Drawn to the Minnesota priest who was gravely wounded in Iraq, a devoted circle of supporters has seensmall miracles in his slow healing.
When Brother Conrad Richardson arrived at the hospital that morning in 2005, there was no sign that anything had changed.
Father Tim Vakoc lay in bed, as he had for months, without moving.
Brother Conrad sat down at the bedside to pray. It was part of his weekly ritual to give communion to Catholic patients at the VA Medical Center in Minneapolis. But Father Tim, he knew, was in no shape for that.
An Army chaplain, Father Tim had been gravely wounded by a roadside bomb in Iraq. He could neither speak nor swallow. His skull had been pierced by shrapnel, his body paralyzed. One eye was lost, and there was no glimmer of recognition in the other.
Brother Conrad had no idea if Father Tim knew he was there. But as he did every week, he held the priest's hand and talked. As he rose to go, he started to slide his hand away. This time, Father Tim stirred.
Even now, a year later, the scene is etched in Brother Conrad's memory. "He placed his hand over mine and squeezed it," he said.
And for a moment, Father Tim didn't let go.
From the start, few thought the priest would recover from his devastating injury. But Father Tim has surprised nearly everyone with his struggle to hang onto life and reconnect with his family, his friends and his faith.
To the faithful, his tragedy did not diminish him. From his hospital bed, he has drawn a devoted following. And in a sense, his ministry as a priest didn't end with the blast. It simply started anew.
The Rev. H. Timothy Vakoc (pronounced VAH-kitch) was barely alive when he arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. in June 2004, just days after the explosion. His family thought he would die of infection, if not from the wounds themselves.
He was heavily bandaged, hooked to tubes and monitors, shut out from the world. Even so, he had a special aura about him, said his sister, Anita Brand.
Of the thousands of casualties of the Iraq war, Tim Vakoc was the only priest. And everyone knew it.
That first night, a top military chaplain stood at Father Tim's bedside. "He said, 'Tim, you are still a priest, and this bed is now your altar,' " Brand recalled.
Staff members felt it, too, when they entered his room. "It's like being on holy ground," one told Brand.
A nurse brought him a rosary from the Catholic shrine of Medjugorje in Bosnia, hoping perhaps for a miracle. It has remained with him, often draped around his hand.
Another staffer prayed at Father Tim's bedside morning and night.
As Father Tim hovered between life and death, the family reached out to friends and fellow soldiers through the website CaringBridge.org. His sister issued a plea to "storm the gates of heaven in prayer for Father Tim."