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Sandy Journal

Altara Elementary teacher battles injuries to return to teaching students

Mar 08, 2023 04:44PM ● By Julie Slama

Altara second-grade teacher Heather Sullivan reads to her students after she returned to school; she is still recovering from life-threatening injuries sustained in a multiple car accident. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

Heather Sullivan taught Ari Peterson’s brother in second grade at Altara Elementary and after learning she also would have her as her teacher, Ari was looking forward to “doing all the fun things he did with her.”

Instead, she and her classmates learned different news.

“We learned Mrs. Sullivan was in a car accident with her whole family,” Ari said. “It was really sad.”

Classmate Zoey Allan remembers learning about it too.

“We didn’t know if she could even come teach us this year,” she said.

That’s because Sullivan didn’t know herself.  

“We told them the truth that I was in a serious accident and didn’t know how long it would take to recover,” she said. “I was told I would never walk again.”

Sullivan was the driver of a 2022 Toyota Sienna rental packed with her husband, three children and her spry 82-year-old mother, a former Sandy elementary teacher. This past July, they were headed to go river rafting near Durango, Colorado.

It had just started to rain.

Other than glancing at her husband, Phil, seconds before getting hit head-on, that is all she remembers. A car traveling westbound hydroplaned near Soldier Summit on Highway 6 and hit their vehicle and then a second vehicle hit the minivan from behind.

“I firmly believe that God told me to turn and just look at Phil and Phil looked at me. Then it was just the loudest noise I’ve ever heard. The car was like a tin can and just crunched up,” Sullivan said. “We were on this family vacation, our one trip all summer. The car was packed, and we had every plan down to the very last detail. We weren’t that far from home and in one second, our whole lives changed forever.”

In the accident, the passenger of the car that hit them straight on as well as Sullivan’s mother died upon impact.

“I remember my husband turned around and said, ‘Where’s your mom?’ I didn’t even remember that we were going on a trip,” she said. “She was my best friend. I used to call her every lunch. After school, she’d get the kids and bring them home and help them with homework. Grandma was at every event, she missed nothing.”

The realization of the accident’s severity came to Sullivan when strangers came to their aid.

“So many people stopped; it was unbelievable that people got out of their cars and sprang into action. The kids’ seat belts were locked. A man got in the car, and he cut all the seat belts off with his pocketknife. Another lady who was a nurse had a defibrillator in her car and probably saved the life of the person who hit us from behind. There were men who were working on a railroad up the canyon, and they came running with their equipment and literally started cutting the car apart. They cut my door off, cut the steering wheel off, so when Life Flight landed, they didn’t even turn the propellers off. They landed and just took us right away. These people probably saved our lives,” she said.

Sullivan remembers one woman, again who she doesn’t know and doesn’t know how to thank, keeping her alert.

“Every time I put my head back and closed my eyes, she would pull my hair and she pinched my cheeks and kept saying, ‘I’m not going to let you die,’” she said.

Her injuries, and those of her two high school boys, were life-threatening. Her husband escaped with a broken wrist and her middle-school daughter suffered a broken leg and broken elbow as well as two fractures in a disc in her spine.  

“Both of the boys had severe internal injuries. After their seat belts were cut, they both jumped right out of the car and fell to the ground because we didn’t even realize that,” Sullivan said.

Both boys had major arteries that were bleeding and her younger son also had an injury to his brain.

Sullivan’s own injuries included a compound fracture on the femur, ruptured Achilles tendon, torn tendons in her right hand, her left wrist was broken in two places, a broken sternum, seven broken ribs as well as a traumatic brain injury.

“I remember trying to open the door to the car and I remember looking down at my hands and thought, I don’t understand why I can’t move my hands,” she said. “One of the hardest moments of all of this was when they put me on the Life Flight helicopter to take me and I was looking down at the freeway. I saw my three kids laying on the road and I didn’t know how they were.”

