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Kindness of strangers helps New Port Richey family

NEW PORT RICHEY — On his drive home from work, two weeks before Christmas in 2007, John Berg III felt dizzy.

John's doctor had told him in recent weeks that, like family members before him, his blood pressure was dangerously high. To lower it, John had quit smoking and was trying to eat better. His dizzy spells, though, never seemed to stop. He decided to stop by his doctor's office.

Mindy Berg, John's wife of six months, got a call from the doctor soon after. John's blood pressure was through the roof, he said. It appeared John was having a stroke.

It wasn't until later that medical staff realized how severe it was. The stroke began in John's brainstem, which bridges the brain and spinal cord and controls much of the body's basic functions. It left John, at age 33, unable to move, speak or breathe on his own, though one sense — his feeling of pain — remained intact.

Doctors began a battery of rigorous tests and therapies, shuffling him between units for intensive care and rehabilitation. Mindy told their two sons — Johnny, now 6, and Jamie, now 4 — that Daddy was sick, that he was where sick daddies go to feel better and that he would be back soon.

There were no promises that John would ever fully recover. The stroke left him awake and aware but frozen in place.

Yet signs of John's old self seemed to slowly return. One day in the hospital, as Mindy leaned over him, she caught a glimpse of John's eyes.

"He was looking down my shirt — a total John move," she said with a laugh. "He's a red-blooded man. Some things don't change."

• • •

The Bergs' back yard sits next to a busy toy and storage room in their home in New Port Richey. The open yard is shared with five other small houses in the Magnolia Valley neighborhood. John hasn't seen it since his stroke.

For a time Mindy, Johnny and Jamie would play around out there, alongside their boxer, Maggie, under two big oak trees. John, trapped in his wheelchair, would hear them from the living room.

They don't play out there anymore.

• • •

About a month after the stroke, on Mindy's birthday, doctors fitted a speech valve into a hole cut into John's airway. The device allowed John to utter his first words since the stroke: "I love you." Mindy cried in the hospital room.

John was kept under close medical watch for the next nine months. He needed to regather old skills and learn new ones, like controlling his wheelchair with his chin.

After months of treatment, stints in a surgical room and a near-fatal pneumonia scare, John was allowed to return home. Mindy, a sales assistant for a cable advertising firm in Pinellas Park, became his chief caretaker and night nurse. The Bergs' parents began helping take care of the kids. Mindy's mom, Marilyn Haines, quit her job at Linens 'N Things in Pineville, N.C., and moved into one of their bedrooms.

John had been a tough guy, an outdoorsman who loved fishing off the coast of the Anclote River and didn't stay inside unless football was on. But his bodily control, even after months of therapy, remains confined to his face, a toe and a few fingers too weak to flick a light switch.

John mostly sits inside, in the living room, in his wheelchair. His sons sometimes swarm him here, planning backyard forts and fishing trips they'll take when he gets better, but all John can do is watch TV. He sits so long his body aches, and he can't do a thing to stop it.

"Imagine," Mindy said. "Having an itch you can't scratch."

• • •

Because she learned how to read his lips, Mindy has become one of John's sole confidants. He tells her how bad he wants to eat food, what channel to change to, when he's embarrassed.

A former co-worker at Diebold, where John worked as a security camera technician, came to visit once, and his wife, upon seeing John, broke down in tears. Mindy remembers that day. John mouthed to her how awful that made him feel.

John used to sit sometimes on their porch on Cherrytree Lane, outside, near the kids' swing set. He began to worry about all those faces passing by, looking at him in his chair.

He doesn't go out there anymore.

• • •

It's Monday. Johnny, cranky about starting classes at Calusa Elementary, lies facedown and inches himself across the laminate floor. Jamie has covered himself with a blue Bingo blotter and keeps taking off his clothes. John is in the living room, turned toward the TV, a washcloth attached with safety pins to his shirt.

Mindy takes a jug of saline solution from the fridge and prepares John's afternoon medication. She jokes that, at age 34, she knows more about this stuff than any 30-something should. She walks from the kitchen, past where the Osmolite for John's feeding tube is stacked, and stops at his side.

Mindy takes his hand in hers, massages it, keeps it from clinching into a fist. She leans down to kiss him.

"I'm not going to play that 'why me' game," she says later in the kitchen. "You have to move on with your life. It's not the life you wanted. It's not the life you planned. You have to make the best of it."

• • •

Frank Essex, the store manager for a Home Depot in Seminole, was at an awards ceremony for his daughter at Brooker Creek Elementary in April when a neighbor of Berg's father stopped him.

The family, he told Essex, needed help. They worried the hurricane season could disrupt their power because Mindy, who depended on an electrical suction to clear John's airway, owned no generator. He wondered if the store had one to spare.

The request was spontaneous, as random as the stroke, but Essex decided to see what he could do. He met with the family and learned about John and Mindy. He called the corporate office in Atlanta and told them about the back yard.

On Thursday, about three dozen volunteers will meet behind the Bergs' home with supplies donated by Home Depot to the Abilities Foundation. They'll build a backyard deck, wrapped around the oaks, level enough for John's chair. They'll line it with lattice railing and connect a ramp to the toy room. They'll add new grass, croton hedges and a privacy fence to keep others from staring.

They'll also provide a portable generator, so the family never has to worry when the power goes out.

"I was just blown away," Mindy said when she heard the news. John "said, 'That's too much. That's too much.' … He was thrilled."

The Bergs will be able to play in their back yard, as loud as they want. John will be there with them.

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Contact Drew Harwell at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6244.

Kindness of strangers helps New Port Richey family 07/10/10 [Last modified: Saturday, July 10, 2010 2:14pm]
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