When Joey Gaines tries to remember the first 32 years of his life, his mind draws a complete blank. No matter how hard he tries, he can never recall memories from the first three decades of his life.
The 55-year-old Tennessee resident had a life-altering neurological surgery 23 years ago in which the portion of his brain that processes and retains memories was removed, also called a left anterior temporal lobectomy.
From infancy, Gaines was diagnosed with severe epilepsy after he suffered a severe fever, which caused a lesion on his brain. Going into frequent epileptic fits was a large part of his youth and adolescence. And by his early 30s, he had already suffered from roughly 800 seizures.
By age 32, his doctors gave him a life-or-death ultimatum: receive a risky brain surgery to potentially cure the epilepsy, which would cause him to forget all past and present memories, or not have the brain surgery and face an inevitable death from epilepsy.
Although Gaines does not remember the stress he assumes he endured when having to make the most difficult decision of his life, he told The Christian Post in an interview that it was God's grace that led him to go under the knife.
Ever since the April 13, 1999 procedure, he says he has never experienced another seizure again.
"The surgery was my only hope at living. And once I got it, my entire life started over again," Gaines said.
"Weeks after the surgery, one of my doctors told me: 'You don't remember who you once were. But, I'm going to tell you the change. It was like you were living in a dark room of torment, and now, you're walking in the light of freedom.'"
Most of the information about who Gaines once was before the surgery has been retold to him by his loved ones, he said.
Before his surgery, Gaines was a devout Christian who knew the Lord in an intimate relationship.
After his partial brain removal, Gaines said he not only had to relearn basic life skills but also had to embark on a brand new journey of becoming familiar with Jesus and the Bible.
"Now I know Jesus Christ is God in the flesh. But, it was a process before I could once again fully grasp what having a Lord and Savior means," Gaines recalled.
Despite feeling grateful to Jesus for what he calls "a second chance at living," Gaines said the procedure changed his neurological development forever. Gaines said he will always be 23 years old on the left side of his brain. On the right side, he has average neurological development for someone in their mid-50s.
After his surgery, Gaines had to relearn how to walk, talk, eat, work and function in a world that he had absolutely no memory of. He was also reintroduced to his family, friends and relatives, of whom he had absolutely no recollection.
It wasn't until two months after surgery when Gaines had relearned to walk through physical therapy that he would have a one-on-one encounter with Jesus. Gaines said the encounter served as a catalyst that sparked his curiosity about spirituality again.
"I was walking down a road one morning. It was a clear sunny day, without a cloud in the sky. I didn't even know what was going on. But, when I got halfway down the country road, my body just stopped in the middle of the highway. And suddenly, without me controlling it, my body turned to the right. I didn't know what was going on," Gaines said.
To his surprise, Gaines said he saw a gleaming figure appear, with hands covering the face. In that moment, Gaines said he was very captivated and couldn't look away at what he believed at the time was a very powerful being.
"The image stayed there for a while as I looked at it in shock. But then it disappeared, and I immediately ran home; the fastest I've ever run. I went on my computer and began Googling something like: 'What does it mean when you see a glowing figure with his face covered?'" Gaines recalled.
"At first, I saw a plethora of things about supernatural things, until I came across information about God, who doesn't show His face to those on earth, except when it came to the Son, Jesus," Gaines added, referring to John 6:46.
Looking back now at what happened from a renewed Christian perspective, Gaines believes that what he saw that day was Jesus Christ.
The encounter sparked his interest in Christianity. And in the years that followed, Gaines said he asked questions to friends and family members about Jesus and spent many long hours daily studying the Word of God to "fall back in love with his first Love."
Gaines said he eventually felt led to attend church, and God led him to Rutledge Falls Baptist Church in Coffee County, Tennessee. Since then, he has shared what the Lord has done in his life on many occasions as he counsels other churchgoers through their trials and hardships.
'A walking, talking miracle'
"Joey Gaines is a devoted member of our church. He has been here since before I got here. He attends Sunday school classes. And the Lord uses him in different ways throughout our church," Rutledge Falls Baptist Church Pastor Evan Owens, who has been at the church since 2019, told CP.
"Through his testimony and through his life, Joey is, in many ways, a living, breathing testimony to many of the truths of what the Bible says. And so, there are times where he will even come up and share in front of the whole church and share what God has laid on his heart. And in that way, I would say Joey is a tremendous asset to our church."
Owens believes that Gaines is "a walking, talking miracle."
"Medicine says that the things he is doing might not have ever been possible for him. But Joey is still able to walk and talk and know Scripture and share Scripture. In a major way, Joey's story has encouraged me in my own life. His story is a remarkable one, and it's worth being told," Owens said.
"One thing that is amazing to me about Joey is his ability to memorize and know the scriptures while having a large portion of his brain missing from surgery. He's better at memorizing Scripture than anyone I've ever met."
Gaines said that he has also been able to encourage his wife, Linda, over the years with his testimony.
The couple married on Sept. 15, 2012. They met at a Starbucks coffee shop in a nearby town in May 2011. When their eyes first met, Gaines said he immediately asked if he could pay for her coffee.
Over drinks, the two sat and talked, and he told about the life-saving surgery and his testimony to Christ.
"He was very slow and very mechanical when he talked at that time because he previously had the surgery. He wanted to tell me his story," said Linda Gaines. "So, I listened. I really wasn't looking for anyone or anything at the time. He just sort of dropped out of the sky, so to speak."
A year before they met, Linda Gaines' late husband died. But she noted that meeting Joey Gaines and hearing his testimony gave her a new outlook on life and what God can do in both her life and in the life of others.
"Joey is a romantic and he likes to bring me flowers and he tells me how beautiful I am and how much he's in love with me, still 10 years later, just like the day after we just met. He just proves that God is who He says He is," Linda Gaines said.
As he approaches two decades since the surgery, Joey Gaines thanks God for what he describes as a "speedy, but no-where-near-easy road to recovery."
"I wouldn't be where I am today without Jesus, by no means. He is my Lord and Savior and my rock and my refuge," Gaines stressed.