CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Rev. Emanuel Heyliger knows it's a little unusual to celebrate his 31st anniversary as pastor of the Ferguson Memorial Baptist Church in Dunbar. Under the circumstances, however, that's exactly what he's doing.
He's sharing the special celebration this year with a woman he credits with saving his life.
That woman, Johns Hopkins Hospital neurosurgeon Dr. Judy Huang, was happy to share the podium at a luncheon at Berry Hills Country Club on Saturday. Just as Heyliger credits her skills, she believes his spirituality is just as valuable.
Huang said the relationship she developed with Heyliger while treating him at the Baltimore hospital helped elevate her recent conversion to Christianity.
Shortly after celebrating his 30th anniversary as pastor of the church last year, Heyliger, now 60, experienced a tremendous headache during a church event. He called his wife and asked her to come and get him. Then, realizing he could not stand, he told her to call an ambulance.
The next thing he remembers is waking up in a Morgantown hospital bed.
"I always wanted to travel in a helicopter," Heyliger said. "I just never knew it would be one custom made to fit me, and so expensive."
Doctors in Morgantown told Heyliger they were assembling a team of surgeons in an effort to treat the very rare brain aneurism -- called dural arteriovenous fistula -- he had suffered.
After a delay of nearly a month, Ruby Memorial Hospital doctors told Heyliger he should try to find another facility capable of treating him.
His wife, Grace, whom he calls "Lady Grace," learned of Johns Hopkins while researching her husband's condition.
That's when he met Huang.
"She had a composure about her that said, 'I know what I'm doing,'" he said.
The pastor's sister, Emelda Heyliger, said she appreciated Huang keeping her promise and updating the family every two hours during her brother's approximately eight-hour surgery.
"One of her staff told me, 'He has the best in the world,'" she said. "I was a nurse, and knew that nurses don't say that easily."
Heyliger underwent the surgery on Feb. 2 and was back to preaching in March.
"Because of all your prayers, I never had fear or worry," he told the group of about 70 celebrants Saturday.