On July 3, Robert Shelby wanted to show one of his children how to avoid belly-flops when diving. When Shelby demonstrated at a neighbor’s pool, he slammed his head on the bottom.
He tried to swim. He couldn’t.
“None of my body is moving,” he said. “So, I go through my feet, my toes, my legs and knees, go through my arms. I’m trying every single part of my body that I thought might get me there, tried dog paddling, but I’m absolutely paralyzed. There’s nothing moving.”
He could hear his children playing, apparently oblivious to his plight. Holding his breath, he realized they might not notice until it was too late, and he would drown.
About 10 years earlier, Shelby had become a Christian. In addition to his full-time job in industrial sales, Shelby is a pastor at Trinity Baptist Church in Baton Rouge. Suspended between the surface and the bottom of the pool, Shelby pondered how to handle his last moments on Earth.
“I prayed just a moment about it, and what came to me was that (since) I praised God for the last 10 years of my life, I should praise him now,” Shelby said. “So, I began praising him for his grace, for saving me, sending his son, those type things, praising him for the privilege of raising up a family and ministering to people. I prayed that he would watch over my family and provide for them.”
As he prayed, Shelby blacked out. When he regained consciousness, his life was radically altered.
Shelby’s C-5 vertebra was broken, paralyzing his lower body. His triceps, which extend his arms, do not function, though his biceps, which flex his arms, are working.
He has feeling in some fingers, not in others, and movement in none.
For Shelby, 40, the impact of this life-changing event is multiplied by the size of his family. He and his wife, Amy, have nine children ages 12 to 1, and another is on the way.
The challenges have continued since the accident. To accommodate his needs and the family’s size, they bought a used minibus with a wheelchair lift.
While Amy Shelby and a friend drove it from Florida to their Prairieville home, the drive shaft broke, destroying the transmission. The man from whom they bought is taking no responsibility. It sits at a mechanic’s shop while the Shelbys try to raise money to fix it.
Reconciling personal tragedy with faith in God has been an issue for believers at least as far back as the great Old Testament sufferer, Job.
Robert Shelby said his belief in God’s sovereignty gives him peace.
“The Bible teaches us that he does all things for his glory,” he said. “That tells me that any event that comes to pass in my own life, whether it be a dreadful hour or a significant trial, has come about so that God can reveal glory through that instance.
“To consider the fact that I’m on a different path in 2012 than I had ever dreamed of in the last 40 years, there’s a moment of ‘Really? Is this really the way it’s going?’ But … my God is a good God, and he does all things for his glory, and he orders all things.”
He was hospitalized for 10 days at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center before spending 61/2 weeks at Touro Rehabilitation Center.
At OLOL, while at his most physically helpless, he shared the gospel with nurses, therapists and physicians. He said he probably witnessed to more people in that time than in the rest of his life.
“God had truly opened up a burden my heart, but also a door and the hearts of others to listen to this feeble, weak individual who couldn’t do much else but talk to them while they waited on me,” he said. “I can’t even count them all.
“If my injury was for nothing more than that, I’d have to ask how important was that because it was very important in those days. It was the joy of my heart.”
The Rev. Dale Crawford, senior pastor at Trinity Baptist, has been in close contact with the Shelbys since the accident. While all Christians accept the idea of God’s sovereignty at some level, Crawford said such crises as this put one’s theology to the ultimate test.
“Rob sees this as an opportunity to really glorify God as other people are watching him,” Crawford said. “I think he’s been a wonderful testimony to God’s grace. I have not heard him complain yet. It’s been three months now. He’s gone through this with much grace.”
Robert and Amy Shelby grew up in Monroe and West Monroe, respectively, and have lived in the Baton Rouge area since 1997. Their oldest child, Cade, was born three years later, followed by Ian the next year, and Tate the year after. It was about this time that Shelby began considering the implications of letting God have full reign over his life — including the size of his family.
“I don’t think the Bible commands us to have the biggest family we can possibly have,” he said. “The Bible says children are a blessing from the Lord, a heritage to their fathers and an honor to their grandfathers. There are so many truths in the Bible about the having of children and their place in the family, at least at that point I wasn’t willing to put a hold on those things.
“At some point, we just decided that we’re not going to determine what tomorrow brings.”
