Eight years after heart attack left pastor in a coma, Julie Westbrook still cares for spouse religiously

Faith has long played a prominent role in Julie Westbrook’s life, even before she and Eric met at church.

They were both 19 — she, a Catholic dealing with the recent loss of her father; he, the son of the Rev. Thomas L. Westbrook, the well-known Tacoma pastor, bishop and founder of the New Jerusalem Church of God in Christ.

“We met in January, and neither my mother or his parents was in favor of it, but we got married in October,” Julie said.

They had three children and adopted a fourth — small potatoes, she joked, compared with the senior Westbrooks. Eric was one of 11 siblings.

Eric became a Pentecostal preacher at a storefront church, the Tabernacle of Praise at 11th and J streets.

“Eric loved to preach,” she said. “He loved children — his, and children in general. He was working on his master’s degree.”

He opened a Lakewood day care center, the Royal Palace, and turned it into a thriving little nonprofit that worked exclusively with low-income families, including single mothers.

Today, Esther Abitia is one of those clients.

“I’m a combat veteran going to school on the GI Bill,” said Abitia, who is married. “We get a military discount, and they charge us on a sliding scale, based on income. I pay $250 a month, and that’s so much cheaper than other centers.”

There’s a reason.

“We could have charged more, but Eric and I remembered how tough it was paying for day care when we were young parents,” Julie said. “His goal was to help children, to help the community.”

Eric and Julie’s children are grown now, and largely keeping the family tradition alive.

“Eric Jr. is 32 and a minister in Philadelphia,” she said. “Janine is 29 and married to a California minister. Christian is 21 and the pastor at Integrity Life in Federal Way. Daniela is 18 and a work in progress.”

And more than eight years ago, on Oct. 20, 2005, all of their lives were turned upside down.

The Rev. Eric Westbrook, 44 and lean and with no history of heart problems, suffered a massive heart attack at home. Paramedics got his heart beating again, but he never regained consciousness.

Julie has visited him every day since. First at the hospital, then one care center and now a second, Rose Place in Tacoma.

“We were told he had low brain activity, but he’s never spoken since he went down,” Julie said. “One time I had our son on speaker phone and he told a joke. When he got to the punch line Eric laughed, this deep, booming laugh.”

She had a neurologist visit, thinking perhaps he was inching toward awareness.

“He told me Eric’s brain was shrinking,” Julie said. “We were told his heart is now working at only 40-45 percent capacity.”

Still, Julie believes her husband is “in there.” She sees occasional signs of recognition.

From the day Eric was felled by a blood clot that stopped his heart, Julie has learned how to operate a day care center. She hoped to have Royal Palace up and still running when her husband emerged from his coma.

Now she knows better.

“I’ve been told if he recovered, he’d have to relearn everything, be almost infantile,” Julie said. “Now, I don’t know what to pray for. I love my husband, and as long as I feel he’s fighting, I’ll fight. But he’d be mortified by his condition now.”

Aside from a feeding tube, Eric is machine-free. Occasionally, Julie said, pastors who remember Eric will stop by and chat — and tell her never to give up on a miracle.

“Have I lost faith? No. It’s not that the Lord can’t bring Eric back, but will he?” she asked.

Eric’s father visited three times a week, praying over his son, until he grew ill himself. The elder Westbrook died Oct. 3 at 89.

Bishop Westbrook had urged his son to come to the New Jerusalem church in 2005, and Eric did so. But as one Westbrook eased into the pulpit and another eased away from it, Eric suffered his heart attack.

Julie fought for guardianship against other family members and continues to care for her husband. She brushes his teeth, washes him, shaves him, and rubs lotion on his hands and arms.

“The staff does a fine job, but I’m his wife,” she said. “We’ve been married 26 years.”

Today, the day care center that can handle 47 children has fewer than 30. And Julie Westbrook maintains a vigil others have told her cannot end well.

“The staff told me he’s begun ‘traveling,’ and there are days I visit when he’s clearly not here,” Julie said, standing beside Eric’s bed. “They say ‘traveling’ often happens when people are preparing to pass over.”