Till We Get the Healing Done

If you’ve never listened to the above album, I highly recommend it. Good stuff. The title of this post is one of the songs on the album.

* * * *

I’ve said something like unto this in many of my posts, I fell in love with her the moment I saw her. And while that is true on a superficial level, I’ve been a victim of the total agony of love only three times in my life.

Apparently that adage about the third time being the charm is true. Lea was the third of my deep loves. Maureen was the first. There was a second gal I might write about someday, we’ll see…

My lovely supermodel wife and I have been together for almost three decades, but there was a time when we almost didn’t make it.

It happened in 1995. We had survived our vacation from Hell in April. Lea had survived abdominal surgery #4 the year before, but she ended up having an ileostomy with an external pouch. That small, but enormous, detail changed everything in my wife’s world.

She fucking hated it and everything about it. She never felt comfortable with the external pouch, and it showed. She almost always looked tense and tightly wrapped, and she had been like that before she had anything to worry about. My lovely supermodel wife took it to a new level, and her self image was altered on a level even I couldn’t comprehend.

By chance, she saw a very small advertisement in the Sunday newspaper about the Barnett Continent Intestinal Reservoir, and decided to go to the seminar. After that, she was a woman on a mission.

The BCIR is a surgically created internal pouch. Google it if you need more information. I’m pretty sure that’s what I had to do, but the bottom line is if she had this surgery, her external pouch would be replaced by an internal pouch made out of a portion of her small bowel. There are only a few hospitals in the United States that perform the procedure. Lea’s gastroenterologist was more than happy to write a referral for her. Then she took on our healthcare insurance company.

Our insurance company thought it was an elective surgery, but Lea was able to convince them it wasn’t just a cosmetic surgery in her case, and she had recommendations from her her doctor and her employer backing her up. For all I know, Lea is the only person that has ever achieved this. Blue Cross/Blue Shield finally agreed to foot the bill and they covered the entire procedure.

All. Of. It. And it wasn’t cheap.

Lea’s boss was far more supportive of her than my horrible boss would ever be. He went to bat for her to help get the insurance company on board, and he approved the month she’d need off for her surgery, and an additional two months for recovery and rehab without so much as a blink.

The BCIR people expected anyone having their very specialized surgery to bring one support person along for the ride, so to speak. In lieu of me, our darling daughter, Abigail, flew to Florida with her mother to be at her side during the surgery and recovery program. They would be in St Petersburg, FL for three weeks in August.

* * * *

It wasn’t the three weeks apart that was the last straw. It wasn’t even another surgery. Lea appeared to be stabilizing from her lengthy major flare up of Crohn’s disease, and it was slowly becoming quiescent. But…  She had appeared to improve in the past, only to take two or three steps back each time.

My buddy, Dan, was working a job in the Twin Cities area at that time, and he crashed at our house during the week, and drove home for the weekends. We spent most evenings while my wife and daughter were out of town drinking beer and talking about guy stuff. And even our discussions weren’t what pushed me over the edge.

Dan is my friend, and a good guy, but he didn’t understand the disease or its pathology. Nor was he in love with my wife anywhere near as much as I was. But he could probably see how worn out I was better than I could. He mostly wanted to see me happy again.  So, we drank and joked and laughed, and I have to admit, it felt really good just to be able to do that.

I would turn forty in 1995. In a previous post I stated that my drinking problem started becoming more of a problem when I turned forty, and five years later it would be totally out of control. I cannot discount my alcohol abuse as a factor in my mindset, as much as I would like to. But neither can I blame everything on it, although that would make the rest of this story so much easier.

For three years Lea’s illness tore up our lives, much like it tore up her body. She almost died at least three times, if not more. We had somehow gotten through the worst Crohn’s could throw at us, and we were both still standing, if barely.

Lea was getting better, maybe, hopefully, possibly, probably–I was afraid to think anything would ever get better on the offhand chance that thinking it would jinx everything, and we’d have to start all over again. For all I know, Lea was equally spooked and gun-shy. I can’t imagine she felt any different than I did in this regard.

