Life can change in an instant.
That’s about how long it took to turn life upside down for Coupeville Pastor Garrett Arnold and his family. One moment he was trimming a hedge, the next he was dangling from the side of a 35-foot embankment in Ledgewood — having either slipped and fallen or the ground beneath him having given way — he’s still not sure which.
“There was nothing I could do. I yelled as loud as I could for anyone who could hear me and I did a lot of praying,” Garrett said Monday afternoon at his home. “But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think of the possibility I could die there.”
Garrett said he knew his body was broken, but because of the shock of the fall, he had no idea how badly he’d been injured.
He still had hold of the trimmer he’d been using and said he tried to wedge it beneath him to cut his tangled arms and legs free, but he was unable to do so. There he hung for nearly three hours on Aug. 17, knowing the beach beneath him was fairly secluded.
“Even when I was hung up on the rocks, I did have this incredible sense of peace,” he said. “As scared as I was, I had this incredible sense of not being alone.”
A woman walking along the beach with her dog discovered the pastor nearly three hours after his fall. “I remember the EMTs and the next thing I knew I was in an ambulance, then the helicopter,” he said. “The next thing I remember is waking up in the hospital.”
Sylvia Arnold, Garrett’s wife of 24 years, said she could hear the helicopter in the background when she got the call.
“I didn’t know what I’d see,” Sylvia said. “I kept telling them ‘Just tell me the truth.’ They tried to tell me, but until you walk in and see it for yourself, there’s just no way to prepare for that.”
Garrett’s injury was very serious. While Sylvia said the doctors never came out and used the “P” word” –paralyzed – until the family did so about a week after the accident, she had a gut feeling.
“In my mind, I knew in less than 48 hours that things had changed,” she said. “I came home, walked through the house and started ticking off all the things that would have to be done to the house so I could bring my husband home.”
“I can’t remember a specific moment when anyone told me (I was paralyzed),” Garrett said. “I think it just kind of soaks in and you become aware.”
“I believe with all my heart that God can heal me if he chooses,” he continued. “But his purposes are bigger than mine and I’m at a place where if he leaves me here, I can accept it. But I am still wrestling with it. I’ve felt anger, grief, pity — it’s a constant battle to not give in.”
Garrett now moves about his home in an electric wheelchair, still learning the ins and outs of the controls, still getting used to watching the clock to be sure he tips himself back in his chair every 15 minutes.
His life now revolves around a schedule of physical therapy five or six days a week.
“The doctors say there’s a lot of promise,” Garrett said. “I would love to get the movement of my hands and fingers back. But I’m thankful to be alive, that I get to spend every day with my wife and my kids. That’s not to say things don’t frustrate me.”
As the Arnolds learn to cope with their new “normal,” they say they wouldn’t be where they are without a tremendous amount of support – beginning with the medical care Garrett received to the outpouring of support the family has gotten from all over the island.
“We could never say ‘thank you’ enough,” said Sylvia. “I don’t even know how to say it.”
“People I don’t even know in this community have given so much, whether it’s money, their time, whether their story is similar to mine or not, it’s just been amazing,” Garrett said. “We’ll be saying ‘thank you’ for a long time.”
The community, through a series of benefits, including a concert, car wash, bowling tournament, basketball game and much more, has raised more than $30,000 for the Arnold family to help with expenses.
A team of volunteers came together to made modifications to the Arnold’s home, widening doorways, making adjustments to their bathroom and adding a ramp so Garrett can maneuver through the house in his wheelchair.
“I guess we’ve been here enough years that it creates a bigger support group, a bigger support group than Sylvia and I even dreamed of,” Garrett said. “And our church family has been phenomenal, taking care of my responsibilities and continuing with everything a church is supposed to be.”
Now that Garrett is home, he and Sylvia and their three children said they are looking forward to establishing a sense of normalcy and spending the upcoming holidays together. Their home is festive, decorated, appropriately enough, for Thanksgiving.
Garrett said he looks forward to one day being back in the pulpit, shepherding the flock that has been such a huge source of support.
“I would love to be back as soon as possible, but the church has some physical adjustments that will have to be made to accommodate my coming back,” Garrett said. “More importantly, I have to be mentally and physically ready. So there’s no set date for my return.”
“Recovery is tiring,” Sylvia said. “You don’t want to jump in and then realize it was too soon.”
“There are still days I’m reminded I’m not ready,” Garrett said. “But I’m looking forward to more moments and memories with this wonderful community.”