The testimony of Berta Dickerson.
“Say goodbye to your mother,” Daddy said as he threw a suitcase into the backseat of our Corvair. Crying quietly, Mommy seemed unable to walk without his constant prodding. Then they were gone. We didn’t think we would ever see Mommy again.
A few weeks after Mommy left, Daddy molested me. I was eleven. I soon learned he had molested my older sister too.
Daddy married our stepmother, Mary—and her four kids—four years later. My sisters and I did all the cooking, cleaning and child rearing.
In 1974, Mary claimed her dead grandmother told her we had to move to the bottoms along McGee Creek to be safe from what was happening in the world. Daddy quit his job, bought an old school bus, and converted it into a camper. We drove a quarter of a mile down a steep muddy trail to a level edge on the side of a hill and set up our home. We carried water from the creek and cooked over open fires. We hunted and fished, and ate a lot of white beans and potato soup.
I enlisted in the Navy at seventeen and became a hospital corpsman. When I reported to my duty station, the Navy hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, I learned my family had moved to Kansas without telling me.
I spent a lot time at the base stables working with the horses and the rodeo team. While out drinking with the cowboys one night I met James. We married a year later and spent all our time and money in bars. We both received our discharge papers in 1979.
We moved to San Diego, California, and our daughter, Kari, was born. Soon after that, Daddy and Mary moved to San Diego with the remaining five kids.
Once again, Mary’s dead grandmother told her “we” were to move, James, Kari and me included. This time it was northern Louisiana where she had family who lived an Amish lifestyle. With a promise of a simple life, James fell for it and we left our comfortable home and jobs. We sold everything we could, and bought tents and sleeping bags. We camped in state parks from San Diego, California, to Spearsville, Louisiana.
There were no Amish-style relatives though there were relatives. They were quite wealthy with big houses and expensive cars. We rented an old farmhouse that didn’t have running water. While living in Louisiana, I attended LPN school and after graduating, I told James I was going back to Memphis. We all ended up there within a year and old habits claimed James and he spent every possible minute in the bars. Having Kari to care for decreased my bar-time, but I eventually found a baby-sitter that would keep her overnight.
I hated my life and decided to leave James. He told me I would never make it on my own; that I’d be back in two weeks or I’d be dead. Unemployed, I left Kari with him hoping she would be better off without me. I thought I’d rather die than continue to live the way were. We never had enough money to eat well, we couldn’t pay our bills and yet James wouldn’t stay home. Our babysitter kept Kari for days and promised me she would watch over Kari. Within a month, I got a job at the Methodist Hospital in Memphis.
My lifestyle didn’t change much. I was still going to bars. I just didn’t know anything else. When I wasn’t drinking, I was self-conscious and intimidated in every situation except my job. I was a good nurse.
I met Earl the next summer. The first time I saw him I told the nurse I was working with that I’d like to go out with him. When I found out he was the chaplain for our floor I certainly wasn’t interested in a “preacher.”
Earl and I became friends despite our differences. We spent a lot of time together but only at the hospital. We talked about everything. I told him things I’d never told anyone before. After a year, he asked me out on a date. “No!” Is he crazy? He knows how I live.
Well, I did finally go out with him, and when he proposed I didn’t hesitate to say, “Yes.” I decided to be baptized because a preacher’s wife should be. We married on December 29, 1985.
The next June, Kari came to live with us as we went to our first Church appointment in Benton, Kentucky. The thought of attending Sunday school or Bible study frightened me. There I was, a pastors’ wife who knew nothing about the Bible and had a very colorful history. Won’t they judge me?
Four years into my marriage, I was still struggling with my past. I went on a Christian retreat where I felt like the woman at the well: I met a man who told me all I had ever done. (John 4:29). I accepted God’s forgiveness that weekend and started reading Christian fiction, then nonfiction. Soon I was reading the Bible and attending every church service I could.
Talking with my cousin, Bob Wiley, one evening I told him I believed God was calling me to a healing ministry and I was afraid. “I don’t know the Bible. I can’t pray well enough.”
Bob said, “You have to be healed before you can heal.”
I didn’t understand. “But Bob, I’m not sick.”
While on vacation over the Christmas holidays, I had a dream about Bob. He would be involved in an accident on January 1, 1991, on Highway 80. Earl called him and Bob said he would stay home that day.
