Ramonia Kellis knew that something was troubling Ray, her husband of 35 years, when he showed up uncharacteristically late for his part-time job at Lowes Foods in Harrisburg on the morning of Wednesday, July 10.
Though he brought her a cup of coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts like always, Mr. Kellis slightly slurred his words when he said good morning, prompting his wife – who was the supermarket’s bakery manager at the time – to question if he had taken any medication earlier in the day.
A few minutes later, Mr. Kellis – known affectionately as “Mr. Ray” by the children of many longtime Lowes Foods shoppers – did not recognize two young girls he has known for years. He was set to retire from his job the next day, July 11, after spending 9 ½ years as front-end worker and supermarket handyman, and the two sisters wanted to give him a pair of homemade retirement cards.
It wasn’t until a coworker, Brandi Pope, met Mr. Kellis at the bench outside the supermarket for their morning cigarette that the seriousness of the situation began to sink in.
“His head was slumped when I walked over, and then I realized he was smoking a cigarette that wasn’t even lit,” said Ms. Pope, whose mother-in-law suffered a stroke earlier this year and survived it. “He then leaned back, and the entire left side of his face was drooping.”
After alerting a manager, Ms. Pope hurried inside to find Mrs. Kellis.
“Stroke did not even cross my mind,” said Mrs. Kellis, though she later realized her husband was displaying its common signs.
Also not thinking he was suffering a stroke, Mr. Kellis, who had been outside collecting shopping buggies before taking a seat on the wooden bench, insisted on walking to the nearby FastMed Urgent Care facility that sits in the same School House Commons shopping center. After some initial discussions, an ambulance was called.
The very next day, Mr. Kellis, who started working at Lowes Foods so he would have something to do following a 13-year career with Philip Morris, was supposed to punch his last timecard.
Instead of celebrating his well-deserved retirement with a party and cake, Mr. Kellis would end up fighting for his life at NorthEast Hospital in Concord, with his family at his side.
Missed Warning Signs
The 72-year-old grandfather of six, who lost half of his left lung to cancer in January, had a 100-percent blockage of his right carotid artery, the main vessel that supplies blood to the brain.
That diagnosis was not known until several hours after Mr. Kellis had arrived at NorthEast Hospital in his hometown, and after suffering the first of two minor strokes. The second stroke, which occurred at around 2 p.m. on July 10 at the hospital, was so quick that he had already recovered by the time Amy Wagoner, one of his daughters, had retrieved a nurse.
Upon reviewing Mr. Kellis’s CT scan later that afternoon, doctors opted to keep him overnight for observation even though he was no longer exhibiting any stroke symptoms. If everything was still okay by the morning, he would be able to go home sometime the next day.
Then everything changed around 6 p.m.
“He was having a major stroke at that point,” said Ms. Wagoner, an elementary school teacher in Mount Pleasant, who had just left the hospital after receiving what she thought had been good news from her father’s doctors.
She immediately drove back to the hospital and braced herself for even worse news.
Surviving The Night
After reviewing Mr. Kellis’s medical records, doctors initially thought they could surgically remove the clot causing the obstruction. It wasn’t until he was prepped for surgery that they realized that the clot had been robbing Mr. Kellis’ brain of oxygen, for an unknown amount of time.
They immediately injected him with tissue plasminogen activator, or tPA, a naturally occurring protein that thins the blood and can sometimes help stroke victims.
It was also then that Mr. Kellis’s team of doctors warned his family that he most likely would not survive the night.
After injecting him with tPA, doctors had to intubate him as well. In addition to having difficulty breathing and swallowing, Mr. Kellis also suffered some paralysis on the left side of his body, and it was not immediately known if that was temporary or permanent.
“[His doctor] was not very hopeful at all,” Ms. Wagoner recalled. “He came out and talked to us, and he said there’s no chance, and that even if they got him up to the room, that he would continue to stroke, and that he wouldn’t make it at all.”
‘We Experienced A Miracle’
Not only did he prove them wrong, Mr. Kellis recovered so quickly that he was able to leave the hospital and begin his rehab only six days after suffering a major stroke that had forced his intubation, required the insertion of a feeding tube, and robbed him of some of his vision and mobility.
He soon regained some of his mobility on his left side, and was eventually able to ditch the ventilator and feeding tube. Mr. Kellis did suffer some brain damage, and must now relearn some basic functions, such as walking, with the help of his family and therapists.
Still, he returned to his home in the Roberta Farms neighborhood less than a month later, this past Tuesday, August 13, and on Sunday had already managed to get in a car on his own, under the watchful eye of Ms. Wagoner, who never left his side.
“I didn’t think it was [a stroke], but according to them, my speech was slurred,” Mr. Kellis said on Sunday.
In addition to her father’s strong will, Ms. Wagoner credits prayer, her family’s strong faith, and the prayers and well-wishes of their extended family at the Roberta Baptist Church in Concord for her father’s remarkable recovery.
“We experienced a miracle,” Ms. Wagoner said. “God reached out and into our lives, and answered our prayers. And we still continue to need prayers.”
The Road Ahead
Mr. Kellis has a rigorous rehabilitation schedule, one requiring that he receive physical therapy three times a week, as well as occupational and speech therapy weekly. Even though a nurse will stop by their home twice a week, Mrs. Kellis retired from Lowes Foods as well last month, so she could help care for her husband.
Though attentive and conversational – and still quick with the jokes – Mr. Kellis will require round-the-clock medical care for the foreseeable future, according to his family. “When they told us he had to have 24/7 care, then I retired,” Mrs. Kellis explained.
He will also be returning to the hospital this coming Friday, August 23, so that doctors can remove a second clot, this one in his left carotid artery. Further testing revealed that he has an 80 percent blockage there though, this time, doctors are confident that they can remove it and release him within two or three days. They opted to leave the other clot alone, rationalizing that it had already done its damage.
Once he recovers from his next procedure, Mr. Kellis can go back to focusing on his long-term recovery.
“The doctors, the therapists, they’ve all been really impressed with his speedy recovery,” Mrs. Kellis said. “They actually didn’t think he would come this far, to be able to get up and walk.”
“He has really worked hard,” Ms. Wagoner added. “He’s got that drive. He wants to get better.”
The ultimate goal remains to be able to eventually ditch his wheelchair. In fact, Mr. Kellis intends to return to Lowes Foods as soon as he is able to walk on his own again, so he can thank Ms. Pope. Mrs. Kellis said her husband made sure to recommend Ms. Pope for the supermarket’s “Employee of the Month” honor, which she was given in July, for her quick and, most likely, life-saving actions that day in the parking lot.
He also wants to see some of his youngest customers again, most of whom he knows by name. Many of them, along with other customers and his coworkers, sent Mr. Kellis several dozen “get well soon” cards when he was in the hospital and, later, in rehab.
“We knew that they loved him there and everything, but it was just – I guess we didn’t realize how many missed him,” said Jennifer Poore Stone, another of Mr. Kellis’s daughters.
“Instead of being a horse-whisperer, I was a kid-whisperer,” said Mr. Kellis, who will be celebrating his 36th wedding anniversary on Sunday, August 25, and welcoming his first great-grandchild in February.
Mr. Kellis also has another good reason for wanting to return to his former employer.
“Lowes Foods owes him a retirement party,” Mrs. Kellis said. “He’s going to walk in that door and get that retirement cake.”