near death experience
Last trip to Memphis for my granddaughter’s treatment for leukemia at St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. Rain is pelting the windshield, wipers fighting the force of water and wind then spots of no rain at all. It is a symbolic example of our three year journey coming to a close. We pull into the parking lot of the Tri-Delta House where we have a room reserved for us. We see new people and the familiar ones still fighting and hoping for a cure.
The next morning we arrive for the first of three MRI’s and labs, CAT scans and psychological testing that takes up the entire day. Tomorrow is full of appointments also. Humidity is heavy and it bears down on already stressed out emotions. Parents walk around downtrodden. Eyes vacant, trying to follow directions like good little boys and girls in hopes that a reward of a miracle of life will happen for their child. Robotic migrations from clinic to clinic carrying the all-important daily schedule that can change at any moment and invariably does. Waiting rooms are around every corner because that’s what you mainly do. They are filled with distractions for the child waiting for what they know will be the next painful procedure. Parents hate it too but there’s nothing left now except faith and hope and perseverance. It is an atmosphere of controlled chaos and a test of human endurance as to how many emotions you can shove down internally and keep from your frightened child moment by moment. Your own silent scream must remain that way until the end whatever that brings.
The lodgings are more than adequate. Living rooms, play and game rooms are adorned with beautiful furnishings, toys and up to date technology. Every wall has painted murals of landscape and animals that most of the children will not get to see, for real, for a long time. Some huge temporary houses like McDonald’s House have several big kitchens so you can make your own meals during the long term stays. The compound is gated and ran like a 4 star resort only what you are going to experience has nothing to do with pleasure and relaxation.
Staff does not build false hope even though it’s the only thread left in the fabric of your life to hold on too. You learn to build your own. This is a sub culture of desperation where everyone here belongs. The journey is like a train speeding toward a destination where every rider hopes they can eventually get off and get on with their lives. Some do but some are derailed along the way and never reach that station. This fact lives daily like a virus in each parent’s heart. None of this is St.Judes fault. They try very hard to accommodate but the situation is devastating and personal. It takes a very strong parent to endure and balance the medical control with their knowledge of what’s best for their individual child. Often you find yourself swinging from despair to anger.
We are grateful, relieved and blessed because we reached our train station as all the tests were negative and my granddaughter is cancer free. But, the fight continues there for so many. It is a journey that changes your Soul and lives within you forever. We believe in playing forward every life experience we learn from. My daughter met a grandmother this morning who has just arrived with her granddaughter and daughter. She is lost and she is desperate. My daughter gives her insights, navigation tools and when to take some advice with a grain of salt and which to pay attention too. She tells her the most important tool is research of everything, the drugs, procedures and advice. She has helped so many parents over these years cope during the worst journey of their lives.
My granddaughter started a website called “Freaking Out On Cancer” the first year of treatment. It is a place kids can talk about pain, victories, despair and joy. She intends to continue this website throughout her life. This journey into the valley of death was traumatic for our whole family but we made it through. Playing this experience forward is a way we can repay our incredible miracle. Each one teach one is the golden key of humanity.
I’ve thought a lot about change lately. Like they say it is the only constant. My life has been full to the brim of it as long as I can remember. So much so that I got to where I expected change, even looked forward to it like an old comfortable blanket. Although, I wasn’t always that way I just adapted to the ride. I was married young by today’s standards at 18 years old but was more than ready to settle down to a warm home with a picket fence with children and a smattering of dogs and cats. I yearned for stability because it felt safe and reassuring. However, it didn’t put demands on me to take risks or to explore who I really was underneath the persona of the perfect wife, mom, daughter etc. Then little changes began to happen like the first daughter and the second and the third. Then a tsunami of a change occurred in the form of a divorce.
This change brought me to my knees and forced me to reach way down into a place of strength and courage I did not know I possessed. But I found out I did possess this power and it was my first inkling of who I was and what I might be capable of. Change became a normal part of my life after that. Struggling, surviving, always looking for the light at the end of the tunnel taking every opportunity offered to create what I lost. We travelled like gypsies over more than a dozen states looking for stability but change was always right behind us as I was trying to run from my heart pain.
