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When Your Profession Becomes Personal

Our family’s most recent tragedy and our miracle brother.

parents with two children

At the end of September 2019, I woke up to a life-changing call from my younger sister, Laura, informing me my older brother, Chad, was in a UTV accident. Laura informed me Chad sustained a severe skull fracture and would be undergoing surgery that Thursday morning. Being that he was located in South Texas and I in Michigan, that physical distance left me feeling utterly helpless. I eagerly awaited my flight time to approach busying myself with useless chores around the house. I even drove in to work that morning knowing I would be unable to perform my job duties, but feeling like I needed to do something. Anything. My co-workers and boss immediately hugged me, cried with me, and sent me back home with good wishes.

Upon landing in Houston, my brother-in-law picked me up and we drove straight to the hospital. I practically ran through the hospital, head moving rapidly side-to-side eager to read every sign in hopes it would get me to my location quicker. Then I hit the locked doors protecting the ICU unit. My aunts and uncles were waiting outside the doors with that look of fear and pain, trying their best to give me an encouraging smile. Fortunately, I requested my sister to send me a picture of my brother before I arrived, as I fear the image I saw when I walked into his room might have gotten the best of me. I’d given myself a pep talk beforehand to “keep it together for mom and Katelin (his wife), Leigh.”

My brother that was full of life and always greeted me with a “Hey Leighbo!” was not the man I saw laying helplessly in the bed. His coloring was off, head shaved, probe sticking out atop his head measuring his ICP, bloody drain coming out of the back of his head leaving his pillow stained red, tube down his throat aiding his lungs, tube down his nose, wires in both arms and completely immobilized. I just stared at him for the longest time unable to talk to him or touch him. He seemed so fragile. Never before have these monitors and numbers seemed so foreign and scary to me. After seeking out acute level placements and taking any learning opportunity to get my hands on trauma patients, this feeling was abnormal. Now it was my loved one attached to the ends of all of those tubes and devices, making my feelings about everything intensified.

We spent every possible minute in his room until the nurses or doctors kicked us out between 6-8 A.M./P.M., when we took the opportunity to get a couple hours of rest in the insanely uncomfortable ICU waiting room chairs. Seriously uncomfortable chairs, y’all. The problem with falling asleep, however, is the waking up in absolute fear and panic, and the all-consuming feeling of needing to see Chad.

A person sleeping on an air mattress

Brought our blowup mattress to make nights a little more comfortable

After putting his skull back together with some amazing hardware and skilled surgeon’s hands, we thought we were in the clear. The neurosurgeon was very happy about how the surgery went and informed us that while the skull fracture was severe, his brain sustained minimal bleeding. Now, we start to breath and I’m confident I will catch my flight back to MI at the end of the week!

Saturday October 5th could possibly be one of the worst days of my life. My husband flew in on Friday and we spent the evening with Chad, carefully watching his monitors and numbers, alerting the nurse at any dip or completion of IV infusion (causing those machines to beep obnoxiously!). Together, we prayed with him, kissed him, held his hand, and just talked at him as if he could hear us. With numbers all looking stable and within normal ranges, we shift changed when they kicked us out at 6 A.M. and headed home to sleep. Or so we thought…

By the time the morning shift change happened and my mom was able to get back into the room, Chad’s oxygen was down in the high 70’s-low 80’s and holding there steady. The ventilator settings were at 100% and yet his oxygen wasn’t holding above the 90% the doctors preferred. The nurses and respiratory therapist were able to bag him and get him up to 90% SPO2, however it would slowly drop right back down. The trauma surgeon arrived, along with at least 2 respiratory therapists, the NP, and multiple nurses to hear the diagnosis and plan of action to address the drop in oxygen. In short, the physician informed us the situation was not good. “We are in the attic of a 2-story house that is already flooded and the rain is still falling.” He informed us he would initiate calling other hospitals to see if they would take Chad for a procedure called ECMO. However, after calling multiple facilities, none would accept Chad. He was too high of a fatality risk because his lungs had been saturated for so long and “they didn’t want him to ruin their numbers.” Can you believe someone would tell a family that?

Eager to take some sort of action and have some sense of control, we requested if we could bag him to keep his oxygen high enough. The respiratory therapist informed my mom, husband and I, present at that time, that continuously breathing for him through the bag would eventually collapse his lung and kill him, so that was not an option. The trauma surgeon made another call to his associate who advised him to take Chad off the paralytic so he can try to breathe over the machine and modify the vent setting for a quick inhale, hold for 5 seconds, then expire. That was our last hope and we were holding onto it with our every being. Every hospital-wide “code blue” had us leaping out of the chair, running out of the hospital Chapel, and fight or flight instincts kicking in. This was the first moment I had even let the idea of Chad not surviving creep into my mind, and it was haunting.

Well, did it work? YES! Slowly Chad’s oxygen would vacillate between 80-81 and then hold steady at 81. Then 81-82, then hold at 82. After 6+ hours of oxygen in the 70’s-80’s, his oxygen was trending in the right direction! I was walking with his friend back to Chad’s room and upon seeing his oxygen at 92%, I fell to the nasty floor of his ICU room with an overwhelming sense of thankfulness. Finally, it reached 100%. ONE HUNDRED PERCENT, y’all!

