Every day brings different challenges to John Sullivan and his family.
Every day brings different joys, different pains. New hopes, new fears.
Every day — 30 years after he was struck by lightning on Michigan State University’s golf course — remains a struggle. Physically. Emotionally. Financially.
“A lot of people have stepped in to help,” said his father, Dick. “Other than that, we wouldn’t be here. That’s the only reason we’ve been able to stay together as a family.”
Some high school friends are resurrecting an old, successful fundraiser to help his family with their around-the-clock home care of the 47-year-old. The Sullivan Scramble golf outing is July 11, for the first time at Forest Akers Golf Course in East Lansing. Proceeds and donations will help cover the continual medical costs and aid a family that has sacrificed so much to help keep their son out of an assisted care facility.
John Sullivan cannot walk the course with them. He cannot speak to say thank you. He can give them a big smile. He can move his head and use his eyes to show emotions.
His mind remains active and aware. It is trapped inside a body that shouldn’t be able to do what it can after suffering such a direct shock and lasting trauma.
But Sullivan is expected to be there, returning for the first time to the place where his promising life was forever interrupted.
On July 15, 1985, John Sullivan was 17 and preparing to enter his senior year at Marlette High School. He was as all-American as a kid could be.
Son of a dairy farmer. Oldest brother of four siblings. Class president. Intelligent. Athletically gifted. He was a golfer who also played basketball and ran track.
“He had it all – let’s put it that way,” his father said.
Golf came to him effortlessly and without much practice. After spending the previous week at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland for a science symposium, Sullivan headed straight to East Lansing with 238 others to compete in the fifth annual Michigan Junior Championships. It was his third time playing in the event and the highlight of his summer.
Sullivan and his three playing partners — Brian Stanton from near Owosso, and Scott Klebba and Jeff Szynski of Utica — were in the first group to tee off on the back nine holes of the West Course that Monday shortly after 7 a.m. A storm already was fast approaching campus.
Dr. C. Barry Dehlin was heading to work at Lansing General Hospital at the time. He still vividly remembers driving down Mount Hope Road past Forest Akers, seeing golfers on the course and then looking skyward at the black clouds rolling in, thinking to himself: “They can’t be playing out there.”
On the course, Sullivan and his group had just finished the 13th hole. Another foursome behind them hopped on a cart bound for the clubhouse. Sullivan’s group prepared to start the 14th. It was around 8:15.
The weather worsened. They retreated to a wooden shelter. For 10 minutes, they waited. No one came to get them.
Two of the golfers decided to make a break for the clubhouse. Sullivan and the other hesitated, then joined their partners’ dash. They got near the No. 5 hole.
Doctors told Sullivan’s family the lightning passed directly through their son, entering through his golf bag near his right hip and exiting through his left heel. The residual electricity sent the other three to the ground with him. All four were knocked unconscious. One came to and somehow managed to get back to the clubhouse.
Sullivan had no vital signs when emergency workers arrived. He was resuscitated on the course and immediately taken to Lansing General Hospital.
Dick Sullivan was in the family’s barn in Marlette when he heard. His mother, who rarely made her way from the house to the barn, told him John had been struck by lightning. That’s all they knew.
The family, including John’s sister and two younger brothers, immediately got into their car and drove 110 miles to Lansing, picking up a police escort after being stopped for speeding.
“When we walked in that room,” Dick Sullivan said, “I’m telling you, it was really … I don’t know the right word to say. It was difficult, unbelievable to see him laying there in a hospital bed quivering.”
Two of the other golfers quickly recovered from their injuries. Klebba remained in Ingham Medical Center for a few days. They all felt minor lingering effects for a few months.
Sullivan was not so fortunate.
He was in an induced coma for about six months. He sweated profusely for nearly a year, adding 8 pounds of moisture to an egg crate mattress pad on his bed in an hour, and then started doing so on only half his body. He survived a rare, near-fatal viral illness that again stopped his heart briefly, defying the 1-percent odds that he’d live through it.
“The day things turned around, I said to God, ‘I can’t do it anymore. I can’t cry anymore,'” his father said of the heart scare. “I said, ‘You do whatever you want. If you want to take him, take him. If you don’t want to take him and leave him here, I’ll take care of him.”
Sullivan was transferred to a hospital in Saginaw, then to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Eventually, his family decided to care for him in their Marlette home. An array of therapists, for his physical and mental health, visit a few times a week. He’s never had an infection.
“If it weren’t for this, John probably would have been dead by now,” Dehlin said. “If he had gone into a nursing home, he wouldn’t have been cared for like this.”
Dick and his wife, Marcia, continue to do most everything for John. They bathe him, feed him, keep watch over him. As they get older, lifting their 6-foot-4, 185-pound son becomes increasingly difficult. Dick Sullivan, now 71 years old, has had two hip replacement surgeries in recent years.
