Down a Different Road

Sedgwick, Kan. -- The blinds are closed, but the white-hot light of the Kansas sun still forces its way into the living room. In front of the blinds sits Shelby Gobel, looking for an "insect."

Slumbering in teenage fashion on the couch opposite him is his son, Alex. The boxed glow of the window blinds glare from Alex's glasses. Shelby doesn't find the "insect," he finds its "antenna." 

"Dad, let's go golfing," Alex asks between yawns, not really expecting a response. 

Alex is 15 and has caught the golf bug. Shelby loves to golf too, especially with his prized Ping clubs. But golfing is not what it once was for Shelby. Nothing is. 

"Dad, let's go golfing," drums out again a few minutes later from Alex's direction. The request is more of a silence filler than the previous, like the repeated plea of a boy in a department store asking for a toy he knows he won't get. Shelby never answers but remains head down, focused on the bee-themed word search in front of him. 

Miscellaneous kitchen noise can be heard. Rebecca, Shelby's wife, is picking up after lunch. Rebecca is a teacher. She, like Alex, waits for summer to melt into another school year. But this summer they have company. Shelby waits too. This summer, they wait together. 

They waited until a week prior to see if Shelby would be allowed back to work. His doctor said yes. His employer's doctor said no. Then they waited to see if that meant he qualified for disability. The answer was no.

Now, they wait to see who will hire a man who just learned to walk again. And they wait to see what becomes of Shelby's career in the Air Force Reserve. He is a master sergeant six days short of retirement. He had hoped to serve five more years with his Civil Engineer Squadron at the 931st Air Refueling Group. Now he waits on the fate of six days.
 
Shelby closes the prescribed book of word searches. His head is tired.
Alex turns the TV on and rapidly flips through channels. The flame of a candle flickers above the TV. The metal sheath that wraps the candle reads "BELIEVE IN MIRACLES." It was given to Shelby's family after the accident.

June 30, 2006
It is not quite 6 a.m. yet when Rebecca hears the front door open again. She wonders what Shelby forgot and gets out of bed. It's kind of chilly outside, he tells her. He takes a jacket from the closet, kisses Rebecca at the entry way and goes back out the door. 

Rebecca's mind turns to hours ahead. Alex and his older sister, Megan, have dental appointments later in the morning. She decides there is still time to lay down and be up in time to shower before 18-year-old Megan commandeers the bathroom. Rebecca goes back to bed. 

Miles north, Robert Walker is driving his newspaper route along Kansas country roads. Open farmland stretches in every direction toward lines of trees that guard its boundaries. The rising sun transforms the color of the surrounding rural vastness. 

Emerging from the horizon of the road ahead is a car and a man. Something is wrong. The car is stopped and the man is still. As Walker gets closer, he can make out two other things in the road. A smashed motorcycle and a dead deer. There are no skid marks leading to the motorcycle. 

In the ditch, lies the battered body of the motorcycle's rider. Walker stops. He goes to the ditch and hears a sickening, gurgling noise coming inside the rider's helmet. Familiar carnage, Walker can not help thinking. The scene sends Walker back more than three decades to combat in Vietnam. 

The man who was first on the scene is obviously shaken and keeps a distance from the ditch. Walker asks the man to go down and be with the rider while Walker gets more help. The man does not move. 

To the south, in the sleepy town of Sedgwick, Rebecca is in bed. Blocks away, Karen Mosiman is preparing for her day at the town's hardware store when her beeper goes off. "Motorcycle vs deer," the beeper reads. Mosiman, a volunteer emergency medical technician, rushes out the door. 

Sirens screaming by the house wake Rebecca up around 6:25 a.m. But it is not until she hears the second set, the fire and rescue sirens, when Rebecca gets an uneasy feeling. She knows there has been a wreck and the timing is too right. Shelby's cell phone sits forgotten on the love seat in the living room. Rebecca will have to wait until he gets to his office to talk him. There is time, she decides, for that shower now. 

