The fingerprints of God’s provision, protection and purpose are all over the life of Chris Bryan. For example, when I felt prompted to contact my friend and see if he would be willing to let me share his incredible story with Upstate Exposures magazine, I had no idea that I would be writing the story of his life on the same day his life began 45 years ago. To meet Chris is to immediately recognize you are in the presence of a man who lives in a realm beyond, and above, the ordinary. Born in Florence, SC, on December 14, 1971, Chris has lived in the Palmetto State ever since. He graduated from West Florence High School and attended Horry Georgetown Technical College where he studied Golf Course Management and Horticulture. During his junior and senior years in high school he worked at a local golf course in Florence. Eventually he would go on to become a lineman with Progress Energy, which has since merged with Duke Energy, but before I get to the point in his story where that river converges, I need to tell you about how he met Nicole.
Reminiscing about the first time he encountered the woman who would become his wife, Chris says, “It’s a funny story. We actually met through a mutual friend at a birthday party. Nicole’s friend Kendall was dating my friend Tommy. Kendall had invited Nicole to the party and Tommy had invited me.” While at the party, Chris and Nicole were introduced to each other and found themselves enjoying small talk together. The night went on, and they casually said their farewells afterward. But, Chris couldn’t stop thinking about the woman he met at the party. About 2 or 3 weeks later, Chris bumped into Kendall again and asked about Nicole. Picking up on Chris’ interest in her friend, Kendall said, “You should ask her out.” So he did. A whirlwind season of dating and falling in love followed. Within 6 months, Chris sought and received Nicole’s father’s blessing to propose. They were married on May 30, 1993 in Myrtle Beach at the Chapel by the Sea surrounded by family and friends. Little did either of them know that beautiful day they became husband and wife that God was preparing them for a dark night that lie ahead when they would need to lean on Him and each other like never before.
Truth be told, at the time of the wedding, Chris did not even have a personal relationship with Jesus. Nicole was a follower of God. Having grown up learning about the Lord from family and attending a Pentecostal Holiness church, Nicole had given her life to Jesus earlier in life. After they got married, though, Chris started attending church with his wife. For six months he went regularly with her and felt the Holy Spirit speaking to him, convicting him of his need to surrender his life to Jesus, and drawing him to a point of personal repentance. Chris was raised in a home that seldom talked about God or went to church. This was uncharted territory for him. However, one Sunday night, in a service Chris describes as not particularly evangelistic in nature, he reached the point where he knew he was ready to ask Jesus to take the reins of his life. So, he spoke with his pastor, Jimmy McKenzie, and stepped across the line of faith, inviting Jesus to be His Lord. Pastor McKenzie played a very significant role in Chris and Nicole’s faith journey. Pastor Jimmy was asked to officiate Chris and Nicole’s vow renewal ceremony on their 1 year anniversary. It was important to them to renew their vows at Lake City Pentecostal Holiness Church, where they attended together as followers of Jesus and part of a church family. So much had changed in a year’s time for them, and so much more change was still coming.
Over the course of the next several years, Chris and Nicole’s family grew. Their first daughter, Kennedy, was born in 1995. She actually just graduated on December 15th from Trevecca Nazarene College in Nashville, Tennessee, from the National Praise and Worship Institute there. Next came McKenzie, the namesake of their beloved pastor and friend who had been so influential in their lives. McKenzie was actually born on Chris and Nicole’s 4th wedding anniversary! Chris told me that McKenzie always enjoys having a birthday party, even in her late teens, and that they always make sure her birthday takes front stage from a celebration standpoint. They either celebrate their anniversary before or after the actual date, so that their daughter’s birthday is not eclipsed by sharing the date with her parent’s anniversary. McKenzie also is getting her higher education at Trevecca, with a Theatre major and a minor in Intercultural Studies. And in 2001, their son, Matthew came along. He is a sophomore at Oconee Christian Academy in Seneca and is involved in the youth program at NewSpring Church in Anderson, where he currently attends with his parents. And that brings us to the point where the story moves to unveil how this sweet family came to be residents of the Upstate and how I got to meet my buddy, Chris.
