On 9-11, 2001, Americans experienced an act of terror that forever will change their lives.
On 9-27, 2003, Bill and Sharla Merrell experienced their own personal terror, which forever will change their lives.
While traveling to a vacation site in Florida, Bill, vice president for convention relations at the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, suffered a brain stem stroke. Less than a month later, blood clots formed in his arms, legs, and chest. And four months after that, he experienced a heart attack. Yet, eight months after the stroke, Bill and Sharla say they are the recipients of God's grace, mercy, and faithfulness.
September 27, 2003 began with expectations of a relaxing, much-needed, vacation. The Merrells were on their way to Destin, Florida, where they planned to spend time with friends who own a beach house and where they would celebrate Bill's sixtieth birthday on October 1.
Bill was driving when he said he felt a weakness overcoming him and pulled to the side of the road.
"I told Sharla I wasn't feeling well, and she needed to drive," Bill recalled. "I also told her not to look at me. I knew I was having a stroke."
Sharla said she thought he was sick at his stomach, and didn't realize until his speech became more slurred what was happening. She said she then had to make a decision to stop in one of the small towns ahead or continue to their destination of Destin, which was several miles down the road.
"I knew if he was having a stroke, time was of the essence and the sooner he got medical attention, the better the prognosis would be," Sharla said. "So I stepped on the gas and speeded to Destin."
Arriving at their friends' home, she called 911. "Medical personnel were on the scene immediately," Sharla said. "Because he had all the symptoms of someone who was drunk — slurred speech, unable to walk straight, disoriented — they made sure that wasn't the problem, and then called for a helicopter to fly him to Fort Walton Beach."
Because he arrived at the hospital just under the three-hour limit for giving clot busters, which sometimes reverse the damage of a stroke, doctors were afraid if they gave him that medication, it would cause a hemorrhage, so the drug was not administered.
He remained in the hospital in Fort Walton Beach for a week, and then was flown to Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville where he was to begin rehabilitation.
"He seemed to decline after getting to Vanderbilt," Sharla noted. "He wasn't walking as well, and his speech was harder to understand."
Yet, he underwent intense therapy for three weeks and was dismissed to go home to continue rehabilitation. But after being home for three days, the blood clots formed, and he was sent back to the hospital for a week.
Just as his therapy was progressing, his strength gaining momentum and his speech becoming easier to understand, on March 7, he said he felt pain in his neck, left arm, and chest, all symptoms of a heart attack. Doctors performed surgery, putting in a balloon and two stints, coated with antibiotics to cut down on rejection and plaque.
Today, Bill says he can do anything if he has enough time.
"I'm very slow, but very thorough," he said, speaking slowly, but distinctly.
Sharla said his speech has gone through several stages, from a whisper to being too loud to what it is today — slow, but more normal.
She said, at one point when he was overcompensating with a loud voice, she took him to see the movie Luther.
"He turned to say something to me, and everyone in the movie theater could hear him," she said.
Although he has met most of his rehab goals, one remains — and that is getting him back to work. He is on disability, but goes in to his office about 5 to 10 percent of the time for rehab purposes.
The first time he sat down to work at a computer, it took him forty-five minutes to type one sentence, but there has been a remarkable improvement since that time.
Merrell's associate, John Revell, is doing the day-to-day work at the Executive Committee and speaks to the media for Bill, but Bill said he still looks at and approves every issue of SBC LIFE.
Being a type A personality — a "hurry-up" person — and being slowed in everything he does now has caused him not to be optimistic about the future.
"I'm not optimistic, although I may sound that way," Bill said. "Sharla believes when I don't. She believes in me and for me."
Sharla said Bill doesn't realize how far he has come, because there was a time when he couldn't even feed himself. "Some days are easier than others," Sharla admitted. "It's been a challenge, but it's also been a sweet journey. We've been able to spend an unusual amount of time together."
Sharla, who will celebrate forty years of marriage with Bill in June, said she woke up one morning after the stroke and determined she wasn't going to be afraid of what was ahead of them.
"I wasn't going to let this consume us," she said.
She noted that the life they now have is so different from what it was like before the stroke. "Even when Bill was home, he worked many hours," she said. "Our life changed forever, but I haven't looked at it as a problem. There is a sadness in my heart for him because he can't do all the things he loves to do. But I believe God has something wonderful for us in the future."
The Merrell's oldest son, Jason, who lives in Nashville, said the stroke caused his parents' roles to be reversed because his father had always been the rock and the fixer.
"Mom has always been a great caregiver, but he was the strength," Jason noted. "It has given her the opportunity to prove her faithfulness to him."
Jason, who has a brother, Jeff, and sister, Jennifer, said no one in the family ever suspected something like this would happen to their dad, but it is a reminder of God's control and sovereignty.
"We don't know what will happen in our lives," he said. "There can be a sudden turn in the road that is so unexpected."
Bill said the stroke took him by surprise because he did not meet the profile of someone who might suffer the debilitating illness.
"My weight was under control, I didn't have high blood pressure, and there is no history of strokes in my family," he explained.
Sharla said they thought something like that might happen to them down the road, but they consider themselves still young and thought they had a lot of good years ahead of them.
Bill said the stroke has taught him several things, and one of those is that nothing is too hard for God.
"I have experienced God in a way unlike anything I've experienced in the past," he said. "God's mercy is all I'm dependent upon."
He said he's also learned that God is completely sovereign, and "no matter what my plans are, God's plans trump them."
Bill preached his first sermon since the stroke on Mother's Day at First Southern Baptist Church of Del City, Oklahoma. Introduced by Pastor Tom Elliff, who was walking with a cane as a result of a broken knee, Elliff told the congregation he and Bill had gone out to eat and with Bill's slow speech and eye patch and his cane, the waitress thought the two of them together would make one man.
In his sermon, Bill said only God is good enough and strong enough to take all our pressures.
"Although I've forgotten many things, I can still see God's hand at work and still hear His love whispered to me.
"My memory is not what it once was, but there are two things I remember — He is a great Savior, and I am a great sinner."