I live a fortunate life. I have been blessed in ways I could never hope to describe. In a sense, the past few weeks are just another set of stories, another string of blessings. But some beautiful things have happened to me, and it would be a shame to split the stories up.
On September 20, 2013, I was admitted to the ER of Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas. After 5 days in ICU and 7 days out, the first of October I was discharged with a bottle of pills and a single follow-up appointment and returned home to live by myself. This is the story of my family, my friends, my God and the medical professionals who saved my life.
It’s a difficult story to tell, and likely a difficult story to read. But I owe my life to more people than I can even thank; hopefully this will at least serve as a down payment.
On September 20, my good friend Mike broke into my house, called 911, and saved my life. I remember him opening up my front door and tossing me a shirt, after which I threw up, lay down and passed out. The next thing I can remember I’m in an ambulance. I was able to recall my name, the year, and the president, but not my birthday, the date, the current month, or any of my symptoms. After 5 bags of saline, they got me stable enough for transport and I arrived at the ER (Mike pointed out that the 5 bags were after I arrived at the ER).
Technically I arrived at triage first, but it didn’t take long for Carly, the nurse at the triage desk, to wheel me straight to ER. I was reasonably aware when I arrived, but everything is a little on the fuzzy side. I’ve since discovered that the whole time I was in the ER, Dr. Amanda, one of her residents, and my nurse Scott along with a number of other ER professionals worked hard to discover the symptoms I was unable to describe. I was first in a staging room where they took my vitals, and was quickly moved back to one of the rooms. They were convinced I was in diabetic shock, but that was easy to rule out as I’m not diabetic. They attempted to insert a catheter twice with no success, in the process establishing my 10 on the pain scale. They then performed a lumbar puncture, a procedure which requires a giant needle be jammed into your spine to collect fluid to test for neurological issues, since they were concerned that a brain infection was responsible for my confusion. The lumbar puncture was substantially less painful than I was lead to believe it would be, which I attribute to the still fresh in my mind trauma of failed catheter insertions and my resident’s long hours of study and practice.
I’m sure more things were attempted in the ER however the next thing I remember is being wheeled to the ICU by (I think) Scott, Danielle, and Blair. I definitely remember on the way Danielle and Blair discussing how I was going to be a fun patient. And by “definitely” I mean I could have been making all that up in my head; I am a bit on the arrogant side (Clearly my arrogance, Mike says it was Scott and a paramedic in training who transferred me to the ICU).
I’m a little hazy on my arrival at the ICU. Danielle was my nurse for the first few hours, but I don’t remember her very well from that time. Apparently in the few hours she cared for me, she also assembled the dream team of doctors who ultimately diagnosed me, treated me and saved my life.
While Danielle built my medical team and my medical history with the help of my dad and brother, Blair took those first few hours simply trying to comfort me. At some point, I went into shock, the nurses moved everyone to the hall and attempted to give me another catheter. Around the shift change, when Danielle was replaced by Kaitlin, Blair believed she had successfully given me a catheter, but that it was clogged.
A specialist (I assume a urologist; I can’t imagine the horror of being a catheter specialist) was called in to solve my catheter issues, and it’s about this time that I recovered enough to be conscious. The specialist explained to me that we would first attempt a normal insertion, if that failed he would use a scope, and if that failed I would be given a super-pubic catheter.
Kaitlin sat with me through the entire process. The scope established a new 10, cleanly beating the earlier record set by the ER attempts. As a wave of intense pain swept over my body, I instinctively clenched Kaitlin’s hand, which she had given me to hold. She told me I could squeeze as hard as I wanted. I can still see her hand in mine, the first hand I had held in more years than I can count. I don’t remember her face at all, but I remember laughing at the thought of what a large man in pain could do to a hand that delicate. After that I held her hand for support not transference. I wanted to protect her from my pain, not subject her to it. The memory of her hand in mine stuck with me well after the ICU and was one of the images I ran to for comfort in the coming days.
After the super-pubic catheter, I remember they started to outline the beginning stages of my treatment. I was going to be given dialysis but my blood pressure was taking a nose dive. They were going to need to give me a vasoconstrictor, which forces your blood out of your limbs, and they were going to put me on a ventilator to make sure I stayed breathing through it all. I’m not sure which procedure was first, but I remember two things. The first was Blair asking me to take off my Aggie ring. She told me I could take it off or they could cut it off later; off it came. The other was Blair asking to give me pain medication.
“No, thank you.”
“This is really going to hurt.”
“Please… let me give you something for the pain.”
I understood this too. There was every chance I wouldn’t remember the pain. There was every likelihood that I would go into shock at some point, or block it out through whatever coping mechanism I managed to employ, or eventually I would give in and take the medication anyway. But she would have to watch every second of my agony. She would have to carry what I would forget.
And in this brief interaction I learned the fundamental rule of the patient-nurse relationship. Every decision has to be made for the benefit of the relationship. Your doctor or nurse is going to offer you the best possible care he or she can devise, but there is a certain amount of selfishness as well. They pour out their hearts into their work every day, and it is literally exhausting to see that much pain and agony. After Blair, I treated my nurses as gracious hosts rather than medical servants. The decisions I made were for the benefit of us, not just me (I could have sworn this story was with Blair, but it’s possible it’s with someone else since it doesn’t seem to fit the timeline as I now understand it. Unfortunately as Blair has transferred hospitals, I’ll likely never get to meet her to find out).
