#GodStrong: the House family’s test of faith

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The Long Night

JOHANNESBURG, MICH. — It was a cold, snowy night on January 19, 2015. Kellie House received a text from her husband of 26 years, Gary, as she was heading for home with her two youngest daughters, Chloe, then age 14, and Gloria, 11.

“Can I play hockey tonight?” He loved the sport and had just been invited to a game by a friend.

“Sure,” she texted back.

They met at their house briefly to exchange vehicles. Gary grabbed his equipment and asked their oldest daughter Ashlie, 23, a substitute teacher at the time, and his mother if they would like to watch.

Ashlie recalls, “I had just gotten back from helping Heather Huff coach basketball and was really tired.” Ironically, she had been having chest pains that day. Looking back now, Ashlie feels this may have been a warning something was about to go wrong.

“Dad rarely asks if we would want to come watch. Well, shoot! If he asks then I’d better go.”

So, Ashlie and Gary’s mother Gloria, who they refer to as Nana, joined him as he traveled to the Otsego County SportsPlex.

Kellie prepared to settle in for the evening at home. The youngest daughters put on their pajamas.

Meanwhile, at the SportsPlex, the game began.

“I started playing hockey. After the first shift, I sat down and passed out,” says Gary.

“I remember we had been sitting there watching him play,” says Ashlie. “He went off and sat down. I remember having the feeling something wasn’t right. I turned to Nana and said, ‘Something’s not right.’ As I said that and turned around, he wasn’t sitting there. I just saw something laying down.

“Before anyone said anything, I said, ‘That’s Dad.’ We ran over to him. I just remember dropping to my knees as he’s laying on the bench. I just started praying for him and talking to him.”

Gary was seizing and spitting up. They could not find a pulse. As a state trooper friend and another man worked on him with a defibrillator, Ashlie called her mom. All she remembered saying was “I think Dad’s dead. They’re working on him with a defibrillator and the ambulance is on its way.” Her phone was going dead.

Back at the house, Kellie was in another phone conversation with a friend. She saw Ashlie was trying to get ahold of her, but figured it was nothing important. She would simply call her back. Then Ashlie called again. This time, Kellie excused herself from her friend and answered Ashlie’s call.

“I could sense something was wrong before Ashlie even said anything. I just remember dropping to my knees and saying, ‘No, Lord. Not my Buddy.”

Buddy was a nickname Kellie had given Gary when they first met in eighth-grade at the Johannesburg-Lewiston School. They were close friends for several years before they began dating in twelfth-grade.

Ashlie’s phone was losing power. So, it kept going in and out.

“Chloe and I were fighting over a cookie in the kitchen,” says Gloria, picking up the story. “I saw mom come out and fall on her knees. She was saying, ‘Buddy, Buddy. No, not my Buddy.’ I didn’t know what was happening, so I just dropped to my knees too.”

As Kellie explained to her daughters what was happening, Chloe felt numb, trying to take in everything. The feeling soon passed and her next thought was of her dad’s Bible.

“I literally ran into living room, grabbed that and ran back into the kitchen,” says Chloe.

“We gotta go, Mom,” Chloe told them

She held the Bible on the trip from their home outside Johannesburg into Gaylord.

“There’s something powerful about God’s Word, even if it isn’t open, just having it near you,” says Chloe. “And when it is open there’s a power to it. It began comforting me.”

Chloe was reminded of her favorite Bible verse, Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

The girls also began contact friends and family by phone to alert them of the situation.

While her phone was still going in and out, Ashlie contacted the Houses’ other daughter Miranda, 20, who was living in Tennessee and working for a photography studio.

“I knew something was wrong before she even said anything because I heard her sniffling,” says Miranda.

“My biggest fear before moving down there was moving out of state and something big happening and feeling so helpless,” Miranda explains.

Even for her, everything eventually came together, but the journey home was long. Her employers paid for her flight back to Michigan. There were delays at the airport however.

