Ray Rivers not alone on long road back after accident

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Everybody from Rowan County stops in Bennettsville, the halfway point on the way to Myrtle Beach. On the morning of June 19, Ray and Diane Rivers and two of their grandchildren had done just that.
It was a beautiful day. Ray was pulling the couple’s travel trailer in his heavy-duty pickup truck. Diane and two granddaughters, 6 and 4, followed in a car. After their stop, Ray pulled on out. Diane and the children were about 15 minutes behind him on U.S. 52 near Cheraw.
Before long, traffic stopped. Diane tried to call Ray three times on his cell phone. He did not answer.
“I knew something was really bad wrong,” Diane said.
There had been a wreck up ahead.
Diane pulled out of the line of traffic and drove up to the accident site. She saw the trailer and parts of the truck lying everywhere. One of Ray’s back tires on the truck had exploded. When it did, everything started swaying. Ray tried to control the vehicle and the trailer, but was unsuccessful. The truck overturned multiple times.
An EMS worker stopped Diane from going farther, telling her that Ray would have to be cut out of the truck — but that he was alive and talking.
Diane went back to the car to check on the grandchildren. By then, everyone was crying.
The EMS worker told the children, “Papaw’s gonna be all right. Y’all just calm down.”
The couple’s sheltie, Captain, had been in the truck with Ray. The animal wouldn’t leave his side, but EMS workers retrieved him and took him back to Diane. He didn’t appear to be injured, but would later have to be put to sleep.
Diane spoke briefly with Ray before he was airlifted to Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte.
“He wanted to know if the girls were all right,” Diane says. “I said, ‘What can I do for you?’ He said, ‘Pray.’”
• • •
Because Ray had been alert and talking, Diane assumed his injuries were not that bad.
She was wrong.
She and other family members arrived at the hospital to find Ray about to go into surgery. There had been extensive damage to his spinal cord. He had fractured vertebrae in his neck and back. Two additional surgeries were already scheduled for the next day.
“He was considered a quadriplegic because he couldn’t move his arms or legs,” Diane says. “He had no feeling from the chest down.”
The surgeon gave them no hope for any return of movement. Most people with those type of injuries, he said, never made it out of surgery.
Ray did.
• • •
Diane insisted on driving herself to the hospital. She and Ray have three children, Julie York of Ramseur, Philip Rivers of Stephen City, Va., and Jason Rivers of Salisbury. Jason’s wife Suzanne took their two girls home, and Jason followed his mom to the hospital.
“I packed me a quick bag and took off to Charlotte,” Diane says. “I was driving myself because I wasn’t coming home.”
In fact, Diane did not leave Ray’s side the whole time he was at CMC, then later when he spent two months in rehab at Wake Med in Raleigh. This facility specializes in spinal cord rehabilitation.
On the way to Charlotte, she says, “I was torn all to pieces, but you just keep doing what you’ve got to do.”
• • •
Ray and Diane Rivers met in ninth grade, and “went steady,” as Diane calls it, all through high school. Ray went off to N.C. State University, and Diane received a secretarial degree at Salisbury Business College. They were married the summer after Ray’s first year at State. She worked there while Ray finished school.
He began teaching, and she got a job with Bill Shive at Kizer Elementary, later working for him at Knollwood Elementary. Ray taught and coached at A.L. Brown, later becoming principal at Bostian Elementary.
Ray, 66, and Diane, 67, have been married 48 years.
“We’ve had a very good life,” she says. “We have three wonderful children and eight fantastic grandchildren. Things have always been good for us. We’re a tight-knit couple and a tight-knit family. This has been a nightmare.”
But, she continues, “God has a plan for Ray. God’s gonna see Ray through this journey. He’s got something for him to do. We’ve got no doubt about that.”
• • •
When Ray realized the extent of his injuries, he was understandably upset, his wife says. “He was frustrated. He said, ‘I can’t do anything for myself. I can’t even scratch my nose.’”
That was about to change.
“Wake Med was a godsend,” Diane says. “They were the most loving, giving people I’ve ever met. Nothing compares to the physical therapists. When Ray would accomplish something, the whole gym would clap.
“At first, he was very frustrated. But he did not lose his humor. He has a desire to fight. He has worked very hard. He wants to get back what he lost.
