A Thanksgiving To Remember

29 11 2008

I still have one more post to write on my aorta series about my husband’s stay at Vanderbilt Medical Center but I thought I’d take a break to reflect on our Thanksgiving holiday.

We usually spend our Thanksgiving holiday with my brother, Brad, who lives in Nashville.  Brad and his wife Susan– have taken very good care of me the two times I’ve had to spend a couple of weeks at Vanderbilt.  I asked him during my recent stay in Nashville if our usual Thanksgiving feast was still to be held at his home.  He assured me that was the plan.  Brad and Susan live in the suberbs of Nashville.  They own a home on five acres of land that are woods.  I always feel like I’m at a state park when I visit their lovely home. 

Last year our plans were changed because Susan’s father was very ill with cancer.  She wanted to have Thanksgiving with her mom and dad in Chatanooga, Tennessee.  Brad came to our place and our entire family went out to eat.  I had just learned that I had breast cancer and I was in no mood to cook a Thanksgiving dinner.   Susan’s father passed away with cancer last spring.  Now Susan’s mother has moved to Nashville to be near her.  Thus, we were pleased that the celebration would be at Brad and Susan’s home. Then suddenly another tragedy occurred.

On November the 12th, Brad fell down his basement stairs.  He experienced three places of trauma to his head and broke his left arm.  He had two major surgeries within his first days at Vanderbilt.  We went to see him on Sunday the 16th.  He was just beginning to come out of his induced coma.  He did seem to know us but it was hard for him to talk because his jaw had been wired shut.  Brad’s head was so swollen.  It was very hard to believe all of this happened to my very special brother.  However, by the things he was able to say–it was apparent that his mental faculties were doing fine.  And  that proved to be true with each day of his recovery. Brad wasn’t totally out of the woods as another break was found in his right wrist and he had another surgery.  That surgery was not has serious and he was able to be awake for that one.

We talked about what we would do for our Thanksgiving.  I’ve never had to plan a whole meal by myself.  I didn’t think that was what I wanted to do.  Yet, with living on disability pay–it didn’t seem right to spend a large amount to eat out.  Finally, I decided that I would cook a big Thanksgiving dinner.  Sunday afternoon I was just getting ready to go to Kroger to buy what we needed–when we noticed a box on our porch.  Someone had left a turkey and some canned goods for us.  I knew that I was definitely supposed to cook this year.  I went ahead and made the trip to Kroger because Vera wanted me to buy sweet potatoes to make a casserole. 

All day Wednesday, I prepared casseroles .  Vera made a big pot of regular mashed potatoes.  I finished up my evening by baking  three pumpkin pies.  It had been several years since I had tried my hand at making homemade pie crust.  The pies turned out wonderful.  Thursday morning, we cooked the turkey.  All of my family were able to come.  We ended our feast by sharing Thanksgiving blessings. 

I had a very special blessing to share.  I had a mammogram on my remaining breast and the report came in the mail the day before Thanksgiving.  The mammogram was perfectly normal.  I have made it through one year as a cancer survivor.  And I was also very thankful that Jim has had six good weeks at home.  He will never be able to have open heart surgery again–but if we take care of him–he can live many good years.

Later that evening I called Brad and Susan.  He has just gotten on from the rehabilitation center on Wednesday.  He was able to talk very well through his wired jaw.  He talked about making a good friend at the rehab center.  His new friend has been in a car accident.  Brad was able to give him some legal advice. ( Brad is a lawyer)  He talked about how the two of them raced their wheelchairs around the rehab center.  I was pleased with Brad’s upbeat attitude. Lastly, Brad told me that he wasn’t in any rush to see his basement stairs again.  I think their plans are to totally rebuild them and make them safer.

       I’ve also realized how dangerous basement stairs can be.  I’ve been running up and down my basement stairs for 23 years now to do laundry.  I fell once  but broke my fall with my left hand.  I did have to have surgery on my little finger.  I also fell a couple of years ago and my head hit a desk that was near the end of the steps.  I had a huge swollen place but no lasting injuries.  I’ve been taking the stairs very slowly since Brad’s accident. 

So Brad is home.  Jim is home.  And, I’m a one year cancer survivor.  I have the love of my husband, family and friends.  Although, we have some new challenges to face in 2009–I know love will carry us through.

God bless each of you!


An Aorta Adventure, Part 6

18 11 2008

The ventilator was removed from Jim’s mouth about 7:30 a.m.  He was fully awake and  was asking me questions.  I didn’t know whether it was good for me to just plunge ahead and tell him that the original surgery couldn’t be done.  Jim’s arms and hands were terribly swollen from all of the IV fluids he had endured for over a week.  He was able to eat a light breakfast.  From that point on it became my job to give him a sponge bath and get a clean hospital gown on him each day.

