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Mother and daughters earn master’s degrees together following horrific car accident and miraculous healing

From left to right: Malina, Maya, and Dona Richardson (Photos by Andrew Snyder)

A life can change in an instant and be altered forever for the better or worse. In the last five years, Malina, Maya, and Dona Richardson have seen God guide their family through adversities and miracles on their path to crossing the graduation stage at Liberty University’s Commencement.

On March 30, 2017, Malina was about to enter her final month of her undergraduate studies at Radford University (in Radford, Va.) where she also competed on the track & field team. Her sister Maya was finishing her junior year at Radford. While driving home to Ashland, Va., the girls were talking on speakerphone with their mother, Dona, when they noticed a tractor-trailer driving erratically on the interstate.

In an instant, the reckless driver side-swiped their car with an impact that sent the vehicle high in the air, ejecting Malina and tossing Maya into the backseat. The car landed on Malina, causing extensive injuries. Hot oil leaking from the car burned 70 percent of her body, including her face and mouth.

Seemingly uninjured at the time, Maya gathered herself while still on speakerphone and her mother frantically told Maya to save her sister. Every moment counted before the paramedics arrived. Maya’s instincts kicked in. Using a mix of adrenaline and what the family could only attribute to God, Maya lifted part of the mangled car off Malina.

“All I knew was I saw my sister under the car and that the car needed to get off of her if she’s going to survive,” Maya recounted. “It wasn’t a decision, I didn’t put any thought into it, it was just me going into action for my sister to make it.”

“Maya was in fight or flight after the accident happened, when she picked the car up off of Malina, and she started praying, ‘God bring my sister back to me,’” Dona said. “In that moment, as a parent, I truly learned what it was to lay your child down at God’s feet. Ultimately, she’s God’s child and I only get to have her here with me temporarily. The only thing you can do is say, ‘Lord, can I have them a little longer?’”

First responders them to the VCU Medical Center, where Malina was immediately designated in critical condition. The doctors thought at the very least that she would be in the hospital for five to six months.

Following heaps of prayer and God’s blessing, Malina came home in a wheelchair only one month after the accident. She was able to attend her graduation. Maya pushed her sister in a wheelchair up to the stage and Malina walked across on crutches to a standing ovation.

For Maya, the effects of the accident would come a few months later, when she would unexplainedly pass out after physical activity. After traveling to VCU, Northern Virginia, New York, and Ohio, the doctors eventually found that Maya’s blood was internally pooling into her feet and that her spinal cord had become detached from her neck, both of which were not apparent immediately following the car accident. She underwent a stabilization surgery in 2018 in New York and a second in 2021 after a screw from the first procedure broke. Maya was able to graduate from Radford in-person in 2019.

The Richardsons walk across the stage hand-in-hand at the School of Education degree ceremony on Thursday.

While spending much of her time at hospitals in those first couple years, Dona looked into earning a bachelor’s degree and teaching licensure. She had been a special education teaching assistant for Hanover County for 15 years before she took a break to care for Malina and Maya, and as a single mother of four she hadn’t had the time or energy to start a college degree. She discovered Liberty University Online Programs as an avenue to take courses from her daughters’ hospital rooms.

“Once I called the first time, Liberty would call every day at the same time of day to help fill out the application process,” Dona said. “Liberty made sure that once I made that first phone call that I stayed accountable, and I loved that. Liberty sticks with you through all of it. With the format, you can plan out your life. It can be as independent as you want, or it can be as (interactive) as you want.”

Dona began taking courses through Liberty Online to pursue an interdisciplinary studies bachelor’s degree with a focus on special education, which she earned in 2019.

“I would sit at the window in the hospital room and I would work on my degree, writing research papers and discussion boards and completing projects,” Dona said. “There was a lot of uncertainty with Malina and eventually Maya. When they went through their surgeries and so on, I was working on my degree. It kept me grounded and helped me keep my sanity.”

In 2020, all three of them enrolled in online master’s programs with Liberty, with Maya and Malina studying health promotion and Dona studying for a Master of Education (MEd) in Special and Gifted Education – Twice Exceptionalities.

“I started talking it up with the girls that Liberty stands by you and makes sure you get through it, and they all sort of followed in my lead,” Dona said.

Malina has recovered enough to be able to run again, but she receives monthly laser treatments on her face and will have a series of surgeries to remove scar tissue and help widen her mouth. In August of 2020, she married her high school sweetheart, who has supported her recovery from the beginning.

Maya has had severe health issues in recent months, including a spinal fluid leak. Earlier this year, she was considered critical as doctors were concerned that her spinal cord and fourth ventricle could rupture and cause sudden death. Her issues have lessened in recent weeks, with her undergoing a surgery to fix the leak last week.

Over the last two years, the Richardson trio has continued their graduate-level education from wherever they have had to travel for ongoing doctor visits, which has included Los Angeles and return visits to Cincinnati. Malina said that her professors and assignments fit well into the family’s unpredictable schedule.

“Liberty was some of the best education I’ve ever received, to be honest, especially with the online side,” Malina said. “With the way the courses were laid out and how professors taught, I really understood what was going on and everyone was very supportive throughout the process. It worked really well with my doctors’ appointments and work schedule, and the curriculum was amazing.”

Their professors were also accommodating, offering extensions on assignments when needed.

The Richardsons said their professors and classmates prayed for them at each step of their journey.

“We’ve had a lot of people praying for us over these years, and I had other students at Liberty that I’m in classes with and my professors praying for Maya, and God has continued to move,” Dona said. “It’s really a full circle story that we started out with our separate degrees and fought again and again, literally through life and death, and Liberty was able to keep us in prayer and bring us to today.”

Her other two daughters, Alayna and Alycia, have begun taking online classes through Liberty as well, with Alayna following in her sisters’ footsteps in the health promotion master’s program and Alycia considering a Master of Science in Nursing. Dona was recently accepted into Liberty’s early childhood education doctoral program.

Malina said that she hopes to use her health promotions training to create better healthcare knowledge in their family’s Native American community.

“Being Native American, I know that implementing programs and having that knowledge can really help our community. It’s a preventative mindset to medicine, helping others before they get sick and implementing programs to look out for issues. I don’t know what God has planned for me, I’ve just been taking things day-by-day and keeping my faith in Him because I know He has what’s best for me.”

On Thursday, May 5, the three Richardson women crossed the stage at the School of Education degree presentation ceremony (family members are allowed to choose the same ceremony), which will be a moment that Dona said has been the culmination of endless prayer and support from a legion of friends, family, classmates, and others.

“We’re not just walking across that stage as a family that has survived against these (challenges against us), we’re walking with the army of God that has provided life and encouragement to both of these girls,” Dona said before the ceremony. “All of our professors, classmates, and so many others have stood in prayer with us, and we will be walking with all of them during Commencement.”