The patient is breathing but not alert, Mosiman learns while driving Sedgwick's ambulance to the accident scene. The patient has a brain injury, Mosiman assumes. A rescue chopper is already on standby. 

The first thing Mosiman sees when she gets to the scene is a large dead deer with antlers. A pair of torn up sneakers are also in the road. That's weird, she wonders, how did the sneakers get there? 

The patient is lying face down in the ditch. Mosiman does not recognize Shelby until he is rolled over. Mosiman says his name. No response. His jaw is clenched so tight the paramedics can't open his airway. Keep breathing, Mosiman tells Shelby. 

By the time the chopper lifts Shelby away, Mosiman and her crew do not think he will pull through. Oh my gosh, Mosiman says to herself, it is going to be hard on the family. 
Megan, Shelby's daughter, just graduated high school. His son, Alex is in the same class as Mosiman's son, Tanner. Mosiman goes home. You may need to be there for Alex, Mosiman tells Tanner. A few blocks away, the phone rings at the Gobel residence.

Either Way
Rebecca did not know much as her parents drove her to the hospital. The sheriff that called her said Shelby was in an accident, had difficulty breathing and was airlifted to a hospital. The sheriff also insisted Rebecca not drive herself to the hospital. 

Shelby's sister, Tammy, meets Rebecca at the hospital door. Soon, Shelby's many family members are crammed together in a small doctor's consultation room. Rebecca wants to see Shelby but is told to wait. Time keeps ticking and the family is taken to a second, and then a third waiting room. 

Rebecca starts pacing the nearby hallways and can not help getting angry at not knowing. Close to where she paces, an elevator door opens and Shelby is unexpectedly pulled from it. He lies motionless while a nurse squeezes a bag-like device to force oxygen into his lungs. His head locked in place with a neck brace, Rebecca leans over him, kisses his forehead and tells Shelby she loves him. And then he is gone again. It is still not real yet for Rebecca. Disbelief continues to drown her. She has not cried; not yet.
Later, in the waiting room, frustration mounts as other families are allowed to see their loved ones and Shelby's status remains unknown. A doctor finally comes in. Shelby is in a coma. 

It's partially drug-induced, the doctor says. Also, his clavicle and several ribs are broken. Shelby's feet are mangled. The next 48 hours will be critical. It could go either way. Shelby could live. He could die. 

If Shelby does wake up, the doctor adds before leaving, he will be different.

Tiny Threads
The day after the accident, a blood clot travels through Shelby's heart to his lung, causing the lung to collapse. Shelby is rushed into surgery so that a metal mesh can be placed in his heart to prevent the same thing from happening again. If it did, it would likely kill him. 

The following night, Alex works on a puzzle in a waiting room at the hospital with his uncle Warren, Tammy's husband. Warren makes a comment about having faith that God will take care of Shelby. 

Rebecca, like Shelby, grew up in a Christian household. But her brother-in-law's comment becomes the unexpected push to a button in waiting. Rebecca questions whether she has enough faith to cope with what has happened. Surreal fades to real and tears fall. Rebecca cries for her husband. She cries for her family. 

The next day, Rebecca writes in a spiritual journal her sister gave her for coping. "In the trauma ward, my hubby struggles with personal pain," she writes. "What if I don't believe enough? What if God says 'no'?" 

Waiting turns from days to weeks. Shelby is now stable but remains in a coma. During one visit, Shelby's father tells his son to raise his arm if he can hear his father's voice. 

Shelby raises his left arm. His right arm is in a sling. 

Rebecca tries to will her husband awake. She gently opens his eyes and moves his arms. She asks him to wake up. Shelby's brother, Daniel, tries a different approach. Daniel playfully warns Shelby that his beloved PING golf driver will be gone if he does not go home to protect it. 

Three weeks after the accident, Shelby is still in a coma but his body has healed some. 

Doctors tell Rebecca that Shelby's lungs have cleared and Rebecca finally believes her husband will live. She writes in her journal: "Tiny threads of possibility begin to wind into our days!" 