The simple truth was this: I was completely exhausted from three years of essentially neverending high stress levels, living in two hospitals and visiting our house, and wondering if this was the time that her illness would win out and claim another victim.

I hadn’t run out of love for my wife. I’d run out of everything else.

* * * *

I was actually relieved that I didn’t have to go to Florida with Lea. We talked every day, and she gave me daily status updates. The surgery went as smoothly as it could. She had never had such effective post-op pain control in her life. The nurses were as good as the nurses at Fairview Medical Center, or better. She was in good hands, she was doing as more better gooder as anyone could expect, and I felt like I could relax for the first time in three years.

The only thing that wasn’t perfect was the hurricane that was going to hit Florida while Lea and Abi were there. I had never been in an hurricane, and I was disappointed I wouldn’t be able to see that.

Hurricanes don’t make it to Minnesota. Remnants of hurricanes did make it to the Phoenix area while we were there, but the remnant of a hurricane is a rainstorm, and I’ve seen plenty of those in my lifetime. I doubt I’ll encounter an hurricane down here in the Lakeside area.

Lea said it was a pretty uneventful event to her. The hospital was constructed to withstand the winds of an hurricane; neither she nor Abi were in any real danger, but just in cases the staff were ready to evacuate everyone at a moment’s notice. Lea said she’d never seen rain like that before in her life. Abi mostly slept through Hurricane Erin.

The rest of Lea’s hospitalization went smoothly, and my girls came back home.

* * * *

I’m sure my memories of this aren’t completely clear, mostly because I don’t want to remember it. I’ve asked my wife to help fill in the blanks in my memory. It seems to me that within a couple of days of returning to Minnesota, Lea was back in the hospital.

That, was the last straw for me.

I made an appointment with a divorce attorney. His initial consultation was free, and he said it was always easier to try to work things out with your spouse than to get a divorce. Lea had owned our house before we got married, and she would keep the house if we didn’t stay married. He told me to seriously think it through, and to contact him again if I needed him.

Then I drove to the hospital to tell my wife I wanted a divorce.

* * * *

I really had no idea what I was going say. In the first two times I’d been deeply in love, it wasn’t my idea to end the relationship. And I was beyond conflicted regarding my intentions with Lea. We weren’t just in a relationship, we’d been married for almost seven years.

Not only that, I was her mother’s angel, and by default, I had become her father’s angel, too. That’s not the kind of thing you just blithely walk away from.

We had survived three years of pretty much living hell, life and death, endless illness and hospitalizations. It’s possible Lea checked herself into the hospital when she returned home because it was probably the safest place in the world for her. I have no doubt–even though she was improving and she’d just had a surgery that would greatly improve her life–she was scared out of her mind.

To this day, I am amazed and humbled by the dignity and grace she demonstrated when she was so incredibly ill. I know I could never have done that. Lea’s nurses loved her. If our positions had been switched, my nurses probably would’ve thrown me down the stairwell.

Nonetheless, I informed my lovely supermodel wife I had met with a divorce attorney. It wasn’t that I didn’t love her, I just couldn’t live on the edge anymore.

Lea was probably surprised, but I think there was also a part of her that had been expecting something like unto it. Women are spooky that way. She cried a little, but mostly we talked. She regrouped quickly and gave me an option I hadn’t considered.

“Give me six months. I’ll either conquer this, or it’ll kill me. But give me that much time, and then decide what you want to do. Give me six months. If you still want a divorce then, I won’t even fight you.”

Writing this, it seems like a pretty good option to me, and I probably jumped at it as an acceptable alternative to divorce and being homeless. I didn’t really want to get a divorce, I just wanted something like my life, and my wife, back. However, at the time I didn’t think I’d have either.

Lea says I rejected her option. And left. She called her dad and told him what happened and cried on the phone for hours. As emotionally distant as Dave was, I can only imagine his response. Lea says he didn’t have any idea what to say or do.

I have no problem believing that part of her story. Dave was the Mount Everest of emotional isolation. Not even Tenzing Norgay would’ve been willing to scale that emotional wilderness.

