The temperature was cold in Texas County in the late afternoon of Dec. 6, 2007. Roads were becoming icy, and in some cases treacherous.
Just south of Houston, a horrific two-vehicle crash took place on U.S. 63 at the bridge that crosses Indian Creek. One of the vehicles was a Howell County Sheriff’s Department sedan. Two people inside died as a result of the accident, including 35-year-old transport officer Laura Whittingham and an inmate.
A few cars that were in the vicinity when the wreck occurred stopped, and the drivers approached the gruesome scene of crumpled metal to see if they could help. One of them was Houston resident Paul Fockler.
His life would never be the same.
A woman who also stopped was a nurse. Fockler was glad when he found that out.
“What do we do?” he asked her.
Her reply wasn’t what Fockler hoped to hear.
“There’s not much we can do,” she said. “We don’t have the equipment. I called 911.”
Fockler was overcome by a general feeling of helplessness. The experience caused an upheaval in Fockler’s soul, and he couldn’t shake the feeling that he had to do something.
What that “something” was ultimately became clear, and Fockler went through the necessary steps and completed the required education to become a registered nurse. Having never previously attended college (and having had “no desire to”), he graduated at the top of his class in 2012 and has been employed at Texas County Memorial Hospital ever since, currently performing duties as a house supervisor and Intensive Care Unit nurse.
“To this day, the memory of what I saw is still vivid,” Fockler said. “That helpless feeling really drove me to where I am now.”
At the time of the crash, Fockler was a dry grocery department manager at the Houston Walmart. He was traveling to his church to work on a Christmas Parade float.
His house (then and now) is located on U.S. 63 only a short distance south of the bridge.
Prior to leaving home that fateful day, Fockler was detained for a bit because he couldn’t find his knit cap. Had he not been caught up in that search, he might have been involved in the crash.
After being at the wreck scene for an extended time, Fockler decided to return home and was met by his wife, Melissa, who noticed he looked out of sorts and asked if he was OK. After he described all he had witnessed, Melissa assured him he had done all he could and pointed out that the search for his cap might have saved his life.
“You could have been killed,” she said. “Think about that.”
Later that night, Fockler called his mother, Omanez Fockler, who was a long-time nurse and board member at TCMH.
She also told him he had done all he could.
“You’re not a paramedic,” she said. “You’re a manager at Walmart.”
AN UNLIKELY MEETING
The bridge is now named after Whittingham, and a memorial (complete with a cross and flowers) stands nearby next to the highway. On a Saturday in June 2017, Fockler and Melissa met Whittingham’s daughters at the memorial.
But it wasn’t a planned meeting – or one that could be called standard in any way.
The Focklers had intended to leave early in the morning to enjoy an airshow at Whiteman Air Force Base (near Knob Noster), but for various reasons, they couldn’t get away from home and changed their plans to go to the show on Sunday.
Since they were staying in town, they made plans to run some errands in the local area, but once again found it hard to get away from home.
“One thing after another kept coming up, and we didn’t get away until about 4:30,” Fockler said. “Then we pull out of the driveway, and see a car sitting by the road near the memorial. As we go by, I see two young girls and a guy get out. I said to Melissa, ‘I wonder if that’s family.’”
Fockler’s hunch was accurate. It was Whittingham’s fraternal twin daughters, Hannah and Haley, who were 18 years old at the time, and a boyfriend of one of the girls.
When he saw the girls standing by the memorial, Fockler knew.
“It’s them,” he said to Melissa.
The Focklers approached the pair and Paul explained who he was and how the crash experience had caused him to become a nurse. Haley said they lived in Elk City, Okla., and it was their first visit to the memorial.
“This is a God moment,” she said.
Hannah seemed puzzled and intrigued.
“Did you know we would be here?” she asked.
Fockler explained the scenario that led he and Melissa to be there at that specific moment. Hannah was amazed.
