November 30, 2015

Toasting and raising up Hatteras Islander Ray Gray as he recovers


On Monday night, Nov. 23, the Hatteras Island community descended on a beautifully decorated Hatteras Village Civic Center for a Masquerade Ball benefit to both toast and raise up Ray Gray of Buxton.

Now if you don’t know Ray Gray, you should.

Ray is a local legend around these parts. In addition to being a world-class surfer, he was an avid volunteer fire department member and a school teacher and principal at the Cape Hatteras Elementary School for 30 years – more, if you count all the times he came back to lend a hand after he “retired.”

He helped out the community whenever possible, even taking money from his own pocket and bank account to give to kids who needed field trip money, game tickets, or even just new clothes.

“He’s a good person, and a humble person, and he always believes that someone needs help more than he does,” says his fiancée, Paulette Boyden.

And this is exactly the reason why Hatteras Island is coming together to help Ray.

Last  Jan. 7, Ray had a fall that changed the course of both his and Paulette’s life. They had just arrived in Eleuthera, Bahamas, where they were going to build their vacation shack, go surfing, (of course), and also get married.

“We had set the date for Feb. 14,” says Paulette, “and I had brought my wedding dress and my wedding money. I had no idea at that time that I would have to use my wedding money on something else.

“I wanted the start of a new life and that’s exactly what I got,” she says, but with an optimistic laugh. “It took 17 years to plan that day, and I guess you have to watch what you plan for.”

Ray fell in the middle of the night -- and in the middle of nowhere -- and after doing CPR, Paulette and their surfer friends carried him from their beach house to the car on a surfboard. From there, they went to the island clinic, which opened for Ray, before he was then airlifted to Nassau as the sun came up.

Paulette, who was sitting at the Nassau hospital with just her purse, bewilderedly filling out paperwork, was told he was dead.

“I was told he passed away on the plane, and I didn’t know what was going on” she says. “Then they pulled the sheet over his head, and I was hysterical.”

But a miracle happened – the first of many – moments later.

A world-famous brain surgeon from South Africa, who was vacationing in the Bahamas, just happened to walk into the wrong door at the hospital.

The staff grabbed him by the elbow and asked him to take a look at their patient. He did, and said it was one of the worst cases he had ever seen, but agreed to do the risky brain surgery.

Amazingly, the procedure that he performed was actually a procedure that he taught, specifically, at Johns Hopkins University.

After the surgery, Ray was in a coma when Paulette came into the room to see him. The doctor yelled at him to “Squeeze her hand really hard!” and miraculously Ray did.

But there were plenty of battles still to come, and three days later, Ray had a stroke and went back into a coma.

Over the ensuing months, Ray was moved closer to his family in Greenville, N.C. -- via another airlift with full medical staff -- underwent massive physical therapy, and had a portion of his skull removed and put in his abdomen, so it could be reattached at a later date. It was, indeed, reattached, three months later, just days after Ray had finally reached “outpatient status.”

“It was a slow process, because it’s a brain injury, and you have to re-learn everything,” says Paulette.

It took Ray two months to open his eyes and he also had to relearn how to swallow and then speak.  

And it wasn’t until August, more than eight months after his initial injury, that Ray finally got to leave the hospital and come home to Hatteras Island.

But even though there’s years of work still to come, the progress is nothing short of astounding.

“He’s defying the odds left and right,” says Paulette. “He came home in a wheelchair, and then he had a walker, and then a cane, and then we took the cane away last week – I just have to be prepared in case he falls.”

“The doctors said he’d never walk again,” she says, “Of course, he said ‘I don’t have to walk as long as I can surf.’”

As Ray announced at the Masquerade Benefit last Monday Night, this is the next goal – to go surfing in April.

And the best news is that it’s completely doable – a realization that has excited everyone in the community.

This joyful, island-wide response is understandable. After all, both Ray and Paulette are amazing people. They’re both incredibly humble, and are genuinely surprised by all the attention that’s been showered on them.

Paulette downplays her 24/7 job of taking care of Ray -- from helping him when he wakes up, to getting licensed to help with water therapy for his future surfing days, to literally cushioning his fall -- at every opportunity, and with complete humility. “He’s the one who does all the work, and I’m just helping when I can,” she says.

Meanwhile, when Ray found out that there was a charity event being held in his honor, he insisted that surely someone else on the island deserved it more. “I told him ‘That’s your brain injury talking’,”  Paulette says with a laugh.

But most people would agree that few people on Hatteras Island deserve a show of appreciation more than Ray and Paulette, and the Masquerade Ball was a perfect opportunity to show it.

Steve Nelson from the Inn on Pamlico Sound and his staff provided plenty of food, and silent auction and raffle donations poured in from every corner of the island. Countless people showed up, donning their best Mardi Gras-style masks, to say hello and shake Ray’s hand.

And as for Ray? “Ray could not believe it. He had tears in his eyes the whole time,” says Paulette. “And I am just enthralled on how it all came out.”

And while there are obvious hurdles ahead, things are continually looking up, and Paulette attests that it’s because of community support that Ray has been raised so high.

“Recovery is going well for a man they said would never wake up,” says Paulette. “So many people have just stepped forward, and they have become my angels, and they’re all island people. The island community saved his life, and they’re continuing to do so.”

“The best thing that happens is if someone calls or visits,” she continues, “and that part of the brain opens, and he remembers. He’ll always be a brain injured person, but he’s coming back, and he always will.”

And Paulette wants everyone to know that their support, love and prayers have meant the world to both of them.

“I’ve saved every card, every text, every email – and I’ve read them all to him,” she says.

And with continued support, Ray’s progress shows no signs of slowing down.

“It’s hard on him. Imagine learning everything again, and this time when you’re older,” says Paulette. “But once in a while he’ll have a long conversation, and he’ll tell me what surfboard he rode in what country in 1972,” she laughs. “So he has his good moments, and they’re getting better every day.”

(You can help out Ray Gray by contributing to a fund set up in his name at First South Bank at 47560 Highway 12 in Buxton or send a check, card, or message directly to him at Ray Gray, P.O. Box 1361, Buxton, NC 27920.)

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