“For my parents, it’s gotten exponentially harder since my brother passed away (four years ago). He was a part time caretaker and helped a lot. That option is gone,” said his sister, Kirsten Billeter. “A lot of what Matthew was able to do has fallen back on dad’s shoulders.
“In terms of long-term care, my brother Ryan and I have talked about it. We can’t say what happens for certain or when. But we know that when our parents are no longer able to care for John, certainly one of us will take over. So the last 30 years won’t have been in vain.”
Dick Sullivan said his son is totally healthy beyond the neurological damage, which has left him in a “locked in” state. John Sullivan’s vision and hearing are both good. He uses a variety of expressions with his eyes to communicate. His bloodwork is normal. He continues to eat with a feeding tube. He’s shown some ability to use his legs but can do very little with his hands and arms. His father said he’s processing about 95 percent of what he sees and hears.
John’s individual plan of service from late last fall pointed to many positives, things his parents made sure a therapist wrote down so they could read over and over and draw hope from the words. His nerves are healing, ever so slowly growing and extending. He is showing “purposeful movement” and responds to verbal prompts.
“At the bottom, underneath the positive characteristics,” Dick Sullivan read from the therapist’s note with pride, “it says, ‘John is Mr. Personality — loves his family, has a great sense of humor, intuitive, alert, strong-willed and determined. He has a mind of his own. He’s smart, enjoys music, has a good memory and has lots of abilities to do things he wants to.’ So that kind of sums up. …
“To think what he’s been through and to see him now, it’s an unbelievable thing that his body could go through stuff like that and he can be as good as he is and as happy as he is.”
‘VERY HARD ON THEM’
The Sullivans sold off their livestock and quit dairy farming a few years after John’s accident. They, too, have remained in survival mode. Bills continue to mount. Donations and help from relatives and friends can only be stretched so far.
The family hesitantly sued Michigan State University and lost. Health insurance costs kept soaring. They’ve battled Medicare and had their funding slashed. One roadblock after another.
Still, they refuse to turn over care for their son to strangers.
“Obviously, the hardest thing with John is him being robbed of his life,” John’s sister Kirsten said. “With the family as a whole, you can never say that if only this hadn’t happened then this would have. You never know. … It’s the choice to want what’s best for your kid, even when it’s incredibly hard.”
The Sullivans’ story remained prominent within the state’s golf community over the years. Fuzzy Zoeller once came to Lansing for a charity event to help the family. It raised more than $20,000. However, the longer it gets from 1985, the fewer people know their situation.
Enter Tammy Wendt and Dale Roggenbuck, who were 1986 graduating classmates of Sullivan at Marlette High School. They decided to resurrect The Sullivan Scramble, which for a dozen years had been held in Saginaw. It would always help them “get paid up for a couple months.” That event ended in 2000.
“Since that hasn’t happened, we don’t have that (financial cushion) anymore,” Dick Sullivan said. “It’s like trying to get out of the water when you’re drowning. You get your head out a little bit once, and pretty soon, you go right back down. I’m amazed that any of us are still here.”
Roggenbuck, who was one of John’s close friends growing up, visits the Sullivans when he returns to Marlette from his home in Houston.
“They love their family very much, they love their son very much,” he said of Dick and Marcia Sullivan. “They’re very broad-minded people. They’ve endured a lot of tragedy in their lifetime. They had such wonderful dreams. … I don’t know how they do it. It’s been very hard on them, I know.”
This week again proved tumultuous, like so many have over the past 30 years.
The Sullivans were finalists in a contest for National Mobility Awareness Month, but they did not win. The prize was a new van to help transport John places. Their old van, a 1993 model customized for accessibility that was donated to them more than a decade ago, constantly needs repairs and is becoming unsafe.
Then late in the week, Dick Sullivan left his son’s side briefly to go to another room in their house. When he returned, John had stood up on his own. It was overwhelming emotionally.
One setback, one step forward.
Move on and focus on the positive.
It’s what keeps them going.
THE SULLIVAN SCRAMBLE
• When: July 11, golfing begins at 9 a.m.
• Where: Forest Akers West Golf Course, East Lansing
• Format: 18-hole, four-player team scramble
• Golf entry deadline: July 5
• Lunch: A barbecue lunch will be served from 2-4 p.m., which is available for those who are not golfing
• Costs: $95 single golfer, $350 foursome, $22 for BBQ lunch only
• Contact: Tammy Wendt at 615-478-1071 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or the Forest Akers pro shop at 517-355-1635
• To donate: Richard Sullivan, 3030 Sullivan Road, Marlette, Mich. 48453