Coming to the close of what has been a tremendously difficult year, I thought I should stop the griping for a moment and reflect on some of the blessings that have spared my life and sustained my family. Some of these posts will be longer than usual, but I’ve got a lot on my mind.
It has been almost nine months since I collapsed senseless in a courthouse parking lot, died a couple of times, and woke up the next month. I’ve been hesitant to write about it, although I don’t know why. Thanks to what is probably an unhealthy relationship with social media, my life, my religion and my politics are all open books. But this time, I think the whole thing was just too scary for me to write about it. As it is, I cannot fall asleep at night, because sleep is something that you aren’t guaranteed to wake up from. If I stay awake, I can’t be in a coma. If you fear something as innocuous as sleep, then the experience definitely has crawled inside your head.
So I decided to do this in pieces, focusing on the blessings that spared my life and sustained my family. For the next 12 days, leading up to Christmas (the idea is handy, if not original), I will reflect on different aspects of what has been an experience unlike any other that has landed in my lap. Unlike even the trauma of a major car accident several years before that left me with fifteen broken bones and brain damage. I should have died then because of the violence of the accident, but after the first few scary hours in the hospital, I was never in danger of the Big Sleep. This time, however, my death was drawn out over a period of months, and every time I thought I was in the clear, the next life-threatening event occurred. This time, my family and I all faced not just the possibility, but the probability that my time here was through.
Here’s the story: On March 23, 2015, I woke up with some abdominal and back pain. The back pain was nothing new, thanks to my car wreck in 2012. The abdominal stuff I chalked up to post-surgery pain, as I had gone in for emergency gall bladder surgery two weeks before. I taught seminary that morning, and when I got home I told my wife that I was glad that I had a follow up appointment scheduled with the surgeon that afternoon. I just didn’t feel that hot. All I had to do for work that day was attend a hearing in Dallas, and my schedule was free. We would have lunch together and then head out for the appointment.
At the hearing, I started feeling nauseated, and I had to excuse myself to go to the men’s room to throw up. I got through the hearing (and won, thank you very much) but had to run to the restroom for a replay while the judge was signing the order. I came back, got my copy of the order, and headed for the underground garage to go home.
Within just a couple of minutes, I knew something wasn’t right. I was sweating profusely, and the abdominal pain was getting stronger. By the time I got to the elevator, I knew I was in trouble. When I got off the elevator, I was pretty sure I was going to die. Not in the sense of “I’m so sick I feel like dying.” More in the sense of, “God help me, I’m actually never going to see my family again. I’m doing to die in a freaking parking garage.”
I was becoming incoherent as I headed for my car and fumbled with the phone. I dialed 911 (how I had service underground is a mystery to me) and told the operator that I didn’t know what was wrong with me, but that I was pretty sure I was dying. She dispatched an ambulance, and I took off my coat and tie and sat in the front seat of my car. She kept me on the line, trying to keep me awake and calm. That fell apart when she told me that the ambulance was lost in the parking garage and could not find me.
By that point, I couldn’t have given anyone directions to the back seat. I started calling for help, and I watched in fear and disbelief as one person after another walked past me, looking at me like I was nothing but trouble. Finally, a man approached me, found out what was going on, and got on the phone to guide the ambulance to me. I heard him say, “I see them now,” and I passed out.
I remember coming around in the ambulance for a moment. I was able to give the paramedic my wife’s name and phone number. They asked what hospital I wanted to go to. I said I didn’t care. The last words I heard as I passed out again were, “Let’s take him to Parkland.” Those five words saved my life.
The next ten days are my wife’s story, not mine, as I was taking an extended nap. Potentially my last. As they worked on me at Parkland, my body went to war with itself. The immediate problem was pancreatitis, but by that evening my pancreas, liver, kidneys, and lungs all had shut down. I was, according to the doctors, the second sickest person in the hospital (and if you are familiar with Parkland Hospital, that is quite the negative accomplishment) and–I learned much later–I was looking at about a 10% chance of survival.
Most of that hospital stay is a muddled memory for me, and my family would not tell me until much later most of what happened during that time. Frankly, I think they are still holding out on the details. Some of what my wife went through during that time I will share in a subsequent post, based on the limited, second-hand information I have. What I do know is that one doctor, who I never met, told my wife that no one was going to die from pancreatitis on his watch, and with her permission, he was going to do some “out of the box” treatments to try to save my life. So she started signing releases, and he went to work.
Over the next 10 days, I swelled up from fluids to the point that my family feared my skin would burst. I was on a respirator and flat-lined twice. I was put on a slow 24-hour dialysis through a special type of catheter in my leg. My wife tells me that there were fifteen other tubes in me at the same time, and who knows what all those were for. Family flew into town, anticipating that this might be their last visit with me. Everyone was terrified, while I just slept on, oblivious to everything in my little coma.
When I woke up (or started the process of waking up), I found that I was intubated, with my hands tied to the hospital bed. I was confused, scared, and hallucinating. For a claustrophobic who is afraid of hospitals, I had basically woken up in Hell. The next several days were a confused progression of medical tests, painful procedures (getting your lungs drained with a needle is about as much fun as you would expect), and a parade of nurses, technicians, and doctors. As each medical professional came through the door, they brought with them the promise of pain, humiliation, or frustration.
That said, these were medical professionals. My life was spared because of a team of doctors that would not give up on what appeared to be a hopeless case. They did not know me, my family, or my story. But they weren’t about to let that story end. The nurses and techs that treated me were almost universally kind and patient. Even when I assaulted one to try to escape from the respirator (a poorly conceived attempt, highlighted by the lightest punch ever thrown in the history of mankind). They endured my complaining. They tended to my needs. They showed that they really cared whether I left the hospital in a wheelchair or on a gurney.
When I left the hospital in mid-April, I was still mentally confused, and I was a physical wreck. But I was alive, and the chances of me staying that way were reasonably good. I’ve been told by numerous medical people that had I been taken to any other hospital in the area, I likely would not have lived. Parkland, as a teaching hospital, was a perfect fit for the cascading failures of my organs and the need for complex and often contradictory treatments to address them. The doctors and nurses often expressed to me their joy–not their professional satisfaction, their joy–that I had pulled through. Later, when I would come back to the hospital for follow-up appointments, without fail I would encounter someone who had participated in my treatment, and their faces would light up when they saw me walking. Or sort of walking. Staggering down a hallway on atrophied legs supported by a cane was a loss to me, but it was their victory, and it meant something to them.
I meant something to them.
So my first expression of thanks is to the medical professionals at Parkland Hospital. Thanks to being stoned out of my mind, I couldn’t pick any of them out of a lineup, but I owe them my life. First they recovered hope for my family, and then they helped me to recover. May God bless those good men and women. Without them, I would have missed every good thing that has happened this year. Without them, this Christmas would be unimaginably dark for my family. They snatched me from death. Unfortunately, within a few months, I would be facing it again.
Tomorrow: Dr. Bob and Baylor Hospital