In hindsight, Blair was one of the nurses from ICU I remember most vividly. However with the exception of a few brief snippets of conversation, her face, and her name, I really don’t remember much about her at all. I only have this overwhelming sense of safety when I recall her; perhaps that is enough. At the very least, I can tell you that this one lesson I learned from her translated into blessings for me and my nurses in the Jonsson building dozens of times over the next week.
After this conversation, I was unaware of pretty much anything for 3 days. I have no memory of Saturday, Sunday, or Monday except two. The first was of my friends Amber and Robynne talking about the song Coconut by Harry Nilsson, which if memory serves was a song they tortured me with on a skiing road-trip we once took with Robynne’s family. Though now that I think about it, I thought the song they tortured me with on the trip was Swinging by John Anderson. They do enjoy torturing me; so let’s just run with it.
My other memory was some sort of test and must have happened on the weekend, since I’m pretty sure my mom and sister-in-law were both there. My memory is a sort of snapshot, and it’s taken just as the test was completed successfully. I’m looking at the excited faces of my loved ones and there in the middle is a light, a bright pure light beaming at me like it’s smiling too. That image, just like the conversation with Blair and the memory of Kaitlin’s hand carried me through the rest of my stay in the hospital.
(My brother pointed out that we talked about both of these events on the Tuesday I left the ICU. It’s entirely possible that my “memories” of these events have no basis in reality other than my brother’s description of them.)
I came to on Tuesday, and my first memory is of a head hovering at my door saying “Do you remember me?” The disembodied head was a beautiful face of joy and excitement and love and it was so clearly all for me that to this day I’m still humbled by the memory. I have no idea what I said in response, the memory ends there. But when I made it out of ICU, I interrogated all of my friends and family until I discovered that this wonderful woman was Danielle. I have since taken to calling Danielle, Kaitlin, and Blair my angels as they did not just save my body, but my heart and mind as well.
To my shame I must admit that I don’t remember why I should have remembered her. There are so many conversations and interactions that are just not there when I try to recall them. What I can say is that first day in the ICU I felt safe and completely cared for, even if I can’t remember why. I know that Danielle did everything for me she could think to do. I don’t think there is any way she could have fathomed just how much she had done.
That’s not to say that I didn’t have other amazing nurses while I was asleep. Without Bethany, I would almost certainly not have made it. I’ve not been able to track down the names of the other nurses with too much certainty. One of my nurses was likely named Sally, and another night nurse talked with my friend Arturo about being vegan, but no one can recall her name. They were critical to my recovery, but I have no memory of them at all. Morphine will do that to you. It takes a special kind of person to be able to care so well for someone who can barely respond to you and will never even remember the contribution you made to saving their life. I was truly fortunate to have had so many of these special people so close to me during my stay.
Part of me wishes I wouldn’t have taken the pain medication. There are so many beautiful memories I’ll never have of amazing women I’ll never know, and the only cost I would have had to pay was to bear the pain. I know it hurt a lot. I only wrote about 100 words in 3 days, and most of them are illegible, but twice I wrote “My throat hurts.” For as desperately as I wish I had those memories, I know that if Blair asked me 100 times to take the medication in a way that made it sound as much for her as for me, then 100 times she would hear “Yes ma’am.”
(My friend Sara, whose two boys still pray for me every day, pointed out that if I had turned down the morphine, all I would remember is the pain. Even before I was on the drugs, my memory is fuzzy at best. I know she’s right. I told Kaitlin yesterday that if I knew everything that everyone did for me those first few days, I would not be able to bear the weight of the debt I’d owe. I know that’s true. But I still wish I could say something to my ICU staff besides “Hi, I’m Mike. I don’t remember you at all, but you saved my life. Thanks.”)
The next memory was my Bonfire son Andrew, who had come up from San Antonio and by some stroke of luck was the first lucid conversation I can remember. I have spent some hard days with Drew and to see him at just that moment was the best medicine that could have been offered. We talked about old times and caught up on recent events.
The physical therapy technician came in and I was able to stand up on my own. I vaguely remember that doing so caused me to defecate myself and immediately end physical therapy; let’s hope I made that part up. But I had stood on my own, and that meant as far as PT was concerned, I was ready to leave the ICU.
Later on, Karen, my nurse that Tuesday, came into the room and said “Quick, what are 2 things that mean we are giving you very good care?”
I remember asking if this was a joke, as the level of care I’d received had bordered on the divine, but I caught on quickly to the reason we were writing them on the board.
So my number 1 criteria for Very Good Care was to have my foods color coordinated on my tray. Number 2 was that you had to beat me at Rock Paper Scissors to leave the room.
Karen laughed, and said “Perfect.” She left the room as quickly as she had come in.
A few moments later a woman I can only identify as some sort of admin walked in and said “Would you say you have received very good care during your stay with us?”
“Oh yes ma’am, very good care.”
“Wonderful!” She turned to look at the board, sees it’s filled out and heads towards the door, presumably checking a box on her clipboard.
“Ma’am, did you read them?”
She stopped, looked at the board then back at me, “You mean…” as she did the motions with her hand, “I have to play Rock Paper Scissors?”
“No ma’am, you have to win.”
She can’t leave, since it would violate the otherwise Very Good Care I had so far received. As she walks back towards my bed, I lift my hands up and say, “By the way, I cheat.” Cue admin lady look of horror. “Ok, on 3…”
Now anyone who has ever been around me when I’m playing RPS knows what is about to happen. As I hit my fist in my palm the first two times, I say “I always do paper,” followed by throwing paper on the third hit.
