Some people may have figured 51-year-old John Sullivan would be relegated to a long-term care facility by now – 34 years after the Marlette High School golfer was struck by lightning, and as his parents battle health issues of their own.
But inside a house on a gravel road a few miles from Marlette, nothing could be further from the truth.
“We’re still plugging along,” said Marcia Sullivan, 72, mother of John.
Aside from John’s stints in hospitals related to the incident and when he overcame a viral infection of his heart, his family has cared for him at home. The work requires bathing, feeding and constant monitoring, but has become tougher after John’s brother, Matthew Sullivan, died of lung cancer in 2011 at age 35.
“Matthew was a big help to me,” said Richard “Dick” Sullivan, 74, John’s father and primary caregiver, who endured several heart surgeries in 2017 and last year. A few years back, he had both hips replaced, and his health issues have taken a toll as he maneuvers his 185-pound son in and out of John’s hospital bed in the family living room.
“I can’t lift him anymore,” Dick Sullivan said. “Until I was 65, I carried him everyplace.”
The family home has been neglected since John was struck by lightning on an East Lansing golf course playing in a tournament on July 15, 1985 and is in need of repairs, according to a GoFundMe account created by Ryan Sullivan, 39, John’s brother, who lives in the home.
“We’re finally doing some stuff to the house, because for the last 34 years it’s taken everything we’ve had for John and the other three kids, so the house has been kind of neglected,” Dick said.
The goal is to raise $20,000 for home repairs “and to help John and his family continue to keep up the fight,” according to the GoFundMe.com page entitled “John Sullivan Marlette Michigan.”
All funds will be used for work on flooring, the kitchen and the roof, according to the page. Anyone wishing to help the family directly may write a check payable to “Richard Sullivan” and mail it to: Richard Sullivan, 3030 Sullivan Road, Marlette, MI 48453.
John was hurt in the summer before his senior year at Marlette High, where he was class president and was a skilled competitor at track, basketball and golf as he planned to pursue an engineering degree in college.
“This was our family dairy farm down the road,” said Dick, gesturing to barns and a home an outbuildings south of his house.
“We sold it to an Amish family in 1986. John was struck by lightning in 1985 and my brother, Mike, had colon cancer in 1986. When we figured out that John’s care was not going to be over in a couple years, we sold the farm.”
A ceiling track lift installed in the living room allows Dick to hook an apparatus to his son and hoist him out of bed. The father helps John move to a whirlpool tub, walk-in shower and handicap-accessible bathroom in an adjoining room a few yards away.
Marcia isn’t physically capable of moving her son in and out of the tub. She has knee and back problems, and required brain surgery last year to remove a non-malignant softball-sized tumor.
Her husband sleeps each night in a hospital bed only a couple feet away from John’s bed in the living room; the second bed was set up after Dick’s heart surgeries.
“This is not something that everybody could do, and I don’t have any problem with people that couldn’t do it, but I’ve just been very lucky as far as my health goes,” Dick said. “I’ve been able to do it, and John’s happy here, and I just won’t – as long as I can care for him – allow him to be in a (assisted care) home or anything.”
A rough road
The Sullivan family, once with five children, has seen its share of trouble, with a son, Mark, dying about 12 hours after his birth in 1979.
Since John’s injury, “the road has been a very rocky one, with more downs than ups,” according to the family’s GoFundMe page.
But Dick said they’ve also been surprised by human generosity.
“There’s no way we should be doing this, but for the good-hearted people along the way,” he said.
After John’s setback, the family struggled for years to pay its Blue Cross health-insurance premiums, sometimes going for months without health insurance, Dick said.
Then a businessman from the Detroit area contacted the family after reading an article about John in the Detroit Free Press a few years after the lightning strike.
“I never met the guy and he started paying our Blue Cross, for about five years,” Dick said. “And I want to tell you that the cost of our Blue Cross insurance, for our family – before I turned 62 – was running about $5,000 every six months.