It was probably one of the worst nights either of us had to endure. Lea probably cried herself to sleep. I’m not sure I slept. But when I went to the hospital the next day I gave her an option that must have come to me in the middle of the night.

“I can’t watch you die anymore, but I’ll give you three months.”

I had no hope I could last that long. I had no hope she would either.

* * * *

In retrospect, this is one example of God answering prayers in His perfect time. When hope fades, and all else is crumbling around you, God remains. Lea was released from the hospital. It would be the last time she was admitted for a Crohn’s related inflammatory process.

I’m not sure that was a miracle, or if the beast in her belly had finally worn itself out. But either way, our prayers were heard, and answered.

The worst three years of our lives had ended without fanfare. Even if there had been fanfare, I doubt I would’ve believed it. It would probably take me at least a year, or more, to relax and stop waiting for any more shoes to drop. I think when this chapter of our lives finally closed forever, it felt like I’d been hit by Imelda Marcos’ entire shoe closet.

Lea’s been hospitalized for other reasons, mostly blood transfusions secondary to incredibly low hemoglobin levels. Lea’s gut is kind of like unto the Kīlauea volcano, she’s more or less constantly oozing blood, and it’s something that needs to be monitored even today. But the beast in her belly had finally run its course, and while it has reared its head from time to time, it has never tried to devour her from the inside out since 1995.

Flash forward twenty-two years. We’re still together. We can’t imagine our lives any other way. And that BCIR thing Lea fought so hard for, it was worth it. It would’ve been worth it if we had had to pay twice the amount our insurance company did ourselves. It’s made an huge difference in Lea’s life. I’m not sure how she would’ve recovered to the extent she has without it.

Thank you, honey, for giving me an option that was brilliant on the level of something that only a genius could’ve come up with. Thank you for staying with me when I totally lost it and tried drinking myself into a coma. Thank you for supporting me when I finally decided to get a grip and face my demons.

It’s been mostly sweet, and you were the sweetest of all. I wish we’d have another thirty years together.

Horrible Bosses, Part II

I’m struggling to figure out how to start this installment of my blog. Maybe if I acknowledge that, I can get started.

My lovely supermodel wife was in the hospital recovering from her fourth, and most devastating surgery of the five surgeries she would have in that time period.

My mother-in-law had died on the table in the Operating Room. Lea’s dad and her sister, Leslie, were using my house as their headquarters to contact their family to inform everyone about Wanda’s passing, and plan her funeral.

I can’t remember exactly how I ended up being chosen to write her eulogy…  It might have been because of all the things I said about her when we went to see her body the night she died. Dave was touched, and may have asked me to say something at her memorial service. I would spend a few days camped in front of my computer monitor, writing and editing and rewriting what I wanted to say.

My boss and her boss, Marj and Mary, had done the unthinkable. They had questioned whether I really needed to take a week off after the sudden death of my mother-in-law.

And that’s how this story gets started.

* * * *

I wasn’t particularly close to anyone in Lea’s family at that time. Her parents lived almost two thousand miles away. I hadn’t actually seen them in person more than a handful of times. I liked Wanda, she was a sweet gal. Dave was a difficult guy to like. Even the people that knew him best agreed on that.

This was my first time meeting Lea’s sister and her husband. She didn’t come to our wedding, she didn’t approve of Lea marrying a man she had known less than six months. Leslie and Lea were as different as two sisters could be. I didn’t quite know what to think of her the first time we met. But I really liked her husband. Bill was a really sweet guy, and he had a great sense of humor. We became friends almost immediately.

The relatives started arriving. They dropped by the house to see Dave and Leslie and Bill.

Shirley, Dave’s sister. Pat, Wanda’s sister. Gene, Dave’s brother. And Joan, Gene’s wife. I met them all and listened to their stories about Wanda. And that’s how I learned about her life and what kind of woman she was. And those stories would become the eulogy I wrote.

I focused on that, but in the back of my mind I started writing another paper. One that would take my horrible boss and her even more horrible boss out at the knees.

