a big recliner in her Catahoula home, looking down at her naked feet, pushing her pink toes as far up as they would go. “They’re just not the same,” she said. Mr. Bean’s Holiday set the mood on the big screen television as Pierson ran around alternatively packing a book bag for an imagined trip to school and exclaiming, “This is my favorite part,” in 3-year-old speak.

Tamika and Randal Savoy survived a plane crash just outside of Las Vegas in 2010. It was a horrible event, bookmarking their lives with pain, suffering, loss and uncertainty. Tamika recounts the details of the tragic day and all that followed with an unexpected ease that comes from a strength forged from survival. Her story is incredible. It would be easy to call her brave and Tamika’s strength shines around her like a powerful aura. But as she tells her story, she reveals another story that has carried her through 23 years. A love story. She doesn’t even call him Randal. It’s “my husband” this and “my husband” that—two words spoken with understated ease, taking for granted that the listener understands all that those words mean to her, as they pepper the story of her life.

Tamika broke up with Randal once. They had been together since the fifth grade but it was time to go to the big school, St Martinville Senior High. Tamika’s mom, Tracy, was concerned about how serious her daughter was with this childhood sweetheart so she encouraged Tamika to spread her wings a bit. She went off to high school thinking she wouldn’t see Randal in the crowd of teenagers. But then, there he was right behind her in homeroom. By the end of the semester they were a couple again.

They were married in 2005 and planned for a big family. During her first pregnancy, a life-long, chronic heart defect caused her heart to beat dangerously fast. In 2007 she had the last of three surgeries on her heart, hoping to eliminate the trigger of the fast heartbeat. Two weeks after the procedure, she was pregnant with her second child. This time the pregnancy almost killed her, causing more serious heart problems. Her cardiologist advised, “No more kids.” An only child, Tamika was devastated. Randal put things in perspective. “I’d rather have you and the family we have now than have more children and you gone.” So Tamika had a tubal ligation.

After the crash, it was Tamika’s turn to imagine a world without “her husband.” Randal’s prognosis was at times bleak. Their rooms at either end of a hallway in the burn unit, Tamika made often difficult walks to see him every day. When she was ordered to remain in bed after a second attempt to perform a skin graft on the third degree burns that covered the bottom half of her legs, she was dismayed that she would be away from him that long. He had taken a turn for the worse and the doctor’s weren’t sure if he would make it. Tamika likes to think it was her absence that caused what happened next. By the third day, Randal sat up in bed and, with some help, walked down to her room. “When I saw him entering the doorway I was more enthusiastic than a kid at Christmas. I have never felt that much excitement before or since.” Randal sat at her side and they held hands in a moment of relief during a month of unbearable pain and uncertainty.

Tamika and Randal were very close to Susan and Doug Touchet. Susan and Tamika worked together at Dauterive Hospital. Their families often had dinner together on Friday nights or played a little bourée. Susan and Tamika were on the same diet plan and supported each other, sharing recipes. A professional CPA, Doug learned to fly so he could travel to clients all over the U.S. with ease. He often flew family and friends and had just returned from a flight to Key West with one of Susan and Tamika’s co-workers. “When’s our turn?” Tamika teased Susan. “Where are we going?” Susan said she wanted to go to Las Vegas. So, Labor Day weekend the two couples flew to Vegas. With Tamika in charge it was an adventurous weekend. “One night we went to the Top of World restaurant, shopping for little black cocktail dresses before. We rented a convertible and road around with the top down. We rented ATV’s and rode in the desert and Red Rock Canyon and kayaked at the base of the Hoover Dam.”

On Monday, it was time to go home. As the single engine (Piper Cherokee) that Doug was piloting was losing altitude after less than 5 minutes in the air, Randal and Tamika grabbed each other’s hands just as the plane hit the pavement of a neighborhood street. Unable to bank and turn away, Doug had skillfully controlled the crash, making contact on a street instead of one of the houses. Though both were taken to hospitals, neither Doug nor Susan survived. Tamika and Randal will never forget the efforts Doug took to lessen the impact of the crash and avoid any homes. It is clear that he saved lives that day.

“With every fiber of my being I believe that Randal and I are alive today because of what Doug did,” Tamika said. “He truly is my hero and will always be.”
“You can’t thank somebody enough for that. There's no words,” Randal said, echoing his wife’s sentiments.

People talk about fate and destiny when these things happen. It seems a little cruel to assign a set of circumstances that were fortunate for some and not for others to fate. But on that day, there was a small set of seemingly meaningless circumstances that led to Tamika and Randal sitting next to each other in the back of the plane. Randal sat up front with Doug on the flights to Vegas, but all the controls made him nervous and he wanted to be next to Tamika when they flew home. He was going to sit in the middle seat, facing Tamika but Doug asked him to sit all the way in the back so he could gain altitude faster. When Randal had trouble buckling his seatbelt, he brushed it off, but Doug insisted he try again until it was fastened. If just one of those circumstances had been different, their story might have had a very different ending.

