What It Feels Like

Stories of surviving the unimaginableShariff-Photo-by-Beau-Gustafson

Compiled by Jesse Chambers and Lindsey Osborne

“Thank God it wasn’t me.” That’s often the first thought that flickers through our heads when we hear of difficult things happening to other people. And yet, there’s a certain level of intrigue in the stories of people who survive painful experiences. How does somebody pick up the pieces of his or her life after the thing they never thought would happen to them does?

We asked six people who have done just that to share their stories with us. We wanted to know what it felt like to live through the things they did—their experiences include things like fighting off an attacker, getting struck by lightning, and having to relearn the basics of normal life after a car accident—and how they moved on with their lives. Their words turned out to be a testament of human resiliency: the common threads in all of their accounts were strength, hope, and perseverance. They share the emotions and thoughts that accompanied their experiences and what it was like to carry on with life afterward. Read their stories on the pages that follow and take heart—while we hope the unimaginable never happens to you, know that if it ever does, life can begin again.

What It Feels Like to Be Struck by LightningLightning-strike-guy

Alan Jones

Alan Jones, an Alabama Power employee, was struck by lightning twice—first in the spring of 1997 while he and other crew members were installing lines for a television tower on Bald Rock Mountain in St. Clair County. The men were sweaty after hiking up to the remote location, and then it rained—hard. The rain stopped, and the men decided to finish connecting two poles. Jones got his wire hooked up, then the guy above Jones on the pole asked him for a hand connecting his.

“Once I grabbed hold of his wire, nobody else was touching it. A bolt of lightning came and struck the wire with me holding it. I felt the taste of electricity. I actually thought it had killed me. I had an out-of-body experience where I was rising up above the poles looking down at everybody. I felt like I was floating in the air. I could hear them talking. I kind of shook my head and within a second or two I was back on the pole. Everybody realized what had happened and screamed at me to get down. They said, ‘Are you OK?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I think so. I’m talking to you.’ All I felt was the taste of metal or electricity in my mouth.”

Jones took a brief rest, then went back to work. In fact, he worked overtime and didn’t even see a doctor. He explains why he wasn’t badly hurt.

“I think the electricity went over my body, instead of through me, and went back into the pole because I was completely soaked—underwear and everything. That’s how God saved me. Electricity looks for a path to the ground, and so it traveled with the least resistance. My sweat- and rain-soaked clothes were easier for it to travel through rather than going into my body.”

Jones was also at work in 2014 when lightning struck again—not his body but the antenna of the company pick-up truck he was driving on I-459, just after he passed under a large Alabama Power transmission line.

“I heard a big boom. I had seen lightning about four to five miles down the interstate, but I didn’t think it was close. I was in the middle of three lanes, and I initially thought the person ahead and to the right had shot at me. But I could see the car, and their windows were up. It was a loud explosion. I thought, ‘Was it electrical?’ My dashboard was going crazy. All the gauges were going haywire. My truck was losing power. I made my way off the interstate. I decided it had been an electrical boom, which I had heard several times. When electricity hits and goes to ground, it makes an explosion. I jumped out of the truck and headed back to the transmission line. I thought maybe part of the line was hanging down, which could be dangerous for drivers. I thought, ‘This is going to be bad.’ But a guy behind me pulled past and parked in front of me and screamed, ‘Are you OK?’ Man, you got struck by lightning.’ I turned around and went back to him. It made sense then. I tried to report it. The dispatcher I talked to [at Alabama Power) was one of the guys from the mountain. He said, ‘Man, you better head straight to church.’ I said, ‘Well, God let me live twice. I think I’m good on that end.’”

Jones says he takes his odd experiences with lightning—the odds of being struck twice are one in 144 million—as a chance for a spiritual testimony, while also having a sense of humor.

“I think it’s given me an opportunity to say how good God is and why we can’t take him for granted. That’s how I take it. I don’t think I’m prone to be struck by lightning and you should stay away with me. Of course, my friends and family say, when lightning comes, ‘We’re staying away from you.’”

