Gene Reese is the kind of man who built his own house, room by room, on the land where a midwife brought him into the world 55 years ago.
Vote in Local Heroes contest
Vote in the national Local Heroes contest, which will award at least three wheelchair-accessible vans to winners.About 1,100 stories are posted online. Voting is underway and ends May 10. You can vote once per 24 hours.To see Goose Creek resident Gene Reese's story and others, go to www.mobilityawarenessmonth.com and click on Enter or Vote Now. Then search by name, city or state.There are 17 South Carolina residents' stories posted, including Rob Duckworth of Goose Creek who works for the Center for Spinal Cord Injury.
There, he and his wife, Brenda, raised their five children amid a Goose Creek community rich with extended family.
An old family photo hangs in the den today. In it, Reese stands a good head taller than his petite wife and five little kids, all wearing smiles and their Sunday best.
It is the last photo of Reese standing.
The picture was taken in 1992, one week before a drunken driver rounded a bend on a two-lane road just as the young father was heading home from work.
It was 10:30 p.m., dark when he rounded a curve he had driven through countless times before, just a mile from home.
When an oncoming car with three men inside crossed the center line, Reese tried to veer.
But the car smashed head-on with such force that the steering wheel crushed Reese's chest and abdomen, severely damaging his aorta, the body's largest artery and a critical blood supply route from the heart. Pressure built, threatening to burst the aorta and end Reese's life in minutes.
Paramedics rushed him to Trident Medical Center.
Family members on the scene raced to tell Brenda.
The drunken driver and his passenger died right there. A backseat passenger was ejected and suffered major head trauma.
At the ER, a doctor warned Reese's brother that nine of 10 patients with similar injuries don't leave the ER alive.
But Reese's brother is a preacher, a man who believes that God answers prayers.
“My brother will be that one who comes out of here,” he said.
Reese's last memory of his old life? The dreary, post-winter brownness of the landscape beyond the hospital.
Life in a coma
Eight hours of surgery later, an incision cut down the length of his chest, kidneys failing, lung collapsed and gall bladder ruptured, Reese lay in a coma.
He lingered in its grip for more than two months.
During the months of waiting, Brenda raised their five children, ages 5-14. She kept up the routines of school and sports and friends.
But after two months passed and two nearly became three, a nurse suggested Brenda bring the kids to visit in case their presence would jar something deep within him.
A doctor voiced concern. If Reese died, did Brenda want the kids' last memory of their father to be a man comatose on life support?
Brenda brought all five children to see him. They kissed his cheek and spoke to him.
Reese awoke the next day.
While Reese was comatose, an old lady came to his dreams. He was sitting in a church bus seat, arms strapped down, as she blew smoke into his nose, irritating his throat.
When Reese awoke in the hospital, more than two months after his last memory, he lay facing a window. The landscape greeted him with the verdant green of a Lowcountry summer.
Maybe I'm in heaven, he thought.
He felt a breathing tube down his throat, irritating it like the old lady's smoke. He felt his arms strapped down.
He heard the wind whoosh loudly outside although the trees weren't blowing. Really, it was air conditioning whispering in through a vent.
He heard voices coming right through the walls. It was the PA system way down the hallway.
His senses felt oddly keen, long as they'd gone silent.
As his brain realigned with a wakeful state, he saw the tubes. Endless tubes stuck into every place a tube might prove useful to keep a nearly dead man alive for two months.
He saw a machine. Every time it pumped, his chest rose.
He tried to move.
Sharp as ever
Nobody knew yet that he'd damaged his spine at the T10 vertebra in the back's midsection. He was paralyzed from roughly the waist down.
“It wasn't shocking to me. I knew people who were paralyzed. We'd deal with it,” Reese recalls. “I was just thinking about getting through a day, then a week, then a month.”
Two years would pass before Reese believed he'd live long.
“We were just so happy he was alive that we could handle the rest,” Brenda recalls.
Reese was an electrician, a man used to fixing things. Soon, he longed to contribute, to take pressure off Brenda and the kids.
“How am I going to put them all through college lying here on my back?” he asked himself.
Their youngest child wouldn't remember Daddy walking. But they all learned that when they got out of the car, someone needed get their father's wheelchair out of the trunk and help him transfer into it. They had to plan where to park so there was enough space for Reese to get out into his wheelchair. They had to find a curb cut and be sure a wheelchair could traverse wherever they went.
“It was an entire adjustment of life,” recalls their son, Brian Reese, who was 9 at the time.
Learning to drive
A year after he nearly died, Reese sat in the driver's seat of a car and told his kids he was going to learn to drive.