Kellie and the youngest daughters arrived in Gaylord to find the ambulance had already taken Gary to Otsego Memorial Hospital. So, they went directly to the hospital and were soon met by their pastors Scott Distler and Jim Mathis, who quickly divided responsibility of how they would help the family.

The doctors at the hospital finally determined the cause of Gary’s situation was his heart. They had stabilized his heart, but it was still weak and they needed to move him to McLaren hospital in Petoskey to see heart specialists.

Arriving in Petoskey, doctors there needed to do procedures to check his heart. 

“That night was the longest night,” says Ashlie. “[When they took him into the room for the procedure] we just all gathered right in that hallway and stayed there right by the door.”

Finally, the doctors determined Gary had had ventricular tachycardia. This causes the heart to beat so fast that the blood pressure drops so the heart is unable pump enough oxygen to every part of the body

The doctors were going to place Gary in hypothermia and induce a coma to get him through this phase.

Once he was stabilized, Kellie and Ashlie were allowed to see him for a few moments. They were encouraged to talk to him. Kellie wished she had a radio to play Christian music for Gary to listen to also. A nurse overheard her.

They were asked to step out for a moment while another procedure was done. When they returned, they found the nurse had set up his cell phone, tuned it to The Promise FM and Matt Maher was singing, “Lord, I need you.”

By dinner that next day, Miranda finally arrived. Friends John Rakis and his son Taylor Ciszewski had picked her up at the airport in Detroit to drive her to the hospital. (Ironically, Miranda would later marry Taylor.)

“When Miranda arrived, it felt great. Our family was finally complete,” says Kellie.

By the third day however, the heart doctors were telling the family they should consider pulling the plug. They felt Gary had been without oxygen to the brain for far too long. A traveling brain doctor however said it was too soon to tell.

Gary spent three weeks at a hospital unresponsive.  (Courtesy photo)

A Hard Decision

Kellie kept strong and tried to focus on the positive aspects. His heart was very strong. Early the next morning, she was plagued by fear. So, she called up Pastor Scott.

He told her not to look that far into the future. Focus in on the stage they were at now.

Ashlie was also struggling. “I had to witness him die the first time and now we had to literally think about killing my dad.”

Pastor Scott then took the family down to the hospital chapel where they all prayed together.

“We began asking God for guidance,” says Miranda. “‘If when this next doctor comes and [Dad] shows no signs, we will have to be okay that it’s your will, God.'”

The brain doctor on staff, who the family wanted to see Gary, was scheduled for vacation at this time. Then, about the same time the family had been praying, part of his schedule was cancelled. He called the hospital and told them he would stop by.

During the later hours of the day, Gary would open his eyes and look around. The nurses warned the family not to get its hopes up too high, because those eye openings might simply be reflexes. The doctors usually visited him in the morning when he was unresponsive.

“This doctor came later in the afternoon when Gary was more responsive,” said Nana Gloria. “He checked him over for two hours.”

“Everything medical had been pointing to no [he would not make it]. It literally had to be God who pulled him through,” Ashlie added.

“The doctor [came out and] said, ‘From now on, it’s not medicine [which will pull him through] it’s faith,'” recalled Miranda.

The doctor told also them if it was his son, he’d give him 30 days to recover.

While Gary continued to make little steps in the days ahead, they were not the bigger steps the doctors were hoping for. Ashlie remembers growing frustrated.

“Miranda and I had a dream we were at Dad’s funeral. I remember speaking and what I spoke at it. We’re going to use my dad’s life as a testimony. This is his legacy and we’re going to share it whether he is alive or not,” Ashlie says.

“God literally broke us down to this point of you have to be okay with whether I heal him or take him away. The next day, I walked up and they were doing physical therapy on him. They said, ‘I think he wants to go for a walk.’ So, stood there and jokingly said, ‘Dad, you wanna go for a walk?”

“Then, sort of zombie-like, with no response, he started walking. He turned around, came back and laid right back down on the bed.”

“Everyone was lying around crying,” adds Nana Gloria.

Another challenge

No sooner had this promising event happened, however, than insurance began to run out, after three weeks. The family needed to either take him home in his zombie-like state or find a rehabilitation center for him. To compound matters, Gary also came down with a C diff (gastrointestinal) infection which was contagious.

