By Lucy Schultze
Health and Research News

Ricky Gray is happily back in the pulpit at Flowood Baptist Church, and he credits therapsits at Methodist Rehab for helping him reclaim a job he loves.

After undergoing surgery to remove a brain tumor, Flowood Baptist Church pastor Ricky Gray struggled to comprehend and express language. But after working with Methodist Rehab speech therapist Kimberly Boyd, Gray was able to overcome his communication problems and return to the pulpit.

The Rev. G.R. “Ricky” Gray was gathering his courage in a back room at Flowood Baptist Church when his youngest son, Michael, found him there.
“Are you scared?” he asked.

“Son, I’m more scared now than I was 42 years ago,” his father said.

After more than four decades of giving sermons week after week, Gray was struggling with a preacher’s version of stage fright. It had been eight weeks since he’d last been in the pulpit — six weeks longer than he’d ever gone before. And a lot had happened in that time.

Gray had suffered a terrifying seizure, been diagnosed with a brain tumor and undergone surgery to have it removed. He had since been working with speech and occupational therapists to recover from severe impairment in his word use, memory and cognitive skills.

Now the day he’d been pushing toward had arrived, but approaching the pulpit seemed about as daunting as a mountain climb.

“It was just the thought of not having preached, not having been up in front of people,” said Gray. “But once I got started, I was OK.”

Gray’s speech therapist at Methodist Rehabilitation Center had been helping him prepare for his return to the pulpit. While his neurosurgeon, Dr. Lynn Stringer, had given him the green light, recovering his mental capacities after surgery took time.

Speech therapist Kimberly Boyd first began working with Gray in October 2010 at Methodist Rehabilitation Center’s East Campus in Flowood, where he also worked with occupational therapist Suzanne Colbert.

At the time, Boyd’s tests for aphasia – a disorder that affects a person’s ability to comprehend and express language – showed Gray could only associate a picture with the appropriate word about half the time. His reading comprehension scored only 40 percent.

“When you think about it, a preacher’s job is studying books, understanding what he reads and condensing it into a sermon,” Boyd said. “When you have an impairment where you can’t understand and can’t even write a sentence, it’s a serious thing.”

As Boyd and Gray began working together in three one-hour sessions per week, they faced a dual challenge in that Gray often didn’t realize when his speech didn’t make sense.

“His understanding was impaired as well as his ability to express himself,” Boyd said. “It’s really hard to do therapy when both of those things are in play. But he progressed surprisingly well.”

As the sessions began, Boyd started by focusing on Gray’s language skills. They spent time on exercises like matching the correct word to a picture, and talking through the meaning of passages he would read.

“Kim worked with me on all kinds of reading material,” Gray said. “She listened to my conversation, talking about anything that would prompt her — from ‘What did you do this weekend?’ to things that were going on in my preaching ministry. Through it all, I was able to more or less develop my speech patterns correctly.”

Their progress was aided at home by Gray’s wife, Jewell Faye. A retired elementary-school teacher, she worked with her husband on his language exercises on the days when he didn’t go to therapy sessions.

The more Gray’s cognitive abilities returned, the better he was able to understand the process itself. His impatience added fuel to his recovery.

“What’s hard for him is he’s a very educated man — he’s got two doctorate degrees — and when his progress was really starting to come about, he wasn’t satisfied with how fast it was coming,” Boyd said.

“I had to remind him about every two weeks: ‘You had brain surgery. You have to think about how far you’ve come from where you started.’”

Although Gray looked to God for patience, he struggled to find it within himself.

“That’s been a little hard for me to cope with, because I do expect a lot and it’s not comfortable when you can’t do what you did before,” he said. “Even now, I find myself pausing as I speak, and that’s just not me. But Kim said, ‘Be patient. Don’t expect too much too soon.’ She gave me some good advice.”

It was with those words in mind that Gray stepped behind the pulpit on Jan. 16 at Flowood Baptist Church, where about 250 people worship on Sunday morning. And though it gave him frustration, Gray took his therapist’s advice and brought a set of notes with him.

“Ordinarily I pretty much do things from memory, but that morning I took my ‘cheat sheet’ up there,” Gray said. “I told them, ‘I don’t normally like to have this, but they told me I probably would need it.’”

As it turned out, he relied on the notes only as a prompt for how he’d planned to end the sermon. By the second week, he brought notes just in case, but laid them face-down and aimed not to look.

He recalled a tip given to him early in his recovery by therapist Sherry Brown at Methodist Rehabilitation Center’s hospital in downtown Jackson.
“I remembered what was told to me, to say something that is close to the word you want to say, and it will probably come back to you,” he said. “So I spoke about three or four sentences, and sure enough, it got me back on track.”

From the third week on, Gray was able to preach without the use of notes. While his recovery was challenging in many ways, his church family stepped up to care for their pastor of 24 years. The several ordained men in the church took turns filling the pulpit, and men in the church volunteered to drive Gray around town so that he could keep up with hospital visits and other duties until he was able to get behind the wheel again

Others continued to help out with preaching duties as Gray added back one morning service, then two, and then Wednesday services. He continued speech therapy sessions through February, and by March, had resumed his full preaching load.

His therapists marvel at how well he has exceeded their expectations. “Patient motivation is a big factor, and I think a big reason he made so much progress was his drive,” Boyd said. “He had a strong will, and he just wasn’t going to let anything stop him.”