As I said it, she said “What!?” and threw scissors.
“Thank you very much, ma’am. Please have a wonderful day.”
“Wait, why do you always do paper?”
“Rock Paper Scissors is about trying to decide who is going to make a decision. I force the other person to make the decision about who is going to make the decision.”
“That’s excellent! I’m going to use that.”
As the admin walked out, Karen walked in laughing. That conversation made me feel like me again. It takes a special skill to be serious and ridiculous in just the right ratios to have your ridiculousness taken seriously. Just in case anyone wonders, the reason it’s specifically paper is that if you wind up in a stalemate, it sounds like We Will Rock You by Queen.
Shortly afterwards was the shift change, Daria replaced Karen and I was prepped to leave for my new room. I quickly wrote Karen a note about how much fun the Rock Paper Scissors escapade had been, and my brother Mark, Daria and I set out with two guys pushing my bed.
Now, unless you have a really really good imagination or are currently coming down off morphine, you probably missed what I just said. I had Mark, a pack mule carrying my personal belongings, Daria, a pack mule carrying my medical supplies, and a wagon drawn by two horses. Yep, I was living Oregon Trail, and yep, it was awesome.
The beds from the ICU for some reason don’t fit in many elevators on the Baylor campus, so to get to the adjacent building, which when I walked it later took less than 5 minutes, somehow took a ridiculously long time with my trusty steeds. We wound up in the basement I think, and the first elevator we tried wasn’t big enough, so we had to go even further away.
At one point we were headed down a dark hallway with only security lights and I remember actually fearing for Mark’s life. Daria was the heroine and if something happens to me or the guys pushing the bed then the game was over, but Mark was expendable. I vaguely remember asking him for the plant he was carrying, you know, just in case. It was a very nice plant from my friends at Improving, and there didn’t seem much sense in losing both my plant and my brother to dysentery or an indian attack in the same evening.
At the end of the trip, I got into the new bed, Daria and the guys left, and Mark and I tried to get some sleep. At about 10:30pm Mark decided he wasn’t going to be able to sleep in the chair in my room, so we agreed he should go back to my apartment.
That Tuesday night was pretty rough. I was given my bedpan backwards, which as you might imagine is substantially less effective at achieving… hmm… let’s say “containment.” That was my first experience at being cleaned by Lisa; I wish for her sake it had been my last.
After lying in your own waste for a while, morphine withdrawal is a little less fun. Up in ICU I had remarked to Mark that it was cool to close your eyes and see stuff, but I was happy there. Alone in the dark in my room with my IV alarm going off, closing my eyes was an exercise in dark, terrifying things. I didn’t sleep much at all, but the fleeting memories from ICU were enough to remember there were beautiful things in the world, and this would all pass.
That next day, I had one mission in life: to never use a bedpan ever again. When the physical therapist came in, I asked him what it would take, and he told me I had to be able to move back and forth between a chair and the bed. I did it well enough and was cleared by PT to have a bedside commode.
That morning, Red gave me my first real bath since I’d been in the hospital. Apparently in the ICU, there’s this kind of gel foamy stuff that works a bit like anti-bacterial gel. Red wasn’t even my tech that day, but she took the time to scrub me down. Sometimes all it takes to feel good is to feel clean. Red became one of my biggest supporters; cheering for me every time I was doing my physical therapy and stopping by when she came on shift to see if I needed anything regardless of whether she was my tech that day or not.
Later my friends Jess and Kelli showed up and we had a great conversation. Jess and Amber were Bonfire co-chairs for an all girls dorm (in which Kelli was also a resident) that adopted me back in the day; honestly I’ve shared more good times with the Neeley girls than I could retell in a lifetime. Jess and Kelli had also been to see me when I was in the ICU.
Sometime that same day, my friend Samantha’s mom Sue came by my room. She told me she had been up in Dallas all week visiting her sister Nancy who was in the Neuro ICU. She had been coming by my room to report back to Samo on my condition. I decided that when I got the chance I would go visit Nancy, if only to repay the favor.
My brother left and my dad took his place a few hours later. The look on my dad’s face was priceless when I stood up to give him a hug. He stayed for a few hours before heading over to my apartment to sleep. I settled down to see if I couldn’t manage a few hours of sleep myself, but right before I turned out the light I noticed blood on my gown.
Now I realize women learn very early on in their development about the appropriate level of response required when finding blood around their lady bits. Men don’t. The only appropriate level of response for a man when discovering blood around his junk is the sort of terror that translates almost immediately to panic.
When my nurse came in to change my IV bag, I pointed out that I was bleeding and she felt like it was probably just my catheter incision. I explained that if that were the case, I would still feel terror, just slightly less panicky. At this point in my recovery, unexplained blood from pretty much anywhere felt like the sort of thing one should at least pay attention to.
She suggested a test. She grabbed a washcloth from the bathroom and covered me with it. Content that we were at the very least a few hours from contacting a doctor about the likely trauma resulting from 5 failed catheter attempts, I tried to sleep for a while.
When she came back, I pulled out the washcloth and showed her the dried blood. She says, and I nearly quote, “I think that was already on it, I noticed there was a spot of something when I picked it up.” She put the washcloth back on me and walked out.
I went from terror to utter horror in nothing flat. Not only was I bleeding unexplainably, but my nurse had used a dirty washrag to soak it up. I was caught somewhere between wanting to scream, throw up and cry. I threw the washrag on the floor and in the interests of continuing the experiment, covered myself with a tissue.
