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I Almost Died Today…

I almost died today…6 years ago.
(February 6, 2011)

Many of you may know about my “adventure” in February-March of 2011, but some of you may not. So I thought I’d tell the story…in fact,  David wanted me to write it all out so he could remember some of the details (even though it causes him great stress still to this day to remember it.) There’s a lot involved but I’ll try to make it as brief and to the point as I can, so as not to bore you with lots and lots of details. Let me apologize now that this will be soooo freaking long…

And as a sidenote, I’m not posting this to get a “Yay, LeeAnn” response…I’m only posting this to share my story of how amazing and good and merciful my God can be…to me…and to you…and to those people in your life who are close to Him or who are not so close to Him. Plus, some close friends have been asking me to tell my story again.

My God doesn’t discriminate. I’m no better than anyone else just because He chose to treat me favorably in my less-than-favorable circumstance. If I had succumbed to my illness 6 years ago, I would still have delighted in the goodness of our God!

God. Is. Good. All the time.

———————

So, the week of January 23rd, 2011, David and his dad were on a road trip to Texas. While they were gone, I began running a pretty substantial temperature in the evenings, on and off. It would go up to 103 at times, but only stayed there 15 minutes or so and then go back down to normal or just above. I called my oncologist (I was in the midst of chemo for breast cancer) on Monday, the 24th, and told her what was going on. She put me on an oral antibiotic, because we were both thinking that it sounded like a severe sinus infection because my head was so stopped up and aching. On January 26, I went for my 5th treatment of chemo and was not running a fever and felt pretty good that day. David and his dad got home that evening.

On Thursday, January 27th, I went for my Neulasta shot here in Cortez (Neulasta is a drug that keeps your white blood cell count from running too high, risking infection). I was running a high fever that afternoon. My friend, Maureen, the infusionist, said “You’re not looking good, LeeAnn” and she called my oncologist and told them what she was thinking…that the antibiotics weren’t doing the trick. So my oncology doctor, Dr. Cathcart, told her to put me on an IV antibiotic before I left the infusion clinic. So I sat there for about 3 hours that afternoon, receiving intravenous antibiotics…later than clinic hours, and Maureen lovingly and patiently stayed there with me until the antibiotics were completed.

It didn’t make any difference whatsoever. So Dr. Cathcart told Maureen that she wanted me to come see her in Durango on Friday morning.

So on Friday, January 28, 2011, David and I drove to Durango to see my oncologist. I sat down in the exam room and she walked in and said, “You’re not gonna wanta hear this, but I’m admitting you to the hospital. I think you have pneumonia.” {I don’t remember her saying, “I think you have pneumonia”, but David said she did lol} So, off we went, down the hall to admit me into the hospital.

The next things I tell you are basically what’s been told to me…plus, David emailed me almost every day to let me know exactly what was going on…as much for his sake as mine…because I don’t remember a lot of what happened over the next 4 weeks after that.

I do remember having to deal with oxygen paraphernalia that weekend…driving me freaking-batty cuz it was so uncomfortable, but my oxygen level was dropping and they were doing all they could to keep it up as high as they could. They took a blood gas reading by sticking a short-ish needle deep in the underside of my left wrist to access a major vein there…ouch! I also remember them bringing bag after bag after bag of saline and antibiotics and other fluids that they gave me intravenously.

On Saturday night, the 29th, I remember asking for a nutrition drink (similar to Ensure, because at that point in my cancer treatment, that’s all I could stomach) for supper because I just wasn’t too hungry. The cute food girl came in and said, “How would you like for me to make you a chocolate milkshake with Haagen Daz ice cream?” I remember saying, “Oh, yeah!!” As I recall, It tasted amazing!! (Since the chemo had pretty much completely taken away my ability to taste anything, it was a miracle that I could savor that amazing chocolate ice cream!) I also remember them giving me an Ambien to help me get some sleep because I hadn’t slept good the night before and they said I had to get some rest.

After that, everything is a total freaking bluuuuuuurrrrrrrrr……

So, here are the bits and pieces I’ve been told by David and others as to what happened to me pieced together. Because really, I honestly remember nothing,

January 30th… 

Because I had stable and somewhat improving numbers Saturday night, David went home to Cortez to finish preparing his message for Sunday. He got up Sunday morning and called my attending nurse to check on me at about 7 to find out how I was doing; the report was “not good, not good at all”.

