Lea had survived her first near death experience at Fairview Medical Center. Her post-op recovery went well and she was discharged. I brought her home for the first time in months. I can’t remember how long she stayed home. All I can remember with certainty is she was repeatedly admitted into and discharged from Fairview Medical Center for the remainder of 1991, all of 1992 and 1993, and at least half of 1994 if not more.
Our life together back then would revolve entirely around Lea’s physical health, or the lack thereof. She would have a period of relative stability, then she would have a relapse, and back into FMC she would go. There was no pattern to this, nothing we could identify as a precursor. It wasn’t related to her diet. Stress? Maybe, but doubtful. The most stressful part of her life was being hospitalized, not being at home or work.
I came to think of this period of time as the Era of Living in Two Hospitals and Occasionally Visiting Our House. We lived in a charming arts and crafts bungalow about five miles from downtown Minneapolis. We redecorated that place several times, entirely changing its interior appearance until it eventually looked like showplace for the Pottery Barn.
I doubt that I did many, if any, of those renovations while Lea was struggling to survive her malignant flare up of Crohn’s disease. What I remember most from this time is feeling exhausted all the time. I was essentially a sleepwalker. I owe so much to my co-workers at the MVAMC–they had my back and picked up all the pieces of my job that I missed.
My mind was occupied by two things: my lovely wife, and how long she would fill that role. And how in the hell was I going to pay for this? My health insurance covered most of Lea’s medical expenses, but not all of them, and the part that wasn’t covered had quickly grown into the tens of thousands of dollars. Here’s another time when a great social worker saved the day.
I don’t remember her name, and this is so unfortunate because that woman saved our financial asses. She submitted an application for Medical Assistance on our behalf–something I didn’t think we’d even be eligible for based on our income, but lo and behold, we were, based on the extent of our medical bills. Thanks to that incredible social worker, I only had one thing to worry about.
Lea’s hospitalizations were mostly uneventful, except for the endless reconstruction that the hospital was going through. Fairview was a non-profit organization, and starting in 1992, FMC would begin reinvesting their profits by completely renovating every floor of the building. It was a noisy process, hammering, sledgehammering, jackhammering; even small doses of therapeutic dynamite.
I know, right! Freakin’ dynamite! In a hospital!! Filled with sick people!!! The nurses that took care of Lea were so great. They would move her as far from the construction noise coming from the floor above as they could so she could obtain a semblance of rest, then move her again as the process neared her room again.
The inflammatory process at work inside Lea’s body was every bit as inexorable as the construction process going on inside the hospital. It ebbed and flowed, but mostly flowed. And while Lea’s condition could be described as mostly stable, there were times of profound decompensation. I was sure I knew the answer to the one question that remained in my mind. And the answer was, not much longer.
Dr John was consulted by Dr Kromhout once more. Dr John remained conservative in his approach, but he wasn’t quite as cautious the second time around, and Lea’s condition deteriorated only to the point where she looked like she could possibly die instead of it being a foregone conclusion.
The second surgery was possibly the most unremarkable of all the surgeries Lea would have during this time period. Dr John removed another section of Lea’s large intestine, taking roughly sixty percent of that portion of her GI tract.
There were a couple of significant post op events after this surgery. The first, Lea sent me home. I could not help myself when she got out of the Recovery Room and was being transferred to her room on the Med/Surg floor. I had to touch her. I was gentle. I’m a nurse. I have a great sense of touch, and great hands. But even my careful caresses were too much for Lea.
“Don’t touch me.” she said.
“I’m sorry, honey, but I can’t not touch you!”
“Then go home.”
I’m pretty sure the nurses that were caring for Lea and were part of the transfer team actually heard the sound of my heart breaking. I stopped in my tracks in the hallway as Lea was rolled into her room, sat down with my back against the wall, and cried.
I went home and called my best friend, Gary Miklos, who was living near Dallas, TX at the time. Gary did something only a best friend will do at a time like that. He bought an airplane ticket on the next flight to Minneapolis.
I can’t remember if I tried to stumble my way through work the next day or if I called off, forcing my boss to cover one of my shifts with another nurse. I picked up Gary at the airport. I went back to the hospital to see Lea. She sent me home for a second time.
Gary took me to a billiards hall. We played pool, drank pitchers of beer and smoked packs of cigarettes. I’m pretty sure I lost every game of pool we played that day.
Gary had to work for a living, too. He flew to Minneapolis to be with me for one day, and then he had to fly back to Texas. And this wasn’t the only time Gary would travel halfway across the country to be there for me.
I went home and passed out. I know I had the following day off because I was still asleep when the phone rang.
“Hi, honey!” It was Lea. “I think I’m gonna live!” Even over the phone I could see and hear the smile in her voice.
There had been a second post op event. One of the night nurses that took over Lea’s care was reviewing all the multitudinous IV bags and fluids and medications flowing into my wife’s veins, and she hung another bag of morphine solution. Not a big deal, but Lea already had a bag with morphine flowing, so she was now getting a double dose of very potent pain meds. This was a bad thing. A double dose of IV morphine will generally result in death.
“If that had been you or me, we’d be dead right now,” Dr Kromhout told me the next time we met. “But because Lea has been on high doses of morphine for awhile, and she has a strong tolerance level, all she did was get a good night’s sleep for once.”
The night nurse that accidentally overdosed my wife caught her mistake before it became a fatal med error. She called a code. Lea later said she had a vague memory of fifty people being in her room. I don’t know how many doses of Narcan she received, but it was more than one, and less than ten.
There was an investigation, of course. Lea and I met with a whole group of suits and skirts from various management and administrative departments. They wanted to know if we wanted to press charges or file a lawsuit. We declined. No harm, no foul was our take on the matter.
As a result of actually sleeping, even if it was a drug-induced coma, Lea actually felt better. She had a nursing student assigned to her when she woke up. Lea would refer to her as ‘my savior.’ That young girl helped Lea shower, got her dressed, helped with her hair and makeup, and had Lea sitting up in her room, looking like an angel when I arrived.
Despite the inflammatory process that was mindlessly trying to kill my wife, despite the construction process that prevented her from getting much rest, despite being cut open and losing another section of her GI tract, and despite almost being accidentally overdosed to death–Lea had survived by the grace of God.
God is great. God is good. God brought us together; we both believe that. It’s taken a lots of work and intentional living on both of our parts to stay together, but it’ll be twenty-eight years of staying together in one week.
I know. I can’t believe it. I’m not sure Lea can believe it either.
Sometimes you take things for granted in a relationship. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of this. But I also know my relationship with Lea has been the most life changing experience in my life. Nursing might have made me a better person, but being married to Lea has made me into a better man.