When I woke up at 4am for my blood draw, I realized three things: tissues are great at soaking up blood, leaving a blood-soaked tissue against your skin turns it into a very thick blood clot, and I had no way of cleaning myself. It is humiliating to have someone scrub dried bloody tissue from your man parts. To top it off, somehow during all of this, my catheter separated from the tube to the bag. So an hour later, I had effectively wet the bed.
While Lisa cleaned me up after now the third humiliating mess, I sat naked in a chair holding my damp gown between my legs, partly to cover myself and partly to keep from bleeding on the floor. Lisa and my nurse changed my bed and changed my gown and I struggled to get comfortable as they turned out the lights.
I laid in bed just wanting the night to end. I couldn’t close my eyes for fear of the visions. My head was pounding. I was tired and scared and tired of being scared. As I rubbed my face in my hands praying for something beautiful I noticed that I had a manicure. I’m a man; I’ve never had a manicure. I’m not saying you can’t be a man and have a manicure. I’m just saying I’m not comfortable enough in my manhood to stroll into a strip mall and have a little Vietnamese lady make fun of me while she works on my cuticles.
But there in the half-light I realized I didn’t just have a “let’s make this presentable” manicure. I had a “getting married tomorrow” manicure. Someone took the time to make my hands beautiful. I assume that it was Kaitlin or Blair, as none of the other nurses both had the time and knew me as anyone other than some guy on a ventilator. But that means my angels gave me a manicure when I was still dying (Danielle told me that Blair went home at the shift change, so it probably wasn’t her, but that it might have been Angela, one of the techs).
I was knocked to the ground, just leveled. These women saw something in me to love when I was completely unable to offer anything in return. The nurses I had at Baylor were all of a different breed, but the ones in ICU are made of steel and ice and granite and fire and a whole mess of beautiful things I don’t even know how to identify. I don’t know why they gave me a manicure, but I can tell you beyond any shadow of doubt that I did not in any way deserve it. These women give everything and then have the humility to say it was just their “best.” Their “best” probably wouldn’t have saved my life; it definitely wouldn’t have saved me from the darkness Wednesday night. My angels gave so much more than their “best” that I am permanently humbled. They showed me more compassion in one day than I’ve shown in my entire life.
My mission for Wednesday was to never use a bedpan again. Starting that night my only desire was to thank the people who had saved my life.
(Kaitlin and another nurse gave me a thorough scrub down that first night in the ICU, but she’s not aware of anyone doing anything more than cleaning under my nails. It’s quite possible that the “manicure” was nothing more than a desperate man’s delusion. Delusion or not, I was cared for both in and out of the ICU more than I can ever understand. Manicure or not, the medical professionals at Baylor deserve so much more than a “thank you” for everything they did for me.)
My brother had given me my phone before he left Wednesday and I was able to respond to the texts I’d been left since I entered the hospital. I had also spoken with a few people who are very dear to me, a couple of whom hadn’t even heard I was in the hospital. Thursday I spent quite a bit more time texting and calling. There’s a lot of downtime in the hospital, and it was good to hear voices that weren’t just in my head.
I also wrote the previous post to this blog. When Kelli was visiting she mentioned that I had made it on TexAgs, an online forum for Aggies to get together and talk about Texas A&M. I never visit the site myself, and so when I show up on TexAgs it’s either because Tom or Doug, two old friends from many moons ago, posted something about me. Whenever they do, I try to write something up for them to post to the discussion, and this time I wrote “Here”.
It’s not one of my usual posts. But sometimes when the darkness gets too close, you have to write something that reminds yourself and the world that there are some things bigger than the darkness could ever be. I also needed a way to remind Mike that under no circumstances was he allowed to feel guilty about the mixup on the Thursday before he found me. All of this, from my ambulance ride Friday to surviving the darkness the night before, was working out perfectly even though there were any number of times along the way where he and the rest of my friends and family couldn’t have seen it that way.
That day, I asked my doctors if I could move to solid food. I didn’t do very well with it; my appetite still hadn’t really come back and my throat hurt from the ventilator, but at least I was off the Jello.
I also decided that I was tired of mooning people in the hallway while I used the bedside commode, so I worked with PT to use a walker to be cleared to use the restroom. At the end of the session, my therapist Ross and I were talking and I mentioned that it was going to be hard to continue the therapy until I could get my feet in my boots. My feet were still extremely swollen and without my boots, my mostly-healed ruptured plantar fascia hurt too much to walk too far in grippy socks.
Thursday night, Lisa came in to help me to the bathroom and on the way I apologized for how often I had made her clean me of my filth and how grateful I was that she was always so quick to help me. She laughed and told me she’s been cleaning up after people for a long time, so it was no big deal. But after I got out of the bathroom, she had cleaned up my room and made my bed. That usually only happens during your bath; I could have cried.
Friday, my brother massaged my feet for an hour to get the swelling down. Just as my therapy was starting, we got my feet in my boots and my catheter threaded through my cargo shorts and I went for a walk around the floor. I didn’t need any assistance getting around, so I was cleared by PT. No rehab, no more sessions, as far as PT was concerned I was ready to leave the hospital. That was followed by the best hug Mark and I have had in a long time.
By Friday, my bleeding had become much worse. I was embarrassed by the state of my gown almost as soon as I would change it. The doctor had said that some “spotting” would be normal, but I would have used a much stronger word for what was happening. However, that evening I was able to urinate normally, even with the catheter, and that dramatically eased my fears.
