For John Howard, Jr.

November 1, 2011

My husband John and I had been married about 4 months when we were mugged at gunpoint. I was shot in the eye and eventually had retinal reattachment surgery to prevent permanent blindness. My vision would always be poor in my left eye, but we were grateful to be alive. It took 2 years for the eye to be fully healed and we were given permission to start a family.

My husband John and I had been married about 4 months when we were mugged at gunpoint. I was shot in the eye and eventually had retinal reattachment surgery to prevent permanent blindness. My vision would always be poor in my left eye, but we were grateful to be alive. It took 2 years for the eye to be fully healed and we were given permission to start a family.

Getting pregnant was a breeze. Other than very bad "all day sickness" and heartburn, my pregnancy couldn’t have gone smoother. I was in very good shape. Before getting pregnant, I was playing golf, softball, racquetball and also worked out 2-3 times a week in my karate class.

We had an ultrasound and found out we were having a little boy. At 38 weeks, I went to my regular check up. I was told that everything was perfect, as usual, but they suggested that I not return to work. I would probably deliver in the next couple of days. Two days later, I was talking on the telephone when I suddenly felt very wet. I assumed my water had broken and went to the bathroom to check it out. For some reason I told myself to be prepared for some blood. Well, I was completely soaked in blood. I called John and we went immediately to the doctor. They said everything was fine, I had just lost my entire mucus plug very quickly. They said I would deliver very soon.

I do not remember anything of the next 25 days except for my hallucinations (I’ll get to that soon). For the next three days I refused to eat, go to the bathroom or do kick counts. Finally, on the third day, John was convinced that I was definitely in labor. I refused to go to the doctor, but he would not take no for an answer. We drove to the doctor, they sent us to the hospital as I was clearly in labor and dilated to 6 cm.

Once at the hospital, they determined that our son had died. They had no idea why. I was completely out of it-barely conscious, so John was left to deal with this tragedy on his own. He quickly called our priest and very good friend, Fr. Mike. I then was induced and gave birth to our son in two hours. I tore open very badly and would not stop bleeding, my blood would not clot. The doctor had to stitch me up as fast as she could.

 

As the night progressed, my family was informed and arrived. They all held the baby and began to mourn his loss. I just slipped into a coma. No one was sure what was wrong. My doctors consulted and determined that I should be flown by helicopter to the University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor. I have no doubt that this decision saved my life. After being told that my chances of survival were dim, Fr. Mike gave me last rites on the helicopter pad.


Once in Ann Arbor, I was placed in the Internal Medicine ICU. I had the following problems-no liver or kidney function, virtually no blood platelets and was in a coma. I could not breathe on my own, my heart had to be controlled by drugs, and my brain was likely to swell. My belly was now so full of sepsis that my sister claimed I was unrecognizable. I was heavier now then when 9 months pregnant. Basically, everything was shut down and was being controlled by machines or drugs. The hospital had devised a system for quickly identifying how serious a patient was by assigning them a number. 30 points meant intensive care, 60 points you were unlikely to make it-I was assigned 180 points.

My husband was left to make all decisions about our son on his own. Our Catholic faith is very important to us, so when our son was born on the feast day of St. John of God, the decision was easy-our son was named John Howard, Jr. Later we found out that St. John of God was not only born on the same day as our son, but also died on that same date as well-just like our John. St. John of God was also the Patron Saint of Doctors, Nurses and Hospitals. If anyone needed that saint-it was us.

I arrived at U of M on a Thursday, by Friday they gathered the family and told them I had only a 20% chance of survival and they did not expect me to make through the night. My kidneys would not function. I was given last rites once again. Many friends from college came to say good-bye to me. But by the next morning, miracle of miracles, there was urine in the bag from the catheter. My kidneys were working--this was a very good sign.

Over the next 20 days they gave me the following treatments. They continually drained the sepsis from my belly, gave me seven blood transfusions, numerous connections to kidney dialysis, installed a heart catheter, gave me numerous cat-scans, stopped the swelling in my brain with drugs, and tried a new process called plasmaphoresis three times (a way of increasing my blood platelets). At one point I had 27 specialists, and 20 different bags or machines connected to my body. They had to move me to a larger room to accommodate the crowds.

During this time I was having very extensive hallucinations. The doctor said that this is very common with a liver disorder. I have always been an extremely vivid dreamer but these were unbelievable. I could write 20 pages on my hallucinations alone. I stuck with some major themes, babies, death, religion, and of course the entire cast of the Roseanne show. The first memory I have is being in a cabin with a fire in the fireplace. I was obsessed with the idea that "they" would be back by 6:00 p.m. and I must complete my exercises. This makes no sense to me either except for the fact that my mind was telling me to work, work, work. I must get out of bed. To me this was my mind deciding to fight and live rather than deciding to die. I thought I was several different people, I thought many of my friends and family had died. I remember recognizing my father when I had thought he was dead-I was overjoyed to see him. Many of my dreams caused me to attempt to get out of bed, so they moved me closer to the desk. They didn’t want me to pull out all my tubes. Still, getting out of bed was a good sign that I wanted to fight rather than just giving up and dying.