He said, “LeeAnn didn’t have a good night at all. Dr. Brown is here and he’s going to put her in ICU.” David said, “I’m on my way.” So he called our dear friend, Jacob, and told him he would have to cover the message for that day because he [David] was going to Durango. Jacob said, “I got this.” (I love my Jacob!!!!!) 

It seems that Saturday night, all through the night, every time I would fall asleep, I would hyperventilate. And the meds they gave me to help me sleep worsened this undesired affect, which threw off my numbers, my chemical balance and gave the infection in my lungs a better environment to multiply…and multiply they did.

My oncologist was consulted and she immediately shifted my care to Dr. Brown, the pulmonary specialist. He swiftly moved me into ICU for constant monitoring. Because I had to use all my energy to breathe and fight the raging infection, I began to wear down and wear out. Again, every time I would move or cough, I would hyperventilate again. So Dr. Brown decided to intubate me (which I was told that he said, “She may hate me after this is all over, because I couldn’t wait for her to be completely knocked out before I put the tube in.” It was that urgent.)… and allow the ventilator to breathe for me, while he sedated me. This allowed my body to do nothing but fight the infection. So, I was placed in a drug-induced coma with 4-5 sedatives and a paralytic, which, at least one of these, has a retro-amnesia effect, which is why i can’t remember much of what happened before Sunday morning.

They decided at that time that what I was dealing with was something akin to the H1N1 virus (which later was discovered this was not the problem.) And as with all viruses, there’s no drug that will combat it. All everyone could do was allow the ventilator to force oxygen to every corner of my lung and confirm that my lungs were exchanging gases properly.

Monday morning, the 31st, David called the ICU nurse and they told him that I had had a stable night and, considering how very sick I was, that was a good sign; that the latest x-rays were hopefully going to reveal that the infection was subsiding. He also told David that my trip back to health was a very long and very slow process. (“We’re not looking at days, David…we’re looking at weeks.”) 

On February 1, David called the attending nurse again, who told him I’d had another stable night, which was a good thing. I had a team of 4 doctors working with me and one of them came in and spent a few minutes talking to David, explaining some things about what I was fighting. David said he then spent a while reading some of the cards I’d received and trying to tell me about the scores of texts and FB messages and prayer meetings and greetings that people were sending my way.

Which, just let me add here, I can’t tell you all enough how thankful I am for all of those things…cards and letters and gifts that I have in a special place so I can go back and look at and read and…remember. 

He also found out from the doctors that my “recovery journey” could take as long as 3 weeks or longer. Wisely, David decided to continue to stay over in Durango at the Comfort Inn, so graciously paid for by sweet, precious friends of ours. This hotel turned out to be David’s home for many, many nights.

On or around February 4th, my parents and sister drove here from Amarillo, TX, to be by my side. Because…the end could be very near. Yes…the end.

Over February 5-6, I was in what David calls the “Red Zone”…I was alive…but only barely. And the various means of monitoring my health gave no indication that I was ever going to get better. David also discovered through a series of questions that I was experiencing ARDS — Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome. And, I had developed septic shock…basically meaning that my internal organs were on red alert and any or all of them could begin failing at any moment. My lungs were becoming “stiff” and “brittle.” I’m telling you…this was scary, scary stuff, people

But on February 6th, things began to change a tiny bit. I was making some micro baby steps toward health — my critical numbers began to rise…a good thing…my blood pressure was needing less support from the adrenaline, my lungs were getting marginally better at being softer and more flexible, so they were able to lower the pressure it took to inflate my lungs, as well as the pacing of my inhalation and my exhalation. That night, I was weened off two of the antibiotics I’d been on. My kidneys were getting stressed but were holding up well. David asked Sally, one of my nurses, what she’d look for to know I was out of the “Red Zone” and she said, after looking around at aaalllll the stuff that was supporting me, “I think we’re there right now.”

This was good, good news.

(As another addendum here, I had gained close to 80 pounds of fluid while laying there with all the fluids and stuff they were pumping into me 24/7. Holy cannoli!!!)

On February 7th, I had had a good night’s sleep the night before. The nurses and doctors had pushed my tolerance limits and found that I could take care of one or two functions on my own, without any drug support. While my lungs were still very sick, I was able to get by with marginally-less support from the ventilator.

