Cunningham working way back from stroke

Patterson City Clerk Ray Cunningham was honored as Citizen of the Year at the 67th Annual Pierce County Chamber Gala and Awards event at Okefenokee Country Club April 21. He and the other seven honorees were celebrated with an 18-by-24-inch foam board photos of when they received their glass trophies at a March press conference.

Only last summer, former elementary teacher Ray Cunningham was busying himself with his Patterson City Clerk duties and helping keep the newly-created Farmer’s Market organized at Eagle Station.

On Sundays, he filled Patterson Baptist Church with his beautiful praises on the piano.

But on September 4, all of that suddenly . . . stopped.

“I had worked all day, came home and was supposed to pick up my son. I had started making dinner, but didn’t feel well. I had a slight headache, so I laid down on the couch,” Cunningham, 59, explained from his wheelchair at Pierce Chamber’s Annual Gala and Awards Ceremony recently, where he was a guest of honor as Citizen of the Year. “When I didn’t show up at my son’s, he came over and found me on the couch and couldn’t get me to move. So he called 911 and he called my sister Rita. She’s a nurse.”

Cunningham had suffered a hemorrhagic stroke affecting the left side of his body, virtually paralyzing that side of his face, his left arm and his left leg. It also has affected his short-term memory, he said.

He was first taken to Waycross, but immediately life flighted to Memorial Health University Medical Center in Savannah for treatment in its intensive care unit.

“I had done a couple of things I’d never done before, but I don’t remember them,” he said, sporting a black and silver sequin dinner jacket and shiny black shoes. “One was flying in a helicopter. But that’s better than the EMS truck. It’s not cool at all.”

He said the first thing he remembered was waking up in the Savannah hospital and not being able to move his left arm.

“All I could think was I’m not going to be able to play the piano anymore,” he said, glancing down at his left hand.

Cunningham said he’s played piano since he was in the second grade and has a baby grand at home. His favorite type of music to play is Christian, especially “How Great Thou Art.”

He said this weekend he will start with playing with the strings on the keyboard.

“Our music director Bob Edwards asked me if I’d consider it and I told him I would,” he said softly. “When I just go and sit at church I don’t feel like I’ve done what I needed to do.”

Cunningham said his goal is to be able to play the piano at church as well as before.

Although he said his rehabilitation facility in Augusta was too much like a nursing home, he admitted the staff did help him make some progress over the last several months with physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy.

He said one of the most frustrating things now is how his brain makes him think he’s able to lift his arm, for instance, when he actually can’t.

“I try to play piano with my right hand and I feel like I’ve got the left side working in my head, but it’s not,” he said. “The hardest thing is thinking you’re doing something you’re not doing.”

But he is now able to stand up at his kitchen and bathroom sinks for a bit with some assistance, he said proudly. And he is determined to continue to make progress, little by little.

Because he lives alone, health professionals were at first talking about his need for a nursing home, but he knew that wasn’t the place for him.

“I said ‘I’m not going,’” he said defiantly. “That rehab place was nursing home enough for me.”

He said the rehab facility wouldn’t release him until he had help set up at home, so his sister and son made sure that was accomplished as quickly as possible.

He now has Personal Care Assistants during the day and at night and a physical therapist named Eric he sees in Waycross.

“Eric says I’ll be walking and I’m counting on that,” he said with a grin. “I’m trying to do everything he says.”

Cunningham said he told Eric he wanted to go to Tybee Island because he’d never been there and one day Eric took him there.

“It was beautiful,” he said. “Just the smell of the ocean helped.”

Cunningham said he feels badly about not being able to help more at City Hall and wishes he could have assisted with the gala this year, as he has in the past. And he’s anxious to help with Patterson projects like the Pocket Park in the historic area on Railroad Avenue now that a long-sought-after grant was approved.

But he’s learning to count his blessings.

“God’s not finished with me yet. He still has something he wants me to do. I just have to figure out what it is,” he said. “Thank goodness for family and friends, though. My sanity’s restored. It’s so important to have a caring community behind you. And a church family.”