"We wouldn't have had Christmas without this," Bruce Smith says of the kindness shown to his family after his wife's accident


Tammy Smith, a 43-year-old nurse from Johnston, South Carolina, was on her way to check in on an elderly couple on October 15 when a semi-truck slammed into her.

“It’s a feeling similar to being held underwater. My heart stopped on October 15,” Tammy’s husband, Bruce Smith, tells PEOPLE of the moment he learned of his wife’s accident.

The mother of 11 suffered a traumatic brain injury, broken ribs and a collapsed lung, and was in a vegetative state until Thanksgiving.

That’s when her husband of 24 years, Bruce, 46, says she finally opened her eyes, and softly said his name.

“If you’ve ever had a child take their first step, that’s what it was like,” he says of that emotional moment.

Bruce is currently staying at the Hospitality House of Charlotte, a non-profit near the hospital that lets loved ones stay practically for free while dealing with a medical crisis.

Meanwhile, an army of friends and family are caring for the couple’s children, who range in age from one to 23.

“It’s taking 17 people to do what she was doing by herself – getting the kids to all of their activities. It’s been amazing to watch,” Bruce says.

In addition to working as a certified nursing assistant, Tammy homeschooled the kids while Bruce drove a truck. Both have been away from work since the accident and the father of 11 says they’re now struggling to pay their bills. A GoFundMe page has been set up to provide updates on Tammy’s recovery.

“This is a tragic blow for us as a family,” he says.

Christmas wasn’t going to happen this year until people from a private school near the Hospitality House stepped in to help the Smiths. They brought over carloads of presents for everyone staying there, including something for each of the couple’s 11 children.

Bruce chokes up when talking about the generosity of strangers. “We wouldn’t have had Christmas without this,” he says. “It’s a blessing that comes from strangers. We don’t have anything, we don’t even know if we’re going to be able to keep our house.”

Doctors say Tammy’s physical injuries should heal well, but the extent of her brain injury is still being determined.

Bruce adds, “We don’t know her prognosis yet. The best estimate is that in a year she might be 80 percent back. We just don’t know yet. Twenty-four years ago we started a journey and this is just another chapter.”