That day, my parents and sister were the ones on duty staying at the hospital. So David visited me at 8:45 then headed to Cortez to do house cleaning chores and office stuff. Then he came back to Durango that night at about 6:15.

February 8th…I held my ground I’d gained for another day

February 9th… I made some real strides in the right direction over the 24 previous hours. One of the bigger things was I started to tolerate the tube feeding, which evidently had been a real struggle for my body to handle up to this point. They intentionally lessened the amount of sedation I’d been under so they could see how my autonomic systems would tolerate adjustments to my regimen, the primary one, of course, being my ventilator. They adjusted my breathing inhalation/exhalation rate closer to normal and I took right to it. They were taking chest x-rays everyday and at this point, I was still not out of the woods on the lung-health thing, but I was so much better than I was 10 days earlier.

My parents and sister left this day, which I’m told was very emotional.

February 10th…I had a really productive and progressive day.

February 11th… Before David left me around 5pm. The powers-that-be ordered a handful of tests to rule out/get a jump on any other potential surprises with me: an EKG and an ultrasound of my heart to make sure there were no issues there; an ultrasound of my legs, looking for clots; and a CT scan of my brain to check for any lesions/tumors. When David returned at 8:30, he found out the tests were clear and revealed no surprises, except for a small blood clot in my right jugular vein from a central line that had been inserted there. They gave me a clot-buster drug which took care of that.

February 12th… My blood pressure was spot-on, my pulse was normal, I was operating on a smidge less sedation…so my eyes, hands and head were moving from time to time. Plus, I began to take on a measurable amount more responsibility for my breathing. At this time, the Dr. and the team told David that they were probably going to give me a tracheostomy on Monday the 14th to allow me to heal more quickly and hopefully get out of ICU sooner.

I was moved to a Pressure Support Mode on the ventilator, which meant that I was the one doing the breathing. And I did it for an hour and a half.

February 13th… I was moved to the Pressure Support Mode on the ventilator again this day and was able to breathe on my own for 3 hours. I was reduced down to only one sedative. They dropped the Fentanyl (a narcotic sedative) which helped my systems get back into gear. I was moving my hands and legs and head and blinking more, too.

February 14th, Valentines Day… When David came to see me, he said I’d lost lots of the swelling/edema and he was able to catch a glimpse of the curve of my familiar face 🙂 Over the last 24 hours I had lost about 2 gallons of fluid…close to 20 pounds worth. I breathed on my own for another 3 hours. A physical therapist came in and spent an hour in stretching exercises. Every joint, large and small, was worked over…all while letting me have no sedative and letting me do all the breathing.

Dr. Weiss, one of the Dr’s on my team, was so impressed with my momentum that he delayed the tracheostomy decision until Wednesday (the 15th)…which, as a praise, I never even had to have.

February the 15th… I continued to lose more of the accumulated fluid and “looking more like myself,” as David says it. He [David] met with the cardiologist that one of my Dr’s had requested a consult with. This cardiologist assessed that my arrhythmia was due to my coming off the Propofol a few days earlier; commented that my heart looked a little weak from all that I’d been through, a little leaking in the mitrovalves. So he ordered another ultrasound and another drug to help my heart be more efficient and eliminate the leaks.

David went to grab lunch with his dad and CD (our son)r, and when he and his dad came back to the hospital, my sweetest most favoritest nurse, Angela, met them coming down the hall and said, “I think you’re going to be happy to see what’s going on in here!” The physical therapist was working with me just like before, but this day I’d been off my last sedative for about 6 hours, I’d been waking up on all levels. I was squeezing hands, lifting my legs when the therapist told me to, pointing my foot and toes, answering yes/no questions, furrowing my brow when David would tell me things, and deciding I wanted to breathe on my own and was tired of having the tube down my throat.

I don’t remember any bit of this, because the amnesia affect of sedatives takes several days to start wearing off. But I’m so grateful that David took good notes so I could fill in the empty spaces.

————–

To jump to the end of this scenario, I was released from ICU on about February 20, and I was put into a med/surg room to continue my recovery. At this point, I can remember more and more of what was happening to me. I was continuing to get better and stronger. I had lost most of the strength and movement ability in my body as a result of being sedated and completely motionless for 21 days, so I was in a wheelchair all the time if I wasn’t in the bed. David would take me for “rides” around the hospital, outside my room, which I very vaguely remember…taking me to the hallway windows so that I could see outside. I remember it being very sunny…and seeing spots of snow on the ground…and people walking on the sidewalks below.