On New Year’s Day, Kari and I were on our way to meet with my prayer group. We were talking and I missed my turn. I decided to take the next road even though I wasn’t familiar with it. Driving along, we topped a hill and there was a stop sign, and Hwy 80.
My eyes opened to bright lights and sounds I couldn’t quite identify.
“Hi, Berta.” Earl was standing next to me. Where am I? A hospital bed! What happened?
Kari and I had gone through the intersection and under the trailer of a semi that dragged us one hundred and sixty-five yards before throwing us out on the other side.
The car was so flat that the first people on the scene didn’t check for survivors. My cousin, Bob, came and checked. We were both alive. Kari had a several cuts on her head and Bob’s wife took her out of the car. I knew my neck was broken and my breathing labored. Bob asked me what he could do and I told him to pray. He cradled my head in his hands and prayed with me for the forty-five minutes it took the paramedics to cut the car away from us.
Earl was at a theater watching “Home Alone.” The staff turned the movie off and the lights on and Earl said he knew they wanted him. After hearing about the accident and that one of us was seriously injured, he drove to the hospital. As he passed the accident site God told him that I was hurt and that he would see me and talk to me before I died.
He prayed that he could accept God’s will but he couldn’t. He prayed, “God, I’ll take her any way You choose to give her to me as long as she’s Berta. In his heart, God told him, “Remember your promise.” That was when Earl knew about my paralysis.
When he arrived at Western Baptist Hospital in Paducah, I was in x-ray having a cervical CT scan done. He asked Bob how I was but Bob wouldn’t say. Earl kept pressing for an answer then asked, “Is she paralyzed?” When Bob admitted that I was, Earl calmed down. God was in charge.
Kari was treated and released from the hospital within a few hours. As for me, the CT revealed that my fifth cervical vertebra was shattered. That meant my spinal cord was injured and probably severed. A chest x-ray showed that a broken rib had punctured my right lung and I needed a chest tube.
In surgery, they put two screws in my skull, one behind each ear. Weights applied traction to the screws by Crutchfield Tongs to straighten my neck. I developed pneumonia and needed a ventilator so they did a tracheotomy. In yet another surgery, they put in two more screws, this time in my forehead. Four upright bars connected a metal ring attached to the screws, to a leather vest to immobilize my neck and allow the broken bones to fuse.
Our Christian family gathered around us daily. They visited us at the hospital. They took care of Kari. They also supported my youngest sister, Bobbi, who had come to care for Kari. But most of all they prayed for me and with me.
One morning I heard Bobbi crying softly in the corner of my room. Don’t cry Bobbi. It’ll be OK. I’ll walk again. God said He would heal me when I’m 34. (I was 33.)
I didn’t want Kari to see me because I thought it would scare her to see all the tubes and wires attached to me. Earl said he had already told her about everything and when I finally agreed to see her, she wasn’t bothered at all. Earl held her over me, she gave me a kiss and said, “I love you Mommy.” All I could do was cry.
Earl persistently asked my neurosurgeon to transfer me. He said, “She can get just as good of care here as anywhere else.” Then one day he started telling Earl that if I lived I would be brain damaged, ventilator dependent, and bedridden for life. A vegetable. He told Earl, “You’re too young to be stuck with something like that.” He then offered some simple things that could be “not done” so that I would die, quickly but comfortably. In that moment, God replayed in Earl’s mind the oath he had taken on our wedding day. In the voice of Reverend John Jones, the pastor who performed our service of marriage, he heard, “. . . in sickness and in health, forsaking all others, keeping thee only unto her, so long as you both shall live.” Without hesitating, Earl said in his spirit, “I do.” Earl understood that God alone decides the time limits of a marriage covenant.
The next day, I heard the pulmonologist say that I would never get off the ventilator and I made up my mind that I would. I’d been off it for a few minutes at a time so I knew I could breathe without it. Two days later, I was off it, although I still needed oxygen.
When I looked up all I could see were the two screws and the black circle the brace formed around my forehead. I called it my “crown of thorns.” I couldn’t feel anything below my neck. I had a trach and was on oxygen. I had a triple lumen IV in my chest and was on a cardiac monitor. I had a feeding tube in my stomach and an indwelling urinary catheter. Physical therapy wouldn’t touch me if I’d had a bowel movement and I had constant diarrhea from the tube feeding. I had pressure sores on both heels and on the back of my head.