The (Anti-)Social Network
Friday is also the day I found out that Facebook was the primary way my family had been getting the word out about me. Now, I’m not crazy about Facebook. I’m of the opinion that it’s a poor model for human communication and breeds narcissism. But hey, I’m in the hospital and people are worried about me, I’ll play along for a while.
When I logged on to Facebook that day, I discovered several things. People around the world, the vast majority of whom I had never and would never meet were praying for me in droves. It was humbling and awesome to be the focus of so much prayer. But my personal private medical information was the fuel for some of the updates that were apparently incentivizing these prayers.
Now I don’t mind if the whole world knows that I’m in the hospital or the ICU. I’m not opposed to people knowing that it doesn’t look good, or it does look good, or the doctors are hopeful or anything like that. But when things like “spinal meningitis” start getting thrown around, things I may or may not have, that starts getting a little too private. My family was receiving this information to make educated decisions on my behalf, not to broadcast to the world.
I’m bringing this up in the hope that people would think about their loved ones privacy over social networks when acting as their proxy. I don’t use Facebook very much; my “friends” are basically anyone who added me and I can sort of remember when we knew each other. I’m still stunned that no one thought to go through my phone and call or text the people I actually talk to on a regular basis. Many of those friends didn’t even know I was in the hospital until I got out.
The last stunning thing to me about Facebook was just how many people were clicking like on every one of my posts and liking comments to my brother’s posts, but didn’t message me directly or call or contact me in any way. When I brought it up later, many of my Facebook friends said they didn’t feel comfortable contacting me directly, because that’s not how we communicate. I was blown away. Facebook supposedly exists so that we can all keep in contact, but friends I’ve had for years feel like they can’t call me when I quite nearly died. Facebook is so broken it makes my heart hurt.
During all of this I also discovered that my dad told people to not visit me in the hospital. I felt betrayed by my family that Friday. It was almost like they had no idea who I was. I tend to be a very private person and rarely broadcast anything on social media. I’m also a very social person and I can’t survive long without quality conversations. I was angry at being forced to trade in my real support group for the internet.
(I do understand that my brother was scared that I was going to die, and so he leaned on his support group which is primarily on Facebook. I also understand that my father was scared that I wouldn’t get better if I was entertaining guests all day, so he told folks to see me when I got home. I understand that they both did what they needed to do in the face of their fear. But it was not what I would have chosen for myself.)
Saturday was a big day. That was the first time that my whole family came to see me since I’d left the ICU. It was great to see my niecephews and to have everyone together. We worked Rubik’s cubes and played with the Perplexus. The kids shared a lot about the stuff they had been learning lately in school. But there was a recurring theme that would show up in side remarks and at some point I’d had enough. There was the repeated insinuation that I was not capable of taking care of myself. It’s obviously why I landed in the hospital and why I needed to go live with my brother or my parents for a few weeks or quickly find a “live-in girlfriend” as my family put it.
As far as I can deduce, here is roughly how I wound up in the hospital. Keep in mind I am not a doctor and have no idea if this is even feasible, I’m simply going by how the fevers happened. Around the 8th or 9th of September, I’m fairly confident I got food poisoning from bad sushi. That night I had a mild fever and extremely strong smelling urine. The next day I was fine. (Some friends have pointed out that I was actually sick the weekend before I had sushi. The last meal I had was a pizza I shared with 5 other people. It seems unlikely at this point that food was the source of the infection.)
On Thursday the 12th of September, I went out with some friends. After a very stressful evening, I woke up the next day with a fever again. It broke that day, and I didn’t associate it at all with the sushi fever.
That Saturday, the 14th, I went shopping for a new car and then went to a friend’s birthday party. The birthday party was again fairly stressful, and while I didn’t wake up Sunday with a fever, I did have difficulty urinating. I decided to stay home instead of driving to Waco for the installation of one of my favorite pastors and after taking it easy for the early part of the day, I felt just fine that night.
Monday I went back to the dealership and bought my car. I had a business meeting for lunch and a very productive afternoon. Tuesday was productive as well until I got a call from the dealership saying they had sold my car to someone else. My new car - the one I paid cash in full for.
I drove back to the dealership to get my old car back. They said they couldn’t return my money or title that evening. I went home fairly mad and turned in early that evening. That night I woke up several times to a fever and vomiting. The next day, I woke up with my heart racing around 150 beats per minute. When it hadn’t slowed much after 20 minutes, I called 911.
The EMTs arrived and by the time they ran all their tests, we knew I had a fever of 100, I had difficulty urinating, and my heart was at 130 bpm. They were of the opinion it was an STD. After I stopped laughing I asked if I needed to go to the hospital. They said I had 3 options: go with them to the ER, get someone else to take me to the ER, or get someone to take me to an Urgent Care facility. Their only real concern was my heart racing, which by this time had slowed considerably to something much more normal.
After the EMTs left I called Mike and asked if he’d take me to the doctor first thing in the morning. He agreed and I turned in. Due to a mix up Thursday morning he thought I went to the doctor on my own. In reality, I didn’t wake up Thursday. He called several times to see what the doctor said, and, assuming I was passed out on some strong medicine, wasn’t worried when I didn’t answer.
Friday morning, both he and my phone say I answered a call I don’t remember. I told him I hadn’t gone to the doctor and needed to go to the hospital. He then climbed the fence and got into the complex. Once upstairs, he called 911 and saved my life.
