Susan Pullen didn’t think twice.
She and her then-boyfriend, Lou, were alone celebrating Christmas together in 1978 when he humbly dropped to one knee, offered her a ring and asked her to marry him. The answer was instantaneous.
“He was kind-hearted, generous and very caring,” Susan said. “He put me on a pedestal. I knew if he treated me this way when we were dating, he would treat me right if I married him.”
In March, Lou and Susan Pullen will celebrate 37 years of marriage, a testament to the deep bond the couple has forged. Lou and Susan Pullens
But their anniversary this year will be different than ever before. Lou, 84, suffered a serious stroke in mid-October while at their Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina, home.
Recovery has proven to be the biggest challenge the couple have ever faced together, but it isn’t the first.
A continuing commitment
Lou and Susan Pullen met in the mid-1970s at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. Naval Aviator Lou Pullen was Susan’s boss. She was a civilian secretary and 18 years his junior.
Despite the difference in age, Susan found in Lou a kind, thoughtful man who looked strikingly handsome in uniform.
Only a year into their relationship, Lou was reassigned to a naval base on Midway Island, then sent to Memphis, Tennessee. With Susan still in Maryland, they kept the relationship simmering through frequent letters and periodic visits.
“I think we both knew it would lead to marriage,” she said. “We could have gone separate ways, but we didn’t – we loved each other.”
Eventually, Lou was stationed in nearby Washington, D.C., allowing the couple to reunite permanently. Back together, it wasn’t long before Lou sought Susan’s hand in marriage.
Achieving their goal of a big Catholic wedding presented the couple with a few stumbling blocks. Susan, one of 15 children, was a devout Catholic. Lou, a divorcee with three children from his previous marriage, was not.
Lou’s conversion to Catholicism was perhaps the most straightforward hurdle to overcome. The couple also needed to persuade Susan’s parents that marriage was the right decision.
“My mother was not happy at first,” Susan said. “I was the first of the kids to marry a divorced man. But she came around as she got to know him. She loved him like a son.”
In the years since their marriage, the couple’s love has blossomed. The strength of their bond is obvious as they push ahead following Lou’s stroke.
The day that changed everything
On the morning of Oct. 14, Susan was browsing for good deals at local yard sales. She came home to find Lou unresponsive in his favorite chair.
Although he survived, the stroke left Lou unable to speak or walk. Once his medical condition was stabilized, doctors recommended he immediately begin rehabilitation.
After speaking with nurses and family members, Susan said Tidelands Waccamaw Rehabilitation Hospital was clearly the best choice, despite its distance from their North Carolina home.
Widely regarded for the quality of its care, the Murrells Inlet hospital offers an intensive multidisciplinary approach involving physical, occupational and speech therapy. It is the region’s only inpatient rehabilitation hospital and has earned prestigious accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities.
“Everybody was right,” Susan Pullen said. “It was the greatest place he could have gone. The whole team treated him like family.”
Lou Pullen stayed in the hospital for three weeks, Susan said. She drove two hours roundtrip every day to be with him and support his recovery.
“She was always in his room working with him,” said Sarah Vanderbosch, Lou’s Tidelands Health occupational therapist. “She was just a huge support system for him.”
After being unable to use his legs at all when he arrived, Lou left Tidelands Waccamaw Rehabilitation Hospital able to move with the help of a walker.
“He made incredible progress,” said Kaitlin Cuske, his physical therapist. “He went from not walking or being able to stand, to being able to go up and down a full flight of stairs and walk 200 feet.
“Susan was there giving him cues the whole way. She was his cheerleader.”
Lou also regained some of his speech, said Beth Barnhill, his speech language pathologist. Susan’s name and the phrase “I love you” were among the first words he learned.
Now at home, he’s benefiting from outpatient rehabilitation and again enjoying the comfort of his favorite chair.
The incident, of course, has profoundly impacted the routines of their relationship. Lou, at least for now, relies heavily on Susan for help with day-to-day activities.
Although their lives have changed in so many ways, in some ways they remain the same. Even a casual observer takes note of their continued affection for each other, evidenced in a passing touch or loving glance.
Although he is still working to improve his language skills, Lou can sing profoundly well. It’s a new activity the Pullens share together. Each night, as Susan takes down the American flag outside their home for the evening, she and Lou sing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
“America the Beautiful” is another favorite song, though “You Are my Sunshine” ranks as perhaps the most fitting.