It was Wednesday, September 6, 2017. A regular workday for hubby and me with ukulele class scheduled after work. Hubby had just turned 60 in August and we were looking forward to a trip to Hawaii with my family in October. We’d been married for four years and life was wonderful…I don’t think either one of us had ever been happier. Our friends were always teasing us and calling us “honeymooners.”
Before work that morning, hubby asked me to take photos of his teeth as he wanted to get his teeth straightened using Smile Direct. It was the first I was aware that his teeth bothered him. (The bottom teeth are a little crooked, but nothing crazy to my eye.) So, we messed around with trying to take close-up photos of his teeth after which we got ourselves together and out the door. Hubby and I hugged and kissed goodbye in the garage with our usual, “Have a good day – love you! See you tonight!”
He headed into Vancouver, Washington to where he worked as a senior lead mechanical design engineer and I headed across the Glenn Jackson bridge into Portland, Oregon where I worked in the accounts payable department of a local electric utility company. The bridge spans the Columbia River – the fourth largest river in the United States by volume and it serves as the north/south dividing line between the states of Oregon and Washington. As there are only two bridges that cross the river from Vancouver to Portland, traffic is typically slow during rush hour as all the commuters bottleneck to get onto and across the bridge. Plenty of time to think.
Forest fires were raging in the western United States…in California it was the most destructive fire season to that date and in Oregon it was the most notable fire season in decades. So foremost on my mind that morning was the Eagle Creek fire which was allegedly started by teens setting off firecrackers in the dry Oregon forest. It caused a massive blaze that spread across the Columbia river gorge and into southwest Washington state. At that time, we lived in Camas, Washington about 30 miles away from the gorge fire. The skies were a yellowish-grayish color because of the smoke. As I drove into work, ash started falling like lazy snowflakes. Once we were both at work, hubby and I exchanged a few emails back and forth about the fires. Hubby was confident we had nothing to worry about – the fire, while only about 10-15% under control was nothing for us to worry about.
About 3 p.m. I received a DM via Facebook messenger from a woman saying she was from hubby’s company’s HR department and that she needed me to contact the hubby’s big boss right away. I was concerned, but not panicked when I called the big boss. He informed me that hubby was involved with a “medical event,” the paramedics were working on him as we spoke and that I should come right away.
I grabbed my stuff, shut off my computer and ran into my boss’s office to tell her I was leaving. I concentrated on deep purposeful breathing. In my car, driving from Portland, OR into Vancouver, WA I called hubby’s brother and asked him to meet me at the emergency room. I called and cancelled our ukulele lesson. I called my family and told them what I knew so far. It was rush hour traffic, so I had plenty of time to make phone calls. Traffic slowly moved back across the Columbia River. I kept breathing. What the heck does “medical event” even mean? Again, plenty of time to think.
About 45 minutes later I met hubby’s big boss at the emergency room, where one of hubby’s co-workers kindly parked my car for me so I could go straight in. The emergency room staff showed us into a private waiting room. There was a love seat, a chair and a coffee table with a box of Kleenexes on it. I knew it wasn’t going to be good news.
Hubby and I found each other later in our lives – we met when I was 42 and he was 53. We both knew that we probably weren’t going to see a 50th wedding anniversary, but I never thought we’d be facing this situation after being married for just four years. It wasn’t enough time together. Losing him was my worst fear.
Talking with hubby’s big boss there in the emergency room, it turns out that at about 2:30p hubby had been sitting in a meeting at work. His co-workers thought he had fallen asleep in the meeting, but after some unknown period, realized that something was wrong and notified building security. Security guard Steve J. (who is also a rescue diver and a 1st Lieutenant in the local Civil Air Patrol) responded. Hubby was unresponsive, was not breathing and had no pulse, so Steve started CPR. The company where hubby was working happens to share corporate offices with PeaceHealth…and there happened to be two male nurses in a conference room next door to the conference room where hubby’s. Noticing the hubbub, the two male nurses ended up taking over CPR from Steve. (Unfortunately, we were not able to discover their names.) They continued CPR for about 20 minutes until paramedics arrived. The paramedics shocked hubby’s heart twice and were able to get it to start beating again. Hubby was then rushed to the nearest emergency room which was a PeaceHealth SW Medical Center in Vancouver, WA.
Eventually an emergency room doctor came in and started asking questions about hubby’s health. He explained what had happened, but only in a very vague way. There had been a cardiac event. His lungs were full of fluid. Did he have pneumonia? They were working on him. It was a blur for me. I asked for a paper and pen so I could write down notes. I had to write things down because I couldn’t keep anything in my mind. After about half an hour or so I was able to walk with hubby (who was lying pale and unconscious on a gurney, intubated with clothing cut off and laying in tatters around his long body) from the emergency room up to the cardiac intensive care unit where we met up with hubby’s brother and his wife.
Doctors did immediate surgery and found a blocked artery so put in a stent. After surgery hubby spent the next three days in a medically induced coma and his body cooled to 32 degrees C. The doctors weren’t sure if he’d come out of the coma, so our families rushed to our side.
Happily, after his body was warmed up and the coma drugs were dialed down, hubby woke up. It turns out that he’d suffered a heart attack. We would eventually come to find out that because his brain was without oxygen for an unknown period of time he also suffered an anoxic brain injury. The full effects of which would manifest over time.
