This week, Gina Sheppard underwent her sixth surgery from a stroke she sustained April 29.
For her husband, Mabel White Senior Pastor Lee Sheppard, that’s good news, believe it or not, because it shows she’s making progress in her recovery.
It’s also a much more positive prognosis about Gina than what Lee was told in the hours and days after her stroke.
The ordeal has been an emotional roller coaster for the Sheppards, but they have managed thanks to their faith and members of the church who have stepped in to help.
“The last 10 weeks have been the longest day of my life,” Lee Sheppard said. “You lose track of time. But she’s responded well in rehab. She’s able to walk again, with help of course, and speak again. Last week, she was able to feed herself again.”
Gina Sheppard, 52, had no family history of strokes, nor any medical conditions that made her a risk for one.
That Tuesday, Gina -- who also works at the church -- and Lee were talking at her desk when she told him she had suddenly lost vision in her left eye. They went to The Medical Center of Central Georgia, which used tPA, or tissue plasminogen activator, treatment designed to remove blood clots. The Sheppards were told it’s a treatment course that usually has a low risk of side effects, depending on the nature of the stroke.
The treatment seemed to work initially. Her vision returned and she was cognizant of what was going on when the medical staff spoke with her.
“She answered so many questions that she could have won on ‘Jeopardy,’ ” Sheppard said.
Then, about 40 minutes later, Gina had a massive brain hemorrhage.
“By Wednesday morning, they told me she was going to be brain-dead by the end of the day,” Sheppard said.
Miraculously, however, Gina started to respond to her treatment and was able to follow the doctors’ commands. After her initial recovery, though, Gina started to struggle again.
“By the next Wednesday, she quit responding,” Sheppard said. “On Thursday, they told me she was going to be dead within 48 hours.”
Faced with the prospect of losing his wife of 31 years, it would be understandable for anyone, even a pastor, to have a crisis of faith under such circumstances. That was not the case, though.
“I didn’t have a crisis of faith,” he said. “It definitely sustains you. ... My relationship with Christ gives me stability, but that doesn’t mean it’s not hard. ... It’s easier to preach it than it is to live it.”
There are about 2,200 members of Mabel White, and more than 600 are typically on hand for a Sunday service. Word spread quickly about Gina’s condition after her initial visit to the hospital, and members quickly showed up to see how they could help.
“I think they were very responsive,” said longtime church member Ann Thompson, who was out of town with her husband, Wynn, when the news came. “We got the call that things became bad (for Gina). We immediately went to the hospital, and there were so many people there. I think we were all in shock. ... But we all pulled together. I never knew that so many people would be impacted.”
Once again, Gina defied the dire expectations and responded to treatment. This time around, she stabilized and improved enough to be transferred to the Atlanta-based Shepherd Center, one of the nation’s top rehabilitation facilities for brain and spinal injuries.
Sheppard said it wasn’t just his own faith that has sustained him through the worst of it, but others’ as well.
Thanks to social media, news about Gina’s situation spread around the world.
“The thing that has been amazing is that tens of thousands of people have been praying for her ... maybe hundreds of thousands. There are people on four continents who have been praying. I don’t know how many, but it’s been a lot.
“It’s a miracle she’s alive. Even the doctors are saying it’s miraculous.”
Word spread to parts of the world where the church is involved in missions, and those people added their prayers, said Al Andrews, a church elder at Mabel White. He said he believes the outpouring from both within the Macon community and outside it played a part in Gina’s recovery.
“Everybody has rallied around the whole Sheppard family,” he said. “We’re all praying together. ... It’s brought us together. It can be seen as God working for her. Every indication we had was that she shouldn’t have lived, but God allowed to her to live. ... That really increases your faith.”
Wynn Thompson said other denominations across Macon joined in prayer for Gina. One church even canceled its Wednesday Bible study class and went to Mabel White instead to pray for her.
Though he’s often commuting between Macon and Atlanta, Lee Sheppard is still preaching every Sunday and performing his other duties at the church. He’s been able to bond with other members who have endured their own medical crises.
“There’s always something going on,” he said. “That’s one good thing about the church. We’re good at ministering to one another. The people here are loving, generous and compassionate.”
Ann Thompson said throughout all of the weeks of the Sheppards’ ordeal, church members have reached out to help the family in some way. Many of them have made meals for the family or done cleaning, while others volunteered their time to keep watch on Gina at the hospital to allow Lee to get some rest.
“I stayed a couple of nights at the hospital, and lots of other women did as well,” she said. “We were able to talk to the personnel about (the Sheppards) as people. ... People just came forward. Nobody had to ask. It’s very humbling to be a part of.”
Road to recovery
Gina Sheppard’s most recent surgery involved putting a shunt in her brain to help drain excess fluid that had been building, which will help her function better.
Her husband said it’s the most functional she’s been since the crisis hit. She is starting to walk and speak again, though she tires easily. She also struggles with her memory.
“Some days I’m her boyfriend, other days I’m her husband,” he said.
With any brain trauma, there’s no clear timetable on how long it will take for Gina to recover, nor how full a recovery it will be.
“Nobody knows,” Sheppard said. “It’s a brain injury -- everybody’s different. I think she’ll walk and talk, but the challenges may be on the cognitive side. I don’t know. She’s got to learn how to walk, talk, eat, go to the bathroom -- basically, she has to reprogram her brain.”
Gina is eventually going to be moved to Pathways, an outpatient clinic that’s part of the Shepherd Center, to continue her rehab. She’ll be there for six to eight weeks, and Sheppard said he’ll likely stay in Atlanta more through that process. The family, which includes their three children, hopes Gina will be home by late September or early October.
“It seems like a long time from now, but not really in the grand scheme of things,” he said.
Despite what has happened, one thing about Gina Sheppard wasn’t affected by the stroke, her husband said.
“Her disposition is the same,” he said. “She’s a very sweet person, and that has not changed. Sometimes, a person changes (after a stroke), but I haven’t seen that yet.”
To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.