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Charlevoix — Emily Van Stedum stood on a stage last month, waiting to be joined by her mother and daughter for Emily’s graduation from nursing school. 

But someone was missing. 

Two weeks before the ceremony at North Central Michigan College, Emily’s husband, Greg, was killed in an accidental shooting. 

What made the death more tragic was the fact it followed his miraculous cure in 2011 from an illness that had left him bedridden for five years. 

The shooting left the family a series of unsettling questions: If God was going to take Greg, 36, why not do it before he endured all those years of pain? Why cure him so spectacularly only to let him die so carelessly? Why raise the hopes of his family only to crush them? 

“We had been through so many trials and tribulations just to have life cut so short,” said Emily, 35. “(It was) love and heartache all wrapped in one.” 

She tried not to dwell on the perverted twist of fate, focusing instead on their 17 years together. Their journey went from her caring for him during his illness to him helping her through nursing school to the culmination of their love — Violet, their 1-year-old daughter. 

It was a love story, just one without the happily ever after.

During the graduation ceremony in the college gym, Violet and Emily’s mom, Laurie Hughes, hung a ribbon with a nursing pin around Emily’s neck. While her 27 classmates and the audience stood and cheered, Emily cried. 

She was sad but also thankful she and Greg had time after the illness to forge a normal life together. 

“I wonder if it was a gift from God,” she said later. “God gave him seven great years to have a daughter, have fun in life, do the things we did.” 

Friends still are trying to get their heads around the way Emily’s world was turned upside down and righted itself only to spin out of control again. 

Looking back at the couple’s relationship, friends envied their tight bond. It was like something from a fairy tale, they said. 

“They had a bond you would only dream of,” said Emily’s best friend, Kendra Willett. “The old-fashioned love story thing: That was them.” 

The fairy tale began during Emily’s senior year at Charlevoix High School. Greg had graduated a year earlier. 

They started dating and something clicked. They shared many interests and the same quirky sense of humor. 

Emily is smart, determined, loyal, and would do anything for her friends, they said. 

Greg was more outgoing. He always seemed to be happy and his smile was contagious, said friends. It was impossible to stay in a bad mood around him.

“Everyone who knew Greg loved him,” said Emily’s mom, Laurie Hughes. 

Emily called him “my Greggy” and said he was the love of her life. She couldn’t imagine living without him. 

A mystery illness

Greg was working at a pallet factory in 2005 when a 250-pound log slipped from a conveyor belt and landed on his right foot, breaking it. 

The pain failed to subside after several weeks, said Emily. In fact, it grew worse, and the foot turned red and purple. 

He went to an orthopedic specialist, who said he was suffering from complex regional pain syndrome, a mysterious illness that attacks the nervous system.

The disorder causes nerves to misfire, sending abnormal pain signals to the brain and spinal cord, said doctors. It mistakes the touch of a feather for a flame from a torch. 

The cause is unknown and there is no cure. Some believe it is psychosomatic.

“The nerves have changed. The nervous system has rewired itself,” said Elliot Krane, a professor of anesthesiology at Stanford University School of Medicine who has extensively studied the disease. 

The affliction spread from Greg’s foot to his leg, and then to the other leg and lower back, said Emily. The slightest touch would set the bottom half of his body aflame. 

He couldn’t wear pants or use a blanket, and couldn’t ride in a car for fear of a bump. The breeze from Emily walking past would make him feel like he was being electrocuted. 

After a year, it became too painful to walk. He couldn’t climb the stairs to the bedroom so he spent the next five years lying in his living room, first on the couch and then a hospital bed. 

“It feels like my legs are cut open and someone poured salt on them and rubbed them with sandpaper,” he told a local newspaper in 2010. 

He and Emily went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, for six months in 2009. Physicians told them it was the worst case of the disease they had ever seen. 

In Tampa, Greg began a three-day procedure in 2010 where he would be administered ketamine, an anesthetic that blocks pain receptors. But during the first hour on the first day, he lost consciousness and stopped breathing. 