In a few days, I began physical therapy in the hospital “gym” where I would “attempt” to stand and take some steps. As I recall, it was painful and frustrating and crazy-maddening at times.

Finally, on February 25th, I was transferred to a rehabilitation hospital in Farmington, New Mexico, where I would spend the next 2+ weeks as an in-patient, working 4-6 hours every day on getting the use back in my legs, arms, hands, back…and voice. I could only whisper…the result of being intubated for so long.  I remember it was tough to swallow and I would easily gag when I drank anything. Most of my drinking was through a straw, so that I wouldn’t take too much in my mouth at one time.

And in the first few days there, if I drank water, they would mix a “thickener” in it…something similar to gelatin…to make it easier to swallow. Yuck! lol

The first weekend I was there, my parents, sister and nephew Caleb came back up from Texas to see me. It was sooooo good to see them, since I was not even aware of the their presence during their first visit. I also had visits from one of my best-forever friends, Donna Barlow Smith and her husband Steve, who had come to Colorado on a ski trip (she lives in Louisiana), and made an on-purpose out-of-the-way trip to Farmington just to see me and bring me gifts and chocolate milkshakes. 🙂 They made me smile…and cry. And they took David out to celebrate his upcoming 50th birthday. I had lots of other visits, as well, from so many close friends and family.

The first week in rehab was extremely frustrating because I could barely hold an eating utensil to feed myself…I couldn’t open a packet of salad dressing or take the wrapper off of a straw or open a can of soda…I couldn’t simply swallow a sip of water without choking on it. I couldn’t write legibly…couldn’t get around on my own without someone’s help and supervision…couldn’t stand up without the aid of someone or a walker. I began thinking that I’d been forgotten by the whole.world…and God…and that I would never draw, write, sing, eat, swallow, talk or walk right again.

But…God is SO good. And over the second week in rehab, I decided that this was for the birds and I got to WORK!! I began to make major-mega strides toward getting everything back in working order. I was determined that this was not going to get the best of me and flared up my stubborn side, big and bright.

And because one of my nurses there knew I played piano, she encouraged me to play “Happy Birthday” for an older gentleman there in rehab with me…so I tried ((they had an old upright in the dining room) and it actually sounded half-way decent. My hands were very weak and shaky for a long time, but not so much when I played the piano. It didn’t sound half bad, actually. Sweet!

On March 11th, I was released from rehab. I went immediately to my oncologist for an appointment and was told that I would no longer be undergoing chemo treatments (I was supposed to have 3 more of them)…she didn’t want to compromise my immune system any more than it already had been. So she put me on Tamoxifen, an estrogen-receptor blocker (since my tumor was almost 100% hormone/estrogen fed). She said to take it for a month and come back to see her.

I continued physical therapy on an out-patient basis here in Cortez for the following 4 weeks and it helped me tremendously. As of now, I am walking, talking, singing, playing, writing, drawing and feeding myself (lol) as good as ever. Well, my voice is still pretty raspy when I sing in higher registers…but David says it’s sexy (hehe).

And again, thank you to all of you who sent cards and flowers and stuffed animals and chocolate and knitted winter hats and nummy warm, comfy socks, and sent texts and emails and Facebook messages, etc. etc. etc. It means the whole amazing world to me…and I am so, so blessed to have so many that care about me. Not to mention, thank you for all the prayers and kind words you spoke on my behalf. I was, and I am, humbled by it all.

——————————
So, there it is. My story. My only prayer in sharing this is that, if you’re going through something that seems insurmountable, something that makes you feel like God has forgotten about you…It isn’t…and He hasn’t.

Life is life is life is life…good, bad and otherwise. And God gives life.

Do things always work out the way we want them to? No. But that doesn’t mean that God can’t make a purpose-path through all the crap.

He can!! And He does!!

Hang in there. Don’t give up. Overcome all the obstacles that the stupid, powerless enemy tries to litter our path with…jump over them…run around them…and see what God has in store for you!

Believe me, there is such a joy and a hope and a promise waiting at the end of this run! You will not be sorry that you didn’t give up!

One thought on “I Almost Died Today…

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