By week 3, the security check-in station no longer needed to see our ID’s and just asked us who the nurse for “CCU 38” was for the day. After that scare, we maintained our round-the-clock shifts, praying for no more unexpected changes in his numbers. Hours of sitting alone with your thoughts, led us to picking up silly crafts (loop yarn, friendship bracelets (Astros-themed, of course!), Wordscapes, etc.), doing modified yoga in his cramped room, and endless praying to save his life and bring him back to us. Finally it was time to think about waking him up…

The trauma surgeon came in prepared to place a tracheostomy tube and remove the oral tubing. However after completely setting up the room for the procedure and rounding up the appropriate personnel, the doctor casually strolled in and decided he was going to “let him (Chad) do it on his own.” Chad’s lungs were fighting so hard to breath on his own and all his numbers looked good, so rather than put him through another procedure, they decided to slowly wean him off the vent across a couple days. Closely monitoring his numbers and weaning him off of sedatives, paralytics, etc. and he was starting to open his eyes, turn his head toward voices, and nod appropriately to questions.

During this weaning time, my sister called in a priest to pray for him and she later told me this story of the visit: “I was standing on one side of Chad’s bed and the priest was standing on the other side of the bed talking to Chad. Chad was looking at him like he was trying to listen and understand. Before the priest left, he leaned close to Chad and said “You know God is always with you, Chad, right?” and Chad nodded his head! He nodded his head!”

One Sunday morning after my mom and I completed a night shift, my sister calls me to tell me to “Get back up here, now! They are waking him up!” I scurried around, feeling like shards of glass coated the inside of my eyelids, and hopped back into the car to head to the hospital with all sorts of new emotions to work through. Despite the doctors and nurses informing us Chad should not talk for 2 hours after extubation, he began talking to my sister and his wife right away. The nurse kept repeating “don’t talk to him!,” but he continued whispering to them within minutes after extubation. Upon my arrival, hearing his whispered voice, humorous hacking in response to irritation of the tube to his throat, requests for “gelato” (stale hospital lemon ice), and seeing him respond to various commands appropriately (e.g., wiggle your fingers, squeeze my hand, etc.), my heart was beating out of my chest. Chad was awake and seemed to be doing great!

person in a hospital bed

Feeding him the infamous “Gelato”

It was time for a transfer. That’s right security, no more 38. We are headed to the fourth floor! But no so quick…Within the first 5-minutes of him transferring to the new floor, a guard rail was left down and he tried to get up to use the restroom, resulting in him falling on his head, staining the floor red with his blood. My mom and I arrived on the seen after hearing the thud outside the stairwell and raced in to help 2 nurses pick him up off the floor. We called the family and his wife, who quickly arrived on the seen for emotional support, as my mom and I were both pretty frazzled. They transferred him into another room directly across from the nurses station where they could keep an eye on him 24/7. Chad later told us this incident was the first thing he could recall after waking up from his coma.

Our sleepover visits continued with extra cautious eyes, and slowly the medications were being modified. He was starting the processing experience we had been in for 3 weeks now. We had the pleasant, humorous Chad the first couple days, the frustrated, impulsive Chad the next few days, the mean, angry Chad the next few days, and then finally he started to be funny and pleasant. He progressed so quickly, physically and mentally, during the next few weeks, it’s truly unbelievable. He let my sister and I walk around the unit with him playing Family Feud, laughed at his, now, skinny legs, played Yatzee in the wee hours of the morning, snacked on Pringles, picked up everything he spilled on his chest until he gained enough motor control, and covered him in blankets just as quickly as we scurried to remove them (body temperature control issues). He slowly started letting himself start to process the incident and was fortunate enough to have countless visitors to help him through this. We laughed when he’d frequently state “I have some friends, huh?” Yes, Chad, you really do.

A person sitting on a bed

This was one of my favorite nights with Chad. He requested my “hippy” sunglasses to block out the hallway lights for our 2 A.M. walk

He transferred to TIRR inpatient rehab for 2-ish weeks, where he progressed so quickly he was able to go home without any equipment. He requested a shower seat (yay, safety awareness!), but needed nothing for ambulating. He celebrated his 5-year anniversary while he was there, where he walked down to the gift shop, purchased flowers for his wife, and returned to his room during one of his PT sessions. He shared in a Halloween Trick-or-Treating event with his two precious children, wife, mom, sister, brother-in-law, and dog-cousin (See picture below). Had a picnic with his family at the hospital park. And played countless games of Yatzee in front of the big windows facing I-45, while snacking on stolen ice cream, apple juice, crackers, and whatever else he could find in the community refrigerator.

A person in a wheelchair with two children

Happy to report that Chad is now home safely with his family, and dare I might say, happier than ever. He still has much therapy ahead of him but has a very go-getter attitude towards it. We are so proud of him for his hard work and endurance during this process because it can be tough, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I’m positive this experience has given him many new outlooks on life and forced him to re-assess what is important in his life. As for me, it has changed me as a sister, wife, daughter, friend, and a professional in health care. Now when I counsel survivors and their loved ones, I can actually say,

“I get it.”

“Stay strong.”

“Keep fighting.”

and understand the meaning behind those words. My daily routine now includes at least one text, phone call, Facetime or some other form of communication with my family in Texas because it’s necessary. Daily reminders via texts, emails, phone calls, gifts, cards, hugs, and so much more were our lifesavers. Thank you doesn’t begin to do justice to my feelings of gratitude. Our family and friends are the true stars of this story!

After reflecting back on the phase one of Chad’s injury, my sister asked my mom and I “What is one of the biggest take-aways you got from this experience?” Insightful 27 year old, right? It was such a challenging question, as you could guess we had MANY things we took away from the experience. One of the resounding themes we came back to is learning “what matters.”

Family. Friends. Love.

There were countless times I prayed for Him to take ANYthing he wanted, all my money, degree, career, literally anything, but please don’t take my brother. And instead, my family is one of the lucky ones that get their loved one for, hopefully, years to come. Here is the happiest beginning you will ever see…!

A family posing for a picture

#Survivor #Miracle #Rehabilitation #TBI