After about 20 days, I began to recognize my visitors. John was finally convinced that I understood that our son was dead. He had to tell me that terrible news over and over again, until the doctors were sure I understood. I was still on a respirator and so could not verbally communicate. Our games of charades often ended with me just pretending that they got it right-I didn’t want them to feel bad.

Finally, they removed the respirator and NG tube. I sat up in bed and ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Three days later I had not digested the sandwich and my white count was skyrocketing. John had driven home for the first time in 20 days, only to receive a phone call that they were giving me emergency surgery at 2:00 a.m.. He had better return for they didn’t know if I would survive.

I remember not feeling that bad, but the emergency surgical staff were quite nervous. The doctor explained to me that they felt my colon had burst. I may need a colostomy. I gasped, but they assured me it would be temporary and I relaxed. Well, sure enough I woke up with a transverse colostomy and a 10-inch scar down my abdomen. The sepsis had eaten my colon. They were still concerned about infection, so they left my incision partially open. Twice a day the nurse would change the gauze and clean it out. I would pull the gown over my head, I couldn’t bear to look. I have always been very squeamish.

I then needed to start some basic tasks, showering, walking, eating, and learning to use my colostomy. They were not sure if I would have brain damage-it was a great relief to everyone when my writing changed from scribbles to actual words. I remember the day I found a piece of paper and started to write down everything I could remember about my job. I was worried too. So, I started physical therapy. I found this to be the most difficult part of my stay. I had no strength in my muscles. I couldn’t lift my arms above my head or walk 20 feet. I was told that I would need to eat without help from the feeding tube before they would release me. I would panic at every meal and promptly throw up. Not recommended behavior with a 10-inch incision. After 2 weeks of grueling therapy, no sleeping, learning to shower and never holding a meal down-they finally said I could go home with a feeding tube still in my nose. It had been 43 days.

The first thing I noticed about home was the quiet, peaceful atmosphere. I wept the moment I saw my living room. I was to return to U of M in 2 weeks to remove the feeding tube. My mom switched to 2nd shift and watched me during the day. John worked about 6 hours a day and took care of me the rest of the day and night.

I started to hold down some food, like cream of wheat and instant breakfast, but I still could not handle my own colostomy bag. I returned to U of M for my 2 week appointment, they removed the feeding tube and informed me that my colostomy would be reversed in about a year. I was devastated. I had hoped to hide in the house until it was reversed. Now that was not possible. I found out about a support group and attended their next meeting. What a great experience. They were so welcoming and helpful. I finally received the training I needed from a trained Entrastomal Nurse. I became an expert very quickly. I also enjoyed the opportunity to tell gross colostomy jokes whenever anyone was eating.

The next 6 months I worked very hard to get strong. I looked like Olive Oil-long skinny arms and legs. I lifted weights, went to physical and emotional therapy. I begged for an early reversal date. They ordered a series of tests that I passed with flying colors and they consented to do the reversal 2 months early. I returned to U of M and had the reversal without incident. I went home to recover. And suddenly it hit me-My son had died. I became very depressed-really very angry. I became obsessed with getting pregnant. My colostomy was reversed on January 5th and I was trying to get pregnant in February. (I did get permission from the doctor first.)

Well, of course my body would not cooperate. I went through a battery of tests, passing them all-I just couldn’t get pregnant. Finally it was determined that I needed surgery to repair the damage from the physical trauma I had endeared. By the time we were done I had 3 more surgeries, endless tests, and many terrible, painful procedures performed. 15 months had passed. I hadn’t talked to many of my friends, and I had changed jobs. I had isolated myself from anyone or anything to do with children.

Finally, we were pregnant. I couldn’t believe it. We met with Perinatology (high-risk pregnancy specialists). They said that I possibly had a combination of two disorders-Acute Fatty Liver of Pregnancy and HELLP Syndrome. In its most basic terms my body had overreacted to being pregnant-almost like an allergy. If I wasn’t pregnant I was fine. If pregnant I could get into trouble again. At the time I was ill, only 100 cases of Acute Fatty Liver had ever been diagnosed, only 20 people had ever survived it, 13 went on to have other children and one person got it twice. They were able to save her and her baby. Since I got my illness the 39th week of pregnancy they believed I would always get ill in the 39th week. So, very simply we wouldn’t let it get that far.

At exactly 38 weeks and 1 day we had a scheduled c-section. Our beautiful daughter Emily Theresa was born on February 17, 1997. We baptized her on March 8th, her brother’s third birthday. She was perfect and is a complete joy.

To this day there is no medical explanation as to why I survived. My doctor said being in very good health before I got pregnant was a big help, but he still considered it a miracle from God. Every now and then I still come across someone who says, "Oh that was you? My prayer group prayed for you for weeks." I am a living endorsement for the power of prayer. I will always be grateful to all those who prayed for my family and me.

We just went to the doctor today and got permission to try to have another child. They have agreed. I know that this will be our last chance-I’m getting too old for this. We’ll see what the future brings.