To Hell and Back In 96 Hours
My mom was brought in for brain surgery to treat an aneurysm on Wednesday, September 21st at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix, Arizona.
The maternal side of my family carries the Polycystic Kidney Disease gene. Complications of the disease include flank pain and migraines; to the more severe symptoms such as kidney failure and brain aneurysms.
One of my maternal relatives had an aneurysm rupture back in December, which statistically put the remainder of us who carry the Polycystic Kidney Disease gene at a much greater chance of having an aneurysm ourselves.
My mom and her sisters, as well as my sister and I were then scheduled for MRI’s and MRA’s to ensure that we did not have cerebral aneurysms.
My brain scans came back clear, but my mom’s did not. She had three aneurysms (that had not ruptured), two of which were in dangerous areas and needed to be surgically repaired.
Three weeks ago, my mom went in for surgery to have the first aneurysm repaired. Our family was on pins and needles the entire time, absolutely terrified. The surgery went off without a hitch, and she was home the next day resting comfortably in bed.
Because the aneurysms could not be repaired at the same time, she was then brought back in three weeks later, on Wednesday, to repair the second one. Seeing how well the first surgery went, we were all at ease. I sent her a text message the morning of her surgery sending her good thoughts and prayers and my last sentence said: “You got this, Mom!”
Less than 12 hours later, I sat at my desk in San Diego wondering if that was the last conversation I’d ever have with my mom.
I’d just returned from lunch with my friend Sara when I received a phone call from my dad. I’d been texting him throughout the day asking if he had any updates.
“Not yet, I’ll let you know when I know something” he wrote back time and again.
When he phoned me at 4:30pm (6 hours after she started her surgery), his voice was direct and monotone: “Your mom’s surgery didn’t go too well. I’m driving back to the hospital now and just got off the phone with the neurosurgeon. He said that they repaired the aneurysm, however, once they brought her out of anesthesia, she had no mobility on the right side of her body. They’ve rushed her back into surgery.”
“What?! What does this mean, Dad?” I asked.
“We don’t know right now.” he responded.
I hung up with him and quickly started looking up flights from San Diego to Phoenix.
I phoned my sister, who works at the same hospital that my mom was having her surgery at, and asked her the same thing I’d asked my dad: “How bad is this, Kaley?”
She responded with the same thing: “We really won’t know for 12-18 hours, Ash.”
I landed in Phoenix at 10:00PM that night, Justin and I’s best friends picked me up from the airport and dropped me right at the front door of the hospital. My sister came down from the ICU to grab me and my luggage and lead the way to the Neurological ICU, where my mom was.
As we got closer and closer to my mom’s room, my legs beneath me became wobbly and my lungs became tight. The ICU smelled so clean; it was so bright and everyone walking around seemed so calm- so at ease.
I stopped in the middle of the hallway and told my sister I needed a second. She reminded me that what I was about to see was way worse than what it actually was.
“Ash, Mom can breathe on her own, but they have her intubated on purpose. They want her brain to heal so they have her body doing as minimal work as possible. She is slightly awake because they need to continuously check her arms and legs to make sure that the mobility is still there on both the left and right sides. You got this, come on.”
“You got this.” Those were the same exact words I’d said to my mom before she’d went into surgery.
I walked into her room and my sister wasn’t kidding- it looked awful. My mom looked so small on that huge hospital bed. Her hair was pushed out of her face in a way that I know she would have hated. She had a huge black dot on the top of her forehead from where they’d marked her head to screw her into the head brace for surgery.
There were lines and tubes everywhere. IV’s going into both sides of her arms, a breathing tube down her throat, her legs were wrapped in these inflating cuffs to keep blood circulation going, there were at least 6 different medication bags hanging above her head and filling her body with enough drugs to keep her comfortable, but not enough to keep her asleep. She needed to be coherent enough to respond to simple commands such as: “We need you to raise your right hand above your head.”
She opened her eyes and I leaned in to give her a kiss. Even in that sterile hospital, wrapped in a hospital gown and blankets, with IV’s entering what seemed like every vein in her body, she still smelled just like my mom. The room was dark, cold, and the only thing illuminating the room were the lights from the machines that were breathing for her and pumping her body with medication.
My dad and sister explained that my mom had experienced a stoke after they repaired her aneurysm. The good news was that they noticed it right away, the bad news was we wouldn’t know what kind of damage had happened for roughly 12-18 hours.
My sister and dad stuck around for quite a bit, but my sister said that one of us should stay in the ICU with my mom overnight. My sister and dad had been there all day, and only one of us was allowed to stay there through the night, so I told them I’d stay. I wanted to stay; I wanted to be with my mom.
