By SONYA ROBERTS-WOODS
There’s not much Van Bowen remembers about the night of March 23, 2017, but to now see him on the football field on Friday nights just months later is a sure sign that miracles are still possible.
Headed home from an all-day boys and girls track meet at Paris High School, Coach Bowen took his post at the steering wheel as the driver of the boys’ bus. A 32-year Mount Pleasant ISD veteran, Bowen has been at the wheel hundreds of times before.
Bowen remembers getting on the bus after the track meet and talking with Coach Rod Sneed. He then recalls that Coach David Bagley checked the roll to make sure all of the students were on the bus before he “got the green light” to put the bus in drive and head home. A turn out of the school parking lot, at around 9 p.m., and on to the loop is about the last of Bowen’s memories of that night. He doesn’t remember going through Bogata or even Talco where the eventual, fatal crash took place.
“It’s almost like one of those Jason Bourne (series of action thriller movies) snippets where you see these headlights like squiggle in front of you ,” Bowen said. “There’s just one little square of time when it’s dark and quiet. It was as quiet as I’ve ever known in my life. I was still strapped in the bus seat. I remember hanging there (upside down) and then I hear Coach Sneed say: ‘hang on Bo. We’ve got help coming.’”
Help did come and almost immediately Bowen and one of the student passengers were airlifted to East Texas Medical Center in Tyler. His next memory is waking up in the hospital seeing family including his wife of 29 years, Charla, and two daughters, Caity and Carly, as well as close friends and colleagues.
“People were standing around me talking and told me I was in a wreck,” Bowen said. “I wasn’t sure what had happened—maybe I had dozed off–maybe I went to sleep. Time meant nothing. All I could do is just nod. I couldn’t speak. I was on a ventilator. I kept tugging at the tube down my throat so they had to keep my hands tied. I eventually remember trying to write, but everything I wrote was backwards.”
In fact, Bowen remembers more about what happened the night before the wreck than any details about the accident itself. One night earlier Bowen had spent time enjoying one of his favorite pastimes with a longtime friend.
“Judd (Marshall, MPISD Superintendent of Schools) and I had gone hunting the night before,” he said.
It was as if time stood still for Bowen until one day he looked up and noticed the date, April 3, scribbled on a white board in his hospital room.
“And then it hit me. I had basically lost 10 days of my life,” he said. “It felt like it had just been three days.”
During his very first night in the hospital, doctors discovered just how severe Bowen’s injuries were.
“In that first surgery, that’s when they found out that everything was pushed in my chest–my intestines and kidneys were pushed through my diaphragm into my chest,” Bowen said. “They also knew my lungs were collapsed, but then they couldn’t quite air it up. That had been over an hour. It’s a wonder I hadn’t already died because you’ve got to have a diaphragm to breathe and my heart was pumping with all that pressure of the intestines and my stomach pressed against it. They did surgery that first night to put everything back in place.”
That initial surgery was a success and from there Bowen, who suffered most of his injuries on the left side of his body, continued to improve. At the time, doctors anticipated Bowen would be in the hospital until Christmas. His daughter, Carly, who worked in Dallas, would make the nightly pilgrimage to and from Tyler to see her father while waiting to get a job transfer. The family had been told by doctors to anticipate several months of recovery time there in Tyler.
Improving by the day, Bowen eventually started reading things on an Ipad about the wreck and realized that not only did the driver of the 18-wheeler die that night, but also fellow MPISD coach Angelica Beard.
“Once I realized that Coach Beard didn’t make it, my heart just went out to her family,” Bowen said. “She was a part of our family and so that was hard to find out.”
Bowen also found out that medicine miraculously made the pain more bearable.
“They would come in with this shot, two syringes full of the good stuff, and my hands would get warm,” Bowen said of the nurses who regularly administered medication through an IV. “The next thing I know I would be in my pickup truck behind the stadium drinking a cold Coke with my backpack full of goodies. At some point, I would open my eyes and be back in the hospital. I would think to myself: ‘those people have no idea I’ve been out in my truck all this time and I’m not going to tell them.’”
Of course Bowen was never in his truck during that 30-day period, but that was his reality at the time. Eventually, Bowen moved to a regular hospital room and later to a physical rehabilitation unit as he continued to demonstrate day-by-day improvement.
“I know, from looking at the aftermath of the wreck, that I’m not supposed to be here,” Bowen said. “I should at least be crippled or blind or something. I know there’s a purpose for me. God spaced me for a reason.”
Adopted as a child, Bowen grew up constantly on the move. His father, a Baptist preacher, often uprooted the Bowen family.
“For a long time, I thought my Dad worked for U-Haul,” he laughed, “because there was always one in our driveway. We were always moving.”
Eventually, the family, which also included his brother, decided to move back to New Diana, his mother’s hometown. After high school graduation, Bowen set his sights on going straight into the workforce. As luck would have it, the Lone Star Steel mailman union job he had just been hired to start never happened due to a strike shortly afterwards.
“I was unemployed before I was ever employed,” Bowen said.
At the time, Bowen had a friend who wanted to become a coach . He was about to start classes at Kilgore College in two weeks. Bowen decided to join him.
“I had absolutely no intention of going to school or becoming a coach,” he said. “I was just following my friend.”
From Kilgore, Bowen followed his friend to East Texas State University in Commerce. Two years later, he had a degree in teaching. Still not convinced that he wanted to teach, Bowenlooked for other local jobs until he ran out of options. That’s when former Mount Pleasant ISD Assistant Superintendent Carlos Kidwell offered Bowen his first position in the district working under Principal A.D. Taylor at Vivian Fowler Elementary School. He started there in 1986 and remained there until he transferred to the junior high school campus in 2007.
“The Lord puts you where you need to be and I needed to be right here in Mount Pleasant,” he said.
In Mount Pleasant since that time, Bowen credits his church family at Nevill’s Chapel Baptist Church and neighbors like Mr. Watts, who took care of the family’s lawn, for helping them get through the tough times. From cards to phone calls to food , prayers and visits, Bowen felt the love from the entire community.
“My church was like Information Central,” he said. “They would put accurate updates about me on the church website so people could keep up with my progress. People I didn’t even know started praying for me that very first night.”
Still in rehab and in need of a couple of more surgeries, Bowen returned to work this summer just in time for Tiger football practice. And he has never looked back.
“I’m not supposed to be here so when I think about what could have happened I can’t help but be thankful,” Bowen said. “Remember, I’m still supposed to be in the hospital. When I think about the fact that everyone else holding a steering wheel in the accident that night is no longer living, I can’t help but be thankful for my life because I know God spared it,” Bowen said.
Credited with saving the lives of everyone on the school bus that night, Bowen accepts the praise cautiously.
“I didn’t do that,” he said. “The Lord turned that bus the way He wanted it to go. I didn’t save anybody. He saved all of us on that bus March 23 and my life will never be the same because of it.”