If I hadn’t answered, he probably would have gone to lunch and it wouldn’t have been until after work that he would have come to check up on me. According to the ER doctor, I wouldn’t have made it that long. If the bacteria hadn’t been so aggressive, they wouldn’t have been able to culture it in time to save my life. If the bacteria wasn’t one they were already targeting with antibiotics, I might not have been able to bear the switch to the new antibiotic long enough for it to kick in. If my kidneys and blood had needed longer on dialysis, the vasoconstrictor I was on might have taken my toes or damaged my fingers. There were so many miracles those first few days, it’s almost painful to imagine how many things could have gone wrong.
So needless to say it was frustrating that my family thought I had not been taking care of myself. I really just thought that stress was making me get a low grade fever that would pass after resting for a bit. No sensible, reasonably healthy, self-respecting, self-employed man of German ancestry goes to the ER with a 100 degree fever.
One more thing came from that conversation with my family. When we were talking about the ICU and in particular the test where I could remember the bright light in the middle of my family. My sister-in-law kept saying that after the test I couldn’t stop smiling at “the pretty one,” which apparently is how she had come to refer to Kaitlin. I had assumed that the light beaming at me was an angel, and it turns out I was right.
There seems to be a universal consensus that Kaitlin is a beautiful woman. My memory has been so swiss-cheesed that I have to rely on friends and family to fill in the details about the people who cared for me. I want to know about conversations. I want to know what it is about them that made them care for me with such fervor. I’m frustrated that for all of my questions trying to discover what Kaitlin did for me and what she was like, the most I seem to be able to draw out is that she is pretty. While I cannot remember anything of her appearance besides her hand, I can assure you there is no way her face could compete with her heart. No one is that beautiful.
(Sara pointed out that my family was there to see me through my pain and sickness, not remember every detail later. I couldn’t agree more. My frustration is twofold. I am angry with myself for being unable to remember the things that matter to me about people who matter to me, which makes it very difficult for me to understand or explain why they are so important. Also, I have been frustrated my whole life that beautiful people or smart people or people with special needs, et cetera, are seen as beautiful or smart or special needs by almost everyone and as people almost never. I’m frustrated that someone who everyone seems to remember could be described with such a small set of words. Failing to see the depth of character in others exposes shallowness in ourselves.)
(While it is possible that my memory of the ICU test was a figment of my imagination, when I finally did meet Kaitlin her smile was unforgettable. She quite literally lights up the room; I’m not shocked in the slightest that I would have thought she was beaming.)
On Saturday, my family was discussing when they were going to come visit over the coming days. Even then we were hopeful I would be out of the hospital early the following week. No one really wants to visit a nearly healthy man in the hospital, and my family had been making the trek across the metroplex for over a week. They were tired of the drive and looking forward to some needed rest.
So with the exception of a few hours early Sunday, I was going to be alone until I got out of the hospital. I am ashamed to say it, but my greatest moment of weakness in the hospital was when I was very nearly ready to check out. I panicked at the thought of being alone for days. When someone is in my room I can move around; I didn’t have to stay in my bed. But when there’s no one in my room, I had to page the staff just to brush my teeth. By this time, aside from meals, my IV twice a day and my vitals check every 4 hours, the staff had no reason to come to my room.
I begged on Facebook for people to come visit Sunday. My plan worked something like this: if only 2 people came, we’d probably stay in my room. More than that and we’d have to move to the family room across the hall. That would seat at most 12, and then we’d have to move somewhere else. I was reasonably confident that at this point I could get a half hour downstairs if there were too many guests to host upstairs on my floor. So with enough people we’d be forced to move downstairs and it wouldn’t take too many more before we had to go outside.
I desperately wanted to go outside. Even just for a half hour. Even if it was just for a moment. I was so tired of the stale, cold, recycled air in the hospital. I just wanted a breeze and the sun and the sky.
But that Saturday night something fantastic happened. My nurse that day, Venus, came by after her shift was over and took my heart monitor. She told me she was very sorry, the order had come through earlier and she hadn’t had time to take it. I was ecstatic. The heart monitor is a wireless transmitter connected to leads on your chest. Having your heart monitor taken means 2 things: no one will know if you die in the middle of the night, and you can leave the floor if you’ve been cleared by PT and your attending nurse is okay with it.
This meant that if a lot of people came Sunday, we could go outside as long as I could convince my nurse to sign me out.
When my night nurse Angela came in to take my vitals that night, I was lounging around like I was king of the world. It struck her as so out of place in a hospital that it made her laugh; well, that or there’s the possibility that the way I was sitting in my bed wound up flashing her. Either way, she laughed. We wound up having a wonderful conversation that night and I wish her the best of luck as she chases her dreams.
Sunday morning started out great. An old friend from middle school, Amy, came by early that morning and we had a great conversation catching up. I had an equally awesome surprise from my old roommate Tommy and his wife Courtney the day before. The only thing in the world that beats seeing old friends is seeing old friends happily married.
My parents came by for a few hours at lunch, and then I figured I’d try my luck at getting to walk around on my own. I convinced my nurse Robert to let me go for a quick walk over to the ICU. I stopped in to check on Nancy, Sue’s sister, and she was able to say a few things to me. I talked with her husband Mark about all the craziness that had been going on with me and then went upstairs to try to meet any of my nurses.
Bethany was shocked to see me up and moving. She had only ever seen me on the machines. Keep in mind I had been moved from the ICU Tuesday, and in 5 days had recovered enough to be allowed to walk unescorted over to the ICU. We only talked for a few minutes, but it was clear that I was truly fortunate to have had her as my nurse during those critical hours the weekend before. She saved my life and met my gratitude with humility.