What It Feels Like to Get ShotShariff-Photo-by-Beau-Gustafson

Sharrif Simmons

Birmingham poet, musician, and event promoter Sharrif Simmons became the target of gun violence one night in May 2007 after his Jeep Cherokee broke down as he drove through the Southtown projects. Simmons was approached on 24th Street South near University Boulevard by a teenager who tried to sell him marijuana. Instead, Simmons asked the teen if he could give his dead battery a jump. The young man left, returning on foot with five other guys. Simmons thought they were there to help, but it quickly turned into a robbery.

“The first teenager said, ‘Check this out,’ and pointed a 9mm handgun at my face. ‘Brother, what you doing?’ I asked. When I reached for my wallet, he pulled the trigger. He shot me in my right leg with a hollow-point bullet that shattered six inches of my fibula bone and shattered my tibia. The best way to describe it would be getting hit with a flaming, industrial-strength sledge hammer. I reached for him before I fell, because my initial impulse was to defend myself. They beat me up, robbed me. They took my wallet but left my cell phone. They debated killing me. The quote was, ‘We gonna kill this niggah or what?’ I didn’t really stick around for that answer.”

The young men moved some distance away and seemed distracted, and Simmons—whose “instinct kicked in”—was able to roll and crawl until he was about 50 feet away, where he used his phone to call 911.

“I had to take my son, Omari, to school the next morning, and that was a priority. I knew that I wasn’t going to die there. I knew that I was not going to let them kill me that night, and I chose to live. The guy who shot me had a hoodie on. I didn’t see his face at all. In hindsight, I really don’t think he intended to pull the trigger. I am almost sure that the reason he shot me in the leg was that he didn’t want to catch a murder charge. If he had wanted to kill me, I wouldn’t be here. When I reached for my wallet, he got jumpy, maybe. It just happened instantly.”

Simmons says he didn’t react with fear when the kid pointed the gun at him, which may have angered the young man. In fact, Simmons believes he likely sounded angry or condescending when he asked the shooter what he was doing. And the teen may have perceived a “cultural gap,” according to Simmons.

“I had just gotten back from Florence, Italy, about three days before. I had on very expensive Italian boots and a red velvet sports coat—not appropriate project attire. In that way, it was more about class. Not to say that I’m out of a different class, but that was the perception. As I think back, I’m more aware he didn’t want to kill me. He just didn’t like who I was. It felt a little personal.”

Simmons received great care at UAB from Dr. David Volgas, who had served as a combat surgeon in Iraq. Volgas saved his leg, despite what personnel called a “military-style wound.” And Simmons looks back philosophically on that fateful night in Southtown.

“It was intense, a rare look at the human heart and what some people are willing to do for whatever.”

What It Feels Like to Have Your Identity StolenIdentity-theft-girl

Jamie Bradford

On a normal Thursday afternoon, a stranger, Jennifer, Facebook messaged Jamie Bradford to tell her someone had “stolen her life.” Jennifer gave Bradford the name of the person she believed had stolen Bradford’s identity and told Bradford to look at the Facebook page. Bradford and her husband, Les, have a 5-year-old son, Gage, and a 2-year-old daughter, Gracie, who has Down syndrome. You can read about their journey with Down syndrome on Bradford’s blog, found atnormalasweknowit.com.

“I searched for the name and when the page loaded, staring back at me was a picture of my daughter when she was about 3 months old. On the picture it said, ‘In Loving Memory.’ As a mother, seeing a picture of your baby with ‘In Loving Memory’ on it is horrifying. Immediately, my shoulders got tight and my breathing increased. I scrolled down and there was a picture of me, a picture of my kids together, a video of my son singing ‘Jesus Loves Me’ to Gracie the day we brought her home from the hospital. I saw all of my happy moments, fears about [Gracie’s] upcoming heart surgery, the beautiful story of Gracie’s birth—just with different names. Was I really seeing this? These were pictures of my family and my words, but they weren’t on my page. I held my hand over my mouth in shock as I continued to scroll.

