I had just finished my workout at the Planet Fitness in Lexington, Kentucky and walked back into the locker room to get my things and head out and face the day. When I walked around the corner, I found Bill Thomas sitting in his wheelchair directly in front of my locker. He was waiting for me. Although we had never met before, there is no doubt in my mind that he was waiting for me. He looked up when I walked over and asked me how I was. I told him I was doing well and asked him the same question. “Every day I wake up is a good day, a blessed day” he responded. He offered me a granola bar, but I declined. I was in kind of a rush, but for some reason I felt like what Bill had to say was something worth listening to. Over the years, I’ve learned to trust my instincts and that day, as usual, they served me well. He leaned back in his chair and looked up at me and told me this story:
It was Sunday, May 5th, 2013 and he was just waking up. At 57 years old, he had his aches and pains, but nothing out of the ordinary. He figured he’d get up, make some breakfast, have a shower and maybe watch his favorite church programs on TV. He sat on the edge of his bed and pictured his quiet Sunday morning unfolding as it always had. He went to stand up and begin his day when everything went blurry and lost its shape. He closed his eyes and tried to shake it off but when he opened them again nothing had changed. He went to sit back down and collapsed.
When Bill came to some time later, he was lying on the floor and he was in pain. He must have hit his back and maybe his head when he fell, maybe against his bedside table. Worse than that though, he couldn’t feel his legs at all. He tried and tried, but they weren’t moving. Something was definitely wrong. Bill knew he was in trouble and knew he needed to get help. He used all the strength he could muster to pull himself towards his living room and his telephone. Clawing and pushing and pulling his way through his house, he made it to almost within arms’s reach of the phone. Almost. Bill tried to reach his phone, but simply didn’t have the strength. He tried again with all he had left, and then collapsed back to the floor defeated. He faded out of consciousness and lay there quiet and alone in the middle of his living room floor.
Unbeknownst to him at the time, Bill had suffered a double stroke, one affecting both sides of his body. He would lay there in his living room, fading in and out of consciousness for the next six days. He had nothing to eat or drink. The phone kept ringing as his friends were worried and trying to check in on him, and the closeness of the phone and the help it represented were torture for him. I don’t know if it’s possible to imagine lying helpless on the floor of your own home for 150 hours, but he remembers it as the longest and loneliest time of his life. He was literally dying of hunger and thirst. Bill told me that in that moment he would have given everything he had ever owned in his whole life for one cup of water, just one cup of room temperature water - it didn’t even have to be cold. It’s amazing when you realize what truly matters in this world and the things we so often take for granted. He lay there for six days and six nights and was later told most people would have been dead after three. Bill isn’t most people though. With no food and suffering severe dehydration, he lost 35 pounds that week.
The following Saturday, the evening of the sixth day of his ordeal, Bill felt a calm come over him. He felt as though hands were touching him and then pulled a blanket up over his body, a blanket that felt like the softest lamb’s wool in the world. Maybe his ordeal was coming to an end. It was then that he remembered his mother getting him to put away his toys as a child. One of her favorite sayings had always been that “God helps those who help themselves”. He knew in that moment that nobody was coming to help him and his only chance of surviving was within himself. Mustering everything he had within him, Bill started shouting for help.
The mailboxes for all of the people in Bill’s building are located just next to his front door, and his neighbor just happened to be checking her mail on her way to her apartment when she heard Bill’s calls for help. She thought someone was in his apartment and immediately called the police. They arrived quickly and called to Bill, asking if he could open the door. Although he was only about five feet away, he couldn’t move an inch. They tried to get Bill’s landlord on the phone for a key, but couldn’t reach him. Finally they asked Bill if they could kick in the door. He told them they could and remembers the sound of them trying.
Whump. The door didn’t give.
Whump. A second time, but the door held fast.
Whump. A third kick did it and the door flew open. That sound of the door breaking in was the last thing that Bill remembers for three days.
Bill was transported to the hospital where he was hooked up to IVs and monitors. His heartbeat was faint and irregular. He was defibrillated twice, but the doctors couldn’t regulate his heartbeat. They made every effort to revive him and when they all failed, they made him as comfortable as they could and waited for him to die.