A month after Shelby Gobel's motorcycle hit a deer at 60 miles per hour, he awakens. Another month in a hospital and a month at a rehabilitation center later, he goes home.

A Different Road
Vending machines hum from the back of the room while members of the group take turns telling their story. They sit in a circle around tables pulled together. A tray of cookies and pictures of water pass up and down the table. Everything is hospital neutral. 

Fluorescent lighting dominates the varying shades of grey and white. Shelby and Rebecca are part of the group. It is Shelby's turn. 

"My name is Shelby Gobel," he begins. "I had an accident. I hit a deer with a motorcycle. My brain will heal. It will just take time." 

Those listening are survivors of a traumatic brain injury, what they commonly call a TBI. This is their support group. Shelby speaks to them with an edge more of confidence. The stuttering that has plagued his speech since the accident is less evident. 

"I knocked on Death's door," he says to the group. "He didn't answer, but I knocked." 

Those with a TBI look at Shelby and can picture what that door looks likes. The older man sitting across from Shelby had his brain crushed when a car struck him in 1980. The boyish looking 23-year-old next to Shelby was in a car accident that he should not have survived. "He won't remember this meeting tomorrow," the young man's mother told the group a little while earlier. Another man with a long grey beard and tattoo-covered arms sits at the end opposite Shelby. His TBI was a result of multiple somersaults with a motorcycle down Kansas' I-70 at 100 mph. 

Like Shelby, the future is not certain for this group. They know how life will never be again. They come together to give each other hope. 

"My brain injury was 12 years ago," says a woman whose turn follows Shelby's. "I never sang before my accident. I have since copywritten 35 songs." The woman concludes the meeting by singing a song she wrote. "I'm amazed by you," she sings in praise to the same God that let her brain be damaged. 

Shelby and Rebecca continue to talk about the song and the meeting during the drive home. Shelby is able to drive a car now, but as he leaves his meeting of hope he speeds back to his life of uncertainty. 

"You think because Shelby is out of the hospital, out of the coma-it's all over," Rebecca says. "But it's not. God took us down a different road."

Another good day
Shelby is early today. Actually, he's early every day. Being ahead of schedule is a habit of his. He was early the morning a deer decided to cross a road at exactly the wrong moment. 

But now, a year and a few months since the crash, Shelby's penchant for punctuality has become more of necessity. He has a new job and his stamina and coordination are still far from what they once were. He needs to hit the ground running the moment his shift starts. 

A month ago, Shelby was hired to be an evening janitor at an elementary school a few blocks from his home. The teacher's lounge is where he "hides out" while waiting for the 3:30 p.m. bell. 

Outside the lounge, most of the students are gone and the pulse of the school day slows. The classrooms that makeup the school shoot off a single long hallway like a tree. Shelby is responsible for getting each room ready for the next day. It's harder work than his last job inspecting machinery. "That's okay," he says. "God opened a door for me here. So it's time to move on." 

Inside the classrooms, teachers prepare for tomorrow. Many will still be working after it's time to go home. Shelby will come in to their rooms to work and bring his smile with him. He's already a part of their lives. "You get your strobe light working yet?" he'll ask one teacher as he comes in the door. "Boys have cooties," he'll joke with a teacher's young daughter waiting for her mother to finish working in another room. Another teacher will ask him if he has heard anything about his status with the Air Force. Nothing yet, he will tell her. 

But the bell has not rung yet. Shelby still waits in a teacher's version of the American break room. "You're mother doesn't work here... clean up after yourself," it reads on a sign above the lounge's sink. Shelby sits at a round, very-fake wood table with coffee-stained chairs that don't match it or each other. The perused remains of a newspaper lie on the table. He grabs the paper for his daily over-the-break-table prescription of mental medicine for his healing mind. 

"Another good day," Shelby says, opening the paper. "I'm not in the obituaries."
It's what he says everyday.