So, along came a fourth son, Cai, now 8. Then Abram, 7; Emma, 5; Sarah, 4; Asa, 3; and Isaac, 1. The Shelbys are expecting a daughter in late January.
Given the modern trend toward smaller families, the Shelbys stand out.
“We can’t go anywhere without people talking to us,” Amy Shelby said. “I can’t expect an hour grocery-shopping trip, because I’m going to get stopped at least three or four times, some kind of conversation whether good or bad. I’ve had negative comments and positive comments.”
It should be no surprise that the TLC show “19 Kids and Counting” is must-see TV in the Shelby home. It follows the family of Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, who have 19 children.
“You really can learn some neat things from them,” Amy Shelby said.
“Shows like that have in some way been a help for us because we don’t seem so odd,” Robert Shelby said. “We’ve got half as many kids as they do. We do get a lot of comments: ‘You need a show yourself, a reality show,’ because they associate a big family with a show like that.”
Had such a show existed for the Shelbys, the episode about July 3 would have featured children in starring roles.
When their dad didn’t surface after his dive, the children initially thought he was trying to trick them. When he remained underwater, they chose a playful method to make him rise.
“We were tickling him, moving his arms and stuff,” Cade said. “We didn’t realize it was serious. We thought he was playing. So, when we were coming back, Tate kicked him, and that was what made us know.”
Cade and Tate grabbed him by the shoulders and swam him to the surface, then the edge of the pool.
“When we got him there, I got out of the pool and helped get him to the steps,” Cade said. “I knew he was definitely hurt because he would have started getting out of the pool.
“We pulled him to the steps, and I saw his face was completely white, and his lips were blue. I knew something was wrong. Since he wasn’t breathing, I started doing mouth-to-mouth.”
Cade said he has never been trained in resuscitation, but applied what he once saw in a video and in a book. It worked. Tate ran home to get Ian to help get their dad out of the pool and to call 911 and their mother, who was shopping with Isaac. She reached the pool before EMS did. By this time, he was breathing.
Robert Shelby is proud of his sons for keeping their wits.
“At the point where they got past ‘Is Dad playing?’ to there is a real emergency here, they overwhelmed me when I stop to think about how they responded in a very adult way, a very mature way,” he said. “They did all the right things. They couldn’t have done anything different that would have made things better than what they did.
“I was very thankful as a father that in the 12 years since I started raising up a son and other sons that those haven’t been wasted years, that in the pinch moment they acted in the way I hoped they would act in the rest of their life in serious and significant moments.”
Many serious and significant moments remain for the Shelbys. He receives physical therapy with the goal of maximizing what strength and movement that can be salvaged from his injury.
Amy Shelby has had to put the children’s home-schooling on hold. Robert Shelby said his company, Tyco Valve Controls, is willing to let him work from home, which he hopes to resume late this year.
In the meantime, he’ll try to devise ways to answer the telephone and type with hands that have extremely limited function.
Trinity Baptist Church has created a fund to help the family with expenses caused by the accident. For information, go to http://www.shelbyfamilyfund.com. He also looks forward to returning to church, which he can’t do until the minibus is repaired. That does not mean he hasn’t kept in touch with the congregation, many of whom have visited his home.
“As a pastor, my heart is to lead people to be nearer to God, and I have seen so many people who verbally and in the actions in their life demonstrated that they are walking closer to God simply by observing my circumstances and given some thoughts to them,” he said. “Something about my life has impacted them in some way where now they are walking closer with God than they were six weeks ago or eight weeks ago. As a pastor, that’s what you strive for, to bring people closer to God.
“Should I sit back then and say, ‘I don’t want to bring people closer to God in this broken body’? My purpose two months ago was to bring people closer to God, and now they’re closer to God. I can rejoice in that. In the mornings and the afternoons and the evenings, I can rejoice all night long that people are walking in holiness and people are pursuing God in worship and prayer, people are acting out their life in a righteous manner, and some of that has come about simply because of their observations of my life or how my life has affected them in a material way.
“The convictions that I have about the work of God and his purposes has so captivated my life that I can’t see life any other way than that he is ordering all things for his purposes, which is what the Bible teaches us. … I lived yesterday, today, and by his grace I’ll live tomorrow with great certainty that he is ordering all things for his purposes.”
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