After Destin resident Mike Ullery suffered a gruesome injury at Destin Dog Park on Feb. 5, he could not have anticipated the outpouring of community support that would come his family’s way in the coming weeks.
DESTIN — Mike Ullery's story is about love. He wants to make that really clear.
He also wants to make it clear the story is not about him.
He says it's about neighbors and friendship. It's about going through something awful and being at your lowest point and the people that pick you up along the way. The people that show you the best they have in them.
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And it all starts at the Destin Dog Park. That's where Ullery was on Feb. 5, watching his terrier mix, Sadie, play with other dogs. He said he felt an impact from behind — "like getting clipped in football.“
Before he hit the ground, he felt the pain. He knew the injury was bad when a woman approached and became ill. He knew this for sure when he looked down and saw his left foot, dangling from the bottom of his leg and turned all the way around.
"My dog, maybe two dogs, ran into the back of me," said Ullery, 76, who has lived in the Kelly Plantation neighborhood for 19 years. "I remember the pain and it was just ... unbelievable."
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Ullery was rushed to Fort Walton Beach Medical Center, where doctors examined his injury and did surgery the next morning to repair the ankle, which was completely fractured and dislocated, along with torn ligaments.
As far as injuries go, Ullery's is only comparable to the very worst you might see on a football field. The kind where they don't show the replays because it's too gruesome.
He has the pictures on his phone that people took as he laid on the ground. It’s not easy to look at.
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Ullery and his wife, Suzanne, began to make plans for how they were going to adjust to their new reality — doctors said the leg couldn't bear weight for 90 days, at least.
“Pretty much all I could do was feed myself,” Mike said.
What they didn’t realize at the time was the circle around them was growing tighter by the day. The bonds they’d built over the years were about to surface in ways they could not anticipate.
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Ullery was moved to The Rehabilitation Center of Northwest Florida shortly after surgery, where he would be for nine days before being allowed to come home on Monday, Feb. 17.
The Saturday morning before he came home, Suzanne began to notice a man she recognized as one of Mike's friends, riding his bicycle around their neighborhood. Then a Jeep pulled in the driveway. Then a truck pulled up.
It was a group of their friends — Dave Barrett, Grady Elder, Larry Fox, Russ Woody, Steve Dominique and Bob Hensley. They were men he knew from Bible study and golf.
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"I was out there in my robe and little socks because it wasn't even 7 o'clock in the morning," Suzanne said. "And I said 'Dave, what are you doing?' And he said 'We're building a ramp.'
"I said 'No, no you're not.' And he just looked at me and said 'Suzanne, we are building this ramp.'"
And build a ramp they did. They constructed the ramp that day and had it ready for Mike's arrival home on Monday. Another friend in the neighborhood, Richard Hyatt, lent them a wheelchair, walker and scooter they would need for the lengthy rehabilitation process.
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"I don't know what the right words are for this," Suzanne said. "I think it's a God thing ... it's an awesome thing. I just hope, someday, we are able to return the kindness that everybody in our neighborhood has shown us ... it's overwhelming. Like I said ... to me, it's about God."
Suzanne called Mike, through tears, and told him what was going on at the house.
"I don't mind telling you this, but I cried more in those few days than I probably did in the first six months of my life," Mike said. "There are other examples of their love, but this ramp blew me away ... maybe some of this compassion will rub off on others, but I don’t know. I do know it’s about love, I know that’s the place it comes from.
"My wife and I ... we weren't sure what we were going to do. I can't do stuff for myself, and she can't handle getting me in and out of the house on her own, so we just didn't know. But those guys (in the neighborhood) ... they just did it. They really did."