Despite the doctor’s prognosis, Earl arranged for my transfer to Shepherd Spinal Center in Atlanta, Georgia.
As I settled in to Shepherd’s Intensive Care Unit a respiratory therapist swabbed my trach to culture for infections. It grew out methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus, MRSA. (That hard to kill superbug called mer-sa) The staff moved me into isolation.
I stayed in ICU for ten days before transferring to an isolation room on the second floor. Earl pinned all my Christian “get well” cards and a banner that read,“He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it in the day of Christ Jesus,” (Phil 1:6), to the walls. Every time I looked at that banner, I thought, “What good can come of this broken paralyzed body.” And, “How do you get well from a spinal cord injury?”
Earl and Bobbi, along with Kari, alternated visiting. Earl would stay for ten days then Bobbi and Kari would come for a weekend. We did devotions together each evening. Earl read both The Upper Room and Our Daily Bread aloud. When Bobbi was there, I had her read them to me. She hated reading aloud, but every time she did, there was a strange coincidence between the devotions and her day. (She accepted Christ and was baptized in October, 1991.)
As I built up strength to sit up, the therapists brought in a power wheelchair. They thought I would need a “sip and puff” chair. [Like the one Christopher Reeve had several years later.] Earl insisted that I could drive with my right arm. I could—sort of.
I spent most of those isolation days laid back in my chair either sleeping or staring out the window. Just outside my window were several trees. I watched as tender new shoots and tiny red buds appeared that spring. All but one. It was dead, useless and ugly. I wished someone would cut it down. One morning, I looked out my window and the tree had buds on it. I cried. What I had said about that tree was what the doctors had said about me. It was God’s way of telling me that my life wasn’t over. He is faithful.
The doctor took my crown of thorns off on Good Friday, the traditional day Jesus’ Crown of Thorns pierced His brow. I wore a cervical collar for four weeks. After three months of external support, my neck muscles were too weak to hold up my head. I had to lie back in my chair and let the headrest support it.
On Easter Sunday, a young couple led a brief worship service in the classroom at the Center. I couldn’t sing or raise my hands in praise, but I sang in my heart and thanked God for my life as tears rolled down my cheeks.
Once I was no longer MRSA positive, I had a regular routine. Monday through Friday a nurse got me up in my wheelchair and fed me breakfast. Then I slowly wheeled my way to the gym for therapy. Physical and Occupational Therapies were done twice a day. Splints stabilized both of my wrists. I slowly regained control of my right bicep and with that return, came attempts to do activities of daily living. This included brushing my teeth, washing my face, and feeding myself. It was messy and frustrating.
Group therapy, led by a psychologist and a chaplain, took place once a week. Another psychologist met with me privately. I took an oral cognitive test to determine my post-injury ability to reason, and scored very high. No brain damage. There were classes every day on what to do, how to do it, things to know for daily care and in an emergency.
Not only did I have a lot to learn, so did Earl. Our training included range-of-motion exercises, assisted coughing, bowel and bladder care, skin care, nail care, body positioning, clothing and shoes, preventing illness, sexual issues, medications, adaptive devices, etc. Earl learned about wheelchair lift van options. We learned how to make our house “wheelchair friendly” and how to maintain my wheelchair.
After passing the training exercises, we were encouraged to go on outings to experience the public. We shopped at malls and ate out at restaurants. We even went to church.
One thing Shepherd couldn’t do was give me a Christian community. I knew there were people at home praying for my recovery and for my healing. I received cards every day. Still, I needed to be at home. I desperately needed my family, my Church, and my friends. And my family needed me as much as I needed them.
My physician was reluctant to let me go so soon. I hadn’t made much progress. I still couldn’t hold my head up, so much of the therapy time I spent laying back in my chair. He had me evaluated by each of the therapists assigned to my case as well as the psychologists and the chaplain. In the end, he agreed to let me go if I promised not to quit. I promised.
Shepherd wouldn’t discharge me until Earl had performed each aspect of my care in front the staff nurses. I had surgery to close my trach. Then we had to make a weekend visit home to see if the modifications to the house were adequate and if we could manage everything. We made the trip home and back over Memorial weekend. I was exhausted, even though I had laid down both ways, and I was hurting worse than I did right after the accident.