Then I clicked over to the public page, a page that was solely dedicated to prayers for this child and had over 2,000 likes. I saw the same photo with hundreds of people commenting how devastated they were that this child had died. People commented that they had cried all morning and had been following the journey of this family for months. I clicked over to her blog, and it was copied and pasted straight from mine. I immediately told my coworker, ‘I gotta go. Someone has stolen my life.’

I got in the car and called Jennifer, so confused and dumbfounded about what was happening. She proceeded to tell me that she had been talking with this person for months after a mutual friend introduced them via Facebook because they lived in the same city and both had kids with Down syndrome. After weeks of talking, this person told her that her baby had RSV and was in the hospital. Jennifer offered to visit, but the girl said no visitors. Jennifer went by the hospital anyway, and the hospital said they didn’t have anyone by that name and no babies with Down syndrome.

Fast forward to the day before Jennifer and I talked—this person told Jennifer the baby had died. Jennifer cried as they messaged and asked where the funeral home was. The girl gave her one in Columbus, Ohio—not in Columbus, Georgia, where they were supposedly from. The next morning, the girl messaged her and said, ‘I know it’s really sudden, but we’ve just been approved for a Down syndrome adoption’ (the day after her daughter died). She sent Jennifer a picture, and it’s still my Gracie, just a little bit older. Jennifer suspected something was up and took one of the pictures and searched it in Google—and lo and behold, my blog popped up!

Are you following me? She killed off the younger version of my child and was going to play it off like she was going to adopt an older version. This was going to go on forever—just piggybacking off my blog, staying a few months behind me. I quickly realized this was a very detailed and horrifyingly personal violation on my family. Was this just someone obsessed with my family? Or was there a motive?

I immediately reported her personal Facebook page, and friends and family began replying to people on the page saying, ‘This child is not dead!’ People were mad—disgusted—telling us they had donated money, and it started to click! Money for a funeral, and then money for an adoption. You think of all these Facebook pages you follow—what would it be like to find out they are a hoax?

We’ve gotten some backlash from strangers for putting personal information out there, but even now, as I reflect, I still feel like it’s worth it. The amount of people with whom I have been put into contact and hopefully had an impact on? It’s worth it. And I guess I may even owe this person a little thanks—because of this, I have met many more families and have been able to speak with more people about our journey, how Gracie is more alike than different, and how perfect God’s plan is.”

What It Feels Like to Recover from Brain TraumaMurray-Dunlap-wedding

Murray Dunlap

Writer and photographer Murray Dunlap’s life changed forever on June 7, 2008, when he was in a car wreck in Mobile, Alabama. Dunlap suffered a broken pelvis, broken clavicle, and a traumatic brain injury after he was hit by a man who ran a red light. The accident left him in a coma for three months, a wheelchair for six months, and a walker for six more. He did much therapy to walk again, regain his memory, and stop speaking with a slur. Last year, Dunlap wrote a letter of forgiveness to the man who hit him, and he published his second book, Fires and Other Stories, on June 7, 2015—the anniversary of his wreck and what Dunlap calls his “alive day—a recognition I cheated death.”

“From my experience, every brain injury is unique. No one has a clear-cut set of things you can do to recover. Each doctor I saw said something different. It is a mad spectrum of guesswork. Getting my life back together is a process that I do not believe will ever end.

Yesterday, I went for a jog. Every step I took was shaky and uncertain. Just the same, I was out doing it. Half the time, I was just walking—not able to jog. But half the time, I was actually jogging and saying to myself, ‘Thank you, God’ with each step. And that is what my recovery has felt like—half of the time, not getting things done exactly right, but doing the best I can, and half the time, doing things correctly and thanking God that I can do it at all.

My time in the wheelchair was an astonishing lesson in humility. Before the wreck, I was confident, and things came easily to me. In the wheelchair, I felt helpless, humiliated, and angry. Now, I think I have learned from my experience and take things in stride.

Having amnesia is torture. After divorcing my first wife and trying to date again, I did not remember how. I was also horrified to realize I did not remember whom I had dated or kissed, etc. Humiliating to say the least.