It was a seemingly normal night, September 15, 2010, when an ordinary phone call turned extraordinary for Chris and his family. Working as a lineman for Progress Energy, it was not uncommon to receive calls in the middle of the night to assist with emergencies. This particular call came in around 1:00 a.m., just like a thousand calls before it. A line was down, having fallen across a road, and Chris was called in to help handle it. He got up, left his slumbering family tucked cozily in their beds, and made the ten minute drive to the warehouse in the wee hours of the morning. Nicole had become accustomed to the pattern, so she didn’t think anything out of the ordinary.
Chris says, “The last thing I remember after getting to the warehouse was getting out of the truck, the bucket truck we were taking to the site of the downed line, and locking the gate behind me. That’s the last thing I remember until the moment I was in the back of an ambulance.” He doesn’t remember the 25 minute drive to the job site with his co-worker. He doesn’t remember a lot about what happened that night. He remembers the flight nurse on the Medivac helicopter telling him, “You’ve been involved in an electrical accident,” but after seeing the lights of the aircraft through the window, his memory goes blank again. He confessed that his first thought was that he must have run off the road and wrecked the truck.
Through stories shared from his best friend and co-worker, Brad, and medical personnel who were on the scene, Chris knows that at some point after he arrived onsite to begin trying to clear the downed power line, he inadvertently stepped on the live line, and up to 14,000 volts of electricity entered his body. “When voltage is moving through the air, it is different than when it is on the ground, it changes. Fourteen thousand volts was way more than is necessary to kill somebody,” Chris said. From his experience as a lineman, he knows there had to have been a large arc flash and he was told by witnesses that his clothes were smoking. Though he has very limited, intermittent memories of the actual accident, Brad told him he was sitting up, coherent, talking to the paramedics the whole time he was in the back of the ambulance. He was also holding his right arm, which was mangled, bandaged, and severely damaged from the electrocution. After assessing his condition, medical personnel determined that his burns were so serious that he needed to be flown to the Burn Center in Augusta. That is where his memory of the in-flight nurse and helicopter connect. Chris looks back now on that night and says, “God was definitely there and graced me with not having all the mental images in my mind of the accident.” Miraculously, according to the medical team, Chris never lost consciousness, was never on a ventilator, and was coherent throughout the ordeal. His memories have simply been blocked, sparing him more trauma.
Brad and Chris’ pastor friend at the time, Derrick Fort, from Great Commission Ministries, drove to Chris’ home to inform Nicole of what had happened. When she heard the noise at the door, she just thought it was Chris coming in, like he typically did, and was expecting him to just crawl back in bed. But, as reality set in that it wasn’t Chris returning, she soon learned that to be reunited with her husband she would have to get to Augusta. Derrick and his wife Sabrina drove Nicole, and when they arrived, Chris was in at least his second surgery by then. Upon arrival, Nicole was told, “Chris’ life is in jeopardy if we don’t remove his right arm due to the damage from the injury.”
The first option was to amputate at the shoulder. Chris describes the appearance of his arm after the incident like that of a hot dog that has been left in the microwave too long. All the water and tissues in his arm had instantly vaporized when he stepped on the line. What he didn’t fully know at that point was that when the volts rapidly coursed through his body, they went up his left leg, into his left arm, came up his chest, and blew out a hole about the size of an adult male’s fist around both sides of his heart. The intensity of the blast also took out his left thumb, which has since been replaced with one of his big toes! The trajectory of the volts then came across to his right arm, where the worst damage of all was concentrated, necessitating the amputation.
Nicole consulted with the doctors and Pastors Derrick and Sabrina, and asked if there was any way to save more of Chris’ arm than to amputate at the shoulder? The doctors said they could attempt a trial amputation just below the elbow, but that it would have to be very closely monitored for 48 hours for signs of infection, and if any occurred, they would have to take the whole arm off at the shoulder. Nicole gave permission for her husband’s right arm to be amputated at the elbow and immediately put out a plea on FB for everyone she knew to PRAY!!
Chris says, “I attribute what I have left of my arm today to prayer!” No infection ever came and he was able to keep his arm from the shoulder down to the elbow. He spent 5 weeks in the ICU at the burn center in Augusta. To date, Chris has had 45 surgeries, and probably two-thirds of them were done in the five weeks he was at the burn center. There were days when he was in the operating room twice a day.
