They were the “dream team,” a couple who found each other after suffering devastating life events.
Deborah Shurson had miraculously survived a skydiving accident, plummeting 2,600 feet to the ground after her parachute failed to open. Gary Fairchild lost a lemon-sized portion of his brain, as well as some of his speech, visual and cognitive faculties, following a major stroke.
Theirs was a rare partnership, a poignant love story of recovery and renewal detailed in a 2011 story I wrote for Stanford Medicine magazine.
But there is a sad footnote to the story: Fairchild, Shurson's partner of 25 years, died this winter of cancer at age 78. He was recently remembered in a gathering of some 40 friends and family members at Nick’s Rockaway Beach restaurant in Pacifica, Calif. -- one of the couple’s favorite seaside haunts.
“I was so thankful we had a good life and learned and loved and grew in so many ways,” Shurson told me at the event, wiping away tears. The two had complementary disabilities, helping each other remember a word or navigate the way.
“What he didn’t know I did and visa versa,” she said. “We had so much fun putting it together. I have so many positive memories. He told me he wanted me to go on and be good. He was an inspiration to me.”
Fairchild's son, Ken, said he admired his father’s “ability to keep going against all odds,” as he struggled mightily to recover from his brain damage.
“It was a blessing for all of us when he met Deborah,” he told me. “I called them the dream team. It was a miracle they met.”
The couple's recovery was ongoing; Fairchild would spend his mornings by the computer, doing memory games to help improve his vision, memory and reading ability. They walked daily around their Los Altos, Calif. neighborhood to maintain their mobility. They were perpetually upbeat, relishing the small things in life, said Fairchild's daughter, Lisa Mirhej.
“Later in life, Gary set a great example for how to slow down, live in the present moment and truly appreciate the little joys in life,” like the gambits of the squirrel outside their condo or the colorful flowers in their neighbors’ yards, she said. “He was curious about the world and never stopped asking questions and trying to learn. I always admired and found comfort in his wise ways of looking at life and his philosophies helped him to carry on during the difficult times he had.”
At the gathering, Shurson, now 66, said goodbye to her local friends, as she makes the move to Florida to be close to family members there. She takes comfort in knowing that Fairchild's suffering in the end was not prolonged. “I’m glad he’s out of pain and in peace now.”
Photo by Misha Gravenor