The Final Sacrifice of a Gallant Nurse

updated 05/08/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/08/1995 01:00AM

REBECCA ANDERSON AND HER HUSBAND, Fred, both 37, were relaxing at home in Midwest City, Okla., when they heard the explosion 30 miles away. Fred wanted to get in the car and see what had happened; Rebecca didn't feel that they should. She thought it was just a pilot taking off at the nearby Air Force base. But minutes later, Anderson, a licensed practical nurse, rushed into the bedroom where her husband was dressing, threw on a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt and shouted to him to get in the car. "She saw some fireman carrying a kid out, or something, and said they could use some help," he recalls.

Her family back home in Fort Smith, Ark., weren't surprised when they learned what she'd done. "She always had time for people; she was very compassionate," says her mother, Doris Needham. Adds her brother Bob Need-ham Jr.: "All Bee would have to do is see one little baby carried out, and she would be off and running."

Tragically this time, Anderson never got her chance to help. Shortly after her husband, a delivery-truck driver, dropped her off at the bombing scene, she was apparently hit on the back of the head by a piece of falling debris. Although she initially declined medical attention—"She kept insisting she had to get back and help the wounded," says rescue worker Glenn Sheppard—she collapsed minutes later and was rushed to the hospital herself. Once there, she managed to give officials her husband's pager number—Fred was setting up a snack wagon for rescue workers at the scene—and awakened briefly when he arrived at her bedside. But she was never able to answer his questions. "I said, 'Baby, what happened?' " he recalled later. "She said, 'I don't remember.' "

Initially doctors wrere optimistic that Anderson would recover. Later that day they performed surgery to remove a blood clot from her brain, and family members—including Anderson's four children, Gabriel, 17, Hilary, 15, Rachel, 12, and Britton, 10, from two previous marriages—rejoiced when she answered commands to wiggle her fingers and toes. But after that first day, Anderson never regained consciousness, and four days later she died from massive swelling in her brain. "Rebecca was fighting so hard to stay alive," said Fred, who met her through friends and married her last July. "With all the trauma she had suffered, she surprised people she lasted so long. I said a word of prayer and said, 'God, go and take her. It's okay.' I said to Rebecca, 'Quit fighting now. You can go now' "

Even in death, Rebecca managed one last generous act. On April 23 her heart was transplanted into 55-year-old William Wilcoxson, a Duncan, Okla., casino worker, who is now recovering. Says Rebecca's brother Hank Needham: "My sister died a hero."

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