March 20, 2013 Edition

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Life-threatening illnesses give
couple compelling testimony

Robert and Sherry Engelken are healthy today and looking forward to the birth of their second grandchild.

John Bland

In an interval of just nine months, both Sherry and Dr. Robert Engelken of Jonesboro faced sudden, life-threatening illnesses. The couple, who grew up in Walnut Ridge, believes that their survival and present good health is not just a miracle but a series of them.

The Engelkens are grateful to have opportunities to share their story. They see it as a testimony to the goodness of God.

"When you see a series of things happening in the right direction, you know that it's more than coincidence," said Robert, who is a professor of electrical engineering at Arkansas State University.

In January of 2010, Sherry's mother, Betty Baird, passed away after suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

In August of that same year, Sherry underwent surgery to have her gallbladder removed. She had been having stomach problems, but the surgery did not remedy her troubles. After more tests, doctors determined she had a hiatal hernia. Because of the hernia and associated reflux, she could only eat very small amounts of food.

God is in control

Surgery for the hernia was scheduled for Oct. 25. Sherry worked at Westside Middle School, where she had been for approximately 15 years. As she often did prior to a holiday, she did something special for the teachers in her hallway. For Halloween, she had made little boxes of candies and lotion with a note enclosed. The note said, "God is in control."

Sherry said she also felt prompted to get a message to a special friend and teacher. "I went to one of the other teachers and said, 'I know that nothing is going to happen to me, but if it does, remind her that God is in control.'"

On Monday, Oct. 25, Robert took Sherry to the hospital early that morning for surgery. The surgery was a success, and Sherry was able to visit with everyone later that day. Robert wanted to stay overnight at the hospital, but Sherry insisted that he go home and rest. "God is in control," she told Robert as he left.

Be still, and know that I am God

The Saturday before Sherry's surgery, Robert recalls hearing distinctly in his mind the words, "Be still, and know that I am God." Although familiar with the scripture (Psalm 46:10), he had not recently encountered it. He would hear those words again, at a time when they were greatly needed in the days after Sherry's surgery.

On Tuesday about 4 a.m., the day after the surgery, Sherry took a turn for the worse. Her fever rose to 104.9 degrees, her breathing became very labored, she was close to delirious and her blood pressure bottomed out. When Robert arrived around 6 a.m., he found that her condition was critical.

Sherry was rushed to ICU and given vasoconstrictor medicine that Robert was told could kill off her extremities but would pull her blood pressure up and save her life. She was also placed on a ventilator to control her compromised breathing and given powerful antibiotics to fight infection.

Robert was told to call their family in, as she might not survive. Later that day, doctors decided to do exploratory surgery to make sure nothing had gone wrong with the original surgery. "The doctor said there was a high probability that she wouldn't survive this surgery," Robert said. She made it through the surgery, but no problems were found. They determined that a severe bacterial infection must have caused her body to go into septic shock or toxic shock.

On that difficult Tuesday, Robert recalled one of their pastors, Bro. Mike Martin of Central Baptist Church, coming to be with them. He concluded his visit with a scripture verse, "Be still, and know that I am God." Robert immediately sensed that this was more than coincidence.

During the next two weeks, Sherry would remain in a coma. Once, during that time, they called a Code Blue when her blood pressure crashed. Over 100 pounds of fluid built up in her body due to her treatment, and her kidneys were compromised. Particularly troubling was the necrosis or tissue death in her fingers and toes, which all turned black, similar to a severe case of frostbite.

Later during that two-week period of Sherry's touch and go status, a family acquaintance came to visit Robert and their son, David, while they sat in the ICU waiting room. "God has been telling me to come up and see you," she told them. She prayed with them and used some of the exact phrases Robert had used in his prayers before finishing with "Be still, and know that I am God."

"I was stunned," said Robert, who at first had kept the words he had heard so distinctly and those later used by Mike Martin, to himself. After telling her, "she was stunned also, and it affirmed her prompting to come see us."

Early one morning, nurses called Robert to come to the hospital. He thought that something bad had happened, but they assured him that it was good. When he arrived, he was told they had been able to remove the ventilator that Sherry had depended on for days. "It was a miracle," Robert said, as her lung function had been in question.

After a month in St. Bernard's hospital, Sherry went to HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital, where she would have to relearn how to walk, feed herself and perform other daily functions. During her rehab, she would return to a St. Bernards facility for kidney dialysis three times a week.

