Chuck Ingraham could certainly be excused for not being able to make out the silhouetted figure standing before him the morning of October 26 at Emory Saint Joseph’s Hospital of Atlanta, Georgia. The past 24 hours had been quite the whirlwind.
The previous morning, a Friday, Ingraham was jolted awake by massive chest pains. He drove himself to the emergency room at his local hospital where doctors discovered three major blockages in arteries supplying his otherwise healthy heart with blood. Two of the arteries were 100 percent blocked.
Yet, the hospital could not perform the triple-bypass surgery needed to save him. They referred him to another Atlanta-area hospital, which informed him they had no beds available but he could be put on their waiting list. Thanks to desperate efforts by his wife Chizuko, who enlisted the help and advice of many friends, they managed to get into a room at Emory Saint Joseph’s — a full 14 hours after the emergency began.
“All day long, I’ve been told I’m a dead man, and now I’m in a hospital room being told I’m not going to have surgery until Monday,” he recalled.
It was a lot to absorb for a man who just three weeks earlier had helped dedicate a new Fuller Center for Housing home for Tiffany Robinson at the conclusion of the 2019 Millard Fuller Legacy Build in Beauregard — an unincorporated rural community just outside of Opelika, Alabama. A house captain along with Jim Tomascak, he worked every day in extreme heat to lead construction of the home for Robinson, who lost both of her parents in the March 3 tornado that devastated the community.
Now, on the Saturday morning after the emergency began, stood this dark figure. Ingraham would soon learn that he shared a connection with this man — one that traced back to his hard work at the Legacy Build in Beauregard.
“There was a light on the wall, like a bright fluorescent light,” Ingraham recalled. “And there is somebody standing there with this light behind them. I’d just opened my eyes, and it completely distorts the figure. I see a silhouette of a human being, and I can’t see their face. All the light is coming from behind them. I did not think I was talking to an angel. I knew there was a human being there. I asked him to turn off the light and cut on another.”
The man was there to ask him about his health history ahead of the surgery. Having already explained at his first hospital stop that he was in excellent health and did not smoke, drink or even take medications beyond vitamins, Ingraham had little interest in repeating it all.
“I said, ‘Sir, let me explain who I am. I’m Chuck Ingraham. I just got back two weeks ago from 10 days in 92- to 105-degree weather building a home for a tornado victim in Beauregard, Alabama — lifting, climbing, etc. That’s who Chuck Ingraham is! What I’m doing here, I have no idea!'”
The man’s eyes lit up. He got his phone to show Ingraham a photo of a damaged home with five wrecked cars out front. He explained that it was his parents’ home in Beauregard and that it had been ground zero for the EF-4 tornado. He said his father had been battling cancer for the past 12 years but promised his mother that he would not leave her without a rebuilt home. He fulfilled his promise — and then died on Easter.
He then showed Ingraham a photo of the rebuilt home.
“I go, ‘Oh my God! I drove by that house every single day!'” Ingraham said. “‘I told my volunteers I want our house to look as good as that house. It is beautiful.'”
Ingraham had photos of his own to show. He showed the house that was dedicated just three weeks earlier and told the story of Tiffany Robinson, the homeowner partner who lost her parents in the twister. The man gave a knowing nod. Tiffany Robinson was his cousin. Her parents were his aunt and uncle.
“‘Since you helped to rebuild their lives, I’m going to help rebuild yours,'” Ingraham recalled the man telling him. “Where in the world are you going to find someone from Opelika, Alabama, standing over you at six o’clock in the morning telling you that he’s going to rebuild your heart?”
The morning of October 29, Ingraham finally got the triple-bypass surgery. He is now recovering at home with his wife Chizuko in what he calls “drill sergeant mode,” making sure that he eats properly and takes every careful step toward full recovery.
“This whole story is guided by the hands of God,” said Ingraham, who has yet to be able to tell the story without crying. “I don’t know if it’s the medication or the medication plus who Chuck is, but it just tears me apart — but in a wonderful way. My wife keeps telling me to stop telling this story because she’s tired of hearing me cry.”
It is not a story he ever expected to have to tell. Having seen his father smoke heavily and drink while having three heart attacks, two strokes and prostate cancer before dying at age 68, Ingraham became a health fanatic early and has continued that path throughout his life. As far as he was concerned, a “triple-bypass” was something probably conceived by Metro Atlanta traffic managers instead of something that would temporarily sideline him from his passion for helping others have simple, decent places to live.
“All of our friends are all in shock and disbelief,” he said. “They all say the same thing — ‘Chuck’s the healthiest among all of us.’ I can outdo any 35-year-old. They can’t keep up with me. My kids to this day can’t keep up with me.”
Because his heart itself was perfectly healthy and lab work showed nothing wrong with him, Ingraham’s life had been in jeopardy even as doctors had told him more than once over the past year that his chest pains were nothing to worry about. He says his heart was sending a message that something was wrong. And, by “heart,” he means that literally and figuratively.
“I figured it out — God wanted to give me another 20 years to build with The Fuller Center,” he sad. “He figured out I was going to drop dead at any minute. All I could think of was God has been shaking me. My heart was communicating with the rest of my body saying, ‘You’ve got a problem, you’ve got a problem, you’ve got a problem,’ even though I thought I was in perfect health.”
As leader of the Lanier Fuller Center for Housing in Cumming, Georgia, he is eager to get back to work on four Greater Blessing projects and “The Velvie Project,” a major renovation of a 100-year-old house that will become a home for a disabled mother and her two children, one of whom also has a disability. Yet, it will be another month before he is even able to get behind the wheel of a vehicle, much less swing a hammer.
He has fielded many phone calls in the few days he has been home. One of those calls brings him to tears each time he recounts it.
“I got a personal phone call from Linda Fuller,” he said of the woman who co-founded Habitat for Humanity, with which he worked for 17 years before joining The Fuller Center, which she also co-founded. “She personally dialed my number. That is totally incredible. She thinks I’m her friend. She’s telling me to take it easy and not do too much so I can get better. I love her.”
And what about the man from Lee County, Alabama, who showed up in his hospital room that fateful Saturday morning?
“I’d love to visit his mother,” Ingraham said through tears. “I tried to find him the rest of the time I was there, and he never showed up again.”