Athletics had always been the most important thing in my life. In fact, at fifty-five years old, at five-foot-five, he had just auditioned for the Michigan Senior Men’s Olympic Volleyball team, and there was a good chance he would make it.
Then tragedy struck. In a motorcycle accident, I broke my left leg. Doctors prescribed an amputation. Before the surgery, while lying in the hospital bed discussing with family and friends what life would be like without a leg, a young medical assistant named Sarah Scholl said, “Andy, what kind of golf balls do you play?”
That was a dumb question, but I said, “Titleist Pro V1”. The next morning, a 12-pack Titleist Pro V1 golf balls lay by my bed. Sarah’s gift gave me a ray of hope.
When I woke up after the operation, I was surprised to look down and see two legs and ten toes. Fortunately, the doctors had decided that my leg had enough circulation to try and save it. But there were months of rehabilitation ahead. In a subsequent operation, I almost died on the table.
When it was time to transfer me to a rehab hospital, Sarah took me to the ambulance. “I have a favor to ask of you,” he said. “My father died some time ago. When I get married, I want you to walk me down the hall.”
“Sarah, it’s doubtful I’m ever going to walk anywhere. Besides, you don’t even have a boyfriend.”
“Someday I will,” he said.
Hope and love
At the rehab hospital, where I had practically reconciled myself to living the rest of my life in a wheelchair, I received a call from John Wilder, my volleyball coach. “Congratulations Andy, you made the team! You’re playing in the Senior Olympics.”
I told him about my accident and waited for him to say that he would miss having me on the team. But Wilder surprised me: “You improve. I’ll play with you if you can stand up.”
His words lit a spark. I went to rehab eager. Seven months later I was able to present myself for the Senior Olympic Games. Although he could barely stand, John was true to his word: he got me into the game.
When it was my turn to serve, I glanced at my wife, Kay, sitting in the stands. I generally avoided my sporting events. He couldn’t blame her; I had always put the sport before her in my life. But today Kay wasn’t just there, she was beaming. As I looked at his beaming smile, I lost it, right there on the court. Suddenly I understood why God had allowed this accident. He cared a lot about our marriage.
I recovered enough to serve. We won that game and the next. As the competition intensified, the coach had to take me out, but our team won the gold medal.
Life from death
Back home, my health continued to improve. Then all of a sudden my liver shut down. In major surgery, doctors diverted her with a bypass. That saved my life, but the unfiltered blood rushing to my brain made my hands shake so violently that I had to sit on them. I applied for a liver transplant and waited.
A year passed, then two. No call from the transplant hospital. How do you pray for a transplant? For me to live, someone else had to die. What makes me better than someone else’s husband or someone else’s father?
One day it occurred to me that it was not the first time that someone needed to die so that I could live. Jesus had done that for me. If God loved me so much, I could trust him with my future.
In what appeared to be a divinely inspired conversation, Kay and I learned that Indiana had twice as many registered organ donors as Michigan. So we rented an apartment in Indianapolis and requested a transplant. Two months later we received a call: a man had died in an accident; I was one of ten transplant candidates who would benefit.
Through the valley
The speed of my recovery amazed the doctors. For the first time in five years I subscribed to a magazine in my own name. But I pushed too hard on rehab. While doing sit-ups, I ripped the incision in my abdominal muscles. During emergency surgery, the doctors placed a mesh inside my abdomen and sewn the muscles in place. They inserted a tube up my nose into my stomach to pump fluids.
After the surgery, I had to sit on the bed in a position without moving and without eating. Time passed so slowly that the second The clock hand seemed to stop. One dragged day … two days … three days … how much longer would this agony last? I have never felt so desperate and miserable.
Around 4:00 am on the fourth night, the longest night of my life, I yelled to God, “Lord, take me! I can’t do this anymore.” Kay was by my side, where she had faithfully been since my accident. She muttered, “Me neither.” At that point, Kay and I gave up completely. We were at the absolute bottom of the valley, the blackest hole we could imagine.
Fifteen minutes later, our surgeon unexpectedly entered the room and said, “I woke up in the middle of the night feeling that something had changed.” He checked my vital signs. “We can get the tube out.” At the end of that day he was walking. A month later, I went back to work full time.
Jump and walk for joy
My left leg had no nerves, so I thought my volleyball days were over. But my physical therapist had an idea. He tied my knees and ankles so I could jump rope. I worked up to two jumps … then six … then twenty! I was so excited that I called out to a former volleyball buddy: “Hey Tim, I can jump!”
“That’s great! We have a volleyball tournament in Milwaukee in two weeks. Are you coming to play?” That seemed far-fetched, but two weeks later, at the last minute, I decided to go. When I introduced myself, my former teammates stood up and cheered. It was an emotional scene.
The first five games were tough, but in the sixth game I got a perfect set and a legitimate kill. A few minutes later I blocked for game point. That taught me an important lesson: don’t waste time wishing you could do the impossible. Just do your best and sometimes the impossible happens.
After the game, I thanked my old coach, John Wilder, for inspiring me at first. “You’re the one who deserves the credit,” John said. “You never gave up.”
“Actually, John, I gave up, but God never gave up on me.”
In 2009, seven years after my accident, I received an email from Sarah Scholl: “I have a boyfriend, will you come?”
What a joy it was to walk, not in a wheelchair, but to walk, Sarah down the hall.
Andy DeVries is director of development at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
A full journal of his trip is posted on caringbridge.org under the name “andydevries.”
His website has had more than 25,000 visits.
2011 Andy DeVries