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Journey of hope

By Jodi O. Harmon

In an instant the slide collapsed and Mark Grantham fell headfirst toward the concrete deck. With a sickening thud his head smacked the edge of the pool before he tumbled into the water. Not able to move his limbs, he quickly sank, held his breath and waited for help.

Nearly drowning while lifeguarding for his church became an all-too-real nightmare for Mark on June 9, 2006. That day, he had planned on going fishing with a friend. But when he learned the church needed his lifeguard skills at its kids’ day camp he didn’t hesitate to postpone the fishing trip.

Mark was always lending a helping hand at Central Assembly of God in Springfield, Mo. Whether he was teaching his third- and fourth-grade Sunday School class, leading a Royal Rangers group or participating in the church softball leagues, he was actively involved as a leader.

Up until the moment he came down the slide while off duty, Mark’s life was going as planned. There were some big, exciting changes coming. But as the events of the day would unfold, the changes the 24-year-old expected were anything but what he had planned.

As blood poured from Mark’s head, coloring the clear water around him, other volunteers rushed to his aid. As soon as he surfaced, Mark told them he couldn’t move. He was unusually calm for someone suffering paralysis. But Mark knew he was the only worker there who had been trained in head and neck injuries, so he immediately started directing his own care.

“Turn me on my back and hold my head still,” he told his would-be rescuers. “Try to keep me steady.”

His friends kept him in the pool until paramedics arrived about 15 minutes later. Thankfully, Mark never went into shock and was able to give details to the paramedics and later to the emergency workers in the surgical unit.

The kids were taken to another part of the campgrounds. Anxious leaders tried calming campers while they themselves tried to stay calm. Still in the pool, Mark didn’t panic. Instead he reassured his friends and co-workers everything was going to be all right.

Mark says now that he knew the peace and strength he was conveying were not coming from his own inner strength, but from God.

Transit by ambulance along the bumpy, country roads that led to and from the campground was too risky, so a helicopter transported Mark to a hospital in nearby Springfield. During a five-hour neck stabilization surgery, the surgeon went through the front and back of Mark’s neck, bringing it back into alignment with traction and fusing it together with metal pins and rods.

Late that night, Mark woke and found himself in the intensive care unit. He was paralyzed. Alone, he had time to reflect on what had happened and started talking to God. “I trust You,” he prayed. “This is going to be OK. If this is how I have to spend the rest of my life, that’s all right.”

Immediately Mark sensed God telling him, You’re right. It’s not the end of the world, but you’re not going to have to do that.

God has worked through many people since Mark’s accident, but nothing has been so distinctly clear as hearing from God in the ICU. Mark sensed God definitely had a purpose for what had happened.

On Tuesday of that week, Mark had returned from a trip to Pennsylvania where he had asked his girlfriend’s father if he could marry her. Brittney Morrison’s father said yes.

Brittney had recently graduated from Evangel University. Mark and Brittney had only dated a couple of months, but had decided they loved each other and wanted to spend the rest of their lives together. On the morning of the accident Mark had met with a jewelry designer to discuss plans for an engagement ring.

When Brittney received the phone call about Mark’s accident, she immediately tried to book a flight to Springfield but couldn’t get a flight until Sunday. During those two days, Mark contemplated his situation and their future. He prepared what he would say when he saw Brittney.

When she peeked around the corner into Mark’s hospital room, he immediately started his speech: “You have no obligation at all …”

Brittney never let him finish. This was not going to change anything, she insisted — not her feelings about him, their relationship or their future.

Hearing Brittney’s confirmation of commitment, Mark called the ring designer. The designer brought diamonds and settings to the hospital so Mark could choose the combination. The day before Mark flew to Colorado to continue his treatment, the jeweler brought the final product to Mark’s hospital room.

That night Mark surprised Brittney by asking her to marry him.