They all laughed.
“How on Earth are you going to drive?” they asked.
So he went to a Greenville hospital to learn to use hand controls to drive. A teacher taught him to drive around an empty parking lot.
It terrified him. His thoughts fled back to that night, glitching on the memory of a car slamming into him. But after several hours, he ventured onto an old road, then a two-way street and last a highway.
But driving at home meant driving on that very road, rounding that exact curve. Even 21 years later, he still gets flashbacks, especially if a car is rounding the bend when he does.
Today, makeshift crosses dot the curve. He wonders what his cross would have looked like.
“Every time I pass those crosses, I think one should have been mine,” he says.
He bought a used van and a used lift and installed the device himself, rewiring it and fixing damaged parts.
He repairs his own hand controls, his originals from 20 years ago. He installed a lift at the Masonic lodge where he's a master and Brenda a matron.
“I get around just because I have electrical abilities and mechanical abilities,” Reese says. “Otherwise, I would still have to rely on my wife.”
But one day in 2004, he blew a tire on his wheelchair. It was almost Christmas, and everything was closed.
He called the Disability Resource Center in North Charleston, which ran a loan closet for people who couldn't afford durable medical equipment or needed emergency loaners. The technician told Reese to bring his chair on in. It was Christmas Eve.
“No charge,” the man said. “That's what we do. We help people in emergency need.”
He mentioned he was moving and needed a replacement.
“Well, look no further,” Reese said.
Hope for a van
Reese spent five years fixing equipment for folks as far away as China until he suffered a severe infection in his spine.
Today, the grandfather of five lives on disability income. It pays the bills, although barely.
Trouble is, his 1992 Chevy van, the one he modified himself, leaks oil and water. He can't afford to replace it, so he drives fearful of breaking down someplace where he can't get around.
Then he heard about Local Heroes, a contest held by the sponsors of the National Mobility Awareness Month.
In it, people vote for stories from those who need the prizes: one of three wheelchair-accessible vans.
Brian Reese helped his dad submit his story.
Yet the elder Reese just sees himself as a regular guy who went through something millions do.
One in three people will be involved in a drunken driving crash in his lifetime. Every day, 27 people in the United States die in one, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Recently, Reese logged in to check how many votes his story had received. He wound up reading other people's instead.
“My heart goes out,” he says. “I want to vote for some of them.”
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.
Reese transitions from a praise-and-worship time in church to the service at Ashley Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston, where he is a deacon.×
Reese says goodbye to two of his five children as he leaves Ashley Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston.×
Gene Reese greets Ruth Waring, a member of Ashley Missionary Baptist Church.×
Goose Creek resident Gene Reese prays at the altar of Ashley Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston with his family.×
Gene Reese and his wife, Brenda, arrive at Ashley Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston, where Reese is a deacon. He worries that his aging, handicap-equipped van will break down and leave him stranded.×
Gene Reese arrives at Ashley Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston, where he is a deacon. He worries that his aging handicap-equipped van will break down and leave him stranded.×
Gene Reese and his wife, Brenda, arrive at Ashley Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston where Reese is a deacon. He worries that his aging handicap-equipped van will break down and leave him stranded.×
Goose Creek resident Gene Reese is too tall for the van he equipped himself with a lift and often hits his head coming and going. However, he worries the aging van will not be running much longer and cannot afford to replace it.×
Gene Reese and fellow deacon Johnny Fields lead Sunday School at Ashley Missionary Baptist Church.×
Gene Reese Sr. prays at the altar of Ashley Missionary Baptist Church in North Charlest with his family. ( Leroy Burnell/postandcourier.com/4/21/2013 )×
Gene Reese Sr. transitions from a praise-and-worship time in church to the service at Ashley Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston where Reese is a deacon. ( Leroy Burnell/postandcourier.com/4/21/2013 )×
Gene Reese Sr. works on the control arm of an electric wheelchair in 2009 when he was still volunteering to repair used wheelchairs for the Disability Resource Center, which provided them for people who cannot afford to purchase their own. (Brad Nettles/staff) 1/30/09×
Goose Creek resident Gene Reese Sr. is too tall for the handicapped-equipped van he equipped himself with a lift and often hits his head coming and going from it. However, he worries the aging van will not be running much longer and cannot afford to replace it. ( Leroy Burnell/postandcourier.com/4/21/2013 )×
Gene Reese Sr. and his wife, Brenda, arrive at Ashley Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston where Mr. Reese is a deacon. He worries that his aging handicapped-equipped van will break down and leave him stranded somewhere. ( Leroy Burnell/postandcourier.com/4/21/2013 )×
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