Through years of struggle, a local man inspires all those who know him and becomes their Hero
Tracy B. Cieniewicz, Hartselle Enquirer
Sandra Pickens of Hartselle always knew her son John was her personal hero but, until his death in August, she had no idea he was anyone else's.
John "J.D." Pickens, 30, was described by friends and family as bright, talented and courageous.
He played the piano, trumpet and saxophone. He was the Hartselle Tiger's football manager during his high school days and won a prestigious award from the Key Club.
He dreamed of becoming a top gun pilot at Annapolis.
In a hospital room at Hartselle Medical Center just days before his death, John's mother assured him that his dream would soon become a reality.
"You'll be a top gun now, John," Sandra promised. "Not in a plane, not in this world, but anywhere in the universe that your wings will take you."
Meeting adversity with courage
A rare illness isolated John from his talents and dreams for more than half of his young life. His brother, Paul, 36, has lived with the same illness since the age of six.
"John was one month and one day old when I took Paul to the pediatrician for his shots to start to school," Sandra recalled. "Paul had a reaction to the measles shot within 24 hours."
The chances of such a reaction were 1 in 1 million.
Paul was eventually diagnosed with viral induced auto immune disease, a sort of creeping nerve degeneration that doctors told Sandra and her husband, Bob, would someday lead to suffocation from collapsed lungs or starvation from a collapsed esophagus.
"The doctors also told me to never have John inoculated," Sandra said. "They didn't want to take the same chance with him in case it was the vaccine that caused Paul's condition."
Paul's mobility was already severely limited by the time John entered elementary school. Although John would have to complete his schoolwork at home when his classmates had common childhood illnesses, he enjoyed a happy and normal adolescence.
"Paul always faced a known about his condition," Sandra said. "He knew what to expect. But John always faced an unknown. He had no idea if he would be in the same situation as his brother."
His mother said John's motto was to meet adversity to with courage, a philosophy drawn from his favorite book of the Bible, II Timothy.
During junior high school, John got the chickenpox. Sandra said she began to suspect a problem almost immediately.
"He started to drag his big left toe. He was using a scooter by the time he graduated high school."
Joy and blessings
Sandra and Bob made the decision early on in Paul's disease to live a simple life, find joy and blessings in every moment, and to make as many memories as possible with their family.
The Pickens family traveled and enjoyed family gatherings as long as Paul and John's mobility would allow. While Paul has been bedridden with limited verbal abilities for nearly 14 years, John lost most of his mobility and communication skills after a surgery in 2000.
"John really suffered the last eight years of his life and no one could find a way to stop it. That's what set his illness apart from Paul's. John had surgery after surgery and suffered agonizing pain. Paul has never had any pain or surgery, and that is such a blessing. If it were me in their shoes, I would have given up a long time ago. That's what makes both of our children my heroes."
While Sandra and Bob have both fought personal illness while caring for their sons, faith and family have armed them with a fortress of smiles and positive thoughts.
"Bob and I built our lives around our children," Sandra said. "I built my businesses so I could be at home with them and care for them. I always been so thankful for that blessing."
Wednesday, Aug. 6, John and Sandra made one more of many regular trips to the emergency room at Hartselle Medical Center. Sandra said she thought, as usual, John would be treated for his pain and muscle spasms and released within a few hours.
"I knew this time was different when the doctors told me John would need a NG (nasogastric) tube," Sandra recalled. "With this illness, there is no coming back, no getting better. It's so hard to see your children die by degrees."
Friday, Aug. 8, John and Sandra shared their birthdays in his hospital room.
"I told him we started off together in a hospital room 30 years ago, so it was only appropriate that this is how it would end."
Bob brought Paul to John's bedside to say goodbye.
"They held hands for an hour and a half," Sandra said. "It would break your heart, but it was also one of the most precious sights you'll ever see."
Tuesday, Aug. 12, Sandra had called John's lifelong friend and former classmate, Lee Conway, the previous evening to let him know about John's fragile state. He drove through the night from Indianapolis to see his friend one last time.
"Lee told John, 'Buddy, you've fought long and hard enough. Just let go and we'll be there in a second,'" Sandra said. "John did let go. He died that day. He never fought death, he just fought the pain."
During his last hospital stay, Lee and classmate Blake Wright erected a sign of encouragement atop the marquis of Buy-Rite Drugs on Corsbie Street, directly across from John's room at HMC.
The sign read: "Here is to J.D. Pickens. You are our hero!"
Blake, an employee at Buy-Rite, said the owners and employees hoped it would lift John's spirits.
"But if his spirits were ever down, he never let it show," Blake said with a chuckle. "He was always happy and a bit of a jokester. I remember he used to give scooter rides to the girls at school."
Lee said he helped with the sign because J.D. was his hero, but also because J.D. was his friend.
"We were friends, and that's what the word entails-being there for each other when you need it the most. I got more help from J.D. than he ever got from me. He had an unbelievable will. He didn't give up and he didn't turn apathetic."
Lee believes life is about realizing your friends, heroes and those to share needs with.
"I told my family that I will not mope, especially on John's and my birthday," Sandra said. "On that day, I will go out and find someone who needs a friend. I'll do my best to make them feel special, to make them feel like a hero."