Ivan Wall, In Touch Ministries’ Executive Producer of Broadcast, has an office, but you’ll rarely find him in it. A dynamo in every sense of the word, he spends most of his time running between video and audio editing suites and doing whatever else it takes to get a new “In Touch With Dr. Charles Stanley” television broadcast on the air. It’s a task he’s handled skillfully for nine years—through injury, exhaustion, and even a life-threatening illness.
But such a feat isn’t surprising where Wall is concerned. Born to parents who demanded a great deal of their only son, he understood the importance of success. And he didn’t disappoint. A straight-A student, he also excelled in sports such as track, wrestling, and weightlifting. The only respite from the constant pressure was running, especially in the woods. “I felt free there,” he says, “like I was home. My own home wasn’t pleasant, but out there, I could just be myself.”
It wasn’t until he came down with a bronchial virus that his life changed for the better. Shirley Rholetter, whom Wall had mocked for her faith, came to help him keep up with his studies while he was ill. “I used to love Welch’s sparkling grape juice,” he says, “and she often brought some. All I could do was lie there feeling like an idiot because of how I’d treated her.”
When Wall returned to school, he wanted to repay Rholetter for her kindness. She wanted one thing: for him to come to a youth revival. And a few days later, with another friend in tow, he sat—fuming and with arms crossed—in a church service. “I don’t know what happened,” he says, “but at some point, I was in the aisle. I knew that I could go back to my seat and a horrible life or I could go up to the altar and pray and my life would be changed. It was that clear.”
BETTER AND WORSE
“Changed” is hardly a strong enough word for what happened. The kid with a full-ride scholarship to The Citadel chose to study the Bible instead and eventually ended up majoring in broadcast journalism at the University of Georgia. TV was a good fit for his pugnacious, risk-taking personality, and after graduation, he jumped at the chance to serve at a church in Paraguay that needed someone with his skill set.
He traveled to Asunción, the nation’s capital, but spent little time exploring its manicured parks and plazas. Wall’s work required him to dwell in the shantytowns at the city’s edge—filthy, trash-strewn mazes of tin shacks, concrete houses, and open sewers. These places were filled with people who had come to find work, and many of the men and women he served scratched out a living by scouring the dump. “It was quite an experience,” he says. “Paraguay was the last dictatorship in South America. I saw soldiers pointing machine guns at people—including me—fingers on the triggers.”
“I knew that I could go back to my seat and a horrible life or I could go up to the altar and pray and my life would be changed. It was that clear.”
Those weren’t the only dangers. While he was working to address the physical and spiritual needs of others, Wall caught one disease after another. He contracted cholera but continued to work despite nearly dying from dehydration. Not long after that, he developed hepatitis A. And months later, he fought a nearly fatal battle with hemorrhagic fever, which caused him to run a 106-degree fever and bleed from his eyes, gums, and ears. “I couldn’t get well,” Wall says. “Every day was a fight, but I was stubborn and didn’t want to leave.”
Finally, the mission’s doctor arrived and put his foot down. He pulled Wall’s file during an annual records review, took one look at his laundry list of illnesses and said, “So did you bury this one or send his remains home?” When he learned that the man was not only alive but also still working, the doctor insisted that Wall be put on the first plane home to the United States.
AN UPHILL BATTLE
Due to the many diseases he had contracted abroad, Wall would continue to battle bronchitis and pneumonia throughout his life. He also experienced problems with his liver that left him weak and jaundiced. And in 2012, what was left of his health eroded as his O2 levels dropped to dangerous levels. Exhausted, he relied on an oxygen tank, which he wheeled around the halls of In Touch as he went—with a little less zip than usual—from one task to another. Before long, even that proved ineffectual.
Wall could no longer be the industrious fireball. He took medical leave and spent five months visiting pulmonologists in Georgia and specialists at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Each doctor conducted tests, all of which were inconclusive. In the end, all they could do was tell him to hope for the best but to get his affairs in order.
“Waiting at home, thinking I was going to die at any moment had rekindled my desire to run as I had when I was a kid.”
Thankfully, Dr. David Quintero at the Emory Clinic in Atlanta finally put the pieces together and declared that Wall didn’t have an incurable condition. On top of his other ailments, he had cough-variant asthma. The bouts of bronchitis—so violent they’d resulted in broken ribs, torn muscles, and even micro-tears in his capillaries and tissues—were symptoms that could be controlled.
After a few tweaks to the treatment plan, he began to show real signs of improvement. So much so, in fact, that doctors said he could walk a little, carrying oxygen in a portable bag. After his first five-minute stroll, he came in and collapsed on the couch—with a smile plastered across his face. He was finally on the road to recovery, and in only a few months, he was able to quit using supplemental oxygen altogether.
“My first question to them was, ‘Can I run?’” he says. “Waiting at home, thinking I was going to die at any moment had rekindled my desire to run as I had when I was a kid.” They asked how far he planned to go, and before he could stop himself, the words were out of his mouth...
“How about a marathon?”
Doctors thought it was worth a shot, so Wall began looking for a race that would fit the bill. He soon found The North Face Endurance Challenge and decided to sign up because it boasted a highly trained medical staff who could help him if something went wrong during the 26.2 mile run. Though he was better, he had no illusions that he was—or would ever be—fully well. There was also family to consider. They’d watched him wasting away in a hospital bed, so they were hesitant about his ambitious goal. However, watching him get stronger as he pursued a new dream eventually won them over, and they supported him throughout the many months of training.
AT THE SUMMIT
So on September 28, 2013, more than a year after doctors had sent him home to prepare for the end, Wall stood at the starting line in scenic Pine Mountain, Georgia. All was well until mile 11, when his legs began to cramp badly. By mile 17, it was almost impossible to walk. “The paramedics weren’t going to let me continue,” he says. “But I chugged electrolytes and stretched until I fooled them into thinking I could.” As always, he was loath to quit, but each mile came with a challenge—steep inclines and countless gnarled roots and fallen trees. More than once, he caught himself thinking, God, You told me I could do this, but I don’t see how. But seven hours and 40 minutes later, that’s exactly what he did.
Lying at the finish line, breathing deeply and staring at the blazing blue sky, all he could think about was Psalm 18:32-33: “It is God who arms me with strength and keeps my way secure. He makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he causes me to stand on the heights” (NIV). The years of illness and uncertainty brought Wall to a place of understanding. “I thought that race would be God’s gift to me,” he says, “the cherry on the icing on the cake. But it showed me I was actually less of a participant than a spectator. I had watched God do amazing things in my life. That’s what it had been about.”
Today, Wall continues to deal with illness. New issues with his heart and lungs keep him off the trails for weeks, and when he is able to run again, he’s back to square one. But whether he’s struggling to finish a 15-minute jog or running 25 miles a week, his attitude is the same. “God is still God,” he says, “no matter what shape I’m in. He still loves me. No matter how I feel, that never changes.”
Photography by Ben Rollins