(The longer version I typed into my AlphaSmart keyboard during the hospital stay)
I had heard of others who’ve had a close call with death share their renewed enthusiasm for this life. Mine helped me grasp more fully what it means to be born again. I don’t know if medically my experience qualifies as a “near death” experience, but it has changed me. It has changed me forever. “What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things” (Phillipians 3:8). Please allow me to share a little of my story.
I had a stroke on January 3, 2004. The morning dawned crisp and cold. Our family had been skiing in Winter Park, Colorado for five days, enjoying terrific snow— if not enduring some of the longest lines and most crowded conditions I had ever seen at that area. Apparently Winter Park was one of the few areas in Colorado that had received decent snowfall yet this year. My parents had hosted my husband and children and me for a week après Christmas with my sister and a family friend. After a great time on the slopes and a relaxing time at the large home my parents had rented, we packed up to head back to Dallas, breaking up the drive by staying overnight in Pueblo, CO.
After a quick breakfast at the Hampton Inn, we headed for home. Our family is used to road trips. Not that we’ve always had the choice, but I think given the choice we might still prefer them to plane flights. We packed enough for several weeks of travel—not in clothes, but in things to do en route: videos and DVDs, audio-books, books to read aloud and silently, Game Boys, Bret’s laptop loaded with new games, things to work on. I had even decided to bite the bullet on the trip down and make the switch to a Palm Pilot. Bret had tutored me and I had been able to input all of my spring semester appointments and activities for myself and the kids.
With our kids being older, 12, 9, and 8, such trips have become a joy rather than a burden. We read aloud and listened to the books on tape, including The Hobbit and Ghosts in the Gallery on this particular trip. I regret that we never got to My Side of the Mountain; that was the one Reese, my youngest, had picked out.
Our kids are conditioned to travel in the car. We’ve logged more than 100,000 miles on my Suburban in less than four years—most of it in road trips to Colorado, Branson, MO and Gulf Shores, AL. There, the secrets are out about America’s best (and least expensive) vacation spots!
After a continental breakfast at the Hampton Inn, we headed south on Interstate 25. We were cheerful, eager, expectant. None of us has ever dreaded road trips; on the contrary, we enjoy the time to read together, listen to books on tape, enjoy some of our favorite music or simply share thoughts about goals and life in general. This particular morning, we decided to finish These Happy Golden Years, the final book in the Little House on the Prairie series. One of my favorites as a kid, I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of making the books come alive to my own children, my boys enjoying them as much as my daughter. In fact, during the drive across the icy, snowy Berthoud Pass on the way home from Winter Park, my voice and that book helped keep my husband calm and the kids oblivious to any possible risks of the narrow, treacherous conditions.
To bring you up to speed, Almanzo Wilder is wooing Laura Ingalls, but the hated Nellie Oleson, his nearest neighbor, has schemed to ride behind the brown Morgans—the fastest, nicest and most beautiful team of horses in the territory. This particular Sunday, Almanzo has promised to pick up Laura for a buggy ride. As the buggy approaches, Laura can see that Nellie is already sitting by Almanzo. The two women have disliked one another for years, dating back to time when they were both children living in another part of the country, when Nellie insulted Laura’s parents. Laura debates whether or not to go with them, but decides to not give up Almanzo without a fight. I continued reading, as engrossed in the story I read time and time again as a child, my children as enraptured with the timeless nature of the pioneer struggles and romance as I.
Suddenly I struggled to catch my breath and the book seemed farther away than arms’ length. The words did not exactly blur on the page, but they jumped around—some appearing closer, other’s farther, much farther, away. I put down the book and turn back around to face front in my seat.
My oldest son Charlie asked, “What, Mom?” He referred not to my condition, but rather what happened next in the story. After all, having rooted for Laura and Almanzo for several books, we weren’t about to lose him to Nellie Olsen now! I breathed deep, but my breath caught in my throat. My vision blurred—not teary blurry, but more like a Salvadore Dali painting with some objects appearing near, some much farther away, most distorted. The kids pressed me again to continue. I told them I needed to catch my breath. Little did I know that my body was having a stroke.