Then in Florida I got sick, really sick and almost died. The illness left me with many disabilities. My youngest daughter was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s during the time I was in a coma. We all made it through, lucky to be alive, trying to adjust to the biggest life change yet. There were five of us now with the addition of a beautiful son six years ago and I was in charge of their lives regardless of my new disabilities. By now I was a fighter and a survivor so I was determined to fulfill whatever mission God saved me for.
After a year learning to walk and drive again and my daughter was back home and in remission, the kids and I moved to the Midwest to be near my family. There I found what I was saved for when I took a job as a disability advocate for a civil rights organization. This was a perfect platform in which I could redirect my anger and survival skills to assist people with disabilities to thrive and become independent in a society bound and determined to warehouse them. These were my people and I instantly knew I had a responsibility to play it forward.
I just retired after 26 years and if that sounds like I finally found what I lost so long ago with the divorce you would be wrong. During those years the changes kept coming with challenges, deaths of loved ones, raising teenagers, moving residences constantly to adjust to new developments good and bad. I know now that what I forever tried to replace wasn’t mine anyway but rather a springboard for me to jump from in order to explore and use the essence of who I really am in this life.
I am now embarking on a new adventure with the same mission of reaching out to humanity only on my terms. It is a partnership with others who are just as dedicated to change society’s perception of people with disabilities as I am. Change has become my friend and although I can finally relax with the children grown and a successful career put to rest I welcome change when it comes for the opportunity it is to grow spiritually and intellectually. Managing it becomes an expanding drill but the way we embrace, oh yes, the way we embrace it, defines our future and ourselves.
The following essay was not written by me. it was written by my 16 year old granddaughter whose strength and depth of character is way beyond her years. It has an important message in it that inspires those who have had to deal with overwhelming trauma and survived. Hope you enjoy.
“Raven I regret to tell you this, but you have Leukemia” These words shattered my world and turned it upside down. All I remember is my mom jumping in front of the doctor looking me in the eyes and telling me “Raven Listen to me You can beat this all you have to do is keep a good attitude!” my doctor tried to interrupt her but she put her hand up and said firmly that she needed to talk to her daughter. He smiled and walk out. My mom then looked back at me and kept telling me that as long as I didn’t give up I would make it through. She said its 10% meds 90% attitude, and that sunk in because I still remember it like it was yesterday. And that’s how I found out I had Cancer
Next thing I know I’m getting sent down to Memphis, Tennessee to go to a special hospital for kids in my position. My position? All I know is that I had to pack up with a duffle bag of clothes leave the only place I’ve ever known and be shipped off without no more than 5 hours’ notice because the ambulance was already on its way. Why me? I know I’ve had bad luck but this is ridiculous. I look out the windows in the ambulance and I see oak trees and wheat fields that are just starting to wither away. Is that going to be me soon? Withering away as the months or weeks go by? I guess we’ll find out in about 4 hours huh?
39787 that’s my new name I guess. That’s what everyone calls me. “Is that 39787?” “Is 39787 hungry?” “39787 is not in her room. Where is she?” This… this 5 digit number is my new identity. In fact, I got so sick and tired of it that, I snuck out of my room just so I could get away from it all. But then everything erupted in chaos. All I was doing was sneaking down to the kitchen to read in peace and quiet. It was bad enough I had to drag around this pole of fluids that was about twice my size. But now i can’t even leave my room without getting lectured about fall risks and white blood cells. I was just trying to get out of this medically induced prison. You’d think they would have some consideration but I guess when you see it every day you get immune to it. I just hope it gets easier because I don’t know if I can do this for….HEY HOW LONG DO I HAVE TO DO THIS FOR?!?!?!?
“No! I will not stay here for 4 months I got plans!!! I got school!! I can’t just up and leave my friends! My FAMILY!! No I won’t do it!!!” They can’t expect me to do this. They can’t make me! Can they?? “We don’t have a choice sweetheart” mom said with sorrow in her eyes. It was then that I realized they were not only taking me from my life but taking her from hers as well.