Sullivan and her older son were airlifted separately to Utah Valley Hospital and her husband was taken by ambulance there. Her younger two children were airlifted to Primary Children’s Hospital.

She spent about 20 days at Utah Valley before being transferred to Intermountain Medical Center in Murray where she spent six weeks on the rehab floor. Even now, she continues with physical and occupational therapy and uses a cane to help her walk.

“We had an amazing outpouring of love and support from the people of Sandy,” Sullivan said, adding that it wasn’t just her sister and her family, or neighbors, but others who just wanted to help. “Everyone has been so loving. We had a meal train for our family from the early days of the accident through the end of October. People were mowing our grass. People winterized our pool. Someone took care of our dog. The Alta High woodshop teacher built a ramp into the house because when I came home, I couldn’t do stairs. Both principals where my kids go to school called just to see what they could do. People set up a GoFundMe to help pay medical deductibles last year and this year and to help put in a handicapped bathroom into the house. A lot of people stepped forward to help; we’re just so grateful.”

She also thankful for her Altara Elementary family. Her principal, Nicole Svee Magann, visited her weekly, assuring her she’d be welcome whenever she returned and eased the minds of parents who didn’t know what to expect for their children this school year. Other teachers visited or stepped up to help Sullivan, including retired first-grade teacher Joani Richardson who set up Sullivan’s room for the start of the school year under a long-term substitute.

“My (dual immersion) partner teacher Fernando (Boluda Garcia) was phenomenal and just took over and became a rock. My second-grade team and my parents were helping—and they still do. I can’t even fathom how many people stepped up. People tell me six months later that they saw a need and helped, and I didn’t even know. I am just so thankful—so, so thankful,” she said.

Even with everyone helping, Sullivan felt a tug. She wanted to get back to school—to the class she knew she was meant to teach.

“I love feeling like I’m part of their journey, not just their learning, but their growing and maturing,” she said. “Kids need a good role model, and they need to feel like somebody is in their corner. I want to be here for them.”

Although Sullivan said January 2023 was her estimated date back, she needed to return to her second home sooner.

“I needed to come back, to be here. I needed to be needed. I needed to know if I could still do this because there was a time, I didn’t think I could do this again. I’ll be honest, the first couple of weeks were rough. I couldn’t even process life; it was all overwhelming. But I’m grateful for people who never gave up on me and for people who just believed in me and believed I could come back,” she said. “I think these kids will remember this year for a long time. Hopefully, they understand how bad their teacher wanted to come back and not because it’s my job, but because I needed to be here, and they needed me.”

Sullivan returned to her classroom part-time in November and full-time after the winter break.

Zoey was surprised to see her teacher.

“It’s been really good she’s back because she’s really kind to people and helpful, and even dressed up as an old lady for our 100th day of school,” she said, to which Sullivan said it worked well that she had used a walker as part of her recovery and could use it at school that day.

Her classmate Sydney Griffiths, who said she wrote her teacher a note after the accident, said she’s glad her teacher returned. 

“I like walking beside her when I’m line leader; she makes me feel special,” she said. 

Second-grader Nevaeh Clark said she discovered her teacher is “really funny, telling us jokes and she makes sure to teach us everything.”

Classmates Hyrum Blackburn and Zayli Loudenburg both appreciated her explaining math to them.

“When one of us makes mistakes, she helps us,” he said. “She doesn’t get mad. She just smiles and tells us to try again.”

That’s a lesson Sullivan has learned herself through this.

“I don’t sweat the little stuff anymore. I used to let things bother me. I’ve learned it’s not worth it. We got to live for today and be thankful that God gives you another day to live,” she said. “I’m very thankful people who saw us hurting weren’t afraid to step up and help. I hope other people learn that lesson. Love others and help others. I’m so glad I survived. I don’t want to miss this, these kids, my kids, any of this. I’m just so thankful, even on my hardest day, I’m still here.”