Amy Stockman was never so alone as she was two years ago when her husband Michael lay in a coma at Piedmont Medical Center for two months preceding the holiday season.
When medical staff moved her from her intensive care waiting area vigil to a bed in his room, they advised loved ones to say their last goodbyes.
Amy did not ask for a miracle.
"I put his left hand in mine and placed both our hands over his heart," she remembers. "I said, 'Michael, I don't want you to, but if you have to let go, it's OK. But if you can, please, not today. It's Eric's 16th birthday.'"
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When she awoke at 5 a.m., three nurses were standing beside them crying.
"I thought he was gone," she recalled.
Michael lived for Eric's birthday. His vital signs had improved ever since she moved into his room. A few days later, he began waking up.
"They had me live in there after that," she said. "He hadn't had blood supply to his kidneys in two months. They stopped dialysis, and his kidneys worked, then his pancreas and his liver. Everyone was dumbfounded."
That was before Thanksgiving in 2005. The Stockmans were to discover that the whole community of Tega Cay was about to wrap its arms around them and remain there for what was to come. Tega Cay's residents have helped pay medical bills and buy necessities ever since, and they have not forgotten the Stockmans this Christmas.
Michael had been at Piedmont since complications from surgery to remove part of his intestines. He had suffered with digestive ailments for a few years before that, but it was diagnosed as stomach flu or irritable bowel syndrome until physicians determined in 2004 he had Crohn's Disease, an incurable disease of the digestive tract. Crohn's lodged in his small intestine. A healthy small intestine is more than 20 feet long, but Michael has had all but 3 feet of his removed.
As tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills mounted, Michael could not work, Amy spent nearly all her time at the hospital and Michael's disability insurance ran out. Amy still tried to meet $900-a-month payments for his insurance but could not meet mortgage payments. The bank was about to foreclose.
"Mayor Bob Runde heard about the family," said Bill Stumpf, chairman of the city's Community Relations Committee. "A neighbor was paying their COBRA (insurance.)"
Runde sold some of his own property and visited the Stockmans at Piedmont.
"He said, 'I'm going to stop foreclosure proceedings and buy your house,'" Amy remembered. "He's still letting us live in it. Without Mayor Runde, we'd be homeless. We would have had to split up the family and live with relatives."
That was when the city of Tega Cay founded Neighbors Helping Neighbors, a nonprofit group originally organized to help the Stockmans but that now also raises money to assist other Tega Cay families in need. They have made the Stockmans' COBRA payments, bought food and much more. That Thanksgiving, the group arranged a catered dinner for the family in the hospital.
That Christmas, the Stockmans' son Joshua, now 21, climbed onto the roof to staple Christmas lights to it, much to his mother's anger and admonitions when she saw it. He hoped his father would be home for Christmas that year to see them, but he wasn't. Instead, the family received so many presents from the people of Tega Cay that Piedmont staff had to move the Stockmans into their largest room to accommodate the family's Christmas.
Home this Christmas
Michael is home this Christmas, although he has had numerous medical problems ranging from the deadly virus MRSA and a heart attack to a number of hospitalizations and surgeries since.
"She essentially is an intensive care nurse in her home," Runde said of Amy Stockman.
Michael must eat small meals numerous times a day because his small intestine has difficulty absorbing nutrition. He takes countless medicines, all expensive, and makes regular trips to the doctor. His medication has stripped his immune system, so he remains in relative isolation most of the time, but the family now does qualify for disability and Medicare. Still, payments amount to less than $2,000 a month for the entire family, and medical bills are at least six digits.
"I was always the quietest and meekest person," Amy said. "Now, I have turned into this fighting machine. I have to fight with all these government agencies to get what he needs."
She has no idea how much money they owe. She sets money aside for food, gasoline and utilities and pays whatever else she can. The two boys are working to help out.
Their daughter, Hunter, 14, attends Fort Mill High School. Despite other demands, the mother drives Hunter to and from school each day.
"People ask me why I don't let her take the bus," her mother said with determination. "That is the one time we have alone together to talk each day. I'm not giving it up."
She lives one day at a time.
"I can't go past that," she said. "You say you live in Tega Cay, and everybody thinks you have money and things are good. Things happen. We're not a stuck-up, high-falutin', snobby community. We're family."
'I have a home'
The Stockmans never thought they would have to live on disability. Amy is 40, Michael is 41.
They were high school sweethearts, both born in Barnwell. Amy grew up on a farm, and the women in her family still get together once a year to can. Michael became an architectural designer for Weyerhaeuser, and the Stockmans lived wherever his job took him in the Southeast.
"This community saved our lives," she said. "We moved here for the schools. I have a sense of community for the first time. I have a home."
Michael has had to learn to walk again. He's an architect who had to have a pen taped to his hand so he could learn to write again.
Amy has placed small items around the house that remind her of what matters. A throw over the couch says, "If you listen with your heart, the love we know will carry on."
"The children have been phenomenal," she said. "They have not asked for one thing this Christmas."
The Neighbors group has raised $450 for a Kohl's gift certificate and another $150 for a Lowes grocery certificate so they can have a traditional Christmas. Amy and the children put up Amy's grandmother's artificial tree, and the Christmas lights Joshua fixed to the house eaves two years ago are still there.
Hunter prays her father will someday walk her down the aisle. Joshua hopes he will hold his grandchildren, and Eric wants his dad to see him play football at the University of South Carolina.
"My prayer is just that we all stay together," Amy said. "I may not have the fanciest or the best, but I have what's real."