Then… came the side effects. After getting a Rubber ball attached to my heart, came the meds and the consequences. That had to be the worst part. The Chemo they give you messes with your energy and cells, so to counteract them they gave me steroids.
Yes. I did say steroids. And those steroids came with a nasty price. A price I wasn’t aware I had to pay.
If you have never heard of avascular necrosis, you would not be the only one. Avascular Necrosis is a deterioration of the bones and/or Joints. If you catch it in time they can be saved. for example if you catch it at 30% then you can get a surgery where they place a metal rod in your bone/joint and crush it up to get blood flow through there. I have had this on my knees and ankles, even though they were at 90% my hips and shoulders were too far gone to save, so for those they had to replace them. God It makes me feel like I’m 80 with a hip and shoulder replacement.
Anyways now I have had 6 surgeries in/on my nose, port (rubber ball), shoulder, hip, knees, and ankles. That doesn’t even count the spinal taps. Which for those of you who don’t know are when they stick a needle in the base of your spine and take out fluids or put in chemo. And when it comes to spinal taps I’ve had over….100. But those don’t bother me except for the fact that when you get knocked out for a spinal tap you can’t eat for 7 hours before.
Now there are time that I look back and laugh, which I know does not seem right. And I’m sure you are asking yourself “how can you laugh at something like that?” and I have a way to show you. So I’m going to end this personal narrative on a positive note with a funny story.
I was about halfway through treatment when I had to do a spinal tap on a very busy day for the hospital. So just like any other hospital I had to wait in the waiting room. (Now let me remind you that it was about 2 o’clock in the afternoon and I had not eaten since midnight the night before so I was hungry) I got up to go ask the nurse how much longer we had to wait and she was eating a bag of spicy Cheetos and I wouldn’t have minded if she wasn’t so mean about it. “Excuse me miss?” she looked up with a glare in her eye and said “what?” I didn’t know what to think but I got a little irritated but not enough to say something so I just smiled and asked “would you happen to know how much longer till they can get me back in the operating room?” (now before I go any further it won’t make sense if I don’t tell you they had huge aquariums in the waiting room with little clown fish in them) so she said “ Do I look like I would know?!?” by this time I was ticked off so again I smiled and said “well you look like you would at least know where I can get some tartar sauce” she was confused and said in a tone I rather did not like “ why would you need tartar sauce? I know for a fact you aren’t allowed to eat” I couldn’t help myself I smiled evilly and said “cause I’m about to go eat Nemo. And if you’d rather I didn’t I suggest you Talk to the doctor and see how long till they can get me back!” She looked horrified to say the least. But hey it worked I got called back 2 mins later.
And that’s my story. I would to add that I am 4 months away from being done with chemotherapy. um let me think I believe I covered everything. Oh… If you have a question about any of this just feel free to ask me. I’d rather you know than guess. So I guess the moral of my story is you can find humor in almost anything if you look hard enough…
1991 & on –
Life now is all about “bucking up” and getting on with our lives. My daughter and her sister came home two months after I did. She is in complete remission. I can walk with crutches now but can only use my thumbs because of the contractures. I taught myself to drive wearing leg braces and finally kicked my ex out. I am apprehensive on my own in my condition but I have faith I’ve done the right thing. The kids and I are all together again and that will get me through anything. I know someone is still by me from the other side as I can feel the presence at times and when I am conflicted over a decision or direction I want to go the knowledge is there. It is not a voice like it was in the coma rather it’s like intuition only more persistent.
I trusted it whatever it was and knew something was waiting for me to fulfill. During the next year I learned to walk with a cane and do most everything with my hands even though they were still in contractures. We all licked our wounds physically and emotionally and counted our blessings. I knew it was time to move toward my destiny but did not know where that was. My old plan to return to Phoenix didn’t feel right anymore. Then one evening sitting with the kids on the pier watching the crashing waves smash the shore it came to me. We had relatives who lived in Missouri. I had only drove through the town one time but I could not shake the feel of urgency. It was like a divine decree.
