Mike Dils: It Ain’t Over ’Til It’s Over

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A Medical Miracle

Six years ago in February 2012, Mike Dils of Sun Lakes, Arizona, found himself in a fight for his life, and his family was given a dire prognosis. After a devastating stroke, a seizure and flatlining at the age of 64, he was paralyzed with a rare disorder known as Locked-In Syndrome, which left him unable to move—but fully conscious. With Mike unable to respond to standard neurological stimuli tests like a pin prick on his foot, the medical team feared the worst. The rare condition is often mistaken for a coma, so doctors didn’t realize he was able to see, hear and comprehend everything going on around him. 

But Mike wasn’t worried about recovering for a second, he said. He told how, when he first collapsed, he was drawn towards a blue light and saw a woven basket with frayed golden strands whipping about. He heard a voice tell him, “You’ll have to be really patient. It’ll take a long time to reconnect your brain to every strand in your body.” What Mike didn’t know at the time was that Locked-In Syndrome is caused by damage to the part of the brain stem that contains nerve fibers that relay information to other areas of the brain. One might interpret his vision of the frayed golden strands of the basket to represent his impaired brain circuitry. Or one can simply say he’s a walking miracle.

PHOTO: Mike Dils and wife Cheryl while he was recovering, March 2012. 

Still, it was rather disheartening to hear those around him offering no hope for his recovery. “My only worry was if my family would decide to unplug me or sedate me,” he said. The father of four and grandfather of four said when youngest daughter Cheyenne noticed tears in his eyes after overhearing the grim forecast one day, she suddenly gave him a way to communicate. Mike was only able to move his eyes vertically, as is often the case with Locked-In Syndrome, so she asked him to blink if he understand her, which he did. Then Cheyenne encouraged him to blink when she spoke the right letter of the alphabet in order to spell out what he wanted to say. After several minutes, he blinked out “NO HOPE.” Mike said he remembered trying to think of something short to spell that would get their attention.  His shocked family immediately knew he had heard it all and assured him they would help him however they could.

Fierce Determination

Fast forward to today and you will see a man who has overcome tremendous odds. I first learned of Mike’s story through a People magazine article (“I Was a Prisoner Inside My Body” - December 4, 2017). When I read that he considered woodworking “his best therapy,” I reached out to him and we ended up talking for nearly two hours. Clearly he had found his voice again, haha. His story of perseverance and incredible determination inspired me. 

When he found himself flat on his back, Mike was frustrated to hear so many around him in the nursing home with no will to live. “I guess I’m just happy,” he said. “I wanted to get out of there!” By May of 2012, he was in an intensive rehabilitation center where he received therapy 5-6 hours a day. By June, he was home. “They wanted me to go to a care facility but I said, ‘If someone is helping me all the time, I’ll never get better.’”

People magazine story “I Was a Prisoner Inside My Body”

A happy Christmas Eve 2012 with family

Once he was back home, Mike wasn’t satisfied to just sit in an easy chair. Within a few weeks, he was slowly going up and down stairs again and riding his new recumbent bike. For a time, he continued with outpatient therapy three times a week and eventually bought an electric scooter in order to get himself back and forth. He purchased a set of 10' parallel bars, which took him a week to assemble from his wheelchair. Then he built a plywood ramp to wheel himself up to the bars and still walks about 20 minutes a day between the bars.

Mike continued his own therapy by staying active every single day. He threw football with his grandson, he dribbled a basketball 500 times in the morning, and he threw tennis balls across the room into a 35-gallon garbage can to work on eye/hand coordination and stamina. He even invented a device to allow him to exercise his right foot—with the goal of getting back in the driver’s seat. In January 2013, Mike went to Disneyland with Cheryl, Cheyenne and sister-in-law Barb, where he rented a scooter to keep up. This guy is proof: where there is a will, there is a way.

