The following is the first in a ten-part series I am writing on my and my family’s experience and response to my Mom’s stroke following a brain aneurysm. This series is for a writing course I am currently enrolled in and will last for five weeks (two posts each week). In this series I’ll describe my perspective on what the weeks following this injury were like for all of us, how we responded and what moving on will be like.
There is much to be encouraged about in this story, but I won’t pretend that it’s all puppies and daisies. I could sit here and pretend that I understand what this all means, and you likely wouldn’t be any wiser. But part of personal reflection as a writer is being honest with yourself and your audience. Everything you read here is exactly how I feel.
As a fair warning, these posts will be very personal. To be honest, you really aren’t the primary audience for all this reflection. I am. I’ve wanted to write something about this experience for quite some time, but just haven’t had the reason to do so until now. Sure I’ll get a grade for this, but to be honest, I really couldn’t care less. I’m hoping that this reflection will help me to understand what this all means and how I should respond. This is as much (if not more so) me thinking “aloud” as it is me writing a post for you to read.
I apologize if reading something like this makes you uncomfortable or if it makes the next time we see each other even a little bit strange. This has been my life for the recent past, so when I had the opportunity to write about something for an extended period of time, there was never going to be anything else I was going to write about. I’m just trying to figure out what this all means. Thanks for understanding.
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I was sitting in the lounge in one of the dorms on the campus of Cedarville University, my southwestern Ohio home for the past four years. It was there, eight hours and 535 miles from my home in eastern Iowa, that I got the news.
I was watching a basketball game with a couple friends, completely absorbed in the ebb and flow of the contest. Completely absorbed, that is, until I got a text from my sister, Karen.
“Hey—pray for mom. Her neck got really stiff after church and then she couldn’t get up.”
Suddenly the basketball game meant very little to me. I stayed and watched the ending, because I didn’t know what else to do. What are you supposed to do when you’re that far away? I’ve never felt more numb or surprised.
That’s how it started. The start of a simple text message from my sister on Sunday, January 12, 2014, at 1:48 p.m. signaled the beginning of one of the most difficult, painful, trying months of my life. I don’t doubt that the rest of my family would describe it in the same way.
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A little more than 24 hours later I’m sitting alone, looking out over a quiet Iowa City street. It’s getting later in the day, and it’s turned dark outside. I flew home early this morning, but I feel just as helpless as I did back in Ohio. After being in critical condition overnight, Mom is in surgery at the University of Iowa, and all we can do now is wait. The last thing I heard the surgeon say was, “This is a very complicated surgery, but I’m hopeful.” Not exactly the words of surging confidence you want to hear at a time like this. At least he’s honest.
Just a couple hours earlier my grandparents arrived only minutes before my Mom was wheeled to the operating room. Nothing prepares you for the absolute wave of utter helplessness that comes over you when you first see someone you love sedated and on their back in the Intensive Care Unit, hooked to goodness knows how many machines, wires and tubes. As he enters the room you can see it come over Grandpa. He, the Army veteran, breaks down into sobs after just a few moments in the room. It hurts to watch.
And then they’re off. Surgery is underway shortly after.
We all wander down to the waiting room to wait. And wait. Eventually a “normal” conversation starts among those who have joined us. I can’t sit there and listen to this all, so I leave and find that quiet glass skywalk overlooking that silent Iowa City street several stories below.
Eventually my grandpa and a few of the men from the group come walking down the hall, out on a walk to stretch their legs and probably to calm their nerves. My grandpa sits down next to me and says, “You always think this sort of thing will happen to someone else.” I couldn’t agree more. You don’t see this sort of thing coming. There’s nothing you can do to prepare for it.
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I won’t claim to understand all the physiology behind what happened to Mom, but I’ll tell you what I know based on conversations with the doctors, friends who know this stuff much better than I do, and Wikipedia. Please take my explanation with a grain of salt, as I am in no way a neuroscientist.
What landed Mom in the hospital is called a subarachnoid brain hemorrhage. In layperson terms, this means that for some reason, blood was spilling from an artery in her head out into an area surrounding her brain. For as powerful as the brain is, it’s a fragile organ. Pressure build-up for any extended amount of time in this area of your body is VERY dangerous.
I’ve been reading a book on strokes and one neuroscientist’s personal experience with her own stroke, and she had this to say about the type of stroke Mom had: “Blood is toxic to neurons when it comes in direct contact with them, so any leak or vascular blowout can have devastating effects on the brain.”
