Eric Arthur with his wife, Vicki, and his sons, Ryan and Paul.

By Christy Heitger-Ewing, Towne Post - Avon

One’s perspective on life can change in the blink of an eye. That’s precisely what happened to Vicki Arthur seven summers ago when she and her two young sons were at their family’s cottage in Michigan, having celebrated her husband Eric’s 45th birthday just a few days earlier. Eric had returned to their home in Hendricks County, and Vicki and the boys stayed behind to enjoy an extended stay at the lake. On July 18, 2012, Vicki’s biggest concern was the bad haircuts her sons had received at a barbershop that day. Then the phone rang with news that brought her to her knees. Eric had suffered a devastating stroke and was not expected to live through the night.

Thankfully he did make it, but the following morning, Eric’s neurologist told Vicki that the stroke hit his brain stem – the worst possible place, since the brain stem controls so many of the body’s vital functions including breathing. Throughout the following 72 hours, Vicki stood by her unconscious husband while doctors painted a bleak future.

“I was told Eric would never get out of bed again,” Vicki recalls. “That was a very dark day for our family.”

In that instant, life seemed surreal. Her mind was spinning as she asked herself, “How can this be happening?” Five years earlier, Eric had been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, a disease of the heart characterized by an irregular heartbeat. Though the couple was warned that the condition increased his chance of having a stroke, they never expected to have to brace for such a tragedy.

Initially, Vicki told her sons Ryan and Paul little about their dad’s condition – only that he was sick and in the hospital.

“A stroke is difficult to explain even to an adult, but after several weeks I knew it was time for the boys to see their dad,” says Vicki, who vividly recalls the poignant reunion. “It was a beautiful moment. I remember the look of love on their faces – overjoyed to see their dad, regardless of his condition.”

Eric spent a month at St. Vincent Hospital before being moved to the Rehabilitation Hospital of Indiana (RHI) as an inpatient. When he arrived at RHI, Eric couldn’t move a muscle. He had a feeding tube and underwent a tracheotomy. He could only respond to people by squeezing their hands. He could only stand with the help of two or three therapists and a metal assistance mechanism.

This new way of living forced the Arthurs to view the world in hourly increments, as long-term planning was no longer relevant. As a result, Vicki says she put “radical trust in God.”

“We had no idea what the future looked like,” she says.

Within weeks at RHI Eric took his first steps, and before long he was walking hundred-foot stretches with a walker. He also relearned how to eat and speak. Time and again Eric defied the odds, prompting nurses to refer to him as the Miracle Man.

“No one could believe that someone with such a horrific brain injury could make such amazing strides so rapidly,” says Vicki, who is eternally thankful to the staff at RHI including Eric’s physical therapist, occupational therapist and speech therapist.. “Truly, every day it was like watching a miracle unfold. The staff at St. Vincent Hospital saved Eric’s life, but the nurses at RHI brought him back to life.”

Vicki will never forget the day the speech therapist told her that Eric had a surprise for her.

“Eric said the words, ‘I love you,’” Vicki says. “They were the first words he had spoken in two months.”

On Ryan’s 10th birthday, he and Paul played a game of cornhole with their dad in the RHI lobby. Considering the circumstances, the moment was monumental, memorable – even magical.

“It was the most beautiful thing,” Vicki says.

When Eric finally returned home, adjusting to the family’s new normal was not easy.

“Eric was completely dependent on others and couldn’t be left alone for any period of time,” Vicki says. “He didn’t have any sense of danger, and so he would get up and if we weren’t watching him he could fall.”

With so much going on at the time including Paul starting kindergarten, Eric’s parents were instrumental in helping to keep the family’s wheels moving. Friends, neighbors, church members and the school community also stepped up by providing meals, rides to school and countless prayers.

“There’s no way we could have gotten through this experience without all those people,” Vicki says.

Back at home, Esther Stien, Eric’s personal fitness trainer, began working out with Eric at least twice a week at her gym, Notch 8 Athletics. She has continued to do so for the past six years.

“When we started, his hand was tucked under my arm the whole time, and we were navigating and orienting ourselves together,” Stien says. “Now he picks the moves that he likes, cleans up his stuff, and navigates 100% independently.”

Prior to his stroke, Eric enjoyed coaching his children in soccer. In fact, it was one of his greatest passions. Three years ago, after Vicki had noticed significant improvement in her husband, she wondered if there might be a way to lead him back to his passion. She reached out to Dave Romie, founder of the Hendricks Community Soccer STAR program, to see if he might be interested in having Eric coach, especially since the program is for children with special needs. Romie loved the idea and welcomed Eric with open arms.

“It felt good to be back on the field,” Eric says.

Vicki and Eric have been married for 21 years, and Vicki says an experience like theirs truly tests one’s wedding vows.

“Couples stand at the alter and promise ‘for better or worse, in sickness and in health’ without really thinking about what that actually means,” Vicki says.

“No one ever thinks that a catastrophic medical event is going to occur in what should be their prime of life.”

But Vicki adhered to those vows, as well as the vow that pledges to love, honor and cherish, because following Eric’s stroke, she cherished life on a whole other level.

“The fact that Eric is still here is a miracle – I relish every second with him,” says Vicki, who no longer sweats the small stuff. Now she appreciates the little things, like a good cup of coffee, a phone call with a friend, dinner out with her boys, and her favorite – watching her sons play with their dad.

Ryan, 17, and Paul, 13, both of whom Vicki calls Eric’s number-one fans, have grown a great deal throughout the past seven years as a result of their father’s experience.

“There are always silver linings in any situation, and I do believe the boys are more sensitive to other people’s feelings,” Vicki says. “They’ve witnessed and experienced things that a lot of kids their age have not.”

Though he has made significant strides in recovery since the stroke, Eric still struggles with speech, balance and vision issues. Despite having four surgeries for his eye muscles, he still suffers from double vision, which prohibits him from driving a car or riding a bike. Nevertheless, no one in the Arthur family is complaining. Instead, they are celebrating their good fortune.

“Life is different now,” Vicki says. “But it’s still good, and we feel so very blessed.”

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