RICHWOOD (AP) — Richwood native Deborah Dorland recalls flood water steadily rising up the side of her wheelchair.
She closes her eyes and says, “It was one of the most traumatic things I had ever experienced, and I didn’t think I’d make it through.”
While many people were experiencing the grief of losing family members, friends and homes as the Cherry River tore through the town June 23, 2016, Dorland was trying to recover from a different form of loss — the loss of movement and control of the right side of her body.
After experiencing a stroke in May 2014, Dorland wondered if her world as an artist would ever be the same.
She had completed large murals all over the world from Fiji to Washington D.C. and everywhere in between.
“This stroke was definitely a kick in the butt,” Dorland said. “I was right-handed, a muralist, and art was my life, I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
She kept fighting, though.
“I wasn’t going to let it get the best of me,” she said. “I wasn’t going to let a stroke turn me into a non-fighter. That wasn’t me.”
Dorland was sent to Nicholas County Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center for recovery. She said things began to look up.
“It was so hard at first,” she recalled. “I was lonely without my art, and I knew something had to be done.”
She went through rehabilitation and became stronger, but had to accept the fact her right hand would not be fully functioning again.
“Most people would have just given up after that, but not me,” she with a laugh.
Then the thought came to her — “I’ll just use my left hand!”
This was easier said than done. Dorland began in baby steps.
“I tried my hand at writing with my left hand, but all the words just looked big and sloppy,” she said, “Not the petite, clean handwriting I was used to having.”
An idea began to bloom — “I’ll never be able to paint big murals again, but I think I could try my hand at drawing pictures.”
She did this, and more. Slowly but surely, Dorland began drawing coloring sheets with her left hand. What started off as simple drawings turned into the blooming of eccentric, finely detailed scenes of nature — all drawn with her left hand.
Things began to look up for the artist. Although she was still living in the nursing home, she was pursuing her art, making friends and exceeding in physical therapy.
Then it rained. It poured. It flooded.
“The power had gone out in the nursing home,” Dorland said. “They had all of us patients lined up in a hallway, and the floor was just slowly filling with water.”
There were more than 20 patients in wheelchairs cramped in the small hallway, all filled with occupants unable to move on their own.
“There were also 24 more people parked in wheelchairs behind me, in the same hallway,” Dorland recalled.
“All wheelchairs were filled with stroke patients with dementia, moaning and groaning. We were all scared, and the employees just kept running back and forth trying to figure everything out.”
Dorland only had one thing on her mind, though.
“All of my art was back in my room, and we were waiting to be evacuated,” she said, “I just wanted to rescue it, but I knew it was long gone.”
“I didn’t know what to do. I was in a panic and beginning to get overwhelmed.”
She began to sing. Loudly, in fact.
“I had to calm all those folks down,” she said, “I needed to be a leader.”
She sang, “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” as loud as she could. To her surprise the patients began to calm down. “They all began singing along and making funny faces,” she laughed.
“I was still so scared on the inside, but I had to push that down.”
A bus was parked outside of the nursing home waiting to take patients to a church across the river.
“I was the second to last patient to get on the bus,” Dorland said, “It was full, and there were several patients behind me that still needed to get across the river.”
Extra patients were pushed in their wheelchairs, but the rising floodwaters were washing the wheelchairs away.
“They then tried to carry them on mattresses,” Dorland said. “But those got washed away too, so they started rolling them up the hill to the church in blankets because they were too heavy to carry.”
Dorland said the experience was horrible — a discomfort, a tragedy.
“These old patients were just lying on the hard floor of this church,” she recalled with her eyes closed. “It’s very hard to still think about.”
They didn’t have canes, walkers or anything for support. All things of that nature were washed away.
The nursing home was destroyed by the flood. Patients were placed in nursing homes throughout the state. Dorland was transferred to Miletree Center in Spencer.
She also received news of her home in Richwood being destroyed due to the flood. The whole bottom floor was wiped out.
“It’s really depressing to look at,” she said. “I felt like I was having to start all over. It hadn’t flooded in Spencer, so no one understood what I was really going through.”
Dorland did make a friend, though. Joann.
“She never remembered my name, but I loved her.”
Another positive aspect of the transfer was the peace of mind of living on higher ground.
“The nursing home in Spencer was located on a mountain top,” she said, “It was a little relief.”
It took some time, but Dorland eventually got back to her art and continued using her left hand to draw her coloring pages.
“This was a woman in the Spencer nursing home named Lou,” Dorland said, holding a picture of an elderly woman she had drawn with flowers in her hair. “She always stole those flowers from the table arrangements, but she was beautiful and I wanted to capture every essence of her.”
Every fine line, every detailed flower and every shadow, she captured.
“I always felt sorry for left-handed artists because they accidentally smear their work, but I actually think I do a pretty good job,” Dorland said, pointing to a framed drawing, “That was my view from my room in Spencer. It is one of my favorites I’ve ever done.”
Dorland was released from Miletree Center in April, and was able to go back to Richwood.
“My home wasn’t livable though,” she said. “That’s something really tough to go through.”
Dorland was provided with a tiny home to live in until the renovation of her house was completed.
“It’s nice and it’ll do for now,” she said, “And I make the best of what I have.”
Outside of art, Dorland gardens and mediates to keep herself calm.
“It wasn’t just drawing I had to teach myself to do with my left hand, but everything else as well.”
She cooks, she cleans, she gardens – all with her left hand.
Dorland continues drawing her coloring pages and hopes to sell them at Tamarack in Beckley someday soon.
“I think I do a good job, and I think other people would too,” she said as she sifted through her stack of completed drawings, showing off her favorite ones.
She continues fighting “the stroke fight,” and hopes to get an electric wheelchair soon.
“I can walk, but I can’t drive. I can’t go anywhere really,” she said. “I make do with everything I have, but life still gets in the way sometimes.”
Dorland still thrives throughout her day-to-day struggles, and never gives up the fight.
“Life may have taken a tough turn,” Dorland said, “but this was what I was meant to do.”