Dec. 17, 2006: A prayer for Father Tim

  • Article by: MAURA LERNER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 18, 2006 - 3:41 PM

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."

Progress, then setbacks

Judy McCloskey didn't know Father Tim. But she couldn't get him out of her mind. A military wife and mother of six, she had founded a group called Catholics in the Military to offer aid and comfort to fellow believers. She was haunted by the news that a priest had been critically wounded in combat.

Within days of his arrival at Walter Reed, she drove almost 80 miles from her home in Front Royal, Va., to pray at his bedside.

"I felt blessed being able to be there," she said. "I held his hand. I said, 'Father, if you can hear us and you are aware that we are here, if you can, can you please just move your hand?' And I could feel those fingers move."

She was one of the first of many.

Father Tim began to flex his left hand and open his right eye. Visitors sensed that he was aware of their presence. Within six weeks, he was thumb-wrestling his nephew from his bedside, according to updates on CaringBridge. A few weeks later, visitors reported that he was "able to bless a few people" (if someone held up his hand) and turn a page in his breviary, a prayer book.

But the improvements didn't last. He was plagued by infections, and in and out of surgery. By late summer, virtually all his progress had been wiped out and doctors were running out of options. He was given the sacrament of the sick. His mother remembers telling him: "Tim, if you want to go, we'll understand."

Meanwhile, people kept praying.

A priest who loved to laugh

Few suspected, when he was a kid in Robbinsdale, that Tim Vakoc would grow up to be a priest. The last of Phyllis and Henry Vakoc's three children, he was fun-loving and adventurous. After graduating in 1978 from Benilde-St. Margaret's in St. Louis Park, he became president of his fraternity at St. Cloud State University, where he studied speech and business. Friends called him "Hollywood" for his stylish look.

When it came to jobs, he once told his mother: "I'm going to try them all, so I'll get experience in everything."

In 1987, he surprised virtually everyone when he entered St. Paul Seminary and joined the Army Reserve almost simultaneously. "I had no idea that he was even thinking on those lines," said his mother, Phyllis, 80, who now lives in Plymouth.

With his gregarious personality, Father Tim reveled in his role as a parish priest, his mother said. But after four years serving congregations in St. Anthony and Eagan, he decided to become a full-time Army chaplain in 1996. He signed up for an extended tour of duty in Germany, and later in Bosnia. In the fall of 2003, just shy of his 44th birthday, he shipped out to Iraq.

His family has no doubt that he believed in his mission. He felt he was ministering not only to the troops, but also to the community. "We've got to help these people," he told his mother. Promoted to major, he insisted on following his troops into danger zones to pray with them and celebrate mass. He was riding in a Humvee on just such a trip on May 29, 2004, when someone heard a cell phone ring, and then a blast.

A bedside congregation

Word spread fast. Friends started an online prayer vigil for the wounded priest. Messages poured into his CaringBridge site from around the world.

Four months later, Father Tim was flown to the Minneapolis VA hospital for its special brain injury program. There, a small congregation of devotees began to form around him. Total strangers were so touched by his story that they asked his family's permission to pray at his bedside.

Linda Louie of Andover was one of them. She had felt an immediate connection when she read a newspaper article about Father Tim, she said. She knew something about being confined to a hospital for long stretches of time; because of a birth defect, her legs were amputated when she was an infant.

On her first visit to see the priest, she wept. "He didn't wake up, he didn't move, he didn't do anything," she said. She watched him, nearly lifeless, in his hospital bed. "I felt the Holy Spirit in the room," she said later.

As she prepared to go, a nurse came in and said, "Father Tim, your guest is going to leave." Only then, Louie said, did she see a finger twitch on his left hand.

She began visiting weekly, and became part of his growing inner circle.

So many people wanted to see him that a volunteer began printing weekly calendars, blocking out his time hour by hour.

Brother Conrad and other members of the Franciscan Brothers of Peace in St. Paul were among the regulars. They had spent years caring for their cofounder, Brother Michael Gaworski, after an illness left him brain-damaged and quadriplegic. Now, they took Father Tim to mass at the hospital chapel, and gathered at his bedside Thursday evenings to sing night prayers.

One day, Mary Makowski, a friend of Brother Conrad's, asked if she could go with him. She, too, said she couldn't stop thinking about Father Tim and his tragedy.

During her first visit, "He held my hand, squeezed it with his left hand. And that was it," she said. "Basically, I was hooked." She started visiting every week to talk and pray.

Last spring, Makowski quit her job as a teacher in Deephaven to spend more time at his side. She is hard pressed to explain why, though she is serene that she is doing the right thing. "There is something about his presence," she said. "This is where I needed to be. Perhaps, this is where God wanted me to be."

