It started July 21st with one of those phone calls everyone fears.
“Get here now.” I’d never heard her sound like that before.
I knew who it was about without being told, and said only, “What? Where?”
“Get here now. The hospital,” and then a click.
I was on the road within seconds, a drive that took under an hour. Entering the ER, without introduction I was spotted by receptionists and waved through double doors. There was only one room where activity spilled into the hall: at the end, on the left.
When I reached it, I saw the room was crowded with doctors and nurses at work. I still noticed details then — later, I wouldn’t, as shock set in — they were a perfect team, wasting no words, each adept in their role. When someone stepped aside, my first sight of him prepared me for his death like no explanation could; he was nearly unrecognizable.
When I went to his side, he spoke. It surprised me; he hadn’t appeared conscious. “I’m scared.”
I leaned close and whispered into his ear, “God, be with him. Be with him”, then gave space to staff preparing to transfer him to an arriving EMS helicopter. Every minute mattered.
A few hours later, in a large, teaching hospital, there was an undertaking to band the source of the esophageal bleeding, the attempt aborted due to resumed hemorrhaging. His resident physician said she’d never seen a worse GI bleed – her descriptor was “catastrophic”. We were told he was unlikely to live. Family four hours away were called and advised to make the trip immediately.
Central and peripheral lines in his veins and bones, ventilator tubing, and monitoring equipment overwhelmed his still body. His team recommended a Hail Mary surgery, “He will die if he doesn’t have it, but you need to know, his chances of surviving the surgery are slim. It’s lucky he’s here, this procedure isn’t available many places. We’ve done all we can do, we think it’s his only chance.”
I spent the time waiting for his surgery at his side, one hand on his head, one on his forearm. I realized it could be the last time to see his heart beat; the last time to feel the warmth of his skin. I didn’t want to regret missing those treasures. Grief could wait.
The road-trippers arrived at 4 a.m., just in time to choke out “I love you’s” before he was transported to surgery. We slipped into grief for a few minutes, mixed with gratitude that they had arrived in the nick of time to say their goodbyes, then braced ourselves in silence.
Three hours later, in the waiting area where we sprawled, fighting sleep, we didn’t know how to respond when a surgical nurse stepped in and announced, “The surgery went well. The doctor wanted me to tell you that.”
We stared at him. Was it safe to believe he had survived it? Would our hopes be dashed moments later? We’d been riding that roller-coaster for fifteen hours already. There were six of us, all in strange states of suspended reaction.
We ended up in the same corridor, as they wheeled him back to the ICU. There he was, in sight, feet away, and oh-so-wonderfully alive.
I’d never seen anything like the expressions on each of the faces of that emergent surgical team. Maybe the emotions of those who’ve just won the Super Bowl are similar, but even those pale in comparison. Theirs were of deep satisfaction, of victory, of silent jubilation. They’d worked for life, knowing death was likely. They were fully invested. Their patient had not died, he had lived.
They were on the same team, those medical professionals and our sedated loved one. We were on that team, too, though trailing the surgical victors. It took longer for us — he had not died, he had lived.
Soon after, we were on the roller-coaster again. He was the sickest patient in the 20-bed MICU — we learned that when we wondered what time rounds started. “8:00. They start with the sickest patient, so they’ll start here.” Within a couple days, multiple teams of doctors confirmed he had end-stage vital organ failure; nine of ten with his degree of damage don’t survive thirty days. He would need an organ transplant to live, but had to live to get it — he was caught in a deathtrap.
Over the following weeks he rebounded, regressed, was difficult at times, sweet at times, disoriented and confused often, comedic on occasion, and miserably-ill always. We were asked about advanced directives — he wanted all measures to be taken to save his life should it come to that. Three weeks in, during his third hospitalization, they allowed palliative medications normally reserved for hospice patients. They didn’t say why — I read between the lines that hope was dwindling, maybe already depleted.
Through it all, we carried on, embracing both pragmatic healthcare and belief that he could regain full health despite unyielding evidence to the contrary. I wish I could say choosing faith in God is easy; it is not. The higher the costs, the more it must be protected above all. It wilts in the face of ongoing discouragement. Maintaining it seems delusional, and downright foolish.
Still, I chose it. I did what I had to do to keep hope for the impossible alive. I reined in fear and pushed out renegade thoughts on a daily basis. It was an instinctive implementation of 2 Corinthians 10:5, “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”
I didn’t have to do it alone. So many people, many of them unexpected, joined me in the endeavor, some not even aware of the enormity of their help.
Which brings us to October 5, 2016, eleven weeks into this crisis. He had a another recheck with specialists who have been on his case since his early hours in the ICU.
The first doctor to enter the room was giddy with excitement. He got right to it, “Your labs are normal!” He had us look over his shoulder at his computer screen, where columns and rows of numbers meant everything to him. “See this? Wow, look at that! …”
Simply put, the organ that was supposed to require a transplant is functioning. It is not merely limping along, which would have been a great improvement from where it was — no, it is performing almost as if nothing at all happened to it.
“What is your secret?” the doctor, a third-year fellow, asked, his voice and face bright with happiness.
Next to me, my loved one shrugged, smiling, still absorbing the news.
An attending staff physician joined us mid-visit, and the two doctors marveled in unison. They commended him. They reconsidered the diagnosis to make sense of the normal labs. They looked to the future for him. “What now? What do you want to do next? What life do you want to build for yourself?”
Because they knew, as we eventually did when the news sank in …
He has his life back. As of October 5th, he has learned that he is not an invalid at best, or terminal at worst. He is well. It is as if he never stumbled into that persistent pit of death on July 21st.
“The colors outside look brighter,” he said later, on the drive home.
Everything looks different on the other side, I see it too.
The joyful doctors were the mirror in which I saw his current status. They and so many others played major roles in saving his life. I imagine cases like his are why doctors get into medicine; successes like his fuel their arduous days.
“Thank you for saving his life,” I said, sheepishly, aware of the ridiculous understatement of saying such a thing, yet how could I not say it?
They chuckled. They understood. One turned to him, “It was you who did it. You wanted to live. You did all that we recommended. You get the credit.”
He received it. He is in a state of newness and hope for the future I have never seen in him before.
But nobody is taking the sole credit. I love this huge crew for their right attitudes: it is an assembly of diverse people who are all about “team”, all about supporting and boosting and excelling in their unique skills to contribute their best to a cause.
The victory belongs to the army of people who played a role in this story. There is no way to count them all, but they must be in the hundreds: the courageous and strong-willed patient himself, his inner circle, the front line medical practitioners and immense support staff during nineteen combined days of hospitalizations, the family and friends who were my backbone and helped with the practical side of life, and the passionate, reckless, genuine people who believed with me that miracles can happen.
I won’t cheapen the story by stating canned religious jargon. It speaks for itself. Defying all logic has a way of making you know it …
Miracles happen. Restoration happens. He who is Life and Power and Love and Truth and Healing … happens.