As Wikipedia will tell you, the prognosis for this type of brain injury is not great:
“[Subarachnoid hemorrhage] is a medical emergency and can lead to death or severe disability—even when recognized and treated at an early stage. Up to half of all cases of SAH are fatal and 10–15 percent of casualties die before reaching a hospital, and those who survive often have neurological or cognitive impairment.”
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Amazingly, a few long weeks later Mom is in an in-patient rehab program at St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, just a few short minutes from our home. She has been making remarkable strides in her recovery, and it’s wonderful to see the progress she makes each day. She is walking, talking and doing everything she should. While her short term memory can be suspect at times, her long term memory is as good as it always been. She is still in therapy today. We hope to see her at home soon. She is incredibly anxious to be there. For now at least, things are looking good. That’s all we can ask for.
I know that we are nowhere near the end of this story and that a long road to what we all hope will be a full recovery for my Mom is still ahead. We trust that God will bring her through each trial that appears along that road. He’s brought us this far.
For all the sadness and pain that this whole event caused our family, there is one thing I want to make unequivocally clear. It is without a doubt in my mind that I tell you this: It is a miracle from God that my Mom is alive and on the path to recovery that she is today. Please do not forget this. Many people with this condition don’t make it to the hospital, let alone recover to the point where she is today. I have to remind myself of this regularly.
When you live in the world of a hospital for a month, it can be easy to think that all this technology, all this knowledge, all these procedures, all those degrees, saved my Mom’s life on their own. They didn’t. God worked through each of these things to heal her. That is one of the few things I have clarity about through all of this.
I’m back at Cedarville University now. Mom is still in therapy, and I’m back to class, exactly one month behind in each of my five courses. I get regular updates from Dad or Karen on how she’s doing. I receive FaceTime calls and video clips from the hospital, but ultimately they are like a sunny day in January: a wonderful, temporary gift, but not quite the thing you really want or need.
Here’s where things get tough. I can’t help but wonder now if I made the right decision in coming back. I have so many questions that need answering. Why did this happen? How is Mom? Is her memory improving? Is her mobility getting better? Will she be able to make a full recovery? Should I have stayed? Should I take a year off and work? Where would I work if I did? If I stay can I catch up? Will I even enjoy what’s left of the last semester of my senior year? Is it wrong to wonder that? Should I go back so my Dad can go return to work? If I go back, will I regret not staying? Should I drop a class and take it this summer? Can I even afford to take a class this summer? Or should I just slog through, get a not-so-great grade and be done?
Lately life has offered so, so many questions and I have so, so few answers. My answer to just about every question lately is a resounding, “I DON’T KNOW!” and every time I ask for help from God it feels like I’m talking to a wall. Just about every day I pray the supplication of the father in Mark 9:24, “I believe; help my unbelief!” I don’t really know what else to do.
It’s one thing to trust God on your way to church on Sunday morning, listening to “’Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus” coming through the speakers of your car. It’s entirely another to trust him a few hours later when your world has been rocked; when you have to leave that whole situation behind, go back to your life and pretend that everything is normal; when you look at the list of things you’re expected to catch up on and it makes you just laugh, and not in a “ha-ha” funny way, but a “Wow, I am up that creek without a paddle ha-ha” funny way; when you have to smile, nod and be polite in class when all you want to do is just yell at the world until your lungs burn. I’m trying to trust, but man, is it hard when your world is this way.
This is typically the part of a good Christian blog post where I should mention a few Bible verses and talk about how encouraged and #blessed that I am. But, to be honest, I don’t feel either of those things. I know I should, I mean, look at the miracle that occured in my life. But what about now, when there are so many questions that need answered, and when all I hear when I pray is the sound of my own thoughts?
I’m not depressed, and I’m not becoming an atheist. I’m just wondering a bit. God is good no matter what my circumstances are. I trust that. I just wish I could hear Him now.
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So there you have it: an introduction to this series. Like I said: not all puppies and daisies, but it’s all true. Along the way in this series I’ll fill in some of the details of what happened, how we’re all doing and what I discover along the way. I promise every post won’t all be as long as this one is (read: I don’t have the time to write this much twice a week.).
In the end I hope these posts help me to crystallize my thoughts and figure some things out about who I am, who God is and what trusting Him should look like. As I wrote earlier, the main point of these is to get me to think about what this all means. If it sparks a helpful thought or meaningful conversation with a friend I’ll consider them a success.
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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10