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A strong 20-year marriage helps Jay and Lisa Erwin weather the storms of life together.

Originally published: 2014-03-03 14:00:56
Last modified: 2014-03-03 14:06:22

Faith to run the race

by Sherrie Norris

On Aug. 24, 2013, Jay Erwin's physical mobility was seriously compromised and his life was changed forever. 

A limb from the tree he was trimming knocked him to the ground and paralyzed him, from the chest down. 

"I had gone for a five-mile run that morning," Erwin said. "I came home and decided to cut down a large tree leaning across our road. I was afraid that it was going to fall and hurt someone."

Erwin took out his chainsaw for what he thought would be "an easy cut." 

Rather than falling to the ground, the tree became lodged in another tree. He said he had cut nearly half of it, from the bottom up, before turning his back "for one second." 

"That's all it took," he said. 

"After the tree hit me, my son said I was lifeless with no breath and no pulse," Erwin said. "He had never had CPR training before, but he gave me CPR. He revived me and called 911."

Erwin was soon loaded into a helicopter that had landed on U.S.  421 near his Deep Gap home; he was flown to Johnson City (Tenn.) Medical Center where he survived emergency surgery for his back injury. He also had head injuries, a punctured lung and his left side was crushed.

"They said I died two more times during the flight," Erwin said.  

He said he was "out" for about 16 days and eventually was transferred to The Shepherd Center in Atlanta, where he stayed for more than three months. 

A promise to God

Three weeks before his accident, while praying for friends having difficulties -- and thanking God for blessing him and his family -- Erwin told God that if anything ever happened to him, that he would glorify him, like Job did in the bible. "I felt strong in my spiritual walk when I prayed that prayer," he said.  

Then tragedy struck. 

Regaining consciousness days later, and in excruciating pain, Erwin remembered his promise to God. 

Unable to sleep at night, he began praying about all that was wrong. "And, I cried out to God, because life was never going to be the same," he said. "Then, God began speaking to me through people he had placed in my life at the right time."

Soon, Erwin was doing things that his medical team said they had never seen before. 

"I began spending time with other patients and praying for them. It was really neat," he said. "I had prayed for people before, but not like that." 

Those times gave him strength. 

"Plus, I knew that people were praying for me," he said. "I didn't know to what extent, but they helped me do what I had to do."

The journey

Erwin's journey has been long and hard, despite his positive attitude. 

Extensive surgeries and rehabilitation, months away from home, family and work, mounting medical bills and moments of discouragement, could've taken their toll, he said. 

But along the way, he experienced renewed faith and appreciation for life. 

Less than six months from his accident, Erwin returned to work at Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation, " a real blessing," he said.

He is now working three days a week.

Initially, transportation was an issue as movement to and from the family vehicle required the awkward use of a Hoyer Lift. 

Purchasing an accessible van wasn't an option due to the cost. 

"They're very nice and offer many options to let me drive again, but the prices are outrageous," Erwin said. 

Erwin and his wife, Lisa, chose a Subaru, which allows for fairly easy transfers. He can't drive it, he said, "but I'm OK with that. I've got Lisa."

While defying numerous odds on his road to recovery, Erwin has continued reaching out to others. 

His frequent Facebook postings relate how his Christian faith has become more real to him; his encouraging words of hope are helping others fight life's battles. 

The Holy Spirit prompted him recently to create the "Faith Page," he said.

"It has been very successful," he said. "I love the energy that it brings and I hope it will be a blessing to those who join it." 

He is also establishing a local support group for paraplegics and those with similar conditions. "It's a bridge to help them get back to the other side of living," he said. "I want it to spark encouragement and help them come away from their disasters with hope." 

Learning to deal with major life changes hasn't been easy. Plus, he said, he's discovered that disability is often misunderstood and he feels that people with infirmities are often considered "just a number." 

"Some people in positions to help don't seem to care. It's a side of customer service that I've never seen before, so different than what I provide at my job," Erwin said.

His trials and tribulations have taught him "so much," he said, adding, "It's helped me be more understanding toward the people I serve." 

Parallels with Paul

Through a recent Sunday sermon, Erwin saw clearly how his life parallels that of the apostle Paul.  

"Paul inspired and encouraged everyone that came around him," Erwin said. "He taught us that if we make magnifying Christ as our primary focus in life, then we can make good out of bad." 

He's not in a prison of rock and mortar, like Paul, he said, or in chains of iron, but he feels imprisoned in his own body. 

"I can't walk anymore. I lost everything from my chest down -- and with it, much of my freedom," Erwin said. 

Like Paul, Erwin has also learned to find joy. "I've not mastered this attitude," he said, "but I am learning every day. We all have a choice to either be positive or negative about our situation." 

God's power made perfect

Despite a "poor prognosis" for full recovery, Erwin said, "It is God's opportunity to do a miracle in my life, if he so chooses."

Erwin said he is happy to be alive and to have family and friends standing by him. 

Lisa is his "angel," he said, adding, "She's so strong and so good to me, but she's lost a lot, too."

"I was the one who took care of her, who drove her down the road when it was icy. She's the one now doing that for me, and so much more," he said. "She has been with me every step of the way and made trips to Atlanta every few days, while still trying to work (at Dr. Taylor's dental office). She slept in a chair beside my bed and wouldn't leave me until she had to."   

Lisa began praying for her future husband when she was 14.

"God gave me Jay. I didn't marry him for his legs," she said. "I married him because I loved him. This has been tough for us, but nobody ever said life would be easy. We still have each other. That's what matters."

They are both 46 now and have been married for 20 years. 

Their two children, Samuel, 19, and Kaitlyn, 16, have been strong "through the whole thing," Erwin said. "We've always prayed together and we taught our kids Scripture. It's helped us all." 

Running for life

Several years ago, Erwin began running. It changed his life, he said, helped him become healthier, understand himself better and to move beyond challenges. 

He started the Boone Running Club with Valerie Mazza.

"We wanted to get people off the couch and get them healthy," he said.  

Running was next in line after God and his family, he said, and the more challenging, the better. He ran The Bear at Grandfather Mountain four years in a row. He hopes to be at the three-mile marker this year to inspire and encourage the runners.

"It's devastating to have it (running) taken from me," he said, "but I'm not quitting just because I'm disabled."

Erwin plans to participate in the 5K Relay For Life Race on April 26,  "wheeling from start to finish," he said. 

Moving forward

Rehabilitation at the Paul H. Broyhill Wellness Center has done wonders for his recovery, Erwin said. "Jodie Cash and Stephanie McDaniel have been great to work with me," he said.

In addition to major surgeries, he had a filter placed into his artery in January "to catch any blood clots that might break loose from my legs," he said. More surgery is scheduled for March 6.

Each day is a step forward for him "and often in uncharted territory," he said. "I don't know where I'm headed, but I know I am nothing without God. I will go wherever he leads me."

Finding strength

"This whole thing was a tragic event," Erwin said, "but it has been an amazing journey, too. God has turned something bad into good and he deserves to be glorified. I could've easily died last August, but he allowed me to live. Apparently, he isn't finished with me, yet."

The Scripture that has helped him the most, Erwin said, is from II Corinthians 12:10: "Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong." 

Community outreach 

Support from the community has been "mind-boggling," Erwin said. "It's something I can't put into words. We are very blessed and so thankful for everything that has been done for us." 

However, friends of the Erwins say that their financial needs remain critical. Insurance coverage has been "good," but much is uncovered, including expensive medication that Erwin requires. 

Those wishing to help make life a little easier may do so by contributing to the Jay and Lisa Erwin Medical Account at any North Carolina State Employees Credit Union.