In mid-December, Sherry was released from HealthSouth. That same day, she also went for dialysis. They expected that she would have to undergo dialysis at least several more months, if not permanently. But on that visit, the kidney specialist said that her kidney numbers had all returned to normal and that no more dialysis was needed.

"That was a wonderful day," Sherry said. "God had healed my kidneys."

Robert was even able to take Sherry to the Westside Middle School faculty and staff Christmas luncheon. When he wheeled her in the room, the group of some 200 people rose to give Sherry a standing ovation. "Sherry is loved by a lot of people," Robert said.

Her struggles were not completely over, as her damaged fingers and toes and part of her left foot were beyond healing. On Dec. 22, the earliest possible date, Sherry underwent surgery to amputate the damaged extremities. The Engelkens' first grandchild, a grandson, was due in early January. Evan would be born on Jan. 8 to son, Daniel, and his wife, Ashley, and Sherry had wanted to be able to hold him.

"We prayed that God would heal my hands," said Sherry. However, the healing did not occur, but the loss of fingers has become Sherry's testimony.

"It's amazing how many people will come up and ask me what happened to my fingers," she said. "They don't ask about my healed kidneys. God gave me a visible testimony."

Roles reverse

Nine months later, in August of 2011, Sherry had almost become self-sufficient when Robert was struck with a ruptured brain aneurysm. Sherry and son, David, found him unconscious in the tree line of their yard, where he had been attempting to cut down a dead pine tree. "We were thinking heat stroke," Sherry said.

After initial assessment and treatment at St. Bernads, Robert was airlifted to St. Vincent's Infirmary in Little Rock, where he underwent brain surgery the next day.

"It was my turn to go through this, not knowing whether he would live or die," said Sherry.

After 11 days at St. Vincent's, Robert was sent to HealthSouth for rehabilitation. At HealthSouth, Robert was not doing well, and he suffered from debilitating memory problems. Sherry was told that he would not be able to return to work.

"I remember the chain saw dying, and then for weeks I had no memory," said Robert.

Then, a fortunate turning point came in the form of a blood clot. Robert was having severe itching in his leg and was found to have a blood clot. He was taken to the hospital to get a trap or filter installed to prevent the clot from going to his heart, lungs or brain. It was during that time that a physician determined that Robert was allergic to the high levels of anti-seizure medication that he was taking.

Once he was off of the medicine, his memory returned. "In a couple of days, he came back to us," Sherry said.

Robert said, "I could hardly believe it when they told me what had happened to me and what I had been through." Now, Robert has no aftereffects of the illness.

Sherry delights in sharing their story, not to focus on themselves, but "to make sure that God gets the glory."

"I feel like God prepared me for this way ahead of time through my upbringing, church and Sunday school," Sherry said. "Before this, I had a storybook life..."

"As you can see, God has had his hand in all of this," Robert said.

The Engelkens also give much credit to their family and friends for their love and care. Sherry's father, Carl Baird, Robert's parents, Fred and Barbara Engelken, their sons and wives, their brothers and wives and other family members were all a tremendous support. The church family and Sherry's school family also provided great support.

"Family is so valuable," said Sherry. "It's awe-inspiring how supportive, generous and loving people were." The couple offers heartfelt thanks to all of those who provided care, concern and prayers during their ordeals.

Hope was vital

Robert said, "It drives home some things that we all know." He recalled 1 Corinthians 13:13, which states, "And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love."

Robert said, "All three of those were so important, especially hope."

"One doctor, Dr. Don Howard, always had a way of keeping hope alive, even at the lowest points," Robert said. "The value of hope was driven home to me through Sherry's trial."

Psalms 46:10, the verse that states, "Be still, and know that I am God" continues, "I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!"

"God has used it (their experience) in so many ways," Robert said. Churches from Florida to Dallas and St. Louis were praying for them.

"I do have my bad days," Sherry admitted. "One reason that I like to give my testimony is because people are hurting."

For those who are hurting, Sherry has this advice: "Turn to a friend, turn to family, and most of all, turn to God."

A major theme of Sherry's testimony is to follow God's prompting, just as she was prompted to put "God is in control" messages in the teachers' treat boxes.

"So many times we get those (promptings) and don't follow through," she said. "We really need to listen to those promptings. It can make a big difference in other people's lives."

Sherry said she continues to enjoy sharing their testimony. She spoke at the McPherson Correctional Facility in Newport on March 10 and was scheduled to speak at a church in Jonesboro later this month.

The Engelkens' grandson, Evan, is now two years old, and they look forward to the birth of David and Natalie's first child, a daughter, in April.

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