They both left and the nurse brought in a bunch of blankets and pillows for me and I laid down behind my mom on a bench that converted into a small bed. It was a horrible view. All I could see were the illuminating lights from the hallway and the endless IV drugs hanging over her bed.
At around 3:00AM, someone woke me up. It was one of the surgeons who was in the OR during my mom’s surgery. He sat down next to me and told me exactly what had happened and said that my mom had no mobility on her right side when they had brought her out of anesthesia after they repaired her aneurysm. He explained that they did an angiogram immediately and saw that there were tiny little clots blocking blood flow in her brain right next to the original repair site. He said that it was a good sign that she was following commands and that she was moving the right side of her body, but we would know more in the morning.
Aside from the unknown, the worst part was watching my mom choke on the breathing tube. As I said, she had to be kept partially awake so she could respond to commands, but that meant that her body was fighting the breathing tube, which resulted in endless convulsions as her body tried to eliminate it.
The doctor promised me that if she continued to make positive strides, they would take the breathing tube out first thing in the morning.
The less I stood next to my mom, the faster she fell back to sleep, so I resisted all temptation to stand next to her and hold her hand and talk to her, and sat behind her on the little bench they had in the room.
Each time the nurse came in to check her mobility, I watched silently from the back of the room while praying to God to give her the strength she needed to lift her arms higher and higher into the air. More movement meant a positive shot at recovery.
I laid on the make shift bed for hours as people ushered in and out. I awoke to my dad talking to the doctors around 6:30AM. My mom was awake, trying to spell out words on our hands (with her right hand) the best she could, which was incredibly difficult seeing she is left handed, only had limited use of her right hand due to the stroke, which was also restrained (to keep her from removing the breathing tube).
She continuously tried to spell out “TUBE.” She wanted the tube out, and we couldn’t do anything about it. I could see the frustration in her eyes, and then tears when she’d finally give up. It was the most helpless I’ve ever felt in my entire life.
Mid-morning came and there were finally the right doctors in the room to remove the breathing tube from her throat.
We all sat there in trepidation wondering just exactly what would happen when they took the tube out. No one was saying it, but my sister, dad and I were all thinking the same thing:
Would she still be the same person who walked into surgery 24 hours ago? Would she be coherent? Would she be able to talk, let alone walk?
The removal of the tube was complete within a minute and we all sat there staring at her waiting to see what she’d do.
She spoke her first word almost immediately: “Water,” in a very raspy whisper.
Seeing she wasn’t allowed any fluids right away, they used a wet swab and coated her mouth. She did well with that and was able to graduate to ice chips which only cleared her voice more.
I don’t think she knew the magnitude of what happened, which was fine with all of us— she was talking a bit more as each minute passed. The neurosurgeon who preformed the surgery was there and preformed some procedural tests (having my mom squeeze his fingers with both her right and left hand, lifting her arms and legs up, etc.) He piped up at the end and said “Phewf. You nearly gave me a heart attack yesterday, Rhonda!”
My mom gave him a (joking) glare, but it was immediately apparent that her sense of humor was still in tact.
As time pressed on, she did better and better and was eating and drinking within a few hours. She was tired and sore, but she was ALIVE. My mom wanted to rest, so my dad, sister and I went out for brunch. Once seated, we all looked at one another, exhausted and completely speechless, yet riddled with a mix of adrenaline and relief. I think we all visited the worse case scenario in our brains a few times, so after seeing with our own eyes that she was okay—we all ordered an alcoholic beverage for breakfast.
They kept her in the ICU for observation for two more nights, and we were allowed to pick her up on Saturday morning and take her home.
She was weak and tired, but she was there. We sat together as a family in the living room, my sister brought my niece over who provided endless smiles and laughter, and we regaled in the miracles of life, God, the human body, and medicine.
I spent the next week with my family. I made sure my mom had everything she needed, I pushed her to allow me to do the things that she normally does. It was the first time that I was able to take care of my own mother versus all the times she’s taken care of me during my life.
I was astounded by the love and support of friends and family members. I don’t even remember the phone call with my best friend, I just remember phoning her, in a complete state of panic, and telling her to pick me up at the airport— and she did, no questions asked. I received text messages from friends and family checking on our family, we had more food delivered to our home than I can put into words. What’s that saying? “It’s during the worst times of your life that you will get to see the true colors of the people who say they care for you”
I think each one of us in our family identified those people during this time. To every one of you who wished my mom well, sent messages, checked in on my family and I—- THANK-YOU.
I’ll end this post with a status update that my dad posted on Thursday evening:
Life is so fragile. Drink that expensive bottle of wine you’ve been saving, burn that special candle, live outside your comfort zone, tell your friends and family you love them–because tomorrow is never a guarantee.
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