Some of her family confessed that they had not been enthusiastic about the pairing of Randal and Tamika. For one, they had been together since they were children. In fact, for one of their school proms, Tamika’s mom and their neighbor Jamie Barras insisted that she attend with Jamie’s son instead of Randal. “We just wanted to see her in some pictures without Randal.” Jamie said with a laugh.

“We love Randal,” Jamie said, “He’s a good guy. And he can talk, talk, talk.” Randal’s outgoing personality gets him into debates with family, friends and strangers. When he returned to Catahoula after a month on life support, his response to the outpouring of love and support for him was, “I didn’t know that many people loved me.” {Feel free to read that with the Cajun accent you know you have stored away in your mind.}

To Tamika, he’s home. Her best friend, her partner for life. Many marriages would crack and strain under the stress of what they have been through, but you can feel the connection Tamika has with Randal as every sentence she utters contains, “my husband,” over and over, the ever-present ballast of her life.

It may be cliché to reveal that having survived this accident gave Tamika and Randal a new appreciation for life, but in their case, they manifested that new outlook in a very dramatic way. Tamika worked hard to lose weight as advised by her cardiologist and in 2011 she traveled to Kentucky to have the tubal ligation reversed. A month later she was pregnant with Pierson. “I love all my children equally,” Tamika said, “But he is special. I appreciated him more.”

Pierson laughed out loud at the antics of Rowan Atkinson as he fumbled with spilled coffee through the streets of Italy. “This is my favorite part!” he exclaimed again. “Admit it, they’re all your favorite parts,” I argued with the child. He runs around their cozy Catahoula home, with more boats than cars, a little human manifestation of the love and hope Tamika and Randal share.  

Nurse Savoy
Tamika spent her childhood in hospitals. Her mother’s friend Jamie remembers visiting her in the hospital after open-heart surgery. “She came running down the hall to see us. She was 14 months old. She was a firecracker.” Despite her strong spirit, she was often in the emergency room, with complications from her heart condition and asthma. Those experiences informed her decision to be a nurse. Her experiences help her to empathize with patients, especially cardiac patients. “We can compare notes; I can show them what their scar will look like years down the road.”

Now, Tamika encounters a patient at their lowest, unsure if they have the strength to overcome whatever obstacles they are facing, she can push them with an honesty not equaled in her peers. “I don’t go to every patient and say ‘Look I was in a plane crash,’ but when I see a patient come to a place where they have given up and they feel like there’s no end in sight…I can tell them my story and say, ‘I wouldn’t have thought 5 or 6 years ago when I was in that hospital bed that I’d be working again and standing on these feet.”

Her nursing skills were invaluable when paramedics approached her on the lawn of the Vegas neighborhood and despite the excruciating third degree burns on her legs and feet, she immediately insisted, “No, I’m ok. Go to my husband. He’s not breathing.”
But it made her a bad patient at times. When a nurse insisted that she take anxiety medication instead of heart medicine for the palpitations and shortness of breath she was feeling, Tamika angrily kicked him out of her room. When the anxiety medication kicked in, she called him, feeling very calm, light as a feather and said, {again it helps if you imagine a sing-songy Cajun accent here} “I’m so sorry. You were right. It was anxiety. Thank you.” That month in the hospital had been rough. She had her own injuries to deal with and the traumatic way her burns had to be treated. Her husband was fighting for his life, unconscious most of that month, leaving Tamika to make decisions for both of them—and she had just lost two of her dearest friends.

She thought she knew herself so well, especially being a cardiac patient since childhood, that it didn’t occur to her that her symptoms could be anything else. She had a similar problem when she got home. “Tamika is never a poor-me-look-at-what-I-had-to-go-through person,” Jamie observed. She is naturally active and vivacious. So, she went back to work as soon as she could and tried to seamlessly return to her normal life.

But she wasn’t sleeping. She hadn’t slept much in the hospital. When they returned, they stayed with Tamika’s parents so they had help moving around and taking care of the kids. She and Randal would often lie in bed together, staring at the ceiling, wide awake. “For months and months I would remember every single second of the plane taking off. It was like I was watching a movie and it would play over and over.”

When she was diagnosed with PTSD, the nurse in her thought, “Duh, I should’ve known that. I thought that was only for soldiers in wars.” With a lot of help, Tamika came through with characteristic strength and tenacity. “Now I can go a day or two without thinking about it. But I’m constantly reminded by my little toes. They’re so sensitive.”

It’s not surprising that Tamika looks forward to the drives between patients as a home health nurse. With three kids whom she is absolutely dedicated to, an incredibly active life and the continuing recovery from that life-changing event, the country roads, oak trees and quiet car are an oasis of calm.


Tamika Savoy - Strength, hope and love in Catahoula
Story by Nicole LaCour