There was no way I could ignore this powerful pull. So, I sold the RV dirt cheap and everything in it. I bought new tires for my old 79 Ford pick-up, filled it with gas, three kids, two cats, clothes and one TV and headed north. I understood this was my destiny and I would make it. Within a week we rented our first house in six years. We had finally come full circle. Money was very scarce with just social security disability and a little child support but we were free, together and alive. It was good to be with family again. We had been through so much that the struggle to survive now was nothing comparatively.
But, surely this was not what I was pulled here for. One morning while enjoying a strong cup of coffee that powerful tugging returned. I knew I had to go find a job. My family thought I was crazy with all my complicated disabilities but I could not deny it. I was apprehensive of course. My only transferrable skills was my mind and my life experience. Everything else was braced up, atrophied or contracted. Nevertheless, I trusted this direction of my destiny. I was afraid the job search itself would do me in let alone a forty hour work week but by now I knew how to push through my egos fear.
My second interview was with an organization called Southwest Center for Independent Living. I was hired with a hand written resume in my hand but had no idea why or what they even did. It all soon fell in place as I learned they empowered people with disabilities to live their dreams by removing barriers physically, attritional and mental. All the lessons I had overcome, the struggles, the despair, the determination are now going to be played forward.
I have just retired after 22 years of empowering so many people with disabilities to see their potential and their self-worth, a career I never dreamed of pursuing. It was the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my life. I wondered what I’m to do now with all those years of working in the disability field and the intertwining of my life experiences. I had entertained the idea about blogging because I have always loved to write but knew nothing about blogs. About six months before I retired I got an email out of the blue from a blogging site so I looked into it. I created anyoneteachone.com and here I am. I’m still playing it forward and hope I can until I cross back over.
Never give up your dreams, never believe in prognosis and believe with all your heart the enormous power you own when you acknowledge you’re potential.
April – 1989
Recovery was slow and tormenting. It took almost two weeks to wean me off the ventilator that had pushed oxygen into my lungs for 91 days but my lungs were ready to take over now. They finally cut my medications back so I’m beginning to think more clearly and remember a few things before the illness. I have permanent systemic nerve damage and severe hand contractures, I may or may not walk again and I cannot raise my arms above my waist, I still try to make sense of what happened to me and why but I’m ready to push through whatever it takes to get my life back.
Soon as my ex entered the room I demanded he tell me where the children were and why I have not seen them. His shoulders slumped and he looked at the floor which immediately raised my anxiety level. He then explained our son was with him but the girls are in Arizona because my youngest daughter, 13 years old, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Non-Lymphoma stage 4 the week I went into a coma. A parent had to sign for treatments so her father came and took her and her sister back to Phoenix.
I stare at him in disbelief but I can tell it’s true. My mind is spinning and a silent primal scream comes from a place so deep in my Soul that I am trembling. Finally I find my voice, “CANCER? CANCER”? I thought my life was in chaos before but this is bedlam. “I have to talk to her, I plead. “No I have to go to her”, I yell. I’m thinking of three days ago when I sat up for the first time and only lasted a few minutes before passing out. I am beside myself with agony with the realization of the debilitating status of my body. This can’t be happening! We were all a healthy family just last summer. Its late evening so the nurses said they will help me call her in the morning and that helps to calm me a little.
I can’t sleep from overwhelming fear for my daughter. I shut my eyes when anyone comes in so they won’t give me any strong medication. I can’t wait until morning when I can hear her voice. But, sometime during the night they caught on I was faking and without my knowledge gave me a huge dose of valium through my IV. I was out for two days. Another two days of my life gone. I was beyond furious. The realization they could take complete control of me “for my own good” was a sickening reality and a horrifying one. The only other facility legally allowed to do that is incarceration.
I demanded they hold the phone for me to call my daughter. I felt better talking to her. She was finishing her chemo and radiation in a few months. I wanted to hold her, to rock her. She was so brave and so strong and without her mother. I promised soon as I got out of this hospital and she was finished with treatments she would come home. I called her every night.