I did discuss the operation with Jim because I knew the nurses would be talking about it.  The nursing staff got Jim in a recliner and that became the pattern for the rest of his hospital stay.  It was a busy day as his nurse was in each hour to check all of his fluids and vital signs.  She got irritated with me for helping Jim to eat his lunch.  He was particularly desiring chocolate milk.  They let him have about three chocolate milks that day and his blood sugar began soaring.  That is when I learned that even if one is not a diabetic the blood sugar often is elevated after a surgery.  Thus, Jim was given some insulin and his chocolate milk was taken away from him.

Before we went to sleep that first day after surgery–I read to Jim  all of the readings about Orthodox Saints that he had gotten behind on.  We found a quote from St. John of Kronstadt that spoke volumes to both of us.  I think it is worthwhile to share this quote.

“During the life of the Christian there are hours of inconsolable sorrow and sickness, when it seems that the Lord has completely abandoned and forsaken him, for there is not the least feeling of God’s presence in the soul. Such are the hours in which the faith, hope, love, and patience of the Christian are tried. But better times will soon come to him. Soon the Lord will turn him again to joy, so let him not fall when tempted in this way.”
On Sunday morning the drainage tubes were removed from Jim’s chest and we were told that he would move to the cardiac step down floor that evening.  After having slept in the ICU for a week –I was more than ready for a visit with my brother –who lives in Nashville.  Regardless of being fussed at–I felt like I should feed Jim his lunch before I went to my brother’s home.  And yes, I got another lecture.
The afternoon and early evening with my brother and his wife was sorely needed.  They live way up on a hill and actually have about five acres of woods surrounding their home.  I always feel like I’m visiting a state park lodge when I visit my brother.  I enjoyed their two black labrador retrievers.  No matter how long between my visits with my brother–his dogs always remember me.  Brad and Susan grilled chicken for me that evening and we sat on their enclosed patio and enjoyed the Indian summer weather. 
Upon returning to the hospital–I learned that Jim had been moved to the step down floor.  I had already packed all of my belongings as I anticipated the move.  It was so strange being in a new room.  It was much smaller–leaving me with a feeling of disorientation.  There was no place for me to sleep except a regular recliner.  Before midnight–they were able to bring me a cot.  It was cramped up right next to JIm’s hospital bed.  We were told that vitals would now be taken every four hours.  We were also alerted to the fact that the doctors would make their rounds right about 6:00 a.m. each morning.  That meant that I would have to be up and showered by that time each day.  I had been sleeping in my clothes anyway.  Somehow, sleeping in pajamas didn’t set right with me.  There were those occasions that I had been called on to help Jim in the night.  Being a private person–I avoided night gowns and pajamas in a hospital setting.   Thus, I had to get moving a bit earlier each day. 
I developed a pattern of getting myself ready first–then bathing Jim.  His breakfast would come about 7:30 a.m.  I would take a few minutes to go get my breakfast from MacDonalds( which was only an elevator ride away) and then we would eat together.  His swollen hands were getting better and he was  now able to feed himself.  From that point in the day–we didn’t know what would happen.  Usually, we had visitors each day.  That first Monday morning we had a friend from St. Elizabeth come and stay for over an hour.  Then after she left –our son and his wife came for a long visit.  They had been in Nashville to see her back surgeon.  We walked to the food court and ate lunch together. In the evenings I usually just ate snacks from the accumulation of food gifts I had received.

Jim was not totally lucid in my opinion.  His eys had a horrible bulging look.  He was very snappy with me.  I tried not to take it personally but it did hurt.  Yes, I remembered that same kind of behavior from the previous surgery.  However, I still had an extremely hard time adjusting to JIm’s moods. Jim also seemed to hallucinate at times.  It really scared me when he told me that our hospital room was our home.  With all the experience I had with nursing my husband–I flunked adjusting to Jim’s hallucinations. 

There were more tests that were given Jim during his week in the step down.  The first test was an ultra sound on his left neck.  This test revealed a blood clot in his neck. All the professionals were low key about his clot. The only precaution taken was to make sure no blood work or blood pressure checks were given on his left arm.

Tuesday was a hard day with Jim.  He snapped at me so much that I began snapping back.  I was embarrassed when Fr. John walked  in late Tuesday afternoon as I said something harsh to Jim.  Honestly, I don’t know if he heard me but I was feeling quite quility for snapping at Jim. My friend Hope also came for a visit around that time.  After Fr. John left–she took me to the cafeteria to eat our supper.  The stress of living at the hospital at really gotten to me.  I wanted to quit taking everything Jim said so personal–but I still struggled.  Having a nice meal out with Hope revitalized me.  I was ready to face Jim again.  I prayed for a renewing of my faith as I entered our hospital room again.  I was homesick and longed for a more normal life.  But would our lives ever seem normal again?








An Aorta Adventure, Part 5

4 11 2008

I remember October the 10th as a beautiful sunny day.  Off the 5th floor waiting area is a court yard full of benches and lovely pots of plants.  Different family members took turns going out there to use their  cell phone. Everyone had their own list of people to call. We actually didn’t do much talking with each other throughout the morning because of our cell phone usage. However, Maria, in her usual way made friends with a couple of pastors who also had a loved one in surgery.  This is very typical of Maria who makes friends very easily. 