Back in the Shop

Woodworking has been a part of Mike’s life for as long as he can remember. His dad sold construction and woodworking equipment and built all the furniture in their house. Mike grew up helping him and continued working with his hands throughout adulthood. After college and a four-year stint in the military, including a detour to Vietnam, he bought his own house and began accumulating some woodworking equipment. Twenty-five years ago, he got into the real estate business and started flipping houses, doing the physical work himself. “I did it all,” he said. “Tile, drywall, electrical, plumbing, you name it.” 

After he built a ramp to get into his fully equipped garage workshop, Mike used woodworking as his motivation many days. “The doctor would tell me, ‘see how long you can stand against the wall.’ How boring is that?” he said. “Instead, when I’m in my shop, I stand up and work, trying to go longer each time.” He went from only being able to stand for about 25 seconds to now working at a machine as long as 30 minutes a stretch.

Making a cut, July 2015

Standing at the table saw

In the workshop July 2015

Though he has had to make some equipment adjustments to accommodate his wheelchair, there isn’t much he can’t do. For instance, his drum sander is now mounted onto the side of his table saw, which is on 1,000-lb. drawer slides that cantilever out 360°. He retooled the grooves lower on his workbench. The surface planer is on rollers so he can put it away for more room to allow him to get around. His router table sits against the wall but the top part is on slides to come out into the shop if he has to do longer pieces. He has the home improvement store cut his lumber to size to fit in his van. Once he’s home, he can unload sheet goods using his outfeed table. He invested in a complete dust collection system since he can’t sweep up.

When I asked if his wife was worried about him being in the shop, he stated that she was confident in him, and safety is always a #1 priority. His chair or walker stays nearby, and he uses a Bluetooth headset to have easy access to his phone if he needs help. Friends are a bit more protective of him in the workshop, “But I think I must look worse than I am,” he laughed. He admits he did fall once but used a hydraulic cart to get himself back up. “Onward and upward,” he said.

The projects that Mike completes are no small feats either. We’re talking complete cabinet upgrades, like those pictured below which were all done since his hospital stay, as well as a gorgeous wine rack island.

Sixteen months ago, Mike and Cheryl moved from Mesa into a retirement community in Sun Lakes, where Mike completely gutted and renovated their house in four weeks. The kitchen cabinets took a mere four days for this DIY pro. Last December, he gave his nephew from Cleveland a two-week class to pass on some woodworking knowledge. Week one was focused entirely on shop safety, and then they moved onto cutting boards and raised-panel cabinet doors during the second week. In January 2018, Mike suffered a minor setback with a heart attack, which required bypass surgery. Ever determined, he worked to finish the huge 12'-wide cabinet storage unit (below) he was making for his wife before he let her take him to the hospital.

Keep Moving Forward

Clearly, Mike’s journey has been quite remarkable but he’s still intent on improving every day. Now 71, he continues exercising, working in his shop and enjoying time with his family. Cheryl has several projects she wants him to build, including some cabinet doors and a stand “to look nice” for his hand weights. “And I’m always looking for another house to rehab with Cheryl as my ‘construction sidekick,’” he said. (I think he means “supervisor.”) A recent property purchase was a cabin on foreclosure at Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, which serves as the Dils’ vacation home. For starters, Mike plans to remodel the main bathtub into a shower to make it easier for him to access.

Showing no signs of slowing down any time soon, he laughed, “I don’t know what the heck people do when they retire.” He summed up his thoughts in the People magazine article by saying, “I’m pretty sure I love life more than anybody I know.” Hard to argue that. But to him, the real story isn’t falling, “it’s how you get back up.” Showing true strength, fierce determination and unwavering drive, Mike Dils is an example of overcoming seemingly impossible odds. With the love of his family, that’s a life worth living. 

At Topgolf hitting bay in 2014

Mike was able to walk daughter Jesi down the aisle in 2015

To hear Mike, Cheryl and Cheyenne tell his incredible story, watch this PeopleTV video online: click here

We hope you'll be inspired!

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