Celebrating tiny victories

By spring of 2005, Father Tim seemed to be stirring back to life. He could give a thumbs-up and move his toes on request, according to his CaringBridge site. A visitor who came to read scriptures "looked up and saw one tear coming from Father Tim's eye," said an entry on April 7, 2005.

He could sit up in a wheelchair for an hour at a time, rotate his left wrist, stretch his fingers. At first, the doctors said the movements were probably reflexes. But after closer evaluation, they agreed that he was making progress, and they started therapy. "These small, yet significant, victories represent the touch of God's hand," said an entry on his CaringBridge site.

His brother, Jeff Vakoc, watched cautiously. He suspected some people were reading too much into these small achievements.

The bomb, he knew, had damaged multiple lobes of his brother's brain, including those that control speech and higher thinking. Jeff Vakoc was well aware that there could be insurmountable hurdles. "I tend to be a little more jaded and guarded," he explained. "I've got to stay real. That's my job."

In September 2005, Father Tim awakened to a roomful of family and friends. He had just had surgery, and it had gone well. Linda Louie stopped by to drop off cookies for the family, and they invited her into his room.

Someone handed Father Tim a gold case containing two communion wafers and asked what he wanted to do with them.

With his left hand, he pointed toward a longtime friend, Brenda Simmons. And then his hand moved, unsteadily, in Louie's direction and stopped.

Louie protested. Surely he meant one of the family. But his sister, Anita, said: "I think it's you, Linda." Louie approached his bedside and took the wafer from his hand. "I feel so honored," she said.

Said one of the other visitors: "Tim called you into his life for a reason."

The slow healing of the brain

To the medical staff, the signs of Father Tim's reawakening were a bit more ambiguous. They knew that he appeared alert and responsive at times, especially around family and friends. But like many brain-injured patients, he had good days and bad days. The changes weren't consistent. Often, on long days in the hospital's extended care unit, there was little sign that he knew what was going on around him.

Nurses tried to read his moods in the squeeze of a hand. Officially, doctors classified him in a "minimally responsive state."

Once, scientists thought that a damaged brain could never heal. Now, they know that it can in certain circumstances, said Dr. Gregory O'Shanick, medical director of the Brain Injury Association of America. But a lot depends on the extent of the injury. If part of the brain is destroyed, no amount of time will bring it back.

Typically, the most dramatic improvements occur in the first six months, he said. But not always. If someone is fighting for his life, for example, the amount of brain damage may be hard to assess. "It's [like] trying to tell somebody what color the walls are when the room's full of smoke," he said. You have to wait until the smoke clears.

With brain injuries, people often reach plateaus and go for months without any change.

"What I basically tell families is that there is no absolute rule," said O'Shanick, of Richmond, Va. "We can talk about statistics in terms of recovery patterns, but we certainly can see people that recover in amazing ways."

The uncertainty can be extremely difficult, especially for families. "You suffer every little setback with him," said Phyllis Vakoc. "But I think maybe you just hope and trust in God."

In October, Father Tim sat in the front row of the hospital chapel, as Brother Conrad led a small group in prayer. "Hail Mary, full of grace," they chanted. Father Tim didn't stir. His mother wrapped a rosary around his left hand, as his father, Henry, 83, prayed a few seats away. She lifted her son's hand to make the sign of the cross.

"I go day by day," she said. "He goes inch by inch."

The priest speaks

Two months ago, doctors thought Father Tim had reached another plateau. They got ready to stop therapy.

And then Father Tim spoke.

His voice was rusty, and the words were halting. Mostly, he repeated what others said to him. "I love you."Goodbye." But for the first time in two and a half years, there were no subtle movements or ambiguous signals.

He was speaking for himself.

Just three days before, a cardinal from Rome had paid a visit, bearing a set of rosaries blessed by Pope Benedict. Family and friends called it a miracle, or something close. His mother started to dream of the day when he might say mass again.

The doctors say that removing the tracheotomy tube from his throat in August was probably a factor. But they were awed nonetheless. "I don't think we can say with any certainty what's going on, other than he is very slowly improving," said his speech therapist, Jim Schumacher.

Since then, he has been practicing speaking almost daily.

It has been exhausting. It takes so much effort to get the words right, the breathing right, that he can sometimes barely get started.

That's how he appeared a few weeks ago, in therapy, when Schumacher decided to lead him in a familiar prayer.

"Our Father, who art in Heaven ..." Schumacher began.

He could see Father Tim struggling. His lips moved. His words came out in a raspy whisper.

"Thy kingdom come," said the priest. "Thy will be done."

 

mlerner@startribune.com

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