Now desperate, he planned to undergo a risky treatment in Mexico. The experimental study, which isn’t approved by the Food and Drug Administration, uses higher doses of ketamine to place a person in a coma. A ventilator would help his breathing. The hope is the coma would reboot the brain’s pain signals to the body. 

Care around the clock

During all the years Greg was flat on his back, Emily took care of him. She washed him, made him dinner, changed the sheets, paid the bills. 

She fought with doctors if they treated Greg too cavalierly and fought with workers’ compensation when it balked at paying the bills. She held fundraisers to fill in the financial gaps. 

Emily was 22 when the ordeal started. Her whole life was in front of her. It looked like it would be a life of drudgery. 

She never wavered, friends said. Her love was resolute. 

“How could you leave someone you love in their time of need?” she asked. 

In 2011, Greg was waiting for the experimental study in Mexico when his parents, who belong to a Pentecostal church, asked a faith healer to perform a religious ritual. 

Emily, Greg’s parents, other relatives and friends — 10 people in all — gathered in Greg’s living room as the faith healer placed his hand on Greg’s head. 

After the group prayed for five minutes, Greg’s aunt opened her eyes and screamed. Greg was clutching his leg without pain. 

His family helped him into a wheelchair and pushed him along the driveway, where he smelled grass for the first time in years. 

“If I wasn’t there, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Emily said. “It was a miracle. There was no other explanation for it.” 

Despite the jubilation, Greg still faced a Herculean task. 

All those years of immobility left his ankles and toes contracted. His toes were so curled that he walked on his toenails.

During three years of physical therapy, he went from wheelchair to walker to cane. 

Engaged since 2005, they waited until Greg could walk before having the wedding. The Miracle Man, using a cane, walked down the aisle in 2014. Three years later Violet was born. A little after that, the burgeoning family bought a new home. 

The future seemed full of promise. 

Unexpected tragedy 

In April, Greg and his brother Adam were playing Wii at Greg’s home when they were visited by a friend. 

Anthony Michanowicz had just bought a pistol from Dunham’s and wanted to show it to the brothers, who were into guns, according to a Charlevoix police report.

Michanowicz, 28, unloaded the .45 caliber handgun and handed it to Greg, who gave it to his brother. 

After Michanowicz got the gun back, he put the magazine in and pulled the slide back, said the police report. The three men were sitting in the living room within several feet of each other. 

The gun somehow discharged with the bullet going through Greg’s right arm and striking his chest. 

When police arrived, Greg was on his back, with his brother doing CPR, while Michanowicz, holding Violet, paced back and forth in the kitchen, reciting Hail Marys, according to the report. 

Greg died shortly after arriving at a hospital. The shooting is still under investigation by the police. 

She never gave up’

Emily was in shock and heart break. In seven years she had gone from the lowest lows to the highest highs and back again. She and Greg had just started their journey together with Violet. Now Emily would be raising her alone. 

Some days were tougher than others, she said. On the anniversary of Greg’s cure, she sat in his man cave, surrounded by his photos, weeping for three hours. 

Her studies were a respite from the pain. Two weeks after the death, she was back at school, studying for finals. 

She said she hadn’t become a nurse because of Greg. She had always been interested in the field. 

But her experience with his doctors and treatment convinced her she had made the right choice. She felt medical workers needed to be more compassionate to patients, and that’s the type of nurse she planned to be. 

The two-year degree had taken five years. She worked at it part-time and was interrupted several times, first by a miscarriage and then by the pregnancy with Violet. 

“Through all the storms of life, she never gave up,” said her sister, Michelle Reich. 

Greg had always been her biggest booster. While she was at lectures or doing clinicals, he was on disability and tended to Violet. He was a wonderful dad, she said. 

After his death, Emily could still feel him exhorting her toward the finish line. She took her final exam last month, receiving an A-. She graduated with honors. 

“Many people never find love like that,” she said. “It was cut short, but I’m glad to have 17 years. I would do it all over again.”

fdonnelly@detroitnews.com

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