SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4) – Many remember M. Russell Ballard, former acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, as a beloved apostle and a respected church leader.

Twenty-year-old Sarah Frei remembers him as her 95-year-old best friend.

“I would have lunch with him at his office,” Frei said. “He would tell me on the phone, ‘whenever you’re in Salt Lake, let me know!’”

Their friendship began in 2020.

M. Russell Ballard visits Sarah Frei in the hospital. (Courtesy of Sarah Frei)

In July of that year, Frei was hit by a drunk driver while driving through Logan Canyon. The crash left her paralyzed from the waist down. She lost both her legs and was in the hospital for months. While there, she met Ballard.

He was visiting his son at the hospital and went in to meet Sarah.

“He came over to me and he held my hand,” she said. “He didn’t know anything about the situation. I had a blanket over my legs, so he couldn’t tell that I lost my legs, but he was talking to me as if he knew me and as if he knew everything about me.”

The friendship didn’t stop when Ballard left the hospital room. Two days later, Frei’s mom received a phone call.

“She answers the phone, and he says, ‘This is President Ballard. I’m just checking in on Sarah,’” Frei said.

Sarah Frei attends the burial of M. Russell Ballard on Nov. 17, 2023. (Courtesy of Sarah Frei)

For nearly six months, Frei says she and Ballard would talk on the phone almost every day. The checking in continued with scheduled lunches and meetups for years. It’s something she recognizes as a blessing.

“He could have come to my hospital room and then left and not thought twice about it,” she said. “It made me realize how important friendships are in this world.”

Especially friendships with a 70-year age gap.

“‘Keep your courage up and hang in there.’ That’s what he would tell me on the phone,” Frei said. “When I was still in the hospital, he sent me a teddy bear that said, ‘hang in there.’ That tag is still on the teddy bear today.”

Frei says he’s still reminding her, even now, to hang in there.