“I never met that man – he said ‘Just send me the bill.’ He started out by sending us $1,000 for Christmas one year. And he did that for two or three years. And he said ‘If you have any problems, call me.’ Then after a while, he said ‘Well, why don’t I just pay your Blue Cross?’”
The funds stopped flowing after the donor’s businesses took an economic downtown, Dick said.
Help also has arrived from a Midland-area man whose son golfed with John in the 1985 tournament in East Lansing.
“I’m not going to mention any names, because I wouldn’t do that to him, but he’s been a saint to us,” Dick said. “When we had the ‘Sullivan Scramble’ (fundraising) golf outings in Saginaw, for years – back in the late 1980s and 1990s – he would make a sizable donation every year.
“To this day, if I call him, he just goes and puts it into my account. He pays what I ask for, and sometimes more.”
Dick said the Midland-area man called him several years ago.
“He said ‘My wife and I have been talking, and we’re going to this (dealership) in Midland and we’re going to put $20,000 toward the cost of a new handicap-accessible van for John,’” Dick said.
Using that donation and funds raised from a 2016 golf outing to help John, John’s parents bought a used van to aid in his transportation.
Public awareness of the Sullivans’ continuing plight, though, has dwindled as time has passed, according to family members.
“We’re old news now,” Dick said. “A lot of the people that helped us initially are gone. It’s been 34 years.”
A spokeswoman for GoFundMe, an online fundraising platform, contacted The Advertiser to announce that “friends and family are now rallying to help the Sullivan family repair their home so that they can continue to care for their son.”
“This is a 24-hour-a-day job, seven days a week, 365 days a year,” Dick said. “I slept in a La-Z-Boy (chair) for 33 years. It’s always been beside his bed every night, because if he choked or something, that’s trouble. For years, when he woke up, he was always panicked. But now, the last few years, he’s not.”
Family members keep a wall-mounted television set turned on 24 hours to provide stimulation for John, who communicates using a Tobii Dynavox device that tracks his eye movements to allow him to communicate electronically with computer assistance.
John can make verbal sounds, and smiles readily when greeting a reporter, who explains his arrival. John’s father said his son understands language.
“We took him to Florida in 1992 to see a doctor who specializes in electrical shock and lightning strikes, and after John was there a week, the doctor said ‘He understands and comprehends 95 percent of everything he sees and hears,’” Dick said.
“But that’s a two-way sword. You cannot push him in a corner and leave him, because it doesn’t work. You have to entertain him.”
Keeping the faith
For years – before construction of a room next to the living room and housing the whirlpool tub – Dick carried his son up and down the stairs to give him baths. He figures the labor necessitated his hip-replacement surgeries.
“They were wore out from carrying John around,” he said. “I knew it, but it didn’t make any difference to me, and I’d still do it. But it makes it hard. The one thing you can’t do with artificial hips is lift weight in front of you.”
After their son was hurt in 1985, family members were told to put him in an assisted-care facility, Marcia said.
“But someone else told us at the time not to do that because they said John would either choke to death without having anyone in the room with him, or he would develop pneumonia and die within a year,” Marcia said.
“I would have worried day and night about how he was being taken care of. I wouldn’t have gotten any peace. I wouldn’t be able to raise three other kids while worrying about him.”
She indicated the family’s Christian faith has been a life-preserver in times of trouble. She said that when she was a girl at Sunday school, a missionary handed out cards with a mustard seed glued to each one.
“Each card said that if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, that’s all you’ll ever need in your life,” Marcia said. “I think about that many times and, yes, I have faith the size of a mustard seed.”
Dick said his wife is a Methodist while the rest of the family is Roman Catholic.
“We haven’t gone to church a lot since John’s been hurt,” he said. “I always say I’m not terribly religious, but I know how things work. John wouldn’t be here if he wasn’t in a pretty good relationship with the guy upstairs.”
Tom Gilchrist is a staff writer for The Advertiser and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.