I split time that week between my house and Fairview Medical Center. Lea’s fourth surgery had resulted in the removal of all of her colon, and about ten feet of her small bowel as well. And there was one more thing. She had an ileostomy with an external pouch.

My lovely supermodel wife was devastated.

It was a difficult time for us. Lea was reluctant to tell me the result of her surgery. She was distant and distracted. I attributed her response to the death of her mother. I knew I would’ve been distraught if my mother had died. Her surgeon had informed me about the results of Surgery #4, so I wasn’t completely in the dark about what had got happened.

I spent hours at the hospital, saying nothing, watching my wife sleep. She slept more after that surgery than any of the others. I had many whispered conversations with her nurses and the visitors that dropped in to see her.

It was maybe toward the middle of the week that she told me she had an ileostomy. Tears rolled down her face like rain. I think I asked her what took her so long to tell me.

“I was afraid you wouldn’t think of me as a whole person anymore.”

“Honey, if wanted someone who was all there, I never would’ve married you.”

Sometimes, a guy just has to reassure his wife.

* * * *

Lea’s doctor had to write an order for a pass so Lea could go to her mother’s funeral service on Friday. I brought an outfit she requested to the hospital. It was probably the first time she’d worn something besides an hospital gown in a month.

Wanda’s service was held at a funeral home. Dave wasn’t a big believer in God. He never went to church, and he wasn’t about to start now.

Bill had also been selected to say a few words at Wanda’s service. The gist of his words was knowing when you’ve had enough and when to say when. And that was one of Wanda’s graces. She knew when she’d had enough.

And then I took the podium.

I first met David and Wanda the day before Lea and I got married in 1988. I got the impression on our wedding day that Wanda was quite a character, but it wasn’t until the first Saturday after we were married that I truly realized how much of a character Wanda was. And that was when the telephone rang at 6:00 AM.

Lea says she has been trying unsuccessfully for 22 years to get her mother to call her at a later hour. Lea’s sister, Leslie, had been lobbying for 30 years. It’s a certainty that what the two of them couldn’t achieve in a combined 52 years, I wasn’t going to change in the 6 years that I knew Wanda. Dave and I were talking the other day and he said, “The girls are really going to miss their mother calling them on Saturday morning.” I think I can speak for Leslie and Lea when I say, “Dave, if you want to call us at 6:00 AM on Saturday morning, please pick up the phone and give us a call.”

Speaking only for myself, I’d like to point out that 8:00 AM is a very fine hour. 9:00 AM is a good hour, also. Seriously Dave; anytime, any day, you want to call, call us. Any time.

I remember the trip Lea and I took to Harlingen, TX a couple years ago to see her parents. You can practically spit into Mexico from their mailbox, so of course we took a trip to one of the border towns nearby. Dave and I found we aren’t very good at haggling with the street vendors in Mexico. I’d see something I like and ask how much it cost and the vendor would say, “$50.00.” And I’d say, “Okay.” Wanda came to my rescue. And she was a tough negotiator, so Dave and I did the only sensible thing we could do under the circumstances. We left the shopping to Wanda and Lea, and we went to go have a few beers.

Another story I have of Wanda is one that Dave told me recently. When Dave and Wanda lived up here in Minnesota, they had season tickets to the Vikings games. Back then, the Vikings played football outdoors at Metropolitan Stadium. It was out in the elements, and football was football. The players got their uniforms dirty and everything. Also back then, the fans would have tailgate parties out at the Met, set up their barbecues an partied in the parking lot at Met Stadium–did all that stuff that no one can do now that the Metrodome is here. After one of the games Dave and Wanda and their group had their tailgate party going, and there was another group or two not far away. Back then, some of the Viking players would stop in and have a beer and a burger with the fans, and a former Vikings wide receiver named Gene Washington was doing that with a group not far from where Dave and Wanda were at.

A crowd of young boys had gathered around Mr. Washington, hoping to get his autograph, but Mr. Washington wasn’t in an autograph signing mood. He told the kids to leave him alone. When Wanda saw that she went over to Mr. Washington and told him, “Those boys idolize you, you’re their hero. All they want from you is an autograph–You should be ashamed of yourself!” And I can just see Wanda doing that.

