Ed Grisamore

‘That last little piece of you came back’

James and Danyse Fordham know what it like to both receive life-saving help and to give it.
James and Danyse Fordham know what it like to both receive life-saving help and to give it. Special to The Telegraph

There is a yellow heart stenciled in the center turn lane on Hardeman Avenue, near its intersection with Arlington Place.

It is down the hill from the main post office, where James Fordham worked for 38 years. It is up the hill from the oldest fire station in the city. It is a block from the historic home where James lives with his wife, Danyse, a local hair dresser.

Danyse had wanted to paint it gold — yellow’s royal first cousin — since her husband “has a heart of gold.”

But gold wasn’t bold or bright enough. She settled for yellow, which doesn’t quite tell the story. Yellow is a symbol of caution and cowardice. And James Fordham is anything but a coward.

The heart marks the spot where James lay motionless in middle of the road after suffering a massive heart attack 13 months ago. Like a couple of traffic-dodging graffiti artists, Danyse and James painted it there to honor those who stopped, responded, prayed and came to their side.

Saving his life, in turn, saved another life.

Three weeks ago, not long after the one-year anniversary of his heart attack, James had a chance to “pay it forward” in heroic fashion.

This is a story of gratitude, with an amazing cast of characters — first responders, medical professionals, Good Samaritans and guardian angels.

Goosebumps are guaranteed. Moist eyes are to be expected. Sharing it around the table at Thanksgiving is encouraged.

James and Danyse celebrated their 35th anniversary in July. James is eight years older, and they didn’t travel in the same circles. Danyse said meeting each other was one of those feather-in-the-breeze moments, like the opening credits of the movie “Forrest Gump.”

James attended old Willingham High but didn’t graduate. He joined the Army in 1967 and went to Vietnam with the 25th Infantry. He came home and got a job as a letter carrier with the post office. Her family’s home was on his route. She was only 14 years old.

The Fordhams are a loving couple. They spend time together. They laugh. They hold hands. Until Oct. 14, 2016, they had never spent a night apart in 34 years.

It was a Friday. James had some medical tests done that morning, including an EKG. Everything appeared to be normal. At 66, he was practically a picture of health. He took care of his body. He didn’t smoke or drink. He worked out in a gym in his basement.

The Fordhams certainly weren’t expecting anything like the events that unfolded that evening. They had driven to Perry to have dinner at the Swanson House. When they returned home and pulled into the driveway, James remembered he needed to mail two letters. Danyse said she had to put away some groceries and let out the dog.

She had one foot out the door, but something told her to climb back in the Chevy Tahoe and ride with him. It was only a short trip around the block. They would be back in a few minutes.

After dropping the letter in the box on Georgia Avenue, James cut through the parking lot at The Brick restaurant. He was going 8 mph. Danyse was reading a Southern Living magazine. He reached across the console and kissed her hand.

After turning right onto Hardeman Avenue, he should have taken an immediate left onto Arlington. Instead, the Tahoe veered to the right. The tires hit the curb and ran up the sidewalk. Danyse was stunned. She looked over at him. He was slumped. The color had rushed from his face. He began making noises like he was strangling.

Before she could help her husband, she had to get the car stopped. They were headed down a hill. She quickly unbuckled her seat belt and frantically climbed across to hit the brakes. She didn’t have her cellphone, and she could not get his seat into position to pull his phone out of his pocket.

Strangers quickly came to the rescue. A young man walking by helped her adjust the driver’s seat. A woman drove the short distance to the fire station, just as firefighters were receiving the 911 call.

“I couldn’t look into his eyes,” Danyse said. “There was nothing there. It was like everything I knew about him was gone. I thought it was too late, and I wasn’t going to get him back. My whole world was over.”

People stopped, even if it was only to let her know they were lifting them up in prayer. Gloria Combs, one of her clients, saw the distressing scene after mailing a letter and recognized their vehicle. She rushed to Danyse’s side. A paramedic on his way home from work pulled over to offer assistance.

Perhaps the biggest miracle of all came when the fire truck made the short trip up the hill. Their nephew, Michael Norris, who only works 10 days every month at the fire station, happened to be on duty that night. He insisted on performing CPR on his uncle until the medics arrive. Inside the ambulance, James heart finally started beating again.

“Total strangers who never knew they were going to be thrown together that day became a collective mind and cohesive group,” Danyse said. “It’s amazing when people stop their lives and step into your life. Every small thing made a huge difference.

“The world is a lot sweeter than anybody tells you it is. The faces of everyone there were showing compassion, sympathy and how they wished they could somehow make this better. If you watch TV, you might think we all don’t have a lot in common. But we do. When one of us is down, it matters.”

James had 100 percent blockage in two arteries and 40 percent in another. He remained unconscious for five days. He spent six days in intensive care and was released after eight days in the hospital.

On the one-year anniversary of the heart attack, the Fordhams hosted a “thank you” celebration at their home. They invited doctors, nurses, firefighters, ambulance drivers and others. Their only regret was the list wasn’t complete. There was no way they could know the names of everyone.

“We also felt like the story wasn’t finished,” Danyse said. “We hadn’t paid it forward. What were we supposed to do with this? That had been our prayer.”

Two weeks after the party, the Fordhams headed to Eatonton to watch their granddaughter in a cheerleading competition at Putnam County High School. Ava Griffin, 11, is a student at Gray Station Middle School. They left early to get a seat near the front.

As they topped a hill on Highway 129, near Joe Wooten Road, there was chaos. People were opening car doors and running down an embankment. Two vehicles had been involved in a head-on collision.

A Dodge Durango was on fire. Two women and five children were rescued from the burning SUV. A young man shouted, “All clear.” Everyone hurried to the other vehicle, where a woman was trapped inside.

James looked around at the hurting, the pain, the blood and broken bones.

“I hadn’t seen 11 people on the ground like that since Vietnam,” he said.

Later, the sound of two helicopters, sent to airlift the injured, brought flashbacks from the war. Other instincts began to take over.

“I learned in Vietnam when someone said, ‘all clear,’ you better, by God, be clear or you might get shot in the back,” James said.

Wanting to make sure, he opened the doors to the burning vehicle to check the front and middle seats. Smoke was filling the cabin. He glanced into the back seat, and it appeared to be empty.

Then he noticed two small boots. They were moving. A 1-year-old boy was strapped into a car seat. James reached for his pocket knife, prepared to cut him out. But he ran his hand down the child restraint and heard a “click” when the buckle released.

“I almost didn’t see the little boy,” he said. “I saw the bottoms of the baby shoes, and then I saw his eyes. He wasn’t crying. He was just looking around and kicking his feet.”

Danyse was carrying another child to safety. She turned to notice her husband climbing into the burning SUV, then disappearing from her view.

“I put down the child and took off running,” she said. “I can’t tell you what that did to me. I was screaming. I was upset. I was going to snatch (James) out of that car.”

Said James: “I didn’t know she was bearing down on me like a Mama Bear.”

She watched as her husband “clicked back into soldier mode.’

“He was like a warrior,” she said. “He burst out of there with a look on his face. If he had to turn the car over, he would have.”

James and several men went into the woods to cut down limbs to use as splints on all the broken arms and legs. As the ambulances arrived, Danyse had her own flashback.

“It was seeing his hands on the outside of the ambulance, shutting the doors and walking away, instead of being on the inside fighting for his life,” she said.

When returned to their car, they both broke down and cried.

“Something happened here today,” Danyse told her husband. “That last little piece of you came back.”

Ed Grisamore teaches journalism and creative writing at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.