Love Will Keep Us Together

The first time Chris Loughman saw the woman who would one day be his wife it was at a popular Allentown night club. Gail Balliet was beautiful and no pushover. Chris gave it his best shot and bombed out. “I asked her for her phone number but she wouldn’t give it to me,” he says.

A few weeks later, when their paths crossed again at the same club, Chris’s charming persistence won the day. He got the phone number and he got the girl. After dating for two years, Chris proposed to Gail in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, while on vacation. They married on May 25, 1985. It’s a date that now brings mixed emotions because on around the time of their anniversary thirty years later in 2015, Gail suffered a stroke. She was 58 years old.

Today Gail lives at the Good Shepherd Home-Raker Center in Allentown, where Chris and their beloved German Shepherd, Kobi, are favorite visitors of all the residents. Although their married life hasn’t turned out as planned, Gail and Chris are making the best of it and the love affair that began all those years ago is still
going strong.

Gail is a country girl at heart, born and raised in Tamaqua, a small town in the coal region of northeast Pennsylvania. “I loved playing outside and riding my bike,” says Gail. “I could go anywhere.” After graduating from high school, Gail worked as a medical secretary for 13 years. It was a job she loved. When her father needed help in the family heating oil business though, Gail dutifully answered the call and signed on as office administrator. Under her watch, the office was modernized, making it more efficient.

Gail and Chris added a daughter, Mallory, to their family in 1992. Chris also eventually joined the family oil business. Family vacations at Long Beach Island were treasured times. “We’re both beach nuts and we love seafood,” says Chris. During those long, leisurely summer days, Gail couldn’t get enough to eat of oysters, soft-shell crabs and a favorite delicacy, cold water clams from Cape Cod.

Life settled into a comfortable rhythm. Then Gail suffered her stroke. “She had been experiencing symptoms for about two weeks leading up to the stroke,” says Chris. “High blood pressure, double vision, dizzy spells. She was unsteady on her feet and had tingling on her right side. I begged her to see the doctor.”

But Gail ignored the warning signs and kept going with her busy schedule at work and at home. The night of her stroke, Chris was asleep on the couch downstairs. An early riser, he didn’t want to disturb Gail. “I heard what sounded like a cat outside,” says Chris. “Then I realized it was inside. I went upstairs and Gail was trying to get out of bed. She looked at me with terrified eyes.”

Gail was virtually paralyzed. “I woke up and couldn’t move my right side,” says Gail, who speaks with great effort but is slowly improving. Gail was airlifted to a local hospital. A blood clot had formed in Gail’s basal artery, depriving her brain of blood and oxygen, and causing a stroke. Gail was flown to a Philadel-phia hospital for the delicate surgery. “They told us that if she lives through this, she’ll be brain dead,” says Chris.

At 5 p.m. that Saturday night, the clot was removed. To everyone’s immense relief, Gail survived. She spent the next month in a medically-induced coma. When she regained consciousness, Gail couldn’t move any of her limbs. “She had locked-in syndrome,” says Chris. “She could only move her eyes. She was on a breathing machine and had a feeding tube in her stomach. We were living by the moment. It was surreal.”

After six weeks, Gail was transferred to the Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital in Allentown. Five and a half weeks later, Gail went to a nursing home in Pottsville. She remained there for one year but only had three hours of therapy a week. “They ignored her,” says Chris. “She just lay in bed. She was regressing very quickly.”

Discouraged by the quality of care, Chris transferred Gail to another nursing facility where she continued to languish. Chris and Mallory knew there had to be someplace better for Gail. Research on the internet and a personal referral from a family friend led them back to Good Shepherd’s long-term care homes. Chris scheduled an interview for him and Gail to meet with admissions staff for evaluation. By the end of the meeting, everyone knew that Good Shepherd was the place for Gail.

It took another four months for a bed to become available. Finally in December 2017, Gail moved to the Good Shepherd Home-Raker Center in Allentown. When she arrived, Gail was depressed and kept herself covered up with only her head visible, says Shirl Erb, a physical therapist. Helping Gail gain confidence was a priority. A motorized wheelchair was just the ticket. Now Gail was no longer confined to her bed or a bedside chair. “Giving her that piece in the beginning was very important because it let her be more social and independent,” says Shirl. “I think the depression started to clear. She had been very quiet.”

To the delight of her husband, daughter, her therapists, and care givers, Gail has emerged from her cocoon with a beautiful face and smile that lights up when she sees her husband and Kobi. She now goes on shopping trips and enjoys date night at the movies with Chris.

Along with building her confidence, Gail is also building her strength. She has improved her ability to shift her weight and can stand briefly with help during transfers from her bed to her chair. “We’re working towards transitioning to a standing chair because her trunk balance and ability to do standing things in a functional position is improving so much,” says Shirl.

In addition to physical therapy, Gail also gets some form of occupational, speech and recreational therapy every day. Therapy team members work together holistically to address Gail’s physical and emotional wellbeing. Working with occupational therapist Margee Wolf, Gail is getting back to everyday tasks. “One side of her body she couldn’t use at all and the other side was weak,” says Margee. “So to increase her independence we had to focus on strengthening the side that was least affected with activities she could do using one hand, like washing her face, brushing her teeth and hair, and upper extremity dressing.”

Gail is learning how to do laundry and starting to enjoy light kitchen work. Once a terrific cook and cupcake decorator, Gail has made lemon merengue and stuffed Italian peppers, a family favorite, with help from Margee. Lynn Lehman, another occupational therapist, helped Gail plan and shop for ingredients to cook a special lunch for her mother.

 As part of her therapy to improve the dexterity in her hands, Gail painstakingly wrote 60 Christmas cards to fellow residents and staff. “That was touching to see,” says Margee.

Staying connected through social media with family and friends is important to Gail. Soon after her arrival, Maryjane Frick, another occupational therapist working closely with Gail, set her up with a computer, an adaptive keyboard she can use with one hand, and a wheelchair accessible desk in her room. Another pastime bringing Gail joy is feeding the birds and squirrels who visit on the patio outside the Raker Center. Chris set up bird feeders and Gail always has a stash of
peanuts to toss out to the squirrels.

“She’s just inspiring to work with,” says Margee, “because I am the same age as she is, so I can relate to hard this is to have a husband and daughter and want to get back to the things that are so important in life. It makes us work harder when she is so dedicated and willing to try her best in therapy.”

Chris and Mallory are comforted knowing that Gail is in the best possible place. “Before it was a black hole of despair,” says Chris. “They’ve done so much for her here. Now she’s optimistic about the future. We don’t have to worry about Gail.”