- April 7, 2016
- Lyons P&O
Billy Van Vlake speaks with a slow southern drawl that is typical of a Georgetown South Carolina native. When I arrive at his home I was met with a warm southern welcome and a man ready to share an amazing journey with me. He welcomed me to be seated in his dining room that still held the touches of his late wife Linda, a doll collector, and obviously a lover of trinkets and pretty things. I asked him if his wife was a collector, he laughed and said “She collected everything, a bit of a pack rat.” I could see the sweet memories flash through his mind.
Mr. Van Vlake is an above the knee amputee, a heart attack survivor, father, friend, husband and redeemed son of God. His story is a beautiful picture of God’s grace and ability to strengthen and grow us through even the most unimaginable set of circumstances and turn those things into something good as he promises he will.
Christmas 2007 would prove to be the beginning of a set of events in Mr. Van Vlake’s life that would completely change the landscape of his existence, in ways no one could have anticipated. He woke that morning with one of his toes turning blue and losing circulation in his left leg. He went to the doctor and as luck would have it he also had a really bad cold so the doctor ordered a chest x-ray as well. The x-ray showed something suspicious so he was sent to the hospital for another one. Again, same result. CAT scan and MRI later it was determined that Billy had a 95% blockage in both carotid arteries. He was scheduled for immediate bypass surgery. The right side was done in February 2008 then the left side in Early April 2008. Then just a few weeks later on April 16th they had to go into his leg and do a bypass to correct the circulation. He was determined to get home and surprised everyone leaving the next day April 17, 2008.
The next morning Billy woke early and began his normal routine of making coffee for him and Linda like every other morning for years. They were early risers. He waited until around 6:00 am to wake her and as he entered the room he realized she had passed away sometime in the night. The day before she was complaining about not feeling well and was not willing to go the hospital. She died of a massive heart attack at 58 years old. This was a devastating blow for Billy but he stated “I trusted God through this time and felt his comfort.”
During 2008 Mr. Van Vlake continued to heal and the leg was working fine. He was working through the grief of losing his wife and best friend so suddenly. He decided with the encouragement of his family to seek an early retirement from The International Paper Company. He was eligible and planned on his last day being in March 2009.
The second day after he left for retirement the leg with the bypass began to feel strange and the toes and foot were unresponsive and turning blue. He knew he needed to get to the hospital immediately, there was a blood clot. When he arrived at the hospital they admitted him immediately and began trying other ways to bypass but could not do it. The decision was made to amputate the leg above the knee. Billy knew that God had already prepared him ahead of time for this. He was calm and at peace with whatever God’s will was. He was given the opportunity to minister that peace to his children as they all stood worried. He said,
“The Lord has given me a great deal of faith, whether I am here or he takes me home it is all good.” He was given the comfort and grace to release the leg and go on.
After the amputation he was taken to Waccamaw Medical Facility for Rehabilitation. It is there he met Alexander Lyons, C.P.O., clinician and owner of Lyons Prosthetics & Orthotics, Inc. in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. This would be a divine meeting of brothers. Alex would be building him a leg and helping him walk again. Billy says of Alex, “He is a fine man, God’s man I knew almost instantly that we were connected.”About the prosthetic work “Alex really listens and continues to work with me to find the perfect prosthesis, I like him very much.”
Mr. Van Vlake has 3 children. During this time his children started coming around more, going to church with him. Hank one of his sons was asking a lot of questions about this Jesus and salvation. Over a three week period they talked and Billy prayed hard. Their pastor Chris met with Hank and led him to the Lord.
April 30, 2009 Billy had an appointment with Alex Lyons in Myrtle Beach. After his appointment he went then headed back to Georgetown like any other day except this would not be like any other day. At 8:30 that evening his son Hank was killed in a tragic auto accident at 32 years old leaving his wife, Lisa and two little girls, Hannah and Hailey.
On the Monday following the funeral Billy went to the cemetery to talk to Hank, to pray to seek God for understanding. Losing a child is perhaps the most profound pain a person can endure, losing a wife, a piece of your body and a child is, well, excruciating and difficult to understand. Sitting there in the cemetery he heard God say to his heart‘Linda wanted to see her mom and dad, her time was done so I brought her home, I have things left for you to do. I had to get your son into my house so I could touch his heart, that is why I allowed you to loose your leg and Linda so he could watch you be strengthened and allow me to carry you through it.’ Billy was assured that he would see his son again that day. He had made a commitment to Christ and Billy was at peace.
Mr. Van Vlake walked away from that moment sad but at peace that God’s will was done and will continue to be done in his life through these circumstances. He says “I would lose the other leg if it meant securing my children’s salvation.” Now that is love.
I wanted him to sum up what he would want the reader to know, he said “Trust God when there looks like there is no hope. I love my son and wife and none of us have long on this earth. I am here to serve him. I need to try to take as many people as I can with me to heaven. I am thankful that God has given me the faith he has given me. People ask how I have so much strength, if it were me I would be whining and crying. God has given me a peace that surpasses all understanding.”
We parted with the simple phrase to each other “God is good – all the time.”
Image and Story by Chris Koppel ckphotography