Physical therapy was a never-ending guesswork series of therapists who, if I’m honest, had no idea how to get me walking again. My best experience was with a therapist named Joe Baya and his plan for getting me back into shape physically so that whenever my brain started to cooperate, my body would be ready. He wasn’t trying to make random guesses about chemicals or brain-work that might get my brain to heal faster. He focused on my body. I appreciated his admitting not understanding my brain.

My eyes were ridiculous. Double vision is a nightmare. The surgery to fix it involves going to the nerve behind the eye connecting to the brain. A Birmingham doctor, Dr. Cogan, did a great job. My teeth are a silly part of all of this. I honestly don’t know if it was all in my head or not. They looked funny to me, so I invented a bizarre method involving dental floss to take care of it. It took me three months of tying my teeth tightly to do it. I have no idea if I really did anything at all. What I do know is that my teeth look straight to me now. I am happy.

My bracelet is a big deal to me. A nurse put a cross around my neck while I was in a coma. The cross on my bracelet is the same one, but I made the bracelet myself, not wanting to wear a necklace. I like to think it is good luck, as I did wake up, after all. And now that I have brought God back into my life and married an Episcopal priest, Mary Balfour Dunlap, I think wearing Jesus is a good idea.

Every life can change in an instant, I say. You will never see it coming. It is what you do with the pieces of your wreckage and how you put it all back together that will define who you are. And I could not know it at the time, but what I have been through has led me to where I am now, and holding the hand of Jesus. I am finally happy. After everything, if I can smile, please never ever give up.”

What It Feels Like to Survive a Near-Death ExperienceNear-Death-lady-with-family

Sharon Abbott

Sharon Abbott, a resident of Jasper, Alabama, had a near-death experience in December of 2008, right after she gave birth to her third child, a son named Jake. She was accompanied by her husband, Jerry Wayne Abbott, with whom she also had Gracie and Elijah, ages 8 and 9 at the time. While holding Jake, Abbott felt sick. She was hemorrhaging. Hospital staff struggled to get her blood pressure up as she began to pass out, but she went into a coma. She was moved first to ICU, then airlifted to Baptist Medical Center-Princeton.

“I didn’t realize I was getting on a helicopter. I could not see anything. Everything was dark. It was just loud and chaotic. What I could hear was very vague. They had given me a paralytic. I kept thinking, ‘What’s going on?’ It was almost like I was trapped in my own mind. I wasn’t scared, but it was chaos. The next thing I remember I was walking with the Lord, and we were on a path. It’s not like I fell asleep. It was like I stepped from one place into the next, and it was immediate peace and calm, and a love that I can’t even begin to describe surrounded me with the Lord. It was as if he was walking beside me on my left. There were other people. It was like a garden path. Everything was foggy. But I was not focused on the scenery; I wanted to know what was happening. I thought I had been in a car wreck or something really bad had happened. The Lord didn’t say anything. Then I remembered it was not a car wreck. I thought, ‘Jake is fine, but I’m not. I’m dying, and that is what happened.’ I am not sure if I was walking with God the Father or Jesus. To be honest, it didn’t matter. I just knew I was in the presence of the Lord. I do not remember ever ‘seeing’ Him, but I knew He was there. He was so close I could feel his breath. His presence was so strong I could literally smell Him—a beautiful, pure, clean smell.  I said, ‘Lord, I’ve got this brand-new baby and Gracie and Elijah and my husband and family, and you know I want to live, but if it is your will to take me, please take care of my family.’ He already was, of course. He covered us from the beginning. I could see some other people walking. I didn’t see their faces but was aware of them moving. At no point was there any fear when I was in heaven walking with the Lord. That is amazing to me. His presence was so strong. If he had said, ‘It’s time to take you,’ I would have been fine. I was clawing to get back to my kids, but I had such peace.”

Abbott woke up in the Princeton ICU, but she couldn’t speak; her kidneys had shut down and she was on life support. Dr. Keehn Hosier and staff worked on her for hours, but she was bleeding faster than they could get the blood into her. “There was no hope given,” she says. But the bleeding gradually got better. She adds, “All the doctors we saw said it was nothing but the hand of God.” She remained in the hospital for about two weeks.