I now know the physiological reasons for strokes—more than I ever wanted to know, truth be told—but at that moment, I only know that things seemed distorted and strange. My right side went completely numb. I had the sensation of being in a fun house complete with distorted mirrors that kept me from seeing clearly. I grabbed my right arm with my left and could feel nothing.
My dear husband, sensing the seriousness of the situation, pulled off the highway, eased to the side of the road and came around to my side of the car within moments. He says that he began massaging my right arm. I could feel nothing. I remembering hearing a sharp intake of breath when I saw him—with my left eye—massaging my right arm. Still I could feel nothing. I grabbed my right thigh frantically hoping for some feeling, some sensation. It was a wooden stump. With as little as I know about the condition, my mind immediately thought “stroke”! Bret was back around to the driver’s side in a matter of seconds and turned the car around to head back toward Pueblo.
- Miracle #1: My husband sharpened his sales teeth in the toughest training ground possible—pharmaceutical sales. As a result, he had become conditioned—whether consciously or subconsciously—to notice the blue hospital road signs as he drove around his large territory attempting to steal a few moments from doctors’ busy schedules. He entered the highway, going back to the north, and saw such a sign within moments. He exited, following the signs.
He jokes that he knew that I was going to be OK when I argued with him about the direction we were taking—through a residential neighborhood. (Wouldn’t it make more sense for a hospital—especially one that would have the kind of facilities we would need to treat my stroke—to be in more commercial area?) Seconds later, we turned into the parking lot at the emergency room of St. Mary-Corwin Medical Center. The sign out in front of this relatively tiny hospital listed three specialties. The last one was Stroke Trauma Center. God had led us to the right place.
- Miracle #2: We entered the ER and no one else was waiting. I was admitted in a matter of seconds and placed on a gurney. He took care of a few paperwork items while a nurse wheeled me to the trauma center.
- Miracle #3: Possibly because he had used up several “favors” during the recent Christmas holiday or just by God’s miraculous design, the doctor on call in the ER was the Chief of Staff of the hospital. He gave me individual attention for the next three hours that I was there. I watch ER. The Chief of Staff is never the “on call” doctor in the ER.
- Miracle #4: I was in a bed, being monitored and examined within fifteen minutes of my initial symptoms. I wouldn’t have been able to do that had I been in my own home—the hospital being about a fifteen-minute drive with no traffic.
Continuing with my distorted Salvadore Dali theme, I saw half of a doctor examine half of my body. I’ve been assured that he examined all of me, but my sensations, including nerve endings and vision, saw him only examining my left side. I had three more “episodes” of the numbness while I was in the ER. It came on me in waves—much like the tingling you feel when your foot wakes up after sitting too long.
Our children were gems, troopers, angels—you choose the word. Charlie, my twelve-year-old, especially bore a great responsibility, rising to the occasion with strength and grace. He had been sitting less than two feet from me in the car when the stroke occurred. Plus at his age, he was old enough to grasp the gravity of the situation. He later admitted he thought I was dying. He watched his younger brother and sister, nine-year-old Molly and eight-year-old Reese the entire time I was being examined and Bret was in the back with me. He read to them, played with them, kept them calm in spite of his own fears and concerns about my condition. He jumped from twelve to seventeen emotionally that morning.
I remember little of what happened after that. The doctor ordered a battery of tests. (It’s always called a “battery”, isn’t it, though I have no idea why.) I had a CAT Scan, an EKG, two MRIs and numerous examinations both in the ER and in my room once they admitted me.
Verdict: stroke, caused by a blood clot that had drifted through a hole in my heart and up to the left side of my brain—thus the paralysis on my right side. The doctor started me on meds right away and monitored every bodily function I have—some I didn’t even know about. Hours passed and my children played and read and charmed their way into the hearts of the hospital staff.
- Miracle #5: Again, possibly due to vacation schedules, the head of the neurology department was on call and assessed my situation, ordering additional tests and meds.
“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord you God will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9). Verses like this reverberated through my mind. Though I never considered the damage to be life-threatening, I was uncertain about what senses and functions I might regain. We have had several friends and acquaintances experience strokes. Many results have been debilitating.