Adjusting to life after leaving the burn center was challenging. Physicians and therapists told him he was going to have to take it slow, give himself time to adjust to doing what he used to do. There was also the new world of prosthetics. Chris recalls, “It was surreal. I can remember, maybe 3 or 4 days after getting home, walking by the mirror and seeing myself and saying, ‘Lord, I am a ragged mess.’” He lamented that before he got hurt, he was probably in the best shape of his life, in the gym 5 or 6 days a week. But, after leaving the hospital, having lost a significant amount of weight, “I looked terrible…all the scars and bandages.” He said, “I told the Lord, ‘You must have a plan.’”
Chris shares, “I had a relationship with Jesus when the accident happened. I had been involved in youth ministry for ten years at that point. I had served in the “Royal Rangers” ministry at church, an alternative to the Boy Scouts, for about ten years. If I had done everything the Lord had wanted me to do and put me here for, He wouldn’t have had any qualms in taking me home that night. But, He didn’t.”
That thought has been extremely comforting and motivating to Chris on the most difficult days of depression since the accident. He remembers God must have more for him to do. He says, “I loved my job, loved being a lineman. I missed it.”
He went through days of being miffed with God. He recalls that it hadn’t been many years since both of his parents passed away in their 50’s within two years of each other, due to cancer. That left he and his younger brother, Robert, without their Dad and Mom while they were still young. Chris says, “God and I had just gotten back on good terms, and then this. When God and I did talk, I reminded Him, ‘You already brought me through a lot, and You must still have me here for a purpose on this earth.’” He confessed that somedays he jokingly told God, “You could have saved my family a whole lot of heartache if You had just taken me on home.”
About a year after the accident, Chris had a vivid dream. It was a very clear depiction of the night when the accident happened. “I remember God showing me in the dream that the bulk of the electricity was taken by my guardian angel. He showed it to me like I was watching a movie. I was on the ground, kind of hunched over, and the angel had spread his wings open and taken the bulk of it across his wings to shelter me from it. When God showed me that, I felt very definitely that He had bigger plans for me!”
The next several years involved a series of outpatient procedures and settling into the “new normal.” Chris said, “Nothing will be normal again,” to which Nicole replied, “No, that’s not right. It’ll just be a new normal.” Chris tells me, very poignantly, “There is no way I would be the person I am today without Nicole. She has been nurse, cook, janitor, care taker…anything I’ve ever needed while I was hurt. She’s been right there. She worked part-time at our church, and if she had worked anywhere else, she couldn’t have kept her job. She had to endure a lot. That lady there is definitely another blessing in my life.”
Chris is still having surgeries and his latest prosthetic is cutting edge. It’s what they call “MYO Electric. MYO is for muscle.” Chris told me how it has 16 different electrodes that sit on his skin and pick up the nerve and muscle activity. My mind couldn’t help but think of the irony of how it was electricity that took his arm from him, and it is electricity that is giving him back advanced use of his arm. Anytime he moves, this computer built into the prosthetic is learning his patterns. It is very intuitive. “It makes my hand be able to move like a normal arm and hand would move. The other ones were just a basic open and close motion, but this one, when I learn it, should be more fluid. The fingers are individual, so it can hold things a lot differently. It’s also a lot lighter than anything I’ve ever had before. It’s a huge blessing.”
Chris also shared how his prosthetics are great conversation starters, especially with kids. He says he uses it as a platform to tell people about safety and the need to stay away from power lines, but mostly to tell of the faithfulness and goodness of God.
As our time wrapped up together in the middle of the overcast December day, Chris told me that three years ago, which would have been about three years after the accident, he and Nicole felt suddenly restless at church. Nothing had happened, but they just felt this unnamed discontentment. He said, “It isn’t like we felt God calling us to go to another church up the road. We were just struggling with unusual discontentment, in general.” They felt like God was preparing them for another season in another place. All Chris and Nicole could define was, “We know our spiritual gifts are in the ministries of hospitality, helps, and serving, and we just feel God has somewhere for us to go and serve.”