Abbott, Jerry Wayne, Elijah, and Jake, now 7 years old, still live in Jasper, where Abbott teaches school. But tragedy came to the family in a different form in 2014 when Gracie, who would be 15 now, died after an ATV accident. Abbott takes comfort from her close encounter with God: “I feel like He allowed me to have the experience so I can have some peace now and know where Gracie is and know how much peace and love is there.”

Abbott’s story was featured on the Project Afterlife TV series on the Destination America cable network. The episode was called “A Labor of Love.”

What It Feels Like to Fight Off Your Attacker

Ben McWhorter

In December of 1994, Ben McWhorter (then sales manager of WZZK and president of the Birmingham Ad Club) was approached in Five Points South by a male with a gun. The man—who turned out to be a teenager—tried to force McWhorter into the trunk of his car; when McWhorter escaped, he was shot in the leg.

On the experience

“He looked suspicious when I saw him walking up 20th Street, but I didn’t really think anything of it until I saw him pull a gun on me. I was shocked…he pulled out a big silver pistol, and I’ve never been a fan of guns. He said, ‘Give me your keys,’ so I threw them on the ground, trying to figure out a way to kick him, but he kept his eyes on me when he bent down to get the keys. He forced me behind my car, opened the trunk, and said, ‘Get in the trunk.’ I thought he was going to kill me if I got in the trunk. I told him he could have anything I had and offered him my wallet. He said, ‘Give it to me,’ so I threw it on the ground, and he kept his eyes and the gun one me as he picked it up. He then said, ‘Get in the trunk’ again. At this point, he had everything he needed from me—the only reason he wanted me in the trunk was to kill me.

I decided it was time to make a move, so I tried to kick the gun out of his hand. I didn’t hear the gun hit the ground, so I ran like hell, weaving back and forth as I ran. I heard a boom and felt heat going down my leg, but I kept running. I crossed 20th Street and ran into The Mill because I thought that was the most likely place a doctor would be.”

On recovering

“I ran into the restaurant and went to the bar that was right inside the door and told the bartender, ‘I’ve been shot!’ and he said, ‘Yeah, right.’ I blacked out. I woke up and people were standing over me and I was hyperventilating. I literally thought I was dying. After they (those attending to me) told me that I was going to be OK, I was worried I was going to lose my leg.”

On keeping his attacker incarcerated

“He ended up firing three total shots at me, the police told me later. So he was definitely trying to kill me. The guy was caught quickly after the event—I think he was caught hiding in a dumpster a block away behind that church. I have done all I can to keep him incarcerated. I haven’t seen him in person since the incident, even though I’ve had to go to Montgomery for three parole hearings. I’ve seen his photo on the Alabama Correctional website…he’s just another guy to me, but a guy who doesn’t need to be walking on the streets because he places no value on human life. It’s not out of revenge or vengeance; it’s to keep others safe because this guy is dangerous. I have been told that he’s had 19 violent infractions while being incarcerated. He is still incarcerated due to my diligence and the help of others [including many of McWhorter’s friends] who have written letters, etc., during the time he was up for parole.

I have nothing against the guy at all. In fact, I’m against the death penalty; however, the government’s obligation is to protect us from violent criminals.”

On life after the attack

“It’s surreal actually…almost like it didn’t happen at all, because I haven’t been negatively affected. When I sit down and think about it in solitude sometimes, it makes me proud of the actions I took to save myself and I thank God for sparing my life. I have always been somewhat unflappable, but I’m more so now than ever. I view every day as a ‘bonus’—God has given me 22 extra years that I otherwise would not have had. Not many things worry me or scare me. If there’s any stressful situation where I have to deal with someone in a confrontation, I tell myself, ‘Unless they have a gun, I can handle this easily…even if the worst happens, it’s better than getting shot.’ I had people tell me while I was in the hospital, ‘Well, your stubbornness definitely paid off’—meaning that if I had gotten in the trunk, I wouldn’t have been alive.”



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