Anger was my motivator and I used it to push myself to overcome each physical barrier that would qualify me for discharge. I was in constant fear they would drug me again “for my own good”. I tried to act the right way, say the right things, and not ask for pain medication. It was more stressful than the permanent disabilities I was left with. I lied about having home supports, going to an accessible house and a scheduled appointment with rehab in Pensacola. I was actually going home to an RV, no supports except for a 7year old son and an ex who I continually fought with. There was no way I was going to a 6 month rehab treatment as recommended. I knew by now this satellite hospital had no follow up staff to verify my story. I wanted to bring my daughters home as soon as possible and I no longer trusted the medical field to compromise with me or to honor my decisions.
By the beginning of May I was finally going home. The real struggle was just beginning.
Living inside a serious illness puts you, literally, into someone else’s hands. You lose a sense of autonomy and power. You are isolated, sealed into the private rooms of your own mind. You are in excruciating pain but it is hard for those outside the illness to understand, even those extensively trained for such work. Minutes have become the same as hours. There is no escape, no distraction, no peace.
I had some great nurses and I had a few who made me feel like I was just a patient with lots of needs they did not have time for. Those nurses came in handled me roughly, never made eye contact, completed their tasks and left without ever speaking. I could only move my eyes not yet able to speak. I was a prisoner without a crime.
I cannot emphasize enough how much I wanted someone to look at me, to touch me, to remind me I was still part of the human race. Even after endless painful turning of my body that had wasted to skin and skeleton, I longed for physical touch. Tears rolled down the side of my face as I tried to remember the last time someone caressed me. It was long, long ago before I was ever sick before I lost my first love.
All my life my Mother had fought for me, had kept me safe. At even the hint of harm she threw open her wings of courage and fought. But, she was not here and for the first time in my life I was starkly vulnerable and way too debilitated to fight for myself. I needed to know there was someone who would fight for my life. I became more afraid that no one might care than I did of dying.
I thought of my children and where they could be. Why haven’t they come to see me? I needed to look at them, to hear their voices. I became angry locked in this body. The more I thought of my children the more infuriated I became. I felt a rush of power come over me, a fury that pushed me over some invisible barrier and busted through the wall of helplessness.
And then, this vehicle that had failed me, that the doctors said had no hope of recovering from the severe damage the sickness had ravaged on it, began to heal itself. My vitals started to stabilize; my heart began to beat stronger and with balanced rhythm. My kidneys began to function and my ability to push breath began triggering the ventilator alarm forcing them to start weaning me off of it. I was visibly awake and aware. I was back, I knew it, and at that moment my cup runneth over with the desire to live again and I was going to fight with every cell in my body.
It is now the day before the deadline to remove me from life support. My body is in the same critical condition. The doctor has told my ex to go ahead and make funeral arrangements. They have done all they can do. But life has a way of flexing its muscles just when you think there’s no hope. I am about to be reborn and enter a life full of purpose. However, before that can happen struggle and determination like I’ve never known before will have to be conquered. It will stretch my mental and physical endurance to the breaking point. It is a destiny I had never even considered and a 360 degree turn of where I was going before.
Dr Recall – end of March 1989
The doctor just left a meeting with the hospital ethics committee and met with my ex to confirm the decision to take me off life support was really what he wanted. The other option would be to try and move me regardless of risk to a facility appropriate for long term critical care. The doctor stated he felt I would not make the trip before I coded but wanted to put it as an option. My ex stood by his decision. I think he was afraid I would linger there the rest of my life.
My Spirit – end of March 1989
I realize, beyond doubt, I have to go back. I must answer my destiny whatever it is. The resistance is pulsing within me viewing that pitiful body. What could I possibly give to humanity now? All the questions, all the ambiguity and perplexity would not be answered on this side. I had to live it.
My Spirit – evening before the date with death
Focusing back in the body was seamless but painful beyond belief. I have made a commitment to follow my destiny so whatever it takes I must do. Memories from my life started to flow back into me like a tsunami. Where are my children? What happened to me? Where am I? How long was I asleep? I cannot talk or move. The nurse notices my eyes are open and I hear her calling for the doctor. The ventilator alarm is screeching because I am breathing, although shallow, and trigging it because the breath I take replaces the machines. It thinks I am not breathing. Medical staff rush in to take vitals and re-evaluate my condition. No one expected my recovery and they are in amazement.
I am still critical but this is the first sign of improvement in three months and it is only the beginning.