Saturday, February 3, 2007

Major Tim (Father) Vakoc Accepts His Cross

As the Rev. Tim Vakoc gradually recovers from a severe brain injury sustained in Iraq in 2004, he ministers to people along the way.

A friend lowered a microphone so the Rev. Tim Vakoc could address attendees of the award banquet at Benilde-St. Margaret's, his old high school, from his wheelchair.

For 20 seconds, only the gymnasium lights hummed in the quiet.

"Thank you," Vakoc said.

Silence returned as he labored for breath.

"And," he whispered, "God … love … you."

The friend, Mary Makowski, smiled as the crowd applauded Vakoc and his new place in Benilde's Hall of Honor.

A year ago, Vakoc breathed with the aid of a tube cut into his throat. Talking seemed impossible then, and doctors believed Vakoc had peaked in his recovery from a brain injury he sustained as an Army chaplain in Iraq.

This week's ceremony was just the latest sign of progress that has defied prognosis. It also was a moment of grace from a Catholic priest who has continued to inspire others despite his paralysis.

"I'm so happy for him, so proud of him," Makowski said. "He's overcome a lot. He probably shouldn't even be here. He accepts his cross, but he accepts it with joy. He's still ministering to people whether he realizes it or not."

Vakoc was wounded May 29, 2004, returning from a Mass near Mosul when a bomb detonated near his vehicle. Shrapnel pounded against his head and left eye. His prognosis looked grim at an Army hospital in Washington, when he had to battle infections in addition to his wounds. He stabilized and was transferred in September 2004 to the Minneapolis VA Medical Center, which specializes in rehabilitation from traumatic brain injuries.

Therapists spent a year working with Vakoc (pronounced VA-kitch) to help him regain lost mobility and thinking skills, but they told his relatives in December 2005 that he had made as much progress as possible. As a result, the hospital planned to discontinue rehab therapy. At that point, he had little strength in his legs and could only move his left hand and wrist.

Family and friends thought it was too soon to give up and pleaded with his doctors to continue. They conducted their own exercises with Vakoc as well.

Since then, Vakoc has gained balance and added strength in his neck and arms, though his right arm lags far behind and he struggles to hold anything in his right hand. The tube in his throat was removed in August, and he was able to speak his first clear words two months later. Finally, he was strong enough in December to be discharged from the VA hospital to the St. Therese nursing home in New Hope.

He had spent more than 800 days at the VA. Most soldiers with brain injuries are discharged from the rehab program in 80 days.

Monday's ceremony in St. Louis Park was only Vakoc's second trip outside a hospital or nursing home since his injury. Even a week earlier, relatives had been too worried about the cold weather to take him to his father's funeral.

After receiving the award, relatives bundled Vakoc beneath a mound of fleece blankets and wheeled him out of the hall. As they reached the exit, his brother, Jeff, leaned over and looked him squarely in his face.

"It was good to hear you," he said. "It was great to see you smile."

Those closest to Vakoc still don't know how much more strength he can recover, but they are hopeful. Therapy has intensified at his new nursing home. And when they tell one of the more irreverent stories from his life, Vakoc responds with a smirk. His room is full of pictures from his days as an Army major, a priest and even a fraternity brother at St. Cloud State University. They all have the trademark smirk.

On Wednesday morning, occupational and physical therapists had Vakoc back to work. They sat him up straight and asked him to reach across his body with his left hand to grab some plastic toys. It forced him to use his weakened right arm to maintain his balance.

His sister, Anita Brand, watched in awe.

"That's a lot of work," she said. "It's so much."

She then whispered under her breath: "I'm so pleased. I'm so pleased."

After a few more exercises, the therapists placed a touch-screen communicator on Vakoc's lap. It is programmed with simple statements, such as yes or no, but also with personal statements that he can use to express feelings or needs.

The long fingers of Vakoc's left hand explored the screen, which responded with statements such as "God is your copilot" and "homework." The latter corresponds to practice exercises Vakoc can carry out with the screen, but for anyone who attended one of his religious services before his injury, they know it also means something else.

Whether in churches in Eagan or St. Anthony in Minnesota, or in tents in Bosnia or Iraq, people at Vakoc's services always left with homework, perhaps to study scriptures or to put the words of the sermon into action in their lives.

Relatives have marveled at how he can still inspire spirituality and provide comfort to visitors despite his physical limitations. His ability to carry out Catholic rituals, such as blessings or fingering rosary beads, was a first sign that his mind was still intact.

Vakoc continued searching the touch screen during Wednesday's therapy until he found the right button.

"I need a break from talking," replied the mechanical voice.

He pressed it again, and again.

"I need a break from talking."

"I think what he means," said physical therapist Susan Kreiner, "is he needs a break from us."

The therapists shifted him back into his wheelchair and leaned it back so he could rest. Speech therapy would start in four hours.

Back in his room, Vakoc visited with his sister and one of his closest friends, Dana Fath Strande. She put a bottle with rose and other scents under his nose and placed pictures of her children in his hands. They laughed about Vakoc's love of expensive scotch and hoped for a day when they could share a drink. Vakoc smirked. He was tiring, though.

Brand stood up to leave for a while and placed her hand atop her brother's forehead.

"Bless you," she said. "I love you."

He lifted his hand to her forehead to return the blessing.

Another week passed in the new chapter of Vakoc's life. Like most, there were tiny steps forward. Like always, Vakoc left visitors inspired.

Those in attendance at Benilde were still moved by his words days later.

"There were 200 people in there, and you could have heard a pin drop," said Benilde's president, Bob Tift. "It was powerful."

"Overwhelming doesn't even describe the emotion," said Patrice Carlson, who graduated with Vakoc in 1978. "Just seeing him. I'm not often speechless, but I am now." St Paul PioneerPress

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