Around noon we received a call that Jim was out of surgery and that the heart surgeon would soon be up to talk with us.  I knew that this didn’t sound correct.  Jim’s surgery was to be very complicated.  Something must have gone wrong.  The surgeon was prompt in getting up to the 5th floor.  He and his whole team of surgeons like to draw pictures of what is happening in the body.  I had a notebook for him to draw his picture of what had happened to Jim. 

They had taken two veins out of one of Jim’s leg for the bypass part of the surgery.  However, when they opened Jim up–there was no place to hook up the heart and lung machine. Three years ago he had a part of his Aorta above the aortic roots replaced with a synthetic material.  This had shrunk from 3 cm to 1 cm.  That is where they were going to hook the heart and lung machine.  Moreover, he had way to much scar material.  This scarring was not evident on all of his tests.  Thus, the surgeon told us that he would have killed Jim–if he had attempted to do the complicated surgery.  So what was the solution?

The surgeon very carefully wrapped up Jim’s two aortic root aneurysms in a dacron cage.  He compared the aneurysms in a cage to wild horses in a pen.  The wild horses are not dangerous when they are properly penned up.  Likewise, Jim’s aneurysms would not be harmful penned up in a cage.  However, the bypass was not able to be done.  Nor was anything done to prepare for a future surgery of treating the descending aortic aneurysm.  Jim’s entire aorta was very thin due to the Type B dissection.  Therefore, the rest of his life–he would have to keep his blood pressure way down.  The surgeon also said that Jim could never have open heart surgery ever again.  He reiterated that there was simply no place to hook up the heart and lung machine.  Well, we were all very stunned.

We decided to walk to the food court and get a good lunch.  It was hard for me to cencentrate on anything once again.  I just couldn’t fathom what was happening to my husband.  It seemed so surreal.  What would be in Jim’s future?  Would he ever be able to go back to work?  What if my cancer returned?  Would we just be two sick people fumbling about to make it in the world?  I could see where those thoughts would lead and so I snapped back to the present moment.  God’s grace and mercy had been with us for almost 35 years of marriage.  I knew God would not turn His back on us now.  On the other hand–that didn’t mean the path would be easy.  I knew that I was going to have to be upbeat in all of my thinking.  I couldn’t let my family down by becoming a complainer.  I was just going to have to face our future one day at a time.  Really–that is all anyone can do. 

During our lunch break–the cell phone scenario continued.  Each of us not only received incoming calls but we also checked in with those on our list.  Still, the change of scenery did us good.  The walk to and from the food court was refreshing with the sunlight pouring it rays on our tired bodies. Sandy and Rob ventued out on their own for a long walk.  The rest of us went back to the waiting room.  Jim was back in the ICU but we were not allowed to see him as the ICU was in isolation due to an emergency medical treatment on someone in the ICU unit. 

My brother Brad and his wife Susan joined us in mid afternoon.  We explained to them all about the dacron tent being built around Jim’s aneurysms.  The afternoon became a waiting time again.  I did get a wonderful surprise in getting a phone call on my cell phone from Korea.  Fr. Isaiah and his wife Beth had been assigned to Korea during the summer.  They called to ask about Jim and to offer their comfort and prayers.  How I appreciated their call.  There had been no shortage of pastoral care during our stay at Vanderbilt.  We had comfort from Fr. Peter, Fr. John, Fr. Stephen and Fr. Isaiah.  That went a long way to helping us both  have peace of mind.

Finally, around 4:00 p.m.–we were allowed to see Jim.  Only two at a time could visit with him.  He was hooked up to all kinds of tubes and he had a ventilator in his mouth.  He was in a drug induced coma.  It was not pleasant seeing him that way.  I hoped that this time he would wake up faster than his surgery in 2005.  We talked to him as though he could hear us.  We took turns doing this for a couple of hours.

Around 6:00 p.m. –some of my family decided to go home.  I’m thankful that Sandy and Rob stayed yet another hour.  I was dreading the long night ahead of me.  I would be sleeping in the same room as my unconscious husband.  However, I was extremly exhausted.  I was asleep by 8:00 p.m.  I didn’t awake until around 5:00 a.m. I woke up with a start–when I heard Jim struggling to breathe.  He was no longer unconscience but he was fighting the ventilator.  He was gagging.  It was an aweful scene to watch.  A whole team of medical people were in the room to help him through the crisis.  They asked me to leave while they did some kind of emergency procedure.  When it was over–they explained to me that this often happens when a patient starts to regain consciousness. They also told me that the ventilator would come out in about a couple of hours.  I wondered what the day would hold?  Would JIm be able to talk with me?  How would he react to the news that his surgery was not anything but a bandaid?  I took my shower and got ready for the long day ahead.