“I told them I had always wanted to meet them and that I had been with their mother until she was taken to the hospital,” Fockler said. “I told them I wanted them to know that something good came out of this and that I now worked for the people who took care of her and that she was in good hands and well cared for before she died.”
Fockler and the twins maintain a close relationship and stay in contact on a frequent basis.
“If I could give up my relationship with them to give them back their mother, I would do it in a heartbeat,” Fockler said. “But at the same time, getting to meet them in the midst of this tragedy is amazing, and I can’t imagine them not being a part of my life.”
When the Focklers and Whittingham twins met, it was at about the same time of day as when the crash occurred.
“It wasn’t an accident,” Fockler said. “It’s hard to imagine a moment in life that would surpass that. God made it happen.”
ANOTHER UNLIKELY MEETING
In December 2007, Carl Watson was Texas County Sheriff. He was one of the emergency personnel to respond to the crash scene, and Fockler subsequently became friends with him.
Through the aftermath of the crash, Fockler also became acquainted with Whittingham’s mother and stepfather, Doris and Kenneth Brown. When the couple comes to Houston periodically to decorate the memorial, they typically contact the Focklers and the group enjoys a dinner together.
Recently, during one of those meals at Miller’s Grill, the four came across Watson.
“Doris was ecstatic that she got to meet him,” Fockler said. “We got pictures with him and that was really important to them.”
“In a way,” Melissa said, “they feel like Laura’s memory is staying alive through Paul and everything that keeps happening.”
A BEAUTIFUL SIDE EFFECT
Because of the crash, Fockler became a nurse. Because Fockler became a nurse, TCMH MD Dr. William Wright (who is also his pastor at Wellspring Church in Houston) introduced him to Lighthouse Medical Missions, a Christian organization based in Santa Monica, Calif., that sponsors medically-oriented mission trips to countries on multiple continents.
Fockler has since provided nursing services (at no charge) to adults and children in Guatemala (in Central America), The Gambia (in West Africa) and Colombia (in South America).
In Colombia, Fockler and his cohorts dealt with Venezuelan refugees who were at the end of their rope, and teamed up with World Central Kitchen (out of Washington, D.C.) to provide food to a throng of about 8,000 hungry, impoverished people. They also took about $30,000 worth of medications and left whatever wasn’t used with the local hospital.
“It’s been a life-changing experience for me,” Fockler said. “It’s just basic care; I get to be a nurse and there’s no paperwork.”
Melissa also went to Colombia.
“The refugees all had the same story,” she said. “They would say there’s no food, there’s no medicine, there’s no work and there’s no hope.”
“It’s always good to gain the perspective of how good we have it,” Fockler said, “even in the midst of how bad we think it is.”
THE STORY GOES NATIONAL
Fockler, 51, tells his wonderfully improbable story in an article in the February issue of Guideposts Magazine, a leading Christian publication headquartered in Harlan, Iowa, that has about 2 million subscribers. Guideposts personnel contacted Fockler about the idea of helping him pen an article about the incident and its life-changing effect on him after coming across a post on his Facebook page about his unlikely meeting with the girls.
But it was actually a third re-posting done at the anniversary of the meeting.
Fockler said he hopes his story inspires people to embrace the idea that it’s never too late.
“Your life can change at any point in time,” he said, “and you really can pursue whatever dreams you have at any stage in life. I like to tell people that I didn’t choose nursing, nursing chose me.”
Melissa said she hopes people can see how God is involved in everyone’s daily existence.
“Maybe we sometimes don’t think that He is or see that He is,” she said, “and then something happens and it becomes apparent that He is orchestrating our lives. And it’s for our good.”
Fockler looks to a Bible verse to illustrate that concept: Romans 8:28.
“I hate the tragedy aspect of all this,” he said, “but it has been an incredible experience, and one that only God could have made possible. None of this has ever been about me, it’s about an amazing story and amazing timing, and how good can come from bad situations.”