Slow road to recovery

For the first two weeks after the accident, recalls Mark, it seemed as if all feeling from his chest down was nonexistent. Only in the most intense squeezing of his feet and legs could he distinguish one from the other.

When he arrived at Craig Hospital — a therapeutic and rehabilitation center in Denver that primarily deals with brain and spinal cord trauma — a therapist administered an injury test to Mark’s entire body. Mark was stuck with pins and touched with feathers to test his sensitivity. The same therapist repeated the test at the end of his three-month stay. There was dramatic improvement.

As Mark’s body healed and his mobility remained elusive, he had to face an identity crisis. He had loved playing sports. Suddenly he was envious of senior citizens hobbling with walkers. He was also realizing his survival and existence would depend largely on others’ intervention. Each day he relies on family members and home health aids to help him sit up in bed, get dressed and move around. The constant love and support from both families and friends has been humbling.

He clings to the words found in Jeremiah 29:11, “ ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’ ” (NIV).

Along the journey, Mark has learned patience. His time frame would have been to go through a few months of recuperation and then get back to normal, but he has learned God’s timing is not always our timing.

“The healing process is so slow you can’t detect it,” he says. “But yet a month or two later you can see what has changed or is different.”

Mark’s positive attitude shines whether he’s sharing his faith and encouraging other patients at physical therapy or at church teaching Sunday School and giving kids rides on the back of his wheelchair. When he’s having a bad day, he’ll put on a smile. He doesn’t want to put the weight he’s carrying on anybody else.

He has incredibly hard days, but he says it is during those times that Brittney shines. She steps in providing love and support.

“Throughout this whole process, she’s been my best friend,” he says. “She’s been there 110 percent.”

Brittney reciprocates those feelings.

“What he’s not telling you are those times when he’s doing well and when I’m breaking down,” Brittney says. “He does the same thing for me. Looking ahead to marriage and spending the rest of your life with your best friend, you realize you’re going to help each other through the challenges.”

Mark chose not to sit in the corner and wallow in self-pity. When he came home after three months in Colorado, he and Brittney resumed teaching his Sunday School class.

Being active gives Mark a sense of normalcy, but it took him awhile to get excited about going fishing, hunting or camping. It was hard for him to do the things he loved to do so much and now has to do so differently.

Recently he has had hand controls installed in his van and is now able to drive himself to therapy. Though he doesn’t have much control of his fine motor skills, his gross motor skills allow him to use the controls. Being in a wheelchair doesn’t mean he can’t do the things he did before; he just has had to learn to do them differently.

Initially the doctors didn’t give him much hope, but now they are more optimistic about his prognosis.

Mark says he has gathered a lot of strength from the story of Joseph — he was sold into slavery at 17 years of age and then imprisoned for 13 years during the prime of his life. Finally, at age 30, he became the prime minister of Egypt. During those 13 years, God gave Joseph the strength, resilience and perseverance he was going to need for the job he was given.

Mark knows God is preparing him and Brittney for something. His situation has created challenges but is making them a stronger couple for whatever God has for them to do.

Mark and Brittney have persevered, but don’t criticize couples unable to make the same decision.

“A lot of people look down on others who may have ended up leaving someone in a similar situation,” Brittney says, “but it just means they weren’t meant to be together. I’m not a hero for staying with Mark; he has made it easy. The accident and results from it did not change Mark’s personality or the characteristics about him I had fallen in love with. Staying hasn’t been hard.”

Wedding plans are moving ahead for May.

Laughter is a vital part of their life together. Just two days after the accident Brittney was tickling Mark. He couldn’t defend himself and was laughing uncontrollably. Brittney treats Mark the same as she did before the accident.

“But when we’re married,” she promises, “and I’m pregnant and wanting peanut butter in the middle of the night, he’s the one who’ll be running to the store to get it.

“He’ll walk again,” she continues. “Until then, we’re enjoying the journey.”

JODI O. HARMON is advertising coordinator for Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

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