Because he had Kaiser for medical insurance, as soon as he was stable, which was after about 5 days in the PeaceHealth CICU, hubby was transported to Kaiser’s Progressive Care Unit (PCU) which was about 20 miles away in Clackamas, OR. Hubby was very, very weak and on oxygen and a feeding tube. He had to be moved by Hoyer lift and ambulance. He screamed with pain when they first tried to lift him and I immediately had a terrible anxiety attack. The CICU nurse gave him some pain killers that knocked him out and they completed the lift to the ambulance gurney. He spent another 5 days at Kaiser's PCU.
From Kaiser PCU he was transferred to a Skilled Nursing Facility in SE Portland, OR where he was for 15 days. During this time he was able to move from the feeding tube onto a pureed and then mechanical soft diet. Swallowing and speaking were very big challenges, but he continued to slowly get stronger. As he became more alert and time passed, it became apparent he was also suffering from delirium, which the doctors said should pass with time.
On the Sept 29th hubby was transferred to the Rehabilitation Institute of Oregon (RIO) in NW Portland, OR. During the night he couldn’t breathe, despite the oxygen, so he was given a CAT scan and multiple pulmonary emboli were discovered in both lungs. After only one night at RIO, Randy was immediately rushed back to Kaiser’s Emergency Room, where he was put on blood thinning treatments.
After another 5 days in their PCU, he was deemed stable enough to go back to skilled nursing, so this time he was sent to a Post-Acute Care facility in Vancouver, WA where he continued his convalescence for another 10 days. Hubby continued to get stronger and his stamina was slowly improving. Here he was able to finally stand and transfer to a wheelchair and eventually was able to take a few steps with a walker! Swallowing and speaking were still challenging.
On October 13th Randy was transferred back to RIO where he went through intensive and challenging physical (PT), occupational (OT) and speech (ST) therapy daily for the next month.
During these months of medical stabilization and in-patient rehab, I felt like I was living in my car. I ate a LOT of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I’d either head home to sleep at night, or I’d spend the night over at a friend’s house…whichever was closer to hubby. I slept on chairs and cots in hubby’s room when I could. I worked when I could and eventually took a leave of absence from my job. I slept in my car when I couldn’t keep going. I was so lucky to have the amazing support of hubby's oldest brother and sister-in-law who were a huge help during these trying times.
On November 1, 2017 hubby was finally released home to continue his convalescence as a home-health patient. Hubby's middle brother came up from California and helped me bring him home from the hospital and settle in at home. PT, speech and OT therapists and phlebotomists all came out to the house for his treatments. Hubby’s strength continued to slowly improve and so finally on January 1, 2018 he moved off home-health and started his therapies and treatments as an out-patient.
Hubby’s cardiologist said it was a miracle he survived! Every nurse and doctor he saw made a point to say that he received EXCELLET CPR. Every single one of his ribs was broken. No mean feat considering he’s 6’4” and just over 300 lbs!
I often think of the 2017 forest fires and how they are analogies to our lives that year. Hubby’s medical event burned our lives to the ground – everything changed after that event. Hubby had to retire. After an extended leave of absence, and a period of trying to work part-time, I quit my job to take care of hubby. We sold our house out in the country and downsized into a house in town so we could be closer to people and services. It has turned out that the area of hubby’s brain that was injured is the same area that is injured when someone has Parkinson’s’ Disease and so he has many Parkinson’s symptoms and challenges….so he has a diagnosis of pseudo-Parkinson’s. He also has some cognitive issues (diagnosed general cognitive disorder) and has a hard time expressing himself sometimes (aphasia). His short-term memory was also affected. Hubby is no longer able to walk and now uses an electric wheelchair to get around. I need to use a lift to move his body from the bed to the toilet to a chair, etc. He needs help with toileting, dressing and all other activities of daily living. Our lives became too different for some of our friends (or they were too disturbed by the changes in hubby) so they have removed themselves from our lives.
It has been a stressful, exhausting, hopeful two and a half years of intense therapy and doctor’s appointments and trying to find our "new normal." We still aren't there yet. My hubby is such a hard worker. He is very smart, loving, patient and good humored....most of the time! LOL! (Real talk - we both have our moments!) The landscape of our lives is still changing…but it is no longer so bleak. As the forest heals you see that some of the old growth is scorched but survives. There is new growth. For every friend that has fallen away, three have stepped up and blessed us with incredible generosity, love and support. I’ve gone back to church and found the spiritual comfort and peace I've been looking for since I stopped going to church as a child. We've been welcomed into a loving and supportive community of aphasia, stroke and brain injury survivors. (The survivor and caregiver support groups that we participate in are lifesaving for us!) Our new house is perfectly set up for wheelchair accessibility and we’ve been lucky enough to make friends with some ah-mazing neighbors! So many of my prayers have been answered in these two and a half years.
Just as the forest is eventually renewed after a fire, so our lives are eventually renewed after a traumatic event. This was the worst thing that has ever happened to us individually and as a couple….and at the same time it has led to some of the most amazing experiences. Life is dramatically different than it was before hubby’s medical event. But it is still a beautiful life.