By BLANTON MATTHEWS | The Arkadelphian
On the morning of July 5, I was acting in my common capacity as a lifeguard at the Henderson State University pool for various local characters who come to get some light exercise or self-managed physical therapy. It is a job I enjoy and a crowd I’ve come to care for a great deal over the years. It helps that they are all good swimmers, so I don’t have to worry too much. On that Tuesday, like many before, Dr. Beth Wyatt came in chipper as ever, wheeling in her friend Ann Robinson and, with me, helping her transfer from her wheelchair to the pool. She, or I, or both of us probably said to the other “See you on Thursday.”
Of course, we didn’t. Just hours later, Dr. Wyatt was in a horrific car accident on 10th Street going toward Caddo Valley.
Dr. Wyatt was an associate professor of Reading Curriculum and Instruction at the Teacher’s College of Henderson State University for 14 years before being promoted to full professor shortly before the accident. Before that, she taught at Okolona Public Schools for a year, and was a first and second grade teacher in her 15 years with Arkadelphia Public Schools, and then spent eight years working at Dawson Educational Cooperative. She has enough degrees by now that she can hardly keep up with them all, asking her husband Scott, who was by her side when we spoke and every day in the hospitals in the weeks after the accident, what her master’s degree is in (Early Childhood Education, for the record). Her Ph. D. is in Reading.
After spending two years at Henderson as an undergraduate resisting entering the teaching field, being a business major for a brief time, she finally accepted the undeniable call to the profession that she inherited from her parents, both teachers. “I love my students, no matter how old they are, or how young,” she said. “I loved watching them learn something new and watching it click, and seeing that lightbulb come on, and them understanding, [saying] ‘I get it now.’ That was the fun part.” She is looking into continuing teaching after she receives and gets accustomed to her future prosthetics. “I may not be back in the spring… I’m holding out for it.” The Education Center where she taught has a reserved parking space for her when she does return.
About as much as she loves teaching, Dr. Wyatt loves to travel. She and Brandie Benton started a group called “Reddie Travelers,” which takes overseas tours at least every other year. The group has planned a trip to Greece in 2024. Apart from the group, she takes plenty of cruises, and she is not letting the loss of her legs slow her down.
“We are taking a cruise in December that we planned before COVID, and it kept getting cancelled… before the accident we had planned this cruise, and we’re going to go ahead and go.”
Initially, when her family told her that her legs had been amputated, her reaction was that she wanted her prosthetics to make her seven inches taller than she was before. Although she has tempered that expectation by now, she remains optimistic and excited about walking again.
She wastes no time in waiting to walk again. After being released from the hospital on a Saturday, she was at church Sunday morning. She still goes to the grocery store, and went to all the Reddies’ home football games since being back home, including one where the Showband of Arkansas unfurled a banner they made of love and support, which she was able to keep.
Indeed, an “overwhelming” amount of people from all over the world have expressed love and support for Dr. Wyatt during this time of recovery. “The doctors couldn’t have saved me if my heart stopped, and my heart never stopped, not one time,” she said. “That’s from the prayers everyone has given me.” She received hundreds of get-well cards, and has read every single one of them so far as they continue to come. A GoFundMe page was set up and raised over $14,000. “It’s just amazing how thoughtful people are. People I don’t even know.”
Dr. Wyatt has no memory of the accident, but has heard stories and met several of the people who helped her out of her burning car. She mentioned Tony Bell, Jimmy McKay, Hunter Lewis, Bodie Welch, and a trucker she has been unable to reach who she only knows as “Redeye.” When the car caught on fire, the first three cars that stopped to help were all equipped with fire extinguishers, used quickly and emptied completely at the exact moment the fire department arrived. “I’ve got a bunch of amazing moments that tell me I should be here on this Earth,” she said. Two firemen, her story goes, were planning to get lunch at the Great Wall Buffet across from Walmart on W.P. Malone Drive. When they came upon it and saw that it was closed, they grabbed a to-go lunch elsewhere — returning to duty earlier than they would have had they sat down to eat where they initially planned. Had the restaurant been open, “this would have turned out very differently.”
“Our first responders, whether they’re firemen, ambulance, police, and just general public were wonderful. People stopped and talked to me, from what I understand, and held my hand… it’s just been a very humbling experience.”
The initial period of recovery spanned 81 days, with 19 surgeries across three hospitals: UAMS, Baptist Health, and Arkansas Children’s Hospital for burn treatment. By the time she got to that last stop, she was plenty aware and passed the time practicing with her wheelchair up and down the hall.
“I’ve always been an optimistic person, at least that’s what my husband says.” Dr. Wyatt described a recent sermon about “living a grateful life,” given by Rev. Zeke Allen at First United Methodist Church where she regularly attends. She sat down after the sermon and said “Let’s talk about what I’m ungrateful for. My arm, two legs, my eye… Then I started thinking about the things I’m grateful for, and there were about five billion things I was grateful for. That five billion is greater than the five that I’m angry about, that I’m ungrateful for. That’s the way I choose to live.”
Dr. Wyatt would like to thank the whole community. “I’ve felt very loved, and the prayers, the first responders… the people that were there that happened upon the wreck and stopped, there’s just an unbelievably large amount of people that are a part of this, and I am so very grateful they were where they were at the time, and they’ve continued to be there. I’ve got a long road, but the worst part’s behind me. I’m alive, and I thank all of them for that.”