By Connie Leinbach
Derek Rogers-Gilliam has no recollection of the day earlier this summer when he died three times.
Gilliam, 36, returned to Ocracoke in August after suffering a spinal cord injury June 11 while swimming near the airport ramp.
He is his normal self, talking and laughing and walking around gingerly as he regains back his body mass muscle strength from the atrophy that set in from weeks of bed confinement.
Watching him, one would be hard pressed to believe that only several weeks ago no one knew if he would ever talk, walk or move again from an injury to two small vertebrae at the base of his brain stem.
It was a beautiful day when Gilliam and his partner, Callie Davisson went to join friends at the beach in the afternoon.
They were swimming in one of the shallow pool areas in the surf. Davisson was in deeper water while Gilliam was in much shallower water a short distance away.
“I just dove in with my arms outstretched and took a full dive into a sandbar and smacked my head,” he said. “I was dead on impact.”
When he didn’t surface, Davisson pulled him out of the water.
He wasn’t breathing.
“Some friends started chest compressions,” Gilliam said. Those initial compressions shot the sand out of his throat which had cut off his air supply.
“We got him back before the first-responders arrived,” Davisson said.
David Walden, one of the island deputy sheriffs, arrived on the scene and took over the chest compressions.
“His training just took over,” Gilliam said. “He was amazed he didn’t break any of my ribs.”
Walden did not do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation for fear of Gilliam choking on sand.
Then Shane Bryan, an NPS ranger, arrived.
“David and Shane got me stabilized and to the helipad,” Gilliam said.
EMS responders determined it was a neck injury, Davisson said, because when they moved him and Derek’s neck was turned one way, he lost his pulse.
“Shane’s report says I was gone for three to seven minutes,” Gilliam said. “It’s pretty miraculous.”
The EMS team intubated Derek’s throat for breathing and medically paralyzed him for the flight.
Friend Theresa Ray, who also is a volunteer with the Ocracoke Volunteer Fire Dept., and with them at the time geared into action, and since no one other than the medical personnel can fly in the helicopter, drove Davisson to the Vidant Hospital in Greenville to where Gilliam was air lifted.
He was immobilized in Vidant for 11 days after doctors determined he had dislocated his C3 and C4 vertebrae and had mangled the disk between them.
Surgery reset the vertebrae, and a new disk made of a cadaver part and plastic.
“When I opened my eyes in Vidant, I didn’t know what was happening and had to have it explained,” Gilliam said.
Although Davisson and Gilliam’s family members noticed things, such as his moving his toes, none of the medical personnel committed to his prospects for recovery.
“When I woke up I was in an infantile state,” he said. “All my family heard was ‘Don’t expect anything.'”
The doctors didn’t say one way or another if everything below his neck would come back, including breathing on his own.
Fortunately, his was an “incomplete” spinal cord injury with only bruising. That he had control of his body at Vidant and was breathing on his own when he left 11 days later was unusual for spinal cord injuries, and Gilliam said there is no reason he can’t get all of his motor functions back.
“They said with hard work it can be done, and I’m used to hard work,” he said.
As soon as he was stabilized, the hunt was on for rehabilitation. The couple found it at the Shepherd Center, a brain injury and spinal cord rehabilitation hospital in Atlanta, Ga., to where Gilliam was again airlifted while Davisson drove to it.
After he walked again for the first time on July 22, his healing progressed quickly, especially because he is young and lean, though he needs to regain the 25 pounds he lost during the ordeal.
“I was 100 percent focused on coming back,” he said as he took several steps around his porch. “The very fact that they (at the Shepherd Center) thought I was someone they could help was positive.”
Ironically, shortly before the accident, the couple chatted about Gilliam’s never having been hospitalized.
“I focused on two things: that Callie would be by my side and that I’m gonna walk again,” Gilliam said. “I kept that second one to myself. That was faith in myself. More than an injury, this is a sickness I have to get over.”
As he continues physical therapy and strength training, complete healing of his now-fused vertebrae will take about a year.
Davisson stayed with him constantly during his stays in both facilities, returning to the island only a couple of times. In the meantime, his cohort of island friends stepped up to watch over Davisson’s son, Joey, 15, to take care of pets, clean the couple’s house, yard work, finish some of Gilliam’s work and more.
“We just feel complete gratitude to this island,” Davisson said.
A video on Facebook shows him walking with a walker into the United Methodist Church <date> to audible gasps.
“It was beautiful,” he said.
The choir had just finished singing a “hallelujah” song when the door to the sanctuary opened and Davisson and Gilliam began walking in.
“I wanted to thank this part of the community that’s in the background helping,” he said.
His feeling of gratitude continues.
“I don’t think I could’ve come back without so many people pulling for me,” he said. “From day one, this community was here for me.”
A self-employed carpenter, Gilliam has medical insurance, but it doesn’t cover all of the enormous costs of treatment.
“All it takes is something like this and you’re facing bankruptcy,” he said.
Members of the community have held fundraisers and set up a Go Fund Me campaign for Gilliam and two other islanders who this year began battling cancer, Teresa O’Neal and Megan Aldridge.
He’s also humbled.
“So many people stepped up,” he said. “I don’t feel right putting my hand out.”
So he’s thankful that Davisson is back at work as a massage therapist and he has even done a bit of consulting work.
Since his return Aug. 16 he’s visited the beach.
“I’ve chosen to live near the water all of my adult life,” he said. “I’m a water man. I’ve sailed three quarters of the way around the world. The ocean is not the enemy. I know this—not to dive in shallow water. I’ve done it many times and this one bit me.”
Gilliam has cast off all of his braces and walking devices.
While he says he had no metaphysical experiences during and after the accident, he’s reflecting on this life-changing event. As a carpenter who renovates homes and buildings, he sees some parallels.
“After this accident, I’m doing a little repurposing,” he says “It’s all up to me and I relish that. I’m lucky to be here.”