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March 23, 2005     Los Gatos, California Since 1881

Photograph by Loretta Gibson

Josh and Tara Berendes are rebuilding their lives nine months after a major automobile accident put Tara in a coma.

Tara and Josh trying to get back to normal

Grant Shellen
I was a little unsure about calling Tara Berendes to request an interview. Having been in a car accident nine months earlier that put her in a coma for weeks and left her face burned, she could have been sensitive about the issue. But her story is worth telling, so I made the call.

"Sure, but it'll cost you $3,000," the now-21-year-old jokingly said with a laugh. "I figure with all of this publicity, I might as well get something out of the deal."

A few weeks later, Berendes and her husband Josh, whom she had married just 10 days before the accident, are sitting at a picnic table in Bachman Park talking about how their lives have changed since June 1, 2004. Tara is bubbly and quick-witted. Josh, though a bit quieter than his outgoing wife, is obviously much more relaxed than the last time we spoke, about seven weeks after the crash.

The accident occurred in Utah as they were returning to their new home in Colorado after a honeymoon at Walt Disney World in Florida. An oncoming vehicle jumped the freeway median and smashed head-on into the Berendes' car. The driver of the other vehicle was killed.

Josh had a few minor injuries, but Tara suffered burns, cuts, internal injuries and brain damage. She quickly showed signs of improvement, though, and emerged from her comatose state within two months.

Now, the couple is living in a cottage in the same Monte Sereno backyard where they married. Even being so close to the spot where it happened isn't enough for Tara to remember her May 22 wedding.

"It's weird looking at the wedding pictures and watching the video," she says. "I know I got married because I'm in it, but I just don't remember a single thing about it."

Some things return to her with a little prompting, she says. Listening to the song played during the couple's first dance triggered a memory of that moment. Friends described a mime taunting her at her Walt Disney World bachelorette party and she suddenly remembered standing in front of a specific ride at the time. But the bulk of her memories from the few months leading up to the crash are lost.

Her burns and scars are healing and she has returned to working at Great Bear Coffee and Los Osos Café, where she worked several years ago before moving to Colorado to finish college.

She graduated from Colorado Christian University on May 5 of last year but doesn't remember that, either.

Still, the newlyweds aren't angry about what happened. They're just thankful that they survived and that Tara was able to make as much of a recovery as she has.

"Just thinking back to where she could be to where she is, the difference ... is like night and day," Josh says of his wife's progress. "Other than just seeing some scars and stuff, it's hard to even tell that she went through everything."

The Berendeses attribute the positive outcome to their Christian faith. They met at Calvary Church in Los Gatos, and Josh was going to be a youth pastor in Colorado before their plans were derailed.

"It's such a story of prayer, because we had people all over the country praying, and all over the world, too," Tara says.

Thousands of well-wishers sent emails, cards and even money. They checked a website set up by Tara's father, John Eichinger, for updates on her condition.

"We're just a little overwhelmed that people [gave] so much of themselves," Josh says.

While Tara's Medi-Cal insurance eventually picked up the tab for her mounting Utah hospital bills--her subsequent treatment at Silicon Valley Medical Center was covered--the couple was assured that the donations received would certainly help pay for other expenses incurred as a result of the accident.

The young couple is now thinking about the future again and taking some time to readjust plans. Tara hopes to start coursework for a master's degree in social work this fall. Before that, they plan to fly back to Colorado so she can once again walk in a graduation ceremony, as well as to Utah, where they wish to thank the doctors who treated Tara there and meet with the family of the man who died in the accident. They also want to have another wedding ceremony, which Tara says justifies another honeymoon, too.

Mostly, though, they're just enjoying being alive.

"It's enough right now just to kind of get up and take care of the things we can," Josh says.


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