I won’t repeat Mr. Washington’s reply to Wanda, but needless to say he wasn’t very polite, nor did he sign any autographs for those boys.

I was probably the same age as some of those boys were when that incident happened. When I was a young boy I worshipped the Vikings, I watched all their games, I idolized the players. They were my heroes. And Gene Washington was one of my heroes. But I have a different hero now.

There’s a saying that goes, “When you’re Irish, you know that sooner or later the world’s going to break your heart.” And it is true. It is so true.

If there’s any consolation for those of us gathered here to remember Wanda, it is this: Heroes, true heroes, never die. Their actions, their deeds and their legacies live forever. 

It would be the first of the four eulogies I’ve done in my life. It was the most difficult public speech I had ever attempted. Only my dad’s eulogy would surpass it terms of personal heartache for me.

Lea returned to the hospital almost immediately after the service. I didn’t take her back–I think Gwen drove her–but I remember walking into her room when I got to the hospital after the meal. There’s always food after a funeral in Minnesota. Lea’s clothes were strewn on the floor. Lea never did that. I knew her suffering vastly surpassed mine. I was afraid this blow might be too much for her to take. She was asleep in bed, again. I folded her clothes and hung them in her closet, then sat down and watched her sleep.

But in my mind, I was writing the paper I would send to my Director of Nursing at the MVAMC. A paper that would more than even the score against the heartless bitches that were making my life miserable at work, and get them off my back.

It would be the greatest thing I ever wrote.

* * * *

There’s only problem I have with my greatest work of prose now. I can’t remember exactly what I wrote anymore, and I didn’t save a copy of it.

I know I outlined the situation regarding my wife’s lengthy illness, and the life and death situation it had become. And I was especially clear about what Marj and Mary had said after my mother-in-law died, and how she had travelled up to Minnesota from the bottom of Texas to see her daughter one last time.

I know I talked about the qualities of caring and compassion that nurses are endowed with, except when regarding our colleagues. That’s really all I wanted. I wanted to be treated with a little compassion, and I wanted my goddamn bosses to stop hitting me with a guilt trip every time I needed to take time off because my wife was in the hospital fighting for her life.

I think my write up was about five pages long. I returned to work to another stretch of nights. I put my paper into an intraoffice mailing envelope, and addressed it to the DON. I would hear from my co-workers about its effect.

The DON at the MVAMC was a gal named Betty Theis. She was a no-nonsense, tough as nails administrator. Steel wished it was made of Betty, and when she got angry, grown men had been known to start crying under her unrelenting gaze.

I really wish I could have been present when Betty summoned Marj and Mary to her office. My co-workers told me Marj looked like she had seen two ghosts when she returned to the unit, and closed the door to her office. Her eyes were red from crying when she left.

Marj called me into her office when I returned to working days.

“I know you’ve gone through a lot lately, and I haven’t been as supportive as I could.” That would be the closest thing to an apology I would receive from Marj. Mary would only speak to me one more time while she worked at the MVAMC, and it would not be an apology.

But it was what Marj said next that truly surprised me.

“I think you’re depressed and suicidal, and I’m sending you see an EAP counselor.” I think I may have started laughing at her, and at the very least, I had to have flashed her a smile of amusement. Of all the things I anticipated she might say, this was one thing I most certainly hadn’t expected.

Nurses might have a lots of duties and responsibilities, but no part of a my job description, or Marj’s for that matter, had anything to do with diagnosing anyone. I probably could have gotten her dumb ass fired for that remark, but that had never been part of my agenda.

So I went to the EAP Office to meet with my counselor. He met me at the door. He was a nice guy that had trouble believing I was the suicidal guy he was supposed to save.

“You drove here yourself? No one accompanied you? I heard you were an imminent suicide risk!”

“Yeah, that’s what I heard, too.”

I told my counselor my story. By the time I finished, I think he wanted to kill Marj.