The prayers went out very soon after I was admitted. My husband called the key people at church and in our families—movers and shakers who would get the word out on a Saturday at the end of a holiday.
Calls of encouragement and support came pouring in. We had recently been involved in a search for a new Sunday school class, having recently been called to teach in the youth department with our son Charlie. As a result, we had three different classes with close friends who committed to pray for my recovery and the well-being of our family.
“I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Joshua 1:5). I sensed the presence of the Lord throughout each test, each scan, each round of medication. He reminded me again and again that He—not these doctors, as wonderful as they were—is the Great Physician. He assured me that He desired only good and not evil for me all the days of my life. I truly experienced the peace that passes all understanding. Having recently read Randy Alcorn’s tremendous novel about death and heaven, Deadline, I wasn’t afraid to die; on the contrary, I look forward to eternal life with my Savior and Lord—free from pain, anguish and turmoil that we have in this life. However, I remember thinking that God still wanted me here. That He had some unfinished plan for my life. I pray that His plan
will be revealed and I will be obedient to whatever He calls me to do.
To say that the night was rough barely scratches the surface. Anyone who has ever spent the night in the hospital knows that you don’t go there to get rest. I was awakened throughout the night for blood pressure, pulse-ox and temperature checks. They drew blood at least every four hours—sometimes more often—for various tests, one time collecting seven vials. I woke when I needed to go to the bathroom, even when I rolled over—being hooked to the IV.
In the morning things were much brighter. The night was a refining fire, a cleansing. The morning brought new hope and the realization that not only would I live to praise the Lord for another day, but that He had graciously chosen to restore my body.
We saw many more miracles during our stay.
- Miracle #6: Bret called Dr. Greg Schucany, a radiologist friend of ours from church to talk about my condition. Greg knew the radiologist who had been processing my MRI films; they had worked together at Baylor Hospital as members of the same radiology group for years. A quick phone call and Bret headed downstairs to radiology for a one-on-one lesson on how to read my films. This caring doctor even sent them home with us.
- Miracle #7: My parents had not yet left Colorado. They were able to come to the hospital, pick up our children, and take everyone home to Rockwall. My condition was stable and doctors expected a complete recovery, so it was better for the kids to get home and back to school.
- Miracle #8: Our good friends, the Mases, the Arledges, and the Scheeles, came into our home and prepared it for our return. They put away all of our Christmas decorations, tidied the house, stocked the refrigerator and pantry, and left a beautiful flowering plant for us to enjoy. Thank God for a rallying support system, ever present with prayers and practical help during this time.
We saw dozens of other smaller miracles during our trip home my subsequent recovery. Many came in the form of caring notes from friends, especially teachers and children from our kids’ schools. Others were everyday miracles given as meals and practical help such as carpooling and watching our kids. I kept up with thank you notes during the first two weeks, but there became so many, I lost track. Thank you to all who cared for us in our time of need. You rallied and exemplified the love of Christ.
Healing continued slowly but steadily. I still was unable to read for nearly two months. My mind couldn’t wrap around words—I just didn’t have the attention span. I remember the day I finally felt like checking e-mail—what a milestone! Throughout the entire process, I was indeed “confident of this, that he who began a good work
in [me] will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6). I’m still not sure that I fully understand the meaning of this verse, but God has certainly shown me how fleeting and fragile this life can be. He has shown me His infinite mercy in allowing me a second chance to right wrongs, give and receive forgiveness, experience the fullness of joy in this life, and rely on Him for my every breath, my every step, my every thought.
I do not consider myself worthy to carry such a message—of life, of redemption, of grace—but He has not given me a choice in the matter. His perspective not mine. His directives, not mine. His priorities, not mine. If I do nothing else, may I serve him humbly, thankful for each subsequent breath and reminded that He is not
only the giver of all good things, but He is the Lord of the Universe. He is not only the Great Physician, He is my Redeemer and yours!
I pray—not to be worthy of the message He has now called me to deliver—but simply to love him with all my heart, mind, soul and strength. Loving my neighbor as myself wouldn’t hurt either.
May God be glorified through my actions, my speech, my attitude forevermore. Thank you for this second chance, Father. I pray that I will not let you down.