A thin layer of black ice changed the path of a local family’s lives on Valentine’s Day and, even as they face an uncertain future as their fallen patriarch attempts to recover from brain trauma, the community has rallied in support and the family’s faith has never been stronger.
“It’s been a wonderful outpouring,” said Nancy Butler. “People, some we’ve never heard of, have been sending us (well-wishes) and comments.”
On Feb. 14, Joe Butler, Nancy’s husband, slipped on black ice while walking to the mailbox to get the morning newspaper at his Five Bridge Road home. He was transported to the Salemburg Fire Department, where he was immediately airlifted to New Hanover Regional Medical Center. He had suffered a fractured skull and severe brain injuries.
One of Joe’s farm workers was driving around when he saw something on the ground near the driveway.
“He rode over with his pickup,” Nancy recalled. “That’s when he realized it was Joe. He was unconscious. I called 911 and they intubated him right in our driveway. They took him to Salemburg fire station. (New Hanover) was the only helicopter they were letting fly because of the ice. They weren’t letting WakeMed, Chapel Hill or Duke fly.”
Joe underwent surgery to remove a hematoma on the left side of his brain and stayed at New Hanover for four weeks — in the surgical trauma intensive care unit (ICU) for two weeks, then a step-down ICU for another two — before being transferred by ambulance to the Neuromuscular Care Unit at WakeMed to receive lower-level brain injury rehab.
There, he received occupational therapy and physical therapy (OTPT) every day for about an hour. He stayed at WakeMed for nearly four weeks before coming back to a private rehab room at Mary Gran Nursing Center in Clinton on April 9.
Joe and Nancy have been married for 39 years and have two daughters, Ashley, 32, and Katie, 21, and a son, Matt, 34, as well as two grandchildren, Ashley’s boys Lake, who will be 4 on Monday and Drew, 16 months.
The family has not left his side, and friends and others have made daily visits.
Joe continues to receive OTPT and speech therapy at Mary Gran and there has been some progress, just no response to specific commands.
“He’ll open his eyes and follow us, he’s just not responding to commands yet, like squeezing our hands or anything,” said Nancy. “If (Katie’s) sitting over here and calls out his name, he’ll turn his head and look at her. He wasn’t opening up his left eye because that was the side he had his brain surgery.”
“He began peeping through his (right) eye when he was still in the ICU in the first couple weeks, as soon as they took him off the heavy sedation,” Katie said. “He was in an induced coma.”
After he began opening his right eye on a regular basis, his left soon followed. Now he opens both.
“We tell him where he is and the staff tells him, when they come in, what they are about to do,” said Nancy.
“We just talk to him a lot,” Katie added.
“We tell him what happened, that he slipped on ice and where he is,” Nancy said.
And they place music, a lot of George Jones, and they show videos on their phone of the grandchildren playing. Those two little boys “are his heart,” Nancy attested.
“We make sure when he’s awake that he watches the videos,” said Nancy. And he does watch them, with both eyes, intently. He wears his green “Prayers for Joe Joe” bracelet and his daughters hold his hand.
Nancy said there are others who have been through similar situations where loved ones have suffered a traumatic brain injury. Ashley connected with a woman online whose mother did. She has been a great help, Nancy noted.
“There are people who have had loved ones and family members in situations that send us positive stories. And people in our church that have had family members go through it,” Nancy said. “It’s the positive stories that have helped so much. Everybody has been so good to me. People have been so good.”
Joe makes small strides each day and his daughters track, and share, every part of his recovery with heartfelt messages of love on Facebook, many of which read as little letters to their father. Nancy said she keeps a daily journal. The hope is that Joe will one day be able to read through those messages and know just what he has been through and just how much he and his family are cherished.
“You can’t even imagine,” Nancy’s best friend, LuAnn Horne said. “It’s been friends of friends of friends.”
More than 2,000 people have liked a “Prayers for ‘Joe Joe’” Facebook page, some as far away as Japan and Thailand.
“He’s Joe Joe to everybody,” said Nancy, noting that came from Katie. “She never has called him daddy. It’s always been Joe Joe.”
For every message, there are more than 300 likes and shares. It is the family’s hope they can one day share those daily Facebook posts, the loving comments and Nancy’s journal entries with Joe, and have him respond back.
“And this one,” said Nancy, pointing to Katie, “That one right there, she’s my boss. She was her daddy’s boss. She’s the baby. I couldn’t do it by myself. She’s been with me from day one. They all have, but this one trying to juggle school, classes, she has not left me.”
And the family does not leave Joe. Nancy didn’t leave at all when Joe was out of town. Now, she will go home at night and son Matt will come and stay with Joe.
“We don’t leave,” said Nancy. “We haven’t left him in nine weeks.”
Joe suffered a stroke six years ago and spent six weeks at WakeMed before fully recuperating.
“He was a miracle then,” said Nancy.
Now, the family is hoping for another one.
“He is supposed to stay here until Wednesday, but he might stay longer,” said Nancy. “We’re supposed to take him home with private nursing at home. There is a possibility that we might extend our time here.”
Once home, he will have a hospital bed, a lift, his wheelchair and will be fed through a PEG (Percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy) tube in his stomach. He is fed every four hours and turned every two hours.
“He’ll have to have all that in his room,” Nancy said.
The family’s ultimate goal is to get Joe to the point where he is responsive enough that he can go to a center that specializes in rehabbing brain injuries. “That’s just our goal is to get him back to rehab,” Katie said.
And the public is pitching in to help.
A BBQ & Chicken Fundraiser for the Joe Butler Family is being held next month, on Friday, May 16, from 11-3 p.m. and 4-7 p.m. at First Baptist Church Fellowship Hall, 408 College St., Clinton. The cost is $8 per plate. A website has been set up, at prayersforjoejoe.com, where people can place eat-in or pick-up orders, as well as delivery orders (10 or more) or just make a donation.
Doctors are unsure what the future holds for Joe as all trauma patients are different. There is only one who truly does know, and the family continues to pray that he will give Joe strength. At one point, his family put a healing cloth over his head that had been anointed in holy oil and prayed over.
“We were trying anything that we could try,” said Nancy.
And people from everywhere are reaching out to help, a true testament to the loving and kind man Joe Butler is. Nancy said their church family at First Baptist Church has been wonderful, as has interim preacher Charles Allard.
“Right now, it’s kind of up in the air,” said Nancy. “We don’t like the prognosis. We don’t go by that.”
“It’s not a good prognosis,” said Katie.
“It’s (about) our faith and our hope,” Nancy attested. “We’ve turned him over to God. We just take it one day at a time.”
The most recent Facebook message, left Thursday, describes Joe’s alertness. Ashley wrote how she and Katie “tested you some today and when you weren’t looking we would call your name … you turned your head and looked right at us! That’s so encouraging. Tomorrow makes 9 weeks…”
It was a good day. But even through the bad days, the posts maintain their optimism and spirit, a faith in God’s plan that is unshaken.
“We were so nervous about moving and changing … but God is always 5 steps ahead of us,” Ashley wrote. “He is taking care of everything. What a journey this has been so far. Can’t wait to see what God has in store for us as we continue to travel this road! I love you!”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.