“I don’t think you’re depressed, or suicidal. I think you’ve been through a lot of stress, for an extended period of time, and I think both you and your wife need some time to just take everything in so you can put your lives back together.”

I was hoping his recommendation would be for me to take a month off.

“Look. You won the battle. Don’t lose the war. Go back to work. Keep your head down, and I’d look for a new position if I were you. Your boss,” he said. “Is nuts!”

That guy gave me some good advice when I needed it most. The more I thought about Marj’s response, the more I started thinking maybe I should make getting her dumb ass fired part of my agenda.

But the last thing I needed at that time was to fight a war on a second front. I took his advice. I went back to work and kept my head down. I tried not to turn my back on my horrible boss, just in cases she had a knife in her hand.

And I took the first opportunity I had to apply for another pysch position at the MVAMC,. A staff nurse position opened up on the other psych unit, and I interviewed with Kevin. It would end up being the smartest career move I made at the VA, and once free of Marj, I would start to become a great psych nurse.

And more importantly, my wife would finally start getting better, and our lives together would finally begin to achieve some measure of balance.

But that would be in the future, and there would be plenty of challenges waiting for us to face. And one in particular that almost destroyed our marriage.

The Worst Week

October, 1994.

Lea was once again hospitalized at Fairview Medical Center. She had taken another turn for the worse. Abdominal Surgery Number Three had been in the summer of 1993. Ninety-five percent of her colon had been removed. Abdominal Surgery Number Four was on deck, and I was beginning to wonder what the endgame was going to be with this.

I mean, how much more of Lea’s gut were they thinking about removing? How much more could they remove?

It was early Monday morning, around mid-October. The phone rang at our house. It was my father-in-law, David Covington. He and his wife, Wanda, were living in San Benito, TX. They had retired down there years ago. Lea and I had visited them a year or two earlier during one of Lea’s periods of relative stability, all the way down at the bottom of Texas.

My father-in-law wasn’t an easy man to be around. He was a combat veteran of World War II and Korea. He had been wounded in each conflict, earning two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star for bravery in battle. He had a short fuse on his temper, and tended to yell a lots of the time. Dave had one bitch of a case of PTSD that he had never sought treatment for.

My mother-in-law was on the fast track to sainthood, in my opinion, for staying with her husband as long as she did.

“Hi Mark. It’s Dave. Say, I just wanted to let you know Wanda’s in the hospital. She’s actually in the same hospital that your wife is in.”

It took me a moment to process that. I was working a stretch of Nights at the MVAMC, and the ringing phone had awakened me.

“Why is she in the hospital. In Minneapolis.” I said. I don’t think it sounded like a question.

“Oh, well, she wanted to see her baby girl, and that’s Lea, you know. So, we drove up here over the weekend. And when we got here, Wanda had a small heart attack. So she’s in Fairview Hospital, on the fourth floor.” Dave may have even chuckled.

Dave was fairly nonchalant about it, but he was like that. When he told me the story about how he earned his Bronze Star, he made it sound as though he had been walking through the park. Except he and his men were being chased by an army of Nazis. Through a minefield. And the Nazis were desperately trying to kill them.

It was no big deal then, and this was likewise no big deal. The doctors wanted to run a couple tests, but Wanda was okay. She was resting comfortably. He thought she’d be well enough to travel back to Texas by the end of the week.

“Let me jump in the shower. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

I met Dave in Fairview’s main lobby. He had visited both his wife and his daughter; Lea knew her mother was in the hospital, two floors below her. Lea’s room was on the sixth floor. Dave hadn’t had any sleep. He wanted to go to his hotel, take a nap and get cleaned up.

“Go ahead. I got this.” I said.

Lea was excited and very chatty when I got to her room. She had already talked to her mom on the phone, and wanted to go see her mom, of course. She had gotten all dolled up; hair, make up, everything. The sixth floor nurses had dropped everything else to help her. Those nurses had  become part of our family  through the multiple admissions and surgeries Lea had had over the previous couple of years.