Somewhere in his unconscious state, Bill had a dream, “you know, the one everyone says they have when they’re dying” he recalls. He remembers it vividly to this day, as if he had lived it rather than dreamed it. He was walking along a long paved road. The road had no lines on it and there was nothing but grass in every direction. There were no trees or houses or people along the road, just grass as far as the eye can see. It was the greenest grass he had ever seen, and the sky was bluer than University of Kentucky blue. He just walked and walked and walked. He walked around curves and up hills and down the other side. He didn’t know where he was going, but he just kept walking.
Finally, he came to a Y in the road. To the left, he saw nothing but darkness. To the right, he saw nothing but bright light. He didn’t have anything to light his path, so he chose the road to his right. Holding his hands out in front of him, Bill walked towards the light. When he could finally make something out in the light, he knew he was looking at an angel. She had perfect skin and perfect hair and was wearing a long, flowing white and ivory colored dress. He could see her wings. She was standing on the fluffiest cumulus cloud he had ever seen and he couldn’t see her feet. She didn’t say a word to him, only held out her hand for his. Bill believes in that moment he was being given a choice between living and dying. He decided his work wasn’t done yet, so he mustered all of his strength and, for the second time in 10 days, he reached for something he didn’t know if he could grasp. Unlike the phone in his living room, this time he succeeded. He grasped her hand and when he did, he woke.
Confused by his surroundings, Bill didn’t know why he wasn’t in his own bed in his own room. He felt the monitors on his body and the oxygen mask on his face and decided he needed to find his clothes and get out of there. Whatever commotion he was causing in his bed, it caught the attention of the two nurses who were monitoring him. He remembers one of them ran as fast as anyone he’d ever seen run to get the doctor. The second nurse came and put her hands on his chest and told him he was in the hospital and to lay back and they would take care of him.
When the doctors came, the head doctor wrapped her arms around him and hugged him and said “Welcome back”. She told him they thought they were going to lose him. Bill looked up at them and told them the story of the angel and they all agreed that it was a miracle he was alive.
The doctors administered a number of tests and found that while his body was struggling, his vital signs were good and returning to normal. While his memory was temporarily a little fuzzy, his IQ was high as it had always been. They offered him water and went to pour him a cup from a pitcher. Bill took the pitcher instead and drank the whole thing down. He asked for another pitcher and, slower this time, finished that one too. Water had never tasted so sweet and he remembered how, lying on his living room floor, he would have given anything and everything for just one cup.
When they finally allowed him to eat, they asked Bill what he wanted. He was so hungry he asked for 12 strips of bacon, 8 wedges of wheat toast, a bowl of strawberries, decaf coffee and a big glass of orange juice. He remembers it coming and it was just how he envisioned it. He ate the whole spread in fifteen minutes and asked for the same again.
Bill stayed in the hospital for almost three months until August 22nd when he was moved to a rehab facility. He remained there for another six months until February 28th, 2014 - just two days after his 58th birthday - when Bill Thomas finally went home.
Since then, he has worked out religiously with the help of a trainer at Planet Fitness. He has managed to drop from 286 pounds to 194 and his doctors say if he loses another 11 pounds, they will take him off of his insulin. He still uses his wheelchair to get around, but he hopes that some day soon he will be able to walk without it. Until then, though, he will keep wheeling his way to the gym every day.
Not long ago, Bill was asked to share his story with his church, and he tried to think of Bible stories which would help illustrate how he felt. He chose ones in which he felt people really had to trust God. He chose Noah, who despite facing the ridicule of his neighbors trusted God and built his mighty arc. The other two stories he chose I think he may understand as well as anyone. He chose Daniel in the lions’ den and Jonah in the belly of the whale, because in the scariest moments of their lives, they had put their trust in God. As I said earlier, I cannot imagine what it must have been like for Bill to lay on his living room floor, alone for almost a week. During that time I can absolutely picture him feeling like Daniel or Jonah, completely alone and terrified but holding onto the only thing they had left in their control: hope.
Bill finished his story and looked up at me. He told me he knew when he saw me that he was supposed to share his story with me. I told him I was glad he did. He said it would be okay if I shared it with people as it might bring people hope or inspiration. He asked me what I do and I told him I’m in the story-sharing business. He smiled and said that maybe me sharing his story was what he had been praying for. I told him I felt the same way…