Image by Blakeney Cox
Every day Sonya Parnell wakes and begins her morning routine. Stepping into house slippers, she ambles outside and settles into her back porch chair, a hot cup of coffee in one hand, a Bible in the other. She opens to Lamentations 3:22-23:
It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning.
“I’m thankful every day,” Sonya says from a corner table at Jasper’s KFC, where she is the manager. “Literally when my feet hit the floor, I’m reminded of when I couldn’t do that.”
Sonya was two months old when Frank and Billie Rutledge adopted her in 1962. At the time the Rutledges owned the Frosty Walk-In, located in Jasper. “Back then all the merchants in town knew they had been trying to have a baby,” Sonya says. “My dad is real big on surprises, so the day they got me, they didn’t tell anybody. They left that morning and drove to Montgomery. Everybody was saying, ‘Where’s Frank and Billie?’ Then they show up at the restaurant that afternoon with a baby. Word spread and around seventy-five visitors stopped by because Frank and Billie finally had a baby.”
Two years later, Frank had a notable meeting in Louisville, KY with a man named Col. Harland Sanders. “They shook hands, the Colonel clipped his tie, and he had a franchise,” Sonya shrugs. “No money exchanged hands.”
A top student at Walker High, Sonya was a majorette—“One of my old uniforms is on display at the new high school”—and a member of the Beta Club and National Honor Society.
Sonya says her dad wanted her to be a pharmacist, but she felt the potent pull of the classroom. After earning education degrees from UAB, Sonya taught elementary school at Parrish, Curry, and Memorial Park. “I always loved school,” Sonya says. “I wanted to work with people, I wanted to be around kids. I wanted to make a difference in somebody’s life.”
In 2008, Sonya began experiencing frequent coughing fits. “I couldn’t talk without coughing, so I went to Urgent Care. The doctor did a chest X-ray and found a spot,” she says.
Doctors performed a CT scan and Sonya was sent to UAB. “They did a thoracotomy,” she recalls. “The mass was fifteen centimeters, pressing down on my heart and lungs.”
On January 3, 2009, Sonya was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. “Some people hear the word ‘cancer’ and think it’s the end,” Sonya says. “I wasn’t scared. I had a peace from the very beginning, but I knew I had a big hill to climb.”
After twelve grueling bouts with chemotherapy, Sonya was cleared of cancer. “It was a hard year,” she says. “I was very sick. I lost all my hair.”
Her fellow teachers rallied, wearing TEAM SONYA T-shirts on her treatment days and bringing her food every week. “I’m blessed. I’ve got some good people in my life,” she says.
In 2012, Sonya retired from teaching to help her brother, Frank Jr., manage the KFC business. Though no vestiges of lymphoma remained, her health issues were far from over.
The first warnings of another issue appeared the night before her son Mason moved to Nashville in 2015. “I woke up with an odd sensation in the top of both arms,” she recalls. “I couldn’t lift my arms. The next morning I had a hard time getting dressed.”
Sonya drove to Nashville and the sensation remained.
The next day she called in to work. Gradually she began losing mobility in her feet and legs. That night she was in the ER. “The doctor said these symptoms are all signs of Gullain-Barre’ Syndrome,” she says. “The only way to diagnose it is to do a spinal tap.”
Sonya decided against having the test and went home.
But the next day her condition was worse. “When I couldn’t walk to the restroom, I knew I was in trouble,” Sonya says. “That scared me. I thought, ‘if it moves up it will paralyze my lungs and I can’t breathe.’”
Sonya’s mother contacted Dr. John Mathews, a personal friend and physician, who had a bed waiting for her at Princeton. An MRI showed bulging and ruptured discs in her neck, so she underwent surgery. “I was having trouble swallowing,” Sonya says.“When my daughter Ansley saw that my breathing was rapidly becoming shallow, she called for help.”
Then Sonya recalled Matthew 9:21. “I kept thinking, ‘If I can touch the hem of His robe, I’ll be okay,’” she says. She remembers being rushed to ICU because her breathing stopped, and being aware of a nebulous, incorporeal presence. “I didn’t see God’s face, but it was like… the feeling of a Presence covering me, like He was saying, You’ve touched the hem of My garment. When that calmness came over me, I knew I was okay.”
During her eight days in neuro-intensive care, Sonya became close with the nurses. “They were like angels. I still talk to them today. They were so good to me,” she says.
Sonya was then sent to Lakeshore Rehabilitation. “My muscles had atrophied,” she says. “Learning to walk again is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life.”
During her stay, Sonya received a note from her friend Delmus Anthony:
During this time, be like Enoch. Walk with God.
On December 20, 2015, Sonya came home. “I was on a walker,” she says. “They told me it would take two years to get over this.”
Four months later Sonya returned to work. “I’m so happy to come to work every day, to be able to put my clothes on and wash and dry my hair,” she says. “Little everyday things that you take for granted can be gone in an instant. I worked one day and was fine, the next day I was paralyzed. To be completely dependent on other people gives you a real gratitude for things that people do for you.” Underlining the critical role her family and friends played during her illness, she adds, “The love and support of my children, Jeff, my parents and close friends was so important to my recovery. When I was paralyzed and couldn’t feed myself, they took care of every need.”
Instead of complaining about her lot in life, Sonya sees her illnesses as blessings. “They’ve changed my life in so many positive ways that I cannot imagine not having gone through it,” she says. “Don’t ever give up. Keep your faith in God because He is real and He is loving. I hope through my story that somebody will believe in God and have that faith.”
Even during times in our lives when we are physically unable to walk, perhaps due to old age, injuries, or other medical issues, we can still walk with God. 78