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 disconnect.
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. Through a window of his ICU room, we watched a monitor, fascinated as the clinician progressed the scope through his upper GI tract, oblivious that the sudden burst of red filling the screen was anything more than expected. Soon after, someone inside taped a piece of paper to the window to block our view.
His resident physician told us the procedure had been aborted. She’d never seen a worse GI bleed – her descriptor was catastrophic. She might have scolded us for peeping, but instead said, “I’m sorry you had to see that. It must have been traumatic.”
“It’s okay. We didn’t know what we were seeing.”
In the doorway of a tiny family room, an internist appeared and told us our loved one was not going to survive. He was dying.
I stared, stupidly. Needing to know how much time he had, I was able only to say, “Family … they can get here tomorrow afternoon …”
The doctor understood what I was asking. “They should come now, as soon as they can. I’m sorry,” he soothed, eyes brimming with compassion before he disappeared from the doorway.
I made the call, one I will never forget. The sounds of shock and grief are guttural and tragic — I was helpless to make it bearable for yet another loved one. People on their end stepped up in the dark of night to make their four-hour trip possible and immediate.
Time blurred. An unfamiliar nurse appeared with glasses of water she knew to help us grasp, and warm blankets she draped over our shoulders. She breathed soft, warm words into the air of the tiny room before she left, “We’ve seen you. We feel so bad for you. We’ve been over there praying.”
When we were allowed back in his room, we saw that central and peripheral lines in his veins and bones, ventilator tubing, and monitoring equipment overwhelmed his still body. At some point, his team recommended a Hail Mary, “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.”
We consented, and they went to work making it happen. An impassioned debate at the unit desk reached our ears, “He’ll die if he has it.” … “He’ll die if he doesn’t have it.”… “Not in his condition, he can’t survive it.” … “He’ll die if we don’t do it.” Their phone calls to the off-duty doctor who does the procedure went unanswered for long chunks of time. “Call him again,” we heard from the desk.
Finally, we were told it was time to prep for surgery. We knew then they’d won the argument, though they professionally made no mention of it, thereby waiving credit for their tireless advocacy on his behalf. I saw them, though — our loved one had been a stranger to them only hours earlier, yet they treated him as if he were their peer, their friend, their brother, their child.
I spent the hours waiting at his side, one hand on his head, the other on his arm. 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 despair for a few moments, 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.”
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 his room. There he was, in sight, feet away, oh-so-wonderfully alive.
I’d never seen anything like the expressions on each of the faces of that emergent procedural team. Maybe the emotions of those who’ve just won the World Series 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 26-bed medical ICU — we learned that when I asked 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 irreparable damage don’t survive thirty days. Of those few who surpass a month of life, none sustain it without a transplant.
He would need organ transplantation 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 impulsive 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 straight-up 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 an hourly basis. It was an instinctive implementation of II 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 pursuing life for him since his early hours in the ICU.
The first physician 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.
A faculty member 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. 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 individuals who are all about “team”, about supporting and boosting and excelling in their unique skills to contribute their best to a cause.
The victory is shared among an army of people. 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, each with an extensive, personal support system, the front line medical practitioners and immense health-related services 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 were possible.
I won’t diminish the story with rote, religious jargon; it speaks for itself. Defying all logic has a way of making you know it …
Miracles happen. Restoration happens. He who is Truth and Love and Power and Life … happens.