By Steve Waring
After he retired in 1998 as Bishop of Albany in 1998, the Rt. Rev. David S. Ball settled into 14 years as bishop-in-residence at the Cathedral of All Saints in Albany. That independent life ended abruptly one Sunday evening in July 2012.
Bishop Ball stepped into a neighborhood store, bought a bottle of juice, and fell. He did not recall losing consciousness and did not realize the extent of his injuries until an emergency-room doctor informed him that he had severely broken the C1 vertebrae in his neck directly beneath his brain stem.
“When I asked the doctor about my chances of walking again, he said I should consider myself lucky to be alive,” Bishop Ball told TLC. The previous day he had overseen the tee-off of the 14th Annual Bishop Ball Charity Golf Tournament. Proceeds from the golf tournament are dedicated to his beloved cathedral.
Bishop Ball has worked hard during the past two years in order to attend the tournament this year. After his injury, it would be nearly a year before he was discharged. For the first six months in the hospital, he was confined to bed, immobilized from his torso to the top of his head by a halo traction brace. During those first six months, he did not know if the broken bones would heal enough to permit surgery. He also lost the ability to read.
“That was a tough thing,” he said. “The best part of my day was therapy. I’m no different than most people. I just tried to deal with the situation as best as I could. I don’t know why I fell, but I have to accept the results. I don’t like certain things, but that is the way it is now.”
Along the way, Bishop Ball said that he tried to follow his doctors’ instructions scrupulously. His confidence in the medical team received an early boost when a doctor told him that he would probably regain the ability to read if he forced himself.
“Thank God,” the bishop said on the victorious side of that challenge, “because the stuff on television these days is terrible.”
He received another bit of encouragement when the halo traction brace was finally removed and he was judged ready for surgery. On Christmas Day 2012, surgeons inserted titanium rods into the bishop’s three uppermost cervical vertebrae. The surgery stabilized his neck, but the rods prevent him from turning his head or moving his chin up and down. He cannot drive, wear a clerical collar, or live independently, but he dismisses questions about physical discomfort.
He now resides at an assisting living center. “The staff thinks I come and go more than most residents,” he said. “I vest every Sunday. I haven’t celebrated [Holy Eucharist] yet, because I have a walker. My balance is still not too good. It will get better.”
Bishop Ball no longer sees a physical therapist, but he continues to work on his condition. He said he usually takes several short walks outdoors each day and participates in various light-exercise classes offered by staff at the assisted living center. He intends to celebrate Holy Eucharist, standing unassisted at the cathedral’s altar.
That quiet determination and faith in the power of God’s healing grace helped sustain the bishop’s spirits on the long journey back to the cathedral where he has served continuously since 1956, first as canon sacrist and later as dean until he was elected Bishop Coadjutor in 1984.
Rather than dwell on what he has lost or on how grueling his two-year physical rehabilitation regime has been, Bishop Ball tries to remain focused on his blessings and goals. Despite his inability to drive, he has not yet required a cab.
“I’m really fortunate to live here in Albany,” he said. “I’ve lived here all my life. I know a lot of people in town and many of them have been very kind to me. The cathedral has always been my family.”
Bishop Ball is a longtime baseball fan. He and some friends are planning to visit the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown in a few weeks. Just how long he has been a fan soon becomes evident:
“The Giants broke my heart when they packed up and moved [from New York] to San Francisco” in 1957.
What have the bishop’s doctors said about his goal of celebrating Holy Eucharist unassisted once again? Bishop Ball said he has not yet shared that item with his medical team. One doctor, he said, offered sobering advice on the day the bishop was discharged.
“He said, ‘Don’t fall again or you’ll be dead,’” Bishop Ball said. Then he chuckled.