Lea looked great. I wheeled her and all of her IV pumps and bags of IV fluids down to the fourth floor and Wanda’s room. Wanda also looked great. The fourth floor nurses, who didn’t know Wanda at all, had also given Lea’s mom every possible assistance to help her get all dolled up. The sixth floor nurses had called the fourth floor nurses and had explained the unique situation to them.

Those sixth floor nurses, they were total rockstars.

Lea and Wanda hugged and kissed and talked and talked. It had been Wanda’s idea to drive to Minneapolis. She felt an intense need to see her baby girl before this upcoming surgery. Her gut told her she needed to be here.

This would be my life for the next few days: Work nights at my hospital. Catch twenty to thirty winks of sleep. Shower. Eat something. Go visit my wife and her parents at the other hospital. Repeat.

I informed my boss of this latest wrinkle in the seemingly neverending saga that was my wife’s healthcare nightmare. Marj was actually supportive, verbally, though not enthusiastically so. I was too tired to give much thought to my boss’ reaction. I was pretty sure my life couldn’t get much worse.

On Day Three of my new routine, Wanda’s heart specialist doctor wanted to talk to Dave about his wife’s prognosis. Dave wanted me to be there when he met with the doctor. It turned out Wanda’s condition was much worse than Dave described.

Wanda’s family suffered from heart disease. In short, my wife comes from a long line of people that died young from heart attacks. Wanda was in her sixties. She had serious coronary artery disease, and already had one coronary bypass surgery about a decade earlier. She saw a team of heart specialists on a regular basis in Houston. Dave wanted to stabilize his wife enough to take her back to Houston for treatment.

“Yeah, you could do that,” Wanda’s Minnesota doctor said. “But she probably won’t survive the trip.” The results of Wanda’s angiogram showed an eighty to ninety percent blockage in three of her major coronary arteries. “She needs another bypass, immediately.”

Fairview Medical Center might not be the Texas Heart Institute, but it wasn’t the worst place to go to be treated for heart disease either. The hospital had an eighty percent success rate with their coronary bypass surgeries. Dave asked me what I thought.

“This is a decision for you and Wanda to make. You could call her team in Houston, and see what they think, if you have any major objections. And this isn’t my specialty area…  I haven’t worked in Cardiac Care for… six years. But if this were me, and this was my best option to save my wife, I’d have the surgery here. This is a good hospital. They’ve kept your daughter alive three times already when she could’ve died.”

And they’d be getting a chance at Number Four very soon.

“I’ve got to talk to Wanda…” Dave said.

It was a no-brainer for Wanda. She consented to the surgery. It was scheduled for Friday.

When Friday came, I slept almost all day, which was unusual for me, even when I worked Nights. I called Lea around 5:00 PM. Wanda had been the last case of the day. She went to the OR around 3:00 PM. There hadn’t been any recent updates, but everything had been going smoothly. The fourth and sixth floor nurses had talked to the OR staff, and they would keep everyone in the loop.

Sleep deprived and feeling foggy, I ate some leftovers and went back to bed. I woke up around 11:00 PM and went to work.

At around midnight, I got a phone call.

“Hi Mark. This is Dave. Say, the surgery went well, but then something happened.”

I felt my heart stop beating.

“The doctors haven’t been able to get Wanda’s heart to start beating on its own again. They’ve had her on life support since the end of the surgery…”

“How long has that been?”

“Oh, I think since about six o’clock.”

“Okay,” I tried to get my brain working. “Now what? Do they have any idea what they’re going to do?”

“Well, yeah.” he stammered. “They want to take her off life support. They’ve done everything they can, but Wanda’s heart just isn’t strong enough…  I think I’ve lost my co-pilot.”

I hung up the phone. I couldn’t believe what I’d just heard. I told my co-workers. And I called my horrible boss, Marj, to let her know I was leaving work and that she needed to come in and take my place.

“I’ll be there as soon as I can.” she said. Marj walked on the unit about an hour later. She didn’t look pleased. I could care less what she thought or felt, but I briefly thanked her for coming in to relieve me, then drove like a bat out of hell to Fairview Medical Center.

I met Dave in the main lobby one more time. Wanda had been taken off of life support right after we had talked on the phone.