I went back to my room to see if anything would come of the party invitation.
At about 6 that evening, my friend Ric showed up with his wife Vikki and 4 sons right after my friends Dana and David arrived. We had a great evening as I retold the stories of my angels and the darkness and the beautiful things that had surrounded me like a thick blanket during my stay. Ric was the only person who prayed over me in my room after I left the ICU besides the hospital chaplain, Cassandra. For me, it was a beautiful night and I’m so thankful these friends chose to spend their evening with me.
Late that night my friends Arturo and Susan came by and asked if there was anything I needed. Arturo and I are like brothers and it meant a lot to me that he had been up to see me several times in the ICU. I asked him if he would bring me some nice stationary and a good pen. He’s an artist, so I figured he’d be my best bet at getting something that says “You saved my life; I will never stop thanking God for you.”
The Way Out
Monday morning started out pretty exciting. The urologist said we were going to test whether I could get the super-pubic catheter removed. The infectious disease doctor said we were going to move from IV antibiotics to oral as soon as the urologist cleared me to leave the hospital. The internal medicine doctor said she had the paperwork ready to process my discharge. And then… nothing.
So I went over to the ICU twice, once in the afternoon and once in late evening. Both times Nancy was asleep, but I met both Karen and Daria again and thanked them. They had both seen me since I came off the machines, so they weren’t as shocked that I was walking around. But they did get a good laugh at my hospital gown tucked into my boots and jeans with an over-shirt covering my center line and my catheter bag in a reusable target bag. Karen and I told the Rock Paper Scissors story to her charge nurse and we all got a good laugh out of it.
I do have to say that meeting Karen was really the first time in all of this that I really missed my mom. I think it would have crushed her to see me in the ICU. But I think she and Karen would have really hit it off. Sure, I’d have a lifetime of “Karen wants to know if you’ve scheduled your next physical. She says you’re due.” but I think it would have been worth it to see the two of them interact.
That afternoon Arturo came by with Sarah and my stationary. I have to say, the two of them did a great job; it’s exactly what I would have picked. I stayed up all night writing letters for Danielle, Kaitlin, and Blair, since I hadn’t met them yet and there was a good chance I was leaving the next day. My handwriting was awful, but they read doctor’s handwriting all day, so there’s a decent chance they wouldn’t even notice.
First thing Tuesday, my urologist comes in and asks how the test is going. I told him it hadn’t started. He left the room frustrated and by 10am I had started the test. Urologists really only have one test: pee in a cup. By noon I had filled the cup, but my tech, Johanna, emptied it before I could stop her. Johanna is a wonderful woman and was my tech several times throughout the week. That morning she asked me “How did your parents meet?”
It seemed a very strange question; I wasn’t sure where she was going with it. “On the Internet.”
“The Internet?! How old are you?”
“Haha, Barbara isn’t my birth mom, she’s just my mom.”
“Why hasn’t your real mama come to visit you?”
“It’s tougher for her to get around. She’s dead.”
“Oh sweetie, I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”
“It’s okay. It’s been about 10 years. I’m pretty sure she’s over it.”
“Well, I just want you to know, your mama raised you right.”
“Johanna, that’s the sweetest thing anyone has ever said to me. Thank you so much.”
“It’s true. With you, it’s always ‘Yes ma’am’ and ‘No ma’am’ and ‘Thank you very much.’ You sure know how to make us feel nice.”
“It’s pretty easy to appreciate the folks who saved your life.”
“Well, thank you anyway.”
My brother thought that I was so sick I had regressed to childhood and that’s why I was saying “ma’am” and “sir” so often. But I’ve never been very good about acknowledging people in authority. In reality, I discovered some years ago that saying “ma’am” and “sir” to people you care about is a great way to demonstrate willing submission in the relationship. It quickly establishes a sense of trust and respect. I enjoy saying it to people who are serving me, as it has a way of leveling the field by allowing me to serve them as well.
By 2pm I had filled the cup again, and this time the nurse was in shortly afterward. He said he’d go call the urologist right away and I begged him to give me 20 minutes so I could run down to see Nancy and deliver my letters.
Nancy was asleep, but when I went up to deliver my letters, Danielle was on the roster. I walked down to meet her and I think I hugged her before she recognized who I was. It’s difficult to be patient in the presence of your angel. The conversation was unfortunately awkward; I really couldn’t find the words to say and she seemed like she was still trying to figure out how I was walking around. Part of me is sad that I couldn’t be as clear as I hoped I was in my letter. Part of me knows I could not ever stand in front of that woman and form a sentence that could get anywhere near how grateful I am for what she did for me.
For such a small woman, she is packed to the brim with joy and hope and beautiful things I don’t know how to describe. She glows; though I’d expect nothing less from an angel. It was a beautiful thing to meet her, and while I’m sure I disappointed her with my complete lack of conversation skills, in my defense I was just trying to hold it together. Sometimes “Thank you” just can’t happen in words.
I dropped off the other two letters and then made my way back to my room. As I turned the corner, I could see my urologist pacing in front of my room. Doctors do not like to wait, not at all. But as I walked up and he saw me almost fully dressed cruising the halls like I owned the place, he laughed a bit, and led me into my room. We discussed the test results, set up a day for a follow up and he cleared me to leave. I honestly think if I hadn’t gone to the ICU he would have strongly considered holding me till the next day.
