Jackson County

St. Martin couple takes life one adventure at a time

“I’m sure it was love.

“I don’t even have to use the word love — I just enjoy being with her. I really do.”

Doug and Dinah Heller’s young marriage had just begun when Dinah suffered a debilitating stroke.

She didn’t even know who he was after she came out of a six-week coma.

But 32 years later, they are still together and enjoying life more than ever.

“It’s got to be love is the reason,” Doug Heller, 57, said. “I would rather be here with her. Other than that, why wouldn’t I rather be out riding my bike or something?”

Dinah suffered a stroke when she was 21, just three years after the couple was married. It left her partially paralyzed with limited use of her legs and no use of her right arm. Her speech is also severely limited.

Doug has cared for his wife, now 54, with loving dedication in the 32 years since.

Dinah has a certain amount of independence with a motorized scooter, but she still looks to her husband for many things.

“My whole life is Dinah,” Doug said recently. “I don’t mean I live for Dinah, I just mean that everything we do, I have to think about Dinah. It’s such a major, obviously, part of our life.”

“I feel that God put the two of us together because he knew what was going to happen and there was a true love between us and it just never occurred to me to leave.

“I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to do. I’m supposed to be taking care of her.”

A love story

Dinah and Doug live in St. Martin. They met in Pennsylvania when they were teenagers. Shortly afterward, in 1978, he enlisted in the Air Force.

They wrote letters to each other faithfully over the next three years.

“Our whole courtship was writing letters back and forth,” Doug said. “Every day, I think, I got letters from Dinah, and pretty much every day I wrote.

“One day I remember I got seven letters from her.”

The couple got together only when he was on leave.

“I only physically saw Dinah for maybe a total of 100 days” before he proposed, Doug said.

“I think that was even better than physically dating somebody, because I can say something in a letter a lot easier than I can say in person.”

Doug was in California when he decided to ask Dinah to marry him.

He sent his brother $100 and a ring and had him propose on his behalf.

They got married in June 1981.

The stroke

Doug was still stationed in California when he got a transfer to Germany.

“We were really excited” about the move to Europe, he said.

During a canoeing trip while on leave in Pennsylvania, Dinah developed a headache. Near the end of the float, Doug said he called back to her and she didn’t respond. ”She was sitting there and she was kind of sobbing and I knew something was wrong.”

He initially thought she was suffering from sunstroke, but later realized “something bad was happening.”

At the hospital, a neurologist told him, “What we’re seeing here is not good.”

She had a minor stroke in the canoe, then had a massive cerebral hemorrhage in the hospital that damaged her brain stem.

“It scrambled her brain, basically,” Doug said.

“The doctor told us at the time, ‘We literally pulled her from death.’ ”

A four-hour surgery relieved the pressure, but she went into a coma.

“She did not move for six weeks.”

Life goes on

Dinah, whose hazel eyes sparkle, always has a smile ready to share.

In a house dominated by four large dogs, she does housework at her own pace.

“She takes care of the house, she does the dishes,” Doug said. “I used to feel bad because it takes her forever to fold the laundry. It takes forever for her to do the dishes and it’s so much quicker if I do it, but then I got to thinking, ‘That’s her purpose.’ So now I let her do it. If it takes her forever, well, that’s fine. She’s got all day to do it. She doesn’t have too much to do, but she’s got enough to where it really helps me out and it gives her a purpose.”

“I stay at home and take care of the house and our pets,” Dinah said recently through a communication device called a Tobii Dynavox.

The device allows her to communicate using thousands of pre-loaded words and phrases. It also has her customized statements that allow her to introduce herself, tell people about her dogs and her disability. She can order at her favorite restaurants, and communicate with doctors and pharmacists.

Doug said communication is “still very difficult for me, and there’s a lot of times I just have to say, ‘I don’t know, Dinah.’ ”

“It’s like I play charades all day long.

“With me, she’s fairly persistent. She won’t let me give up. With other people, if they can’t understand her, she’ll let them off the hook, so to speak. “

Enjoying the outdoors

The couple has a shared love of the outdoors.

Doug is an avid cyclist and boater, but until recently he wasn’t able share his activities with his wife.

That all changed in 2014 when they got a bicycle with a wheelchair built on the front.

They raised $8,000 in four months through GoFundMe.com to pay for the specialized bicycle.

It has made a “tremendous” impact on her life, he said.

The couple can now be seen riding across the Biloxi Bay bridge and beyond.

“With this bike, we’re doing things that I never even thought about doing,” Doug said. They have taken trips to ride around the French Quarter in New Orleans and to Gulf Shores.

“Dinah loves to be out in the sun.”

More recently, a friend encouraged them to take up kayaking.

“Well, Dinah loved that so much, that that day we started looking for our own kayak because I knew this was something that we wanted to do.”

Buying the kayak was easy. Getting her into the boat and into the water has been a different matter.

“I’m always thinking about how I’m going to do things with Dinah,” Doug said.

His ideas don’t always work. One of his early methods for getting Dinah and the kayak to the water left her facedown in the parking lot.

She was in pain, but not afraid to go on with the float.

“While she’s still on the ground, I said, ‘You know, Dinah, we can sit home and be relatively safe and not do anything, or we can go out and tackle the world and accept a little risk.’ ”

That willingness to accept the risk has allowed them to “embrace life,” Doug said.

“She is tough; I throw her around quite a bit because I have to.

“Just getting her into that kayak, she has to be tough.”

An emblem on the kayak of a pirate in a wheelchair captures their spirit.

“It’s really neat that I can do that,” Doug said of the sport. “That I can do something that I love and that she loves, too.”

An inspiration

“She’ll try just about anything,” Doug said. “She had a good attitude, even with the situation.”

“Dinah will start singing every now and then. Even in the middle of the night. I like to hear that because I know she’s happy.

“I’m really happy when Dinah’s happy. It kind of puts me at peace when she’s singing like that.“

Doug owns a mobile dog-grooming business and delivers the Sun Herald newspaper every morning. Their life is filled with caring for and playing with their dogs. They also go out to dinner every Friday night.

“Dinah is an inspiration to so many people,” Doug said. “It’s not uncommon for a total stranger to walk up to Dinah and give her a hug.

“If she had not had her stroke, she would have given back to the world in a different way.”

Dinah was studying dentistry and working as a dental assistant when she had her stroke.

“She had lofty goals,” he said.

“I think this is the way she gives back to the world, by being an inspiration to other people.

“I think she’s doing what God wants her to be doing.”

John Fitzhugh: 228-896-2193, @JFitzhughPhoto