“It’s the family’s job to keep him encouraged. Ray doesn’t see he’s getting much better, but we’ve seen lots of progress. It’s tiny baby steps. It’s slow, but steady.”
In his time at Wake Med, Ray learned to use a wheelchair, and stood with the help of therapists. They worked with him to strengthen his muscles, and taught him to transfer himself from the bed to the wheelchair.
But after two months, insurance would allow him to stay no longer. The Riverses looked for another option.
• • •
In mid-September, Ray was transferred to White Stone, the Masonic and Eastern Star nursing home in Greensboro, for 100 days of skilled nursing care, which continues to include rehabilitation services, although not at the level of intensity at Wake Med.
He still takes physical therapy for 2˝ hours a day, six days a week.
Ray was there for three days when he started running a high fever. He had developed a kidney stone, and infection formed because the stone completely blocked his urethra.
“It just about killed him,” Diane says.
The stone was blasted Wednesday evening, and Ray returned to White Stone on Thursday after two weeks at Moses Cone Hospital.
He is eager to get back to physical therapy.
“Oh, he’s a fighter,” Diane says. “Anything they want him to do, he will try his best to do. It is just a work in progress. We’re just doing one day at a time.”
• • •
Now that Ray has stabilized, Diane feels she can spend the night away from the nursing home. Once he gets settled back at White Stone, she’ll spend the night in a nearby apartment.
“I’ve been pretty hard on myself,” she admits. “I haven’t done a lot for myself. Now I can go and get some sleep at night.”
Daughter Julie tries to come to see her daddy every day from Ramseur. She gave up her part-time teaching job to help her parents. Ray’s brother and sister-in-law, Tony and Earlene Rivers of China Grove, come often, as do Melvin and Faye Heilig, close friends from China Grove.
Diane returns to the couple’s China Grove home about once a month to pay bills, sort the mail and run errands. She had her hair done Thursday. She was looking forward to the time of pampering.
“Our neighbors have been mowing the yard, collecting the mail and feeding the cats,” she says.
Many others have also reached out to the couple.
“We have had friends and past colleagues contact us, students of Ray’s from Brown, faculty members and friends from Bostian,” she says. “We have churches praying for us. We’ve had the most wonderful response from people we didn’t really know who are praying for us.”
That includes the congregation of Grace Lutheran Church, where the couple have been longtime members.
“Our church has been unbelievable,” Diane says. “We’ve received cards, visits, a love offering and prayers. They are a tremendous support source.”
• • •
That love and support continues this Saturday, Oct. 11, when the congregation hosts its sixth-annual fish fry at the church, 3020 Grace Church Road off U.S. 29. The fundraiser starts at 5 p.m. and keeps going until the last piece of fish is sold. Since 2009, more than $112,000 has been raised to help local families.
This year, proceeds from the fish fry will go to Ray and Diane.
“Months ago, we started planning the fish fry and we tried to come up with somebody to help,” says church member Robin Bernhardt. “We thought, well, this is a good problem to have, we don’t have a name. But we kept on with our planning. Next thing we knew, Ray had the accident. We said, well that’s why. That’s our name.
“They are the most giving members,” Robin says. “They are good, strong faithful people.”
Robin adds, “We don’t ever really set a goal on how much money we want to raise. We just try to do our best. We hope we sell every piece of fish we have. We think it’s gonna be a really big turnout — our biggest one yet.”
• • •
When the couple was in Raleigh, Robin called Diane and told her they would be the recipients of this year’s fish fry proceeds.
“I feel like there are so many other people who are so much more deserving than we are,” Diane says, “but Robin said they really wanted to do it for us. I’ve always been taught that the best thing do to is say thank you. But I feel unworthy. It’s a blessing.”
Diane admits that there’s not a whole lot folks can do for them until they get home. Before Ray returns, they’ll have to make their ranch home handicapped accessible.
She hopes that will be just after the first of the year.
“We want him to get as much therapy as he can get,” she says. “He wants to come home, but he knows I can’t take care of him until he gets better.”
As for Ray’s thoughts, she says, “He would want to thank all of our friends for the love, care and support they’ve given Ray and me, and to thank them for the opportunity to have the fish fry to benefit us financially.”
In the meantime, Ray is settling in at White Stone and looking forward to working hard in rehab.
“I hope we’re in a good spot for a good, long time,” Diane says.

Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.