“Wanda’s gone…” he said. He was holding back his tears.

“I’m so sorry for your loss.”

We hugged each other for a long time. Dave was saying something, I can’t remember what he said anymore. I wasn’t really listening anyway. I was thinking about my wife.

“Does Lea know?”

“No. No. I was waiting for you. I can’t tell her her mother is dead.”

I have no clear recollection of most of what followed. I think Dave went to call Lea’s ex-husband, so he could tell their daughters about their grandmother. I went to the sixth floor. The nurses came running up to me when I got off the elevator. All of them were crying. I hugged them all, they tearfully expressed their condolences.

“What does Lea know? Did you tell her?” I asked the sobbing nurses.

“No. You have to tell her.” one of the nurses said, drying her tears with a Kleenex. Her name was Mary, and of all the incredible rockstar nurses that took care of us, Pretty Mary was our favorite. We called her Pretty Mary because there was more than one Nurse Mary on the sixth floor, and she was the prettiest.

God, give me strength, I thought. I was sure I’d rather die than be the messenger bearing this news. I talked to Lea’s nurses for a moment, telling them how I heard the news and what my horrible boss had done. They knew all about my toxic relationship with Marj.

“Okay…” I said more to myself than anyone else, and headed down the hallway to Lea’s room.

“Oh my God! What time is it? Why are you here? What happened?” Lea said in a rush, the moment she saw me in her room in the dead of night.

“I don’t know any other way to tell you this. Your mom’s heart wasn’t strong enough…” I didn’t have to say anything else.

“Oh, no!” Lea cried. And I held her for the longest time as she started grieving the loss of her mother. “I want to go see her!”

The nurses were ready. They flowed into the room, and hugged Lea. Through their tears they checked all of Lea’s IV bags, helped her change into a fresh gown and robe, transferred her into a wheelchair and brushed her hair.

Dave and I were waiting in the hallway when the nurses rolled Lea out of her room. She cried with her dad for a time. He told her how much Wanda had wanted to see her, and how much Wanda loved her. And then he told Lea how much he loved her. Lea later said that was the most surprising thing that happened that night.

Lea’s daughters arrived at the hospital swiftly. Dave led the way to where Wanda’s body lay in state. The OR staff had cleaned her up, and left her body in the OR suite. No one was able to speak, so I said something appropriate for the situation– what a wonderful gal Wanda was, how much we loved her and how much we were all going to miss her…

The staff told us to take as much time as we wanted. We stayed with Wanda for at least half an hour, maybe an hour. There’s only so much crying you can do at one time. I don’t think the girls wanted to leave their grandmother alone in that room. But the transport crew was waiting to take Wanda’s body to the funeral home, and the cleaning crew still waiting to scrub the OR suite down.

I don’t know how long I stayed at the hospital. I took Lea back to her room after her dad took her daughters home. We talked about her mom.

“I didn’t go see her before her surgery.” Lea said. We were laying in her hospital bed, her head was on my chest. “You usually come in, and I thought I’d wait until you came in. But you didn’t, and I didn’t want to inconvenience the nurses. They’re always so busy…  So I didn’t go see my mom, and now I’ll never be able to see her again.”

Sometimes it’s the things you don’t do that you end up regretting the most.

I know I eventually went home and slept. I may have actually had the weekend off because I don’t have any memory of going back to work until after Wanda’s funeral.

I called Marj on Monday morning, and view of the tragic circumstances, I requested the week off. Marj told me I’d have to talk to her boss, Mary Erdman. I called Mary and explained my situation to her. She already knew what was going on with my wife, but she didn’t know about my mother-in-law. In view of the circumstances, I thought requesting a week off was very reasonable.

“Do really you think you need the entire week off?” Marj’s boss asked me.

“No, I don’t think I need a week off. I need a month off, but I’ll settle for a week!” I replied, and slammed the telephone receiver down on the base without waiting to hear Mary’s response.

This, I thought, means war.

But first, I had to bury my mother-in-law.

In and Out of the Chakras We Go

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.

“Hello?”

“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.