Last year, almost to the day, they made the decision they were going to move. They had been to the Upstate in the past to camp, and had enjoyed it, and they had traveled here a couple times in recent history, to visit a friend of Nicole’s, Kelly. “Looking back on those visits, we know it was a divine connection.” Kelly had befriended Nicole on FB through their connection to a blog. Kelly lived in Seneca. Right after Thanksgiving last year, God prompted us to pick up stakes and move. We felt drawn to Seneca. Attributing it to God’s sense of humor, Chris says, “Within about two or three months of our move to Seneca, Kelly moved to Alabama.” But, they quickly got involved with a church in Seneca and enjoyed a wonderful season of restoration and healing, interacting with the staff and congregation there. They were able to experience the comfort of dealing with issues they didn’t even know they were still wrestling with alongside their wonderful church family at United Assembly. They said, “We know God brought us here for this season.” They were knee deep seeking God’s will for their future and cried out to God, “You brought us up here, now what?!”
While at United, Nicole met a couple ladies and began building a relationship. In talking with them, she told them she wanted to write a book. These ladies said, “If you are going to write a book, then you need to go visit The Potter’s Place in Central.” Nicole said, “Okay,” but put off making a trip to Central to check out this place her friends had recommended. One day, a month or two later, while their son Matthew was in school, Chris said, “While we are out running errands today, why don’t we go and check out The Potter’s Place in Central?” Nicole agreed.
If you’ve never been to The Potter’s Place, it is hard to describe such an environment that is so unlike any other space around. It is truly a unique, sacred place, and it is where I met Chris when I made one of my frequent visits there earlier this year. (Be looking for an upcoming story on The Potter’s Place in another issue of Upstate Exposures!) When Chris and Nicole arrived, they parked, walked the grounds, looked in the prayer cabins, and just stopped at one point and looked at each other and all they could muster was, “Wow!” They had no idea such a place existed for broken, hurting people, beaten up by life, to come and find solace and healing and hope.
In the meadow they prayed together, through their tears, “Lord, this is what we want to be a part of. This is it right here!” Before they left, they met “Grandpa Don,” who came out to greet them and started telling them about the mission of The Potter’s Place. Their tears started to flow again as Don prayed for them.
They returned a couple weeks later and shared their heart with Don and Shannon Schaupp, the founders and ministers at The Potter’s Place. In turn, Don and Shannon shared with them that they and the prayer team at The Potter’s Place had been praying for years for someone to come help take care of the grounds and facility there. Chris and Nicole knew in that instant why the Lord had caused their restlessness about moving when they still lived in Florence. Chris immediately began to volunteer his time taking care of the property at The Potter’s Place. It was a perfect gift for his gifts of service and his background in horticulture!
Over the course of the next couple months, the Bryan’s continued to pour out their hearts to the Schaupp’s about their life, their calling, and their desire to serve, and in May, the Bryan’s moved onsite at The Potter’s Place to be able to help carry more of the daily load of caring for the grounds and facilities. “You hear stories,” Chris said, “about how God works and moves in other’s lives in powerful ways, but when it happens to you, it gives you goose bumps.” There have been several days since they moved onsite that anonymous gifts have shown up with Chris and Nicole’s names on them, taped to one of the doors.
And very recently, Chris and Nicole have become missionaries to The Potter’s Place as people have committed to support them financially every month in order that they may serve the Potter’s Place. “The blessing to be here, doing what I like to do. All the years I’ve been around, and all the jobs I’ve done over the years, and the different skill sets I have…I see how God has used it to prepare me for my role here at TPP. Nicole and I are now missionaries to The Potter’s Place!” He says that he is in the “little kid phase” of getting used to being in full-time ministry, being so new to this. I’m excited and whatever God wants to do, I want to do it with Him!”
As I prepared to close my computer at the end of the interview, Chris added, “God has shown us where He wanted us, and now we are working, serving and seeing what the Lord is going to do with us in this next season of our journey. As 2017 rolls around, our family is reflecting on things the Lord has spoken to us over the years and we are reminding Him, ‘We are here for You, and whatever it is You want us to do, we are willing.’”
I can’t think of any better way to answer a call than that!