The hospital staff then received word of a possible opening at St. Joesph Mercy Hospital – Ann Arbor. Dr. Owen Perlman, a physical medicine and rehabilitation doctor, who specialized in brain issues would be his doctor.

It was at that moment another bomb dropped. The insurance company decided it would not cover Gary’s rehabilitation.

Once again, the fight was on. Doctors from both hospitals began calling the insurance company to get them to change their mind. In the end, one staff member broke down crying to get the company to rethink their decision. Finally, they relented.

Back in Johannesburg, the community was also rallying behind the family. T-shirts with the words #HouseStrong were being sold to help with expenses. A chili fundraiser was held.

“At the chili benefit, Gloria and I were going around and talking to people and selling raffle tickets. We were talking to people we hadn’t met before, because they were like Mom and Dad’s friends. They were asking how Dad was doing,” says Chloe.

“They would tell me stories about Dad. One guy told me how Dad would go into the locker room after the game and not be swearing. After each game, he would be happy, grab his stuff and quietly leave. There were so many stories like that where he showed he not only said he was a Christian but lived it out. There were many stories like that.

“That hit me pretty hard. I was like ‘I want to be like Dad in that way, to where this is my relationship with God. I want to live my life out fervently to where others can see it.”

The community stood by the family in many ways, including during a girls basketball game.   (Photo by Kurt J. Kolka)

Ripple effect of faith

Gary’s life of faith had touched many lives. People throughout the surrounding communities were praying for his healing. Even groups with no religious affiliation, like Gary’s hockey team, sat down and prayed as a group.

Word also spread quickly online about their need for prayer. Not only were their family and friends asking for prayer through social media, but their church passed on prayer requests too. As the request kept being passed on, prayers spread out geographically as well. The House family knows for a fact people in other countries were praying for them.

Once Gary was moved down to St. Joseph Mercy Hospital, changes began happening rapidly. On Gary’s first day there, his doctor changed his medication. By the next day, Gary was awake and alert.

“Every day he made progress,” says Ashlie.

Gary stayed at St. Joseph Mercy for four weeks, making progress in the various types of rehabilitation the staff had him doing.

As a result of his lack of oxygen to the brain, Gary has suffered some loss of memory, mostly knowledge of how to do electrical work. He also has difficulty forming words at times and can’t work full shifts like he used to. Beside those few losses however, he is back to living life again.

Kellie asked Gary once on a walk if he was okay with who he was now with his limitations.

Gary responded, “This is who I am. I am who I am.”

Kellie asked if he missed being the way he used to be.

Gary said “No, because of Christ.”

Kellie says the whole experience has taught her to trust in God more, to allow Him to take control of situations.

“I just took away there is a purpose for anything. God will show up. No matter what the trial is or the outcome is, if it brings one person to Christ, it is worth it,” says Miranda.

“It was about surrender,” adds Ashlie.

“God was testing us. Dad was so strong. God wanted to see if we would withhold too. I think we did pretty good,” says Gloria.

“We don’t need to know everything, because God’s got it,” says Chloe.

The House family today (l-r): Gloria, Miranda, Nana Gloria, Gary, Kellie, Chloe and Ashlie.   (Photo by Kurt J. Kolka)
Kurt Kolka
Kurt Kolka
Kurt J. Kolka grew up in the small community of Grayling, Mich., near the forested AuSable River. After majoring in English at college, he began a career in writing and newspapers spanning more than two decades. In his spare time he creates a Christian comic strip, The Cardinal, which has a 28-year history of publication. He has also authored a book, “Bullying is No Laughing Matter” (Front Edge Publications, Ann Arbor, Mich., 2014) and is working on his first novel. Kurt and his wife Diane have been married for more than 25 years and have one daughter, Rebekah, and an overprotective dog, Alli. Of life, Kurt says, “Life is never dull with God at the steering wheel, but, man, does He have a lead foot!” More about Kurt and his musings may be found at www.betweenthepines.org.
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