Ron was my nurse while I was being discharged, and the guy is a ninja. He once gave me a shot before I even realized he had taken the cap off the needle. He replaced the dressing on my central-line twice in two days without batting an eye. He was always willing to explain what every drug did, why I was taking it and when the next drug was coming. We are talking the kind of ruthless efficiency only the Spanish Inquisition could claim.
He had me out the door before shift change. Mike was there to pick me up. Since my brother still had my wallet, Mike bought my groceries and medicine. Then to top it off his mom made me enough food to last me a week at least. Saving my life clearly wasn’t enough. If it takes 3 miracles to get yourself made a saint in the Catholic church, Mike got his hat trick in two weeks.
I’ve been home for about a week now. I’ve started a few supernovas on Facebook, but not to worry, Facebook has a memory about as long as an ICU patient. I’ve had some beautiful conversations with some beautiful people. Every day I walk up to the ICU to sit a little while with Mark and Nancy. Some of Nancy’s nurses, Trish in particular, have been fantastic to me and even better to Nancy. The Wednesday after I was discharged, when I went in to see Nancy she smiled a bit as I walked in and said “Hi Mike.” It’s surprising to me just how often the hospital is a beautiful place.
I had more nurses out of ICU than I brought up in the story. Erin, Sebha, Susan, Armando, Jennifer, and Maria took excellent care of me and I value each of them (I think I’m even missing a few, but it is an omission of memory, not because they weren’t amazing). My techs were fantastic as well; I can’t imagine how much harder that week would have been without Carolyn, Maria, Analace, Stephanie and others whose names I know I am forgetting. Even housekeeping treated me better than I deserved; thank you to all of you, especially Octavia and Maria.
I’m so thankful for the rest of my friends who came to visit as well. Mike came every day he was in town and even brought his wife Jen a time or two. Mike’s dad came down that first weekend as well. Gleason, Joe, and Diana, thank you for coming to visit me in ICU. Please forgive me for not remembering; those drugs are something fierce. For Marty and Julie, thank you for coming to keep me company, I always enjoy conversations with each of you and it was truly a pleasure to have one in the hospital.
For all of you who called and texted and messaged, I am truly grateful. You gave me your time and that was the greatest gift you could have given. To Carlos and Peter especially, thank you so much for praying with me on the phone. It is truly a blessing to call both of you friends and brothers. For all of you who sent cards or left comments on Facebook, thank you so much, your actions uplifted and sustained my spirit. For the tens of thousands of you who prayed for me around the globe, thank you for offering up your petitions for my life. They were all answered.
And to Baylor, I’m begging, please stop calling it Very Good Care. Please stop telling your professionals to say they do their best. They do their everything. They give their all. They suffer with their patients, pouring their heart and soul and strength into providing care so exceptional it is its own miracle. Please rebrand, I don’t know to what, but to something that honors the sacrifice these beautiful people make just to turn around 12 hours later and sacrifice everything again. Every single person I met during my stay deserves a Five-Star Spirit award. And frankly that’s still a few billion stars too low in my opinion.
I wrote the end to this the day I got home on Facebook. I’m including it here since it is still the best end to this narrative I could dream up. I pulled out my favorite verses from John 11 below, which may explain why it may not make sense they’re there. If you’re not familiar with the story of Lazurus, it might be worth reading just for the context.
So, I just walked in the front door. I’m sitting at my computer exactly 2 weeks to the day from the last time I sat here (mostly) healthy. I’ve had a pretty wild ride, but almost everyone else has had a much more wild ride than me.
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
40 Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
I wonder if Lazurus, when he walked out of the tomb 4 days later to find his sisters sobbing uncontrollably, found himself suddenly very angry with whatever jerk had hurt them.
In this whole ordeal, my faith was never tested. I was just asleep. But while I was asleep my friends and family were tested to their core. The only parts I remember were either decidedly beautiful or woefully boring. But everyone else remembers fear and anger and the pain of imminent loss.
I wonder if Lazurus, when he realized that he was the jerk responsible, felt guilty, felt guilty for feeling guilty or felt something much different.
I’m an arrogant jerk. I can’t dodge it. I don’t feel guilty, because you got something beautiful out of the ugliness.
You asked for a miracle and you got one. He finger painted “I love you” in my blood for you. He wrote you a love letter and used me as the letterhead. I’ll do that any day. I’ll do that every day. I’d do that for just one of you. For tens of thousands I wouldn’t hesitate an instant.
Because either way I was going to leave that hospital and go home.
So enjoy your letter. It’s more like a postcard honestly. The real letter he wrote in his own blood, and it’s a much more compelling read than this one.
Thank you for writing this, man. I laughed really hard at the Rock Paper Scissors exchange. I have stolen your “I always do paper” approach to that game many times!
I like to imagine God looking at you in the worst of this and thinking, “Mike can’t die yet. There are still people who aren’t sufficiently pissed off by his opinions about facebook.” See, your life has a purpose!
I am sorry I didn’t like, comment, call, or visit. We were among the many praying for you, though, and we’re relieved and thankful that you’re better now!
Wow, thanks for sharing the whole story– or at least what you remember of it! You’re definitely a walking miracle! You’re also a walking blessing! So thankful for your heart for sharing Christ’s love with others, Mike!
Where is the “Like” button?
It’s such a wonderful story, though painful to read at times (particularly the parts about the catheter). I’m glad to know that you made it through and were able to recognize the beauty and the hands of God throughout the process. Thank you for sharing.