Heroes and heroines take many forms, whether it’s active military, firefighters, police officers, medical professionals, or teachers. But the protagonist in the following story was just a regular woman trying to turn her life around.
When the opportunity presented itself to help someone in need, our heroine took it, and unfortunately it cost her her life. Her boyfriend opened up about the terrifying moment she was swept away by flood waters.
Leaped With Her Heart
Melissa Lehew’s friends and family described her as a woman who leaped with her heart, regardless of the consequences. It was her big heart, they believe, that led to her death at only 34 years old. One Friday evening, Lehew and her boyfriend, Kyle Bowman, 31, were driving home from a local store when they noticed a disabled car.
Trying to Save a Man
The car was stuck on a flooded bridge on a road in Maryland and as the water rose, Lehew told Bowman, “We have to do something.” Bowman detailed the incident to The Baltimore Sun saying that he backed his truck into the water, being careful not to go too deep and he tied a rope to his bumper. With the water up to his hips, the rope wasn’t long enough to reach the stranded driver.
Knocked Off Their Feet
Then, before Bowman could get back to his truck, the rushing water knocked him and Lehew off their feet, and they slammed up against a guardrail. Bowman made his way over to Lehew as she clutched desperately to a telephone pole. “I made my way over to her and pulled her head up from the water so she could breathe,” he said.
Holding on For Dear Life
“She got to a telephone pole and was holding onto that. I was holding onto a bush. I was trying to pull her up and I just couldn’t. She couldn’t hold on. She just got swept away. As I was pulling myself out with the rope the car also washed over the guardrail and went into the creek too,” Bowman said. At that very moment, Bowman knew his girlfriend was gone and he thought he was going to be next.
Losing His Girlfriend
“I knew she was gone. I thought I was going to go, too. One slip and I was going to go.” But seconds later, the water washed the car, with the driver, Daniel Samis, 67, inside, and he went over the bridge into Broad Run. Rescue crews recovered his body the following morning, although, Lehew’s body wasn’t immediately found.
The search for her body took three days. As the search was suspended after two days, Baltimore City search divers were flown to Maryland Shock Trauma for treatment after being injured during their dive. Bowman was the one who made the discovery of his girlfriend’s body when he got a group of people together and went out to search.
72-Hours to Find Her Body
“As soon as we were in the lake I saw her floating maybe a hundred yards off from where I put the kayak in from,” Bowman said. “At least now we found her and we don’t have to go diving in that lake.” Despite both bodies being found, their loved ones are still coming to terms with the discoveries.
Dying a Hero
To Bowman, Lehew died a hero on the road to redemption. He explained how she had not fully conquered her demons as she’d lost custody of her children and was battling with her addiction to alcohol. Online court records show that Lehew faced multiple legal troubles, involving hearings on probation violations.
One of the violations was a 2017 misdemeanor trespassing conviction and another was a 2017 misdemeanor child neglect conviction for which she was sentenced to four and a half years in jail. She also pleaded guilty in May 2015 to driving under the influence of alcohol. Lehew and Bowman first met at a sobriety meeting as they both worked to overcome addiction.
Mother of Four
Lehew was a mother of four and she became a deeply religious woman when she joined Mount Zion Church in Bel Air over the summer. She described herself online as a “sinner … saved by the grace of God” and she regularly posted videos of her singing hymns for her 4,700 Facebook friends to see.
Religion Led Her Life
Bowman said, “Religion was kind of her guidepost for life,” and that the months she served in jail were a “wake-up call” for her to make changes in her life. Rev. Craig McLaughlin, pastor of Mount Zion, said Lehew worshiped weekly at the church since she joined several months ago. She also regularly volunteered her time to give care to the elderly in the community and was trying to establish a volleyball team.
Conquering Huge Challenges
“She was walking through huge challenges, but we saw that light come on and get brighter,” McLaughlin said. Lehew was open with the church community about leaning on her faith and God along her path to sobriety. “She knew she needed God and she knew she wasn’t going to make it without God’s help and she was seeking God’s help.”
Bowman said that Lehew’s past led her to have estranged relationships with her family. There was family trouble when Bowman set up a GoFundMe page to raise $10,000 to help pay for Lehew’s “final expenses.” He said that any extra money would go into a trust for her children. But some family members took issue with his attempts to raise money.
Apparently, the family said they already paid for her funeral expenses. Then, after $1,000 was raised on the GoFundMe, the campaign was closed. An online obituary for an Essex funeral home listed Lehew as private and didn’t provide any details and her family reportedly couldn’t be reached on the matter.
Changing Her Name
Despite her family troubles, Lehew was so committed to building a new life that she even rebranded herself as “Elizabeth,” inspired by a mid-century missionary of the same name, in an attempt to shed the associations with her given name, “Melissa.” Lehew’s cousin, Jennifer Ragan, said that Lehew left “love bags” around her home for those in need.
The love bags were filled with canned food, toiletries, and items like flashlights and matches to hand out to the homeless or anyone she saw who was struggling. She wanted to live her life according to the faith that she believed in, and Ragan said it was that faith that enabled Lehew to have a fresh start. Ragan is not surprised that her cousin lost her life trying to save another.
“Her last act was for someone else,” said Ragan, who is in the process of adopting Lehew’s youngest daughter. “I can’t stress enough what a beautiful soul she had. It was tormented, and now it is at peace.” Lehew always felt closest to God alongside the river, Ragan said, so she loved the area where she took her last breath.
Ann Dowsett Johnston, the author of “Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol,” said that addiction recovery is “attainable and sustainable,” but achieving sobriety is “not for the faint of heart.” Johnston explains that it can take a person repeated attempts to break the cycle, especially in a culture where drinking is so prevalent and normalized. “It takes a real determination, and some would say blessings from the skies above to stay sober, but millions do.”
Johnston, who is a recovering alcoholic herself, says, “Many recover in church basements, invisible to the public. … We are highly unaware of the level to which we’re rubbing shoulders at the grocery store or in the office with people who have been on that path. But we are coming out of the closet, and I think we will see a recovery revolution.”
She feels that alcoholism receives less attention than other substance abuse, and as a result, it receives less devotion to finding solutions than it deserves. “We normalize binge drinking in our cultures, in the movies and on television.” Hopefully other women like Lehew will seek help and get their lives on the right path just like she did. She died a hero.