Around Kendallville and Waterloo, at an auto parts plant in Avilla, in Fort Wayne and New Haven and as far away as South Carolina, Tennessee and Louisiana, people are praying for Stacy Shirk.
Many don’t even know the 37-year-old father of three sons who lives in Butler. But they’re all hoping for what Shirk’s sister, Teresa Hunter of Kendallville, calls our Christmas miracle – that Shirk, in a coma since a motorcycle accident in August, will somehow open his eyes.
We need him to wake up, says the 38-year-old Hunter, a nursing assistant.
With the rest of Shirk’s large extended family, Hunter has been struggling for more than four months in the helpless state of having a loved one physically present but not really there.
He has brain waves; he’s not brain dead. That was a scary test, but we had to know, she says. If you touch his skin, his face, he moves. I think he knows you’re there. I talk to him. But if you say Squeeze my hand,’ he doesn’t respond, she says.
Doctors, she adds, have told the family that it could take weeks or months for Shirk’s brain to heal enough for him to come out of the coma – if he ever does. We were hoping he’d be better now, she says.
But those who love him can’t give up on him.
Crash in the dark
Hunter says her family’s ordeal began Aug. 18 when Shirk, his brother Scot, 36, and Scot’s wife, Heather, 32, were en route on motorcycles to a concert at Hog Hill, a three-day motorcycle festival in Hamilton.
Shirk was in the lead, on a black 2009 Honda he bought this summer, going north on Indiana 1, when Scot Shirk realized his brother had missed a turn.
Scot Shirk was flashing his lights and honking at him in an attempt to get him to stop, Hunter says. It was dark, and (Shirk) came up around a curve, and he was going too fast and lost control.
The motorcycle skidded 48 feet from where Shirk first tried to stop to a wooden sign, which he hit.
Not wearing a helmet, Shirk suffered head injuries, including a broken jaw, a shattered eye socket and multiple skull fractures. He also dislocated his shoulder. Lying in a field, he was so far from the road that his brother and sister-in-law couldn’t immediately find him. They traced him, Hunter says, from soft gurgling sounds.
Emergency crews were quickly on the scene. But he was basically unconscious at that time, Hunter says. Her brother was flown by helicopter to Parkview Regional Medical Center, where doctors removed part of Shirk’s skull to relieve pressure on the brain from bleeding. And, although he is no longer on a respirator and is breathing on his own, Shirk has never regained consciousness.
After about three weeks in intensive care, Shirk was moved, because he wasn’t improving, to a nursing home on Fort Wayne’s north side. This month, however, he developed a bladder infection and was readmitted to the hospital, right before his 37th birthday Dec. 2.
By last week, he’d recovered from that but had developed a touch of pneumonia and was back on antibiotics, Heather Shirk says. He was again able to be fed small amounts through a tube, she says, but he was having difficulty absorbing food; Hunter says her once robust brother now weighs about 110 pounds.
Hard on family
Shirk’s condition, Hunter says, has been hard not only emotionally but also financially. Scot Shirk, she says, took the lead, going to court to get power of attorney to make sure his brother’s bills could be paid. Stacy Shirk has a neat-as-a-pin, white two-story home on Monroe Street in Butler, his first house, and the family is striving to make the payments so he has a familiar place in which to heal.
But, she says, short-term disability insurance is ending and medical bills are mounting, and it’s difficult for some family members even to afford gas money so they can drive to Fort Wayne to see Shirk in the hospital. We try to make sure somebody is there a lot of the time, Hunter says.
Friends and family members, including Shirk’s sons – Jarod, 13; Scott, 18 and Brandon, 20 – have done a carwash fundraiser and a bake sale that brought in about $800. The younger two boys are now living with their mother, Melissa Geetings, in Angola, while the oldest lives in Kendallville.
Hunter and her husband, Gary, started and maintain the Prayers for Stacy Shirk page on Facebook, and it has attracted more than 800 followers. The page doesn’t ask for donations, she says, just spiritual support.
Many who post are friends or friends’ friends or people from Hunter’s church, Freewill Baptist Church in Waterloo. But some have found the page by accident, and one area person with no previous connection to the family, Lori Reuille of New Haven, has sent welcome gas cards and fast-food gift certificates. She bought Christmas gifts for Shirk’s boys, after they told her all they wanted for Christmas was for Dad to wake up, Hunter says.
On Dec. 18, family members and friends had a prayer vigil at Avilla Park, a couple of miles from the Kautex-Textron factory where Shirk was known for working 10- and 12-hour shifts, sometimes six or seven days a week, for about 10 years.
About three dozen people stood in the dark and 30-degree cold, lining up to light candles in small plastic cups, singing a verse of Amazing Grace and offering wishes and prayers in front of a collage of photographs of Shirk outlined with a strand of blue Christmas mini-lights.
Finally, attendees passed around a cellphone so they could talk to Shirk; at the hospital, a relative had it held up to Shirk’s ear.
There were long silences.
We’ve never done one of these or been to one of these, so if you want to, say a prayer or whatever’s on your heart. We just want to leave it open to people, Heather Shirk said. We don’t have any experience with this.
Hunter says she’s always loved her brother for his good-natured ways, big blue eyes and ready smile. She says her two sons – Justin, 7, and Jaydon, 4 – absolutely adore Stacy. He would take them fishing and chase them around the house to tickle them when he came by, which was often, she says.
After their mother, Nannie McPherson, who lived in LaGrange, died in 2009, the siblings, including two other sisters, Terry Brown, 37, of Kendallville and Tammy Santacruz, 35, of Avilla, became very close, Hunter says.
Stacy Shirk also has two half-brothers – Marcus Shirk, 13, and Jacob Shirk, 12, who live with his father, Carson Shirk, 59, of Wolcottville. Through his late mother’s extended family, there are stepsisters Twana Maurer, 37, of Auburn; Amanda Gill, 36, of Kendallville; and Shana McPherson of Auburn; and a stepbrother, Adam McPherson, 28, of Garrett.
We weren’t raised to think about half’ and step.’ It’s just sisters and brothers, Hunter says. We stick together as family. He’s like the backbone for us. He’s always been the tough one.
Now, Hunter says: To me, it’s important that we’re there, that we love him, that we’re praying for him. It’s important that we support him. Mostly, we want him to wake up, get out of the coma and start getting better.
But whatever God’s will for Shirk, she adds, We have to put our faith in God and go on; it’s in God’s hands.
A few weeks ago, her son Justin told Hunter he had had a dream. Jesus told (him) that Uncle Stacy is going to walk again, he’s going to talk again. He’s going to see again. That’s something we hold on to. I hold on to it in my heart, she says.
That’s what faith really is. You believe in things you don’t see.