Bond of twin brothers strengthened after devastating accident

Family relies on faith to get through trauma

ctruman@herald-leader.comJune 26, 2012 

  • "Surely what a man does when he is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of man he is."

    C.S. Lewis

  • An interview with twins Phil and John Duff. June 1, 2012. Phil Duff, a UK senior, was seriously injured in a November crash. His brother, John, also a UK senior, has been key to Phil's recovery. All videos courtesy of Duff family.

    March update on Philip Duff's recovery.

    A Jan. 30 update on Phil's condition and progress included footage from the November wreck and images of Phil before the accident. "Phil has made tremendous progress since this video was made," according to the family.

In a second, the twin brothers were each hurtled their own way.

Then, as always, they came back together.

On the evening of Nov. 15, Philip and John Duff had just come from St. Luke United Methodist Church on Alumni Drive and were on their way to a nearby Applebee's to watch the broadcast of the University of Kentucky men's basketball game against Kansas.

It was about 9:30 p.m.

The road was wet. Their Camry skidded and spun. Another car hit the driver's side.

Phil's side.

As the ambulance was on its way, John called his mother. Phil's hurt pretty bad, he said.

Janet Duff rushed to the site. She remembers how slippery the pavement was, the feel of her shoes struggling to gain traction to get to her injured son.

At the time of the accident, Phil was a UK senior who wanted to be a minister. He played a beautiful, silky saxophone. John, also a UK senior, had planned to go to graduate school in math. Then there was the moment of impact on a rainy night, just after leaving church.

Normally, this would be the moment when a family shatters, each into his or her own private universe of suffering.

That is not what happened to the Duffs.

Relying on faith

The Duffs had always been a religious family. Janet Duff, a Tates Creek High School math teacher who lost her husband, Jeffrey, to a heart attack when John and Phil were 4 years old, raised all four of her children in a strong church environment.

Stephen, Julie and the twins were good students, too. Stephen works for Lockheed Martin in Lexington. Julie did missionary work and soon will be teaching in the Harrison County public schools. The family even has an informally adopted daughter, Ashley Lee, a pre-med student at UK.

Janet Duff said that what happened to her children never shook her faith. In fact, after the accident the family had its best Christmas ever, she said.

Phil was alive, and they had their hope and faith.

"We had what we needed, and Phil was alive," said Janet Duff.

The Duffs have the kind of faith that impresses Mike Voights, senior pastor of Wilmore United Methodist Church, who knew the Duff family when he was youth minister at St. Luke.

"They have never questioned, 'Why did God do this to us?' " Voights said. "They are not afraid to let others into their lives. A lot of their faith has come from the community around them."

That community included teachers in Fayette County Public Schools, who donated sick days to Janet Duff, enabling her to stay with Phil. "Gobs of people" came to the UK Chandler Hospital to keep vigil with the family, she said. St. Luke church paid for her Atlanta lodging while Phil was at the Shepherd Center, a rehabilitation hospital. St. Luke's pastor, Debbie Wallace-Padgett, visited them while they were in Atlanta and still makes frequent visits to the family.

The family still attends St. Luke and recently expanded their worship routine to again include Sunday school. In addition, Phil and John sometimes attend The Point church in Chevy Chase, which provided the family with food when Phil was in the UK hospital.

Brotherly love

They were always close, Janet Duff's twin boys.

Even as infants, she would put them down apart from one another in the crib, and they would wind up snuggled next to each other.

When the accident happened, Phil was living at UK, a senior history and math major, a reader who loved the work of C.S. Lewis, a novelist and essayist on some of the thornier issues of Christianity. Phil was smart and articulate, and devoted to his family and his calling to ministry.

For the first few months after the accident, Phil knew nothing. He was in a coma for 50 days, in a vegetative state.

"What a horrible label," his mother recalls.

It was months before he opened his eyes. When he did he was at the Shepherd Center, a catastrophic care hospital in Atlanta.

He had to learn to pet a therapy dog, to stand, to walk. Now he uses a recumbent bike in the living room for miles at a time while watching TV. He loves baseball and has been to see the Cincinnati Reds and Lexington Legends. He undergoes therapy at Cardinal Hill. He works with John on Sudoku-like games that make his mind sharper.

John is constantly by his side. After the accident, John graduated from UK. Then he turned his efforts to being Phil's caretaker. He has since become interested in pastoral counseling and now plans to attend Asbury University to study for certification in that field. But right now, he is grateful to be caring for Phil.

"I was able to take care of Phil and love him," John Duff said. "A lot of the time after the accident I started praying a lot. ... I pretty much tried to get ahold of everyone I knew and told them to pray. I learned to depend on God. He comforts us through things like this."

Phil doesn't remember the accident. He is emphatic about that, repeating it several times. But his speech is returning, and he is getting stronger.

John stays by his side to help lift his brother when he needs lifting, to talk to him, to help sharpen his conversation.

When Phil is asked about his desire to become a minister, he blanks for a moment. John looks at him, straight into Phil's eyes, and says quietly, "We talked about that before, right? Remember?"

Phil knows that he wants to get better — to read and write again and someday become a minister.

"He has ridden the bike 26 to 29 miles at one sitting," said Janet Duff. "It's a big part of his recovery."

"I can do a lot of things," Phil Duff said.

But he wants to do more: "Walk on a street and go to college," he said. And play the saxophone again.

And read: "I used to think that if he could teach about C.S. Lewis all his life, he'd be a happy man," said Janet Duff.

Because Phil can be overwhelmed by large numbers of people and noise, they are taking things slowly. John lives with his brother, helping him make the ascent back to the understated, funny guy he was before.

Waiting for healing

Progress in recovering from a brain injury is tough to measure. When you break a bone, doctors know when it has healed. When you remove a diseased organ, it's gone.

But the brain heals according to its own rules, at its own rate.

Sometimes it can take years and years, with plateaus and surges and setbacks in between.

The Duffs have a Lexington home but are staying with Janet's sister in south Lexington because that house has wider spaces in which to maneuver Phil's wheelchair and equipment.

Janet Duff said the experience has only sharpened her faith. God does not promise that there will be no hard times, she said.

"I believe in what I believed before," Phil Duff said.

The Duffs are keeping a blog about Phil's recovery at And they are posting on Facebook, too, including videos of Phil's progress.

In one video, John asks his brother, "When you get better, Phil, what do you want to do?"

"I want to go to school and I want to play tennis and I want to play soccer and read," Phil says.

There is a clip in one of the family videos of Phil in 2009, singing a goofy tune about having a good day because he shaved his face and is going to finish a book.

The video cuts to Phil in 2012, learning to walk again. A Christian song about never walking alone is in the background.

The camera cuts to the brothers hugging like two cubs — one wounded, one holding his sibling as if he might never let go.

Cheryl Truman: (859) 231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.

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