My discharge date arrived. June 9, 1991. Once at home life was unstructured. If we weren’t actively doing something, I was sleeping. Earl took me everywhere he went: Church, preacher’s meetings, pastor’s conferences, hospital visits. But mostly I took my pain pills and slept.
On the first anniversary of my injury, we went back to Shepherd for a follow-up visit. X-rays showed that the bones in my neck had not fused. My doctor recommended surgery but said the neurosurgeons there wouldn’t risk doing it.
Earl did some research and he chose a surgeon whose office was on Aldersgate Road in Cleveland, Ohio, because John Wesley’s heart was “strangely warmed” on Aldersgate Road in London, England on May 24, 1738.
We contacted the surgeon and he accepted my case. We began the preoperative process in Paducah. As part of that process, I had a cervical MRI done. A friend worked in the department, and she let Earl and I watch the computer screen as she printed out the films. That’s when we saw my spinal cord for the first time. It was intact and slightly swollen at the injury site. I cried with joy at the possibility of being able to walk again.
On April 12, 1992, I was the matron of honor and Kari was the bridesmaid at Bobbi’s wedding. She and Tim had come to Benton to get married by Earl in the Church where Bobbi had come to know the Lord. Three days later, I underwent surgery in Cleveland.
The procedure was a Late Anterior and Posterior Cervical Decompression. Basically the surgeon cut across my neck, removed the loose pieces of bone, turned me over and cut a ten-inch incision down my neck, took out more broken bone, put in bone grafts from my hip, and wired it all together.
After ten hours in surgery, I woke up in intensive care intubated and on a ventilator. “Angry” is not a strong enough word to describe what I felt. I hadn’t thought about being on a ventilator again. I spent two days on it in the unit and three days later, we were on our way home.
I wore a neck brace that was similar to the halo but without the screws. It held my head up for two months, and then I wore a cervical collar for two months, then nothing. Still very weak, I continued to lie back to rest my neck muscles. In late August, we went back to Cleveland for a postoperative visit with the doctor. As he had me raise my arms, testing them for function, he asked, “Are you doing that?”
“Yes.” I thought he was angry.
When he pricked my skin in several places to determine what I could feel, he asked, “Can you really feel that?”
I didn’t understand why he thought I was faking my responses.
He released me, and recommended I go to outpatient therapy.
After a year of outpatient therapy, I asked my doctor if she would write an order for me to do an inpatient rehabilitation period at a local rehab center. The therapies strengthened me quickly and I gained more control of my shoulders and biceps. I was able to hold my head up longer and I left there with a new outlook on my ability to function in life.
At home, I had nothing to do and felt useless. Without a structured day, I slept all the time. I hated company because I was embarrassed to be an “invalid.” Any noise that interrupted my sleep (or feigned sleep) made me angry. I was rude to adults because they talked about me while I was right there. Kari’s friends would knock on the door and I’d holler at her for letting them disturb me.
Earl gave me a laptop computer and encouraged me to keep a journal. Writing caused me to think and that led to an active mind. Earl was always so patient with my tantrums and as I got stronger, he encouraged me to do things for myself. I kept all of my medications on my computer and was responsible for ordering refills and getting orders for the expired prescriptions. I had a medical history page where I charted every test, treatment, and supply pertinent to my care. I made all my appointments and scheduled all of my nurse and nurse’s aide visits.
An invitation to teach a Sunday school class required study and preparation. As I read the Word of God, I learned how much He loved me, and what He had planned for my life. I developed a telephone ministry with the older women in our Church. Encouraging and praying for others was helping me stay alert and heal.
I returned to Shepherd nine years after the accident. The doctors and staff responded to my health, strength and independence with, “You could write the manual.”
People say that I am an inspiration. I say, “It’s Jesus.” I want every person I meet to see Him and know the joy He brings.
My arms are functional and I wear a splint on my right wrist that enables me to use a touchtone speaker telephone, type on a computer keyboard, turn pages in books and feed myself. I have help in the mornings to get up and Earl puts me in bed in the evenings.
I spend most of my days alone studying God’s word, writing, preparing for the many ministries I’m involved in. I’m a pastor’s wife, an adult Sunday school teacher, a women’s Bible study leader and a small group facilitator. I am an author and a speaker.
We pray and give thanks to God every day for my healing. I pray this testimony has touched and encouraged you in Christ. You can read more about me on my website below.
In Christian Love,