Strong and determined.
The words come as reoccurring adjectives from family and friends describing Stephanie Wise Decker – severely injured when a tornado destroyed her home in Henryville, Ind.
The road to recovery is just beginning for Decker. She lost her right foot and ankle and her left leg beginning at the knee while saving her two children during the last week’s tornado.
It leveled Henryville, and sent two floors of debris falling on top of Decker who sought shelter in her basement, just below the front door.
Her mother, at her daughter’s bedside at University Hospital in Louisville, says that strength and determination will carry her daughter through surgical recovery and rehabilitation.
“The doctor left the room today (Monday) saying he expected to see Stephanie walking into his office in three months,” Jeri Mayes White said.
“If I know my daughter, she’ll be walking before then.”
White called her daughter the strongest person she has ever known and says she is an inspiration.
“She will be the one to heal our family,” White said.
According to White, the children – Dominic, 8, and Reece, 5 – are doing well and were basically unhurt because of their mother’s efforts. They are currently staying with their grandfather, Doug Wise, in Simpsonville.
With a cell phone warning from husband Joe that the tornado was in a direct line to hit their house, Decker took the children to the basement of their two-story home, wrapped them in a blanket and threw herself on top of them.
“It is a wonder they survived – just by inches – maybe less than that,” White said.
Since she received word while boating on Lake Cumberland with her husband, Kentucky Broadcasting Association President Gary White, Decker’s mother has been by her bedside.
She said the doctor’s words are a good prognosis for what her daughter went through. She also sustained multiple rib fractures and a collapsed lung.
But White said this is not the first tornado her daughter has lived through.
“I was pregnant with Stephanie when the 1974 tornado came through Frankfort. While we were not in harm’s way, many of our family members were.”
Having grown up in Frankfort, it is Decker’s former teammates and school friends who can point to the resilience, strength and determination that is pulling her through.
Rachel Duvall-Shaw attended Capital Day School with Decker for nine years but especially remembers their four years playing basketball together.
“I remember her as the scrappy point guard. We parted ways going to high school, Stephanie to Franklin County High School and me to Frankfort High School.”
But the pair met again on the basketball court as rivals.
“I’ll never forget playing each other our senior year of high school. She led her team to a double overtime victory over the Panthers and that game advanced them to the regional,” Duvall-Shaw said.
“I want everyone to know she was tough then and a leader, just as she is now going through this.”
Decker’s mother says that after her daughter graduated from FCHS and went on to Bellarmine University where she earned degrees in psychology and sociology, she never played basketball again.
“Except for the occasional pick-up game or just for fun,” White said.
Stachia Hicks Serafini was president of their 1992 senior class and shared the duties of captain with Decker.
The former co-captain of that Flyer basketball team also knew she and her teammate were playing high school ball because they loved it.
“We knew we weren’t outstanding athletes, that we would probably never play college ball, but on the court then we gave it our all.”
“Stephanie was so passionate, had a mental toughness and above all a will to win,” said Serafini, who now teaches third grade at Emma B. Ward elementary school in Lawrenceburg.
As for that passion, Serafini said Decker cared so much that no matter if they won or lost, Decker cried.
“We were the only two seniors on the team. Our junior year we only won one game and that was our season opener. She knows about being the underdog and what it takes to fight back.”
By the next year, the captains found themselves and their teammates in the district tournament.
“Many people don’t understand how much can be learned from sports; especially determination, how to be the underdog one day and the winner the next.
“You learn there will be better days and that you can beat the odds and that’s how I know Stephanie can make it through this.”
Serafini said she is a great believer that past experiences help shape lives.
“In our case, the odds were stacked against us, but we learned to fight through and not settle. That’s what I see in Stephanie now.”
Two words uttered by Decker after the tornado assured Serafini that she was going to make it.
“When I heard Stephanie had said, ‘I’m alive,” I knew that passionate fighter was going to carry on and things would be OK.”
Although Serafini and Decker have not seen much of each other over the years, the teammates keep in touch through Facebook.
“We both have children in sports. Does that surprise you?”
The two mothers post pictures of their children, discuss their abilities and find most of their days are filled with practices, games and matches.
Krista Faris Story was a freshman on the team when the two were seniors.
But Story knew her teammate from the time she was in the seventh grade and was water girl for the Flyers.
“That girl drank more water than anyone on the team,” Story said, adding that she often threatened to buy Decker a second water bottle.
“People may not realize that you are teammates forever. You are bound by common experiences, by the coach. In our case it was Sally Gaines.”
Both Story and Serafini said their season together was one of the last for their coach who was dealing with cancer.
“Just that experience and watching Coach Gaines giving it her all and not letting up on us had its impact,” Serafini said.
And the then-freshman and senior also vividly remember the words the late Coach would tell them – all the time.
“You have to sacrifice your body if you want to win.”
Decker’s actions to save her children personify those frequent words by their coach, her former teammates say.
“I just want Stephanie and others to know that she is amazing. She will come through this and be standing proud,” Serafini said.
“Of course, she will have obstacles and horribly bad days, but she will come out on the other side of this being the passionate person I have always known her to be.”
Her three former friends will be cheering her on.
“We may not have been in her life in recent years, but she is definitely in our hearts; after all we will always be her teammates and we will support her in this life-changing game however she needs us,” Serafini said.
How to help
Stephanie Wise Decker undergoes another surgery Thursday and remains at University Hospital in Louisville.
Decker is no longer in the ICU and has been moved to a room. She is on Facebook and is posting from her hospital bed.
Here are a few options to help:
νMany inquiries have come in to The State Journal requesting information on how to send get-well and encouragement cards.
Decker’s mother, Jeri Mayes White supplied this address: Stephanie Decker, c/o Bob and Karen Decker, 1753 Boy Hill Place, Henryville, IN 47126.
νStachia Hicks Serafini, a third-grade teacher at Emma B. Ward Elementary in Anderson County, is working with her students to send cards and collect toys to replace those Decker’s children lost. Dominic is 8, and her daughter, Reece, is 5.
The women are former Franklin County High School Lady Flyer teammates. For more information, email Serafini at firstname.lastname@example.org.
νPhysicians Ancillary Services, Decker’s employer, has set up a formal trust fund for the family. Donations may be sent to The Stephanie Decker Recovery Fund, c/o PAS, 10 Higgins Highway, Suite 5, Mansfield Center, CT 06250.