Nancy Fortenberry was at the kitchen table at home when the phone rang and a video producer said he was a sending her a preview of something special.
Tears pricked at her eyes, and later they welled with thankfulness. A video — one of three shot for the Memphis-based courier service FedEx, FedEx Family House at LeBonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis and a third for the hospital itself — tells a story meant for Thanksgiving, one about a surprise friendship between a FedEx driver, Memphian Mike Kirkwood, and 21-year-old James Fortenberry of Greenwood.
“Oh my gosh, I can’t wait to get it,” Nancy said over the phone. She had not yet viewed the video. “Oh, I am nervous to see it.”
Then she laughed and said, “As you long as you fixed my hair and gave me my skinny look, I am fine.”
What interested her the most were the video’s stars, James and Mike.
The two met in September when Kirkwood stopped at the FedEx House while James and his mother and father, the Rev. Steve Fortenberry, had just had some difficult news. An urgent surgery planned for James had been delayed for a day, and the wait would be hard. James badly needed diversion, and his parents were exhausted. By the time James had the surgery, he and Mike had become fast friends, and that had changed everything.
His mother explained that James has Chromosome 15 disorder. In James’ case, the pair is duplicated and inverted, and this has caused cognitive delay plus another chronic medical problem. “He has a severe seizure disorder, which is why we had the surgery.”
James urgently needed to have a device that completely eliminates the seizures replaced. Called a vagus nerve stimulator, it’s now been implanted, and it is his third. Without it, he might have many seizures a day, which was happening in 2008 when the first stimulator was implanted.
“He went from 40 to 50 seizures a day to zero,” his mother said.
Actually, the second stimulator wasn’t failing, just its battery. A decision was made, however, to implant a newer model. From experience, the Fortenberrys knew that a replacement had to be implanted before the battery failed and seizures began. They were in a hurry.
When they arrived at LeBonheur on the scheduled day, they learned that a paperwork snafu involving insurance had postponed the surgery, although a special medical team, including members from Texas, had been assembled for the surgery. Some of the team could not remain, but the surgery all the same was rescheduled for the following morning.
The Fortenberrys were more than dismayed, and for Nancy, the setback was overwhelming. The summer had been especially difficult for everyone.
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It started at the end of June, when Steve, who had knee implants a couple of years before, was playing church league softball and his right kneecap snapped in two. He ended up in a Jackson hospital for surgical repairs, and these had complications resulting in a post-surgical infection and two more operations — one in July and another in September. Nancy was in charge of home health services.
Then James became ill with pneumonia. Nancy, who helps disabled students in the Carroll County School District transition into jobs, had to be back at school Aug. 1. She also was filling in for Steve, associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church, with the church’s youth group. Thank goodness, the Fortenberrys’ daughter, Sarah, was living and working in Greenwood, where she is a grant writer and project coordinator for Delta Design Build.
James was sick and waiting for surgery. Steve had been using a wheelchair and couldn’t drive himself to Jackson. And Nancy was finding herself needing to be in both Memphis and Jackson at the same time. “I was emotionally and physically in threads,” she said.
But the Fortenberrys did have help — plenty of it. First Presbyterian arranged for regular meal deliveries to their house, and people they didn’t really know heard about their difficulties and sent food cards that could be used to pick up a meal wherever they were.
Many friends responded. Two of them, Travis Clark and Candy Wheat, both of Greenwood, stepped up to help with travel and stay with them at the hospital, either in Jackson or in Memphis.
Nancy said their devotion was complete. “We would never have survived without them,” she said. “It was all I could do to hold myself together.
“And we have no family here. We would have been lost without our church family and the Greenwood community,” she said.
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Being able to stay with James at the FedEx House was “kind of a safe haven for our family,” in part because it is cleaner than a hotel and therefore less likely to be a source of infectious diseases. Also, the house has policies sensitive to patients’ sensibilities. The house offers toys and games for children, but it does not allow food in the lobby. Why not? When a child cannot eat because of an approaching surgery, the sight of others eating is difficult.
The house also offers proximity to the hospital and a safe place to stay following a visit or procedure. Doctors can plan on having the children they are treating available close by at the right time.
At the FedEx Family House, she said, “I didn’t have to think a lot about logistics.”
But she had these on her mind after Mike and James met and the surgery had been postponed. Two things happened. First, Clark and another friend, Jan Sturdivant of Itta Bena, whisked Nancy away for shopping and lunch, and Steve, who had a wheelchair with him, stayed with James.
James, who is busy from dawn to dusk, was wheeling his dad around the FedEx House when Mike arrived. James beelined over to say hello.
“He sees this man in this uniform with boxes and runs up and introduces himself to him,” Nancy said. And the man responded in kind. “He instantly stops what he is doing and starts talking to James,” Nancy said.
They discussed trucks and tractors, all types of heavy equipment. Mike promised to return to see James after the surgery and bring him a present. James talked from that point forward about his new friend, Mike, even after entering the operating room. He couldn’t wait to get back to the FedEx House to see Mike.
Nancy and Steve were anxious. People mean well when they make arrangements with James, but they don’t always understand that as far as James is concerned, they have made a promise. Would Mike return?
The night before the surgery, Mike telephoned from Tractor Supply, where he had gone to find a present for James.
After surgery, Nancy said James was groggy for a long time in recovery. She took a chance and whispered to James, “I need you to wake up because Mike is going to be there waiting for you.” She was keeping her fingers crossed that this would happen. James roused himself quickly.
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Mike kept his promise. Several hours after the surgery, he arrived at the FedEx House with a toy dump truck for James.
They received a call from the front desk, “‘There is a delivery for James Fortenberry.’ We take James down,” she said. Soon, the pair were in “100 percent conversation” with each other.
“When Mike leaves, James yells to Mike, ‘Hey, Mike, I love you.’ Mike comes running back in with tears in his eyes.”
She continued, “Seeing those two together, I knew I was observing something ... whole, beautiful.”
Later, she wrote about the experience on Facebook. Her post had 200 shares. FedEx and LeBonheur picked it up. Then, the family was asked to return for a reunion with Mike and a day of videoing for a posting to FedEx’s national site.
The answer was yes, and the video will go online Tuesday, which she said is known as the Day of Giving.
Nancy said James spoke up on the video without prompting: “I can’t tell you how much this guy means to me, and I love him.”
James, by the way, now has a set of toy FedEx vehicles. There’s no doubt who brought them to him.
• Contact Susan Montgomery at 581-7233 or email@example.com.