When Puyallup resident Elisa Hays took the stage at the Western Fairs Association in Reno, Nevada on Jan. 13, she began her talk, “When Life Hits You Like a Truck,” with an anecdote from her childhood.
“I am 4, and I’m on a big stage with bright lights and a whole big audience. There’s a whole lot of other 4-year-olds with me and we’re dancing,” Elisa says in a recorded video as she dances in place, twirling with her cane in hand as the audience claps.
But while she’s mimicking the movements of her younger self, Hays, now 49, isn’t there to perform a dance routine. She’s there as a keynote speaker, to give a talk on what it means to be a leader even through life-changing events. For Hays, that life-changing event was exactly what the title of her talk suggested: a car accident.
“I share the story of what happened to me,” Hays said. “That’s the story, but it’s not the story. Terrible things happen to a lot of people. The real story is how me, my family, my company, my friends — how we respond to these circumstances.”
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I share the story of what happened to me. That’s the story, but it’s not the story. Terrible things happen to a lot of people. The real story how me, my family, my company, my family — how we respond to these circumstances.
Hays’ story began long before that tragic day in 2014. She first moved to Puyallup from the Midwest when she was 12, and is the daughter of two parents who created the Puyallup Hartland Clinic and Sound Family Medicine in 1979. Hays grew up training in dance and theater and earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts.
In the 1990s, she performed at the Washington State Fair. In 1999, she took over ownership of a children’s entertainment company called Let’s Pretend Entertainment. She also developed Sudsy’s Barn, a children’s handwashing station, and patented the product.
Hays traveled to fairs and other events across the country for her job, and she was heading to a fair in Houston with two employees on March 1, 2014 as an ice storm was moving in.
An hour away from Wichita, Oklahoma, Hays was driving along I-35 when her truck tires hit black ice. The trailer she was towing swung into the other lane, blocking almost the entire highway.
Hays watched as the headlights of a semi approached them. She knew instantly it was going to hit them.
“I had employed people for years, I had read about leadership, studied it a lot, but it wasn’t until that moment as I sat in the driver’s seat… I sat there having to make a choice,” Hays said in her talk.
Wanting to take care of her employees first, she urged them out of the truck. The trailer was first hit by a semi, then an SUV. A third vehicle, a semi driving 60 miles an hour, hit Hays as she attempted to flee to safety. She was thrown 90 feet through the air and impaled on a guardrail, still conscious.
When help finally arrived, Hays was flown to an ICU. She suffered a collapsed lung, lacerated kidney, a broken hand, a broken leg and a shattered pelvis.
“My pelvis was like if you took a glass and dropped it on the floor,” Hays said.
My pelvis was like if you took a glass and dropped it on the floor.
Back home, 1,800 miles away, her family received a phone call, informing them that Hays had a less than five-percent chance of living.
“My mom, who was a retired physician, heard all of my injuries and said they were being kind,” Hays said. “They wanted to give hope where there really wasn’t.”
But Hays held on. She spent four months hospitalized, including seven weeks in an ICU. Altogether, she received life-saving treatment at eight hospitals in four states over a span of 18 months.
Getting home to her family in Washington was a tricky affair — and an expensive one — that required $30,000 and a jet. In April of 2014, Hays’ brother started a GoFundMe page which raised more than $54,000. It was enough to get her home.
“At least 80 percent or more came from the fair industry,” Hays said. “People came together all around us.”
The extra money became helpful when, in 2015, Hays found she needed a new kidney. Hays traveled to the University of Maryland in Baltimore for a special surgery with her brother, who donated his kidney.
As Hays dealt with health problem after health problem, including learning how to walk and even read again, she found that she was missing performing.
I became terrified that I would lose the ability to be in front of an audience. My whole identity was challenged. My sense of human value was challenged...I thought the best thing I can do is speaking in front of people.
“I became terrified that I would lose the ability to be in front of an audience,” she said. “My whole identity was challenged. My sense of human value was challenged ... I thought the best thing I can do is speak in front of people.”
Hays started attending Toastmasters meetings in Puyallup, where she spoke in front of fellow members.
“She wanted feedback. She wanted to spread her story and make it more about leadership,” said Sherrie Kenyon, treasurer at Puyallup Valley Voices Toastmasters. “Hearing her story, it almost takes your breath away — and she’s very funny.”
She wanted feedback. She wanted to spread her story and make it more about leadership. Hearing her story, it almost takes your breath away — and she’s very funny.
Sherrie Kenyon, treasurer at Puyallup Valley Voices Toastmasters
Now, Hays continues to entertain and share her message on stages around the country and is writing her story into a memoir called “Semi Tragic.” She hopes to release the book this year.
“Now, at almost three years post-trauma, I’m moving forward in life and sharing the lessons I’ve learned,” Hays said.