(Uncensored. You've been warned.)
I thought the night of her initial heart attack was the worst night of my life (being selfish, of course). Things progressed slowly to where Christine was weaned off the life support and was doing somewhat better, until she had her second heart attack the morning of August 9.
But we wash, rinse, and repeat, and she was weaned off life support fairly quickly after the second one. She had made gains each day. She had gotten to a point where she was practicing breathing with the spirometer... the respiratory therapist said it one be a big step in her recovery (and possibly being put into a step-down unit) if she could blow 1000, and then 1500 on that meter. She worked hard to do it, because she was Yankee stubborn. The second-to-last day she was so excited because she had reached juuuust under that 1500 mark.
Within her final few days she was able to pass a swallowing test and be allowed to have a liquid diet. This stuff was powerful nasty. Poor girl... I can't remember exactly what they gave her that first day on the liquids but I do recall that it looked dreadful. I used to call it "liquid nightmare in a bowl." They continued to work with her with swallowing and she was able to advanced to soft-solids on ... what would turn out to be her final day.
She was getting some bedside physical therapy and was able to stand up (for a few moments anyway), and transfer, with nursing assistance, from bed to commode and back to bed.
Things were really looking good, to the point that transfer to a step-down was being kind of quietly discussed.
Then Monday August 15, 2016.
The day was generally ok. When I first came in to the room in the morning, she looked a bit out of it. Her blood pressure was a bit lower than we wanted it to be, and she complained of feeling a bit dizzy and light-headed when they had her use the commode. I guess we didn't really think too much on the BP, figuring it would come up later in the day. She was pretty much at a plateau, and that wasn't unexpected. I parked myself in her room with plan to spend the day with her, other than when the nursing staff expected visitors to leave (afternoon "rest time" and evening shift change). She did get some good news in that her last echocardiogram, which took place on the 14th, showed an ejection fraction of 40%. When she first arrived at New Hanover, it was in the lower 20s, and the cardiologist thought that maybe we could get to the mid 30s with a lot of medication and effort.
They let me stay on the unit in her room during the afternoon rest period. She generally just didn't "feel good," which had us a little concerned, but figured that maybe she did a little too much too soon (being the stubborn woman she was).
She had a decent rest period, and I believe it was around 5 PM that I went downstairs to the cafeteria to get some dinner.
When I got back she was on the commode, with several nurses around her. She said that something was wrong, and she was having a hard time catching her breath. She looked concerned, and the nurses were helping her back into bed. They started her on oxygen once again, and after getting settled back into bed she seemed to recover a bit. Her BP was still lower than everyone wanted, but the nurse manager said they were aware and were going to add a medication (I can't remember what it was) to help boost it up.
The shift change time came along, and Christine asked me to please stay. Looking back on it with the benefit of hindsight, I think she knew something just wasn't right. I asked Carrie if I could stay and they discussed it and said I could stay, as long as we kept the door to the room shut and I stayed kind of quiet.
So Christine and I settled in to watch Monday Night Raw, as our usual. She was kind of huffing and puffing, so they started to ramp up on her oxygen delivery. As time progressed, her numbers on the monitor started looking weird. It was ... strange. None of this state-of-the-art equipment was working the way it should. They couldn't get a decent blood pressure measurement on her arm, forearm, or lower leg. They couldn't get a decent blood pressure measurement via "old school" BP cuff.
As time went on they ordered a bedside echocardiogram. Christine didn't seem overly concerned (or at least she was doing one hell of an acting job), other than still struggling to get a decent breath of air. She was also asking for the suction for her throat more and more often. Anyway, the man with the bedside echo came in to do his thing. I've transcribed medical reports for a whole bunch of years and so I know what an ejection fraction means. I glanced at that screen and saw ejection fraction in the lower 20s. The technician no-sold it, of course, he's not supposed to make a diagnosis or tell a patient anything, and that's fine, I understand. I also decided that... if Christine didn't ask, I wasn't going to tell.
She continued to struggle to breathe. I implored the evening nurse to please contact someone who could look farther into this. Christine asked me for a Priesthood blessing (a religious ordinance our church believes in). THIS alarmed me. So we muted Raw and I gave her the blessing. By time I got done with the blessing, Respiratory had come in and they put her on a high-flow oxygen mask. They also gave her epinephrine in an effort to boost her BP numbers and such.
Christine was claustrophic. She was terrified with that mask on. Her pupils were blown wide open. She was shaking uncontrollably in bed, likely thanks to sheer terror and that damned epi they gave her.
At this point it was roughly 10:30 PM. I was doing everything I could think of to calm her down a bit. We were counting, we were practicing breathing... I was telling her, "in and out, in and out." Telling her to try to watch the TV, or try to think about Nathan, or the cats. I had her hold one of the stuffed animal cats I had brought. Now nurses were in the room trying to get bloods and administer treatment.
11:00 PM or thereabouts, she was really spiraling downward. She was slipping in and out of consciousness while everyone was working on her. I was telling her to keep her eyes open, keep looking at me, keep squeezing my hand, keep squeezing my f--king hand. I have no idea how long this went on. Beep--beep--beep--beep-beep-beepbeepbeeeeeep. Squeeze my f--king hand. A weak squeeze. Eyes roll back. SQUEEZE MY F--KING HAND DAMMIT! Nothing. SQUEEZE. Nothing. Shouting (or something) behind me, someone yelling at me, I don't know. A firm grasp on my own shoulder. "I'm calling security if you don't leave now." They made me leave. I couldn't stay. Then they brought me this damn chaplain who I had no desire to talk to. Nurse Erica also was with me... in hindsight I think they made her stay with me so I wouldn't be in the way or something. ......
I stayed on the unit, but not in her room. I'm certain we shattered JCAHO and HIPAA regulations. Erica didn't seem to care, and neither did that chaplain. I wished he'd just shut up and leave me alone, but I understand he was doing his job. There was chaos coming from Christine's room, people in and out. Erica would occasionally go over and then come back to where we were (I now had a couple of other nurses and the chaplain in this little "corridor" between rooms). Erica said they were doing CPR, to keep faith. More beeps and crap, but I have no idea if they were from her room or someone else's. There were noises and people, but yet at the same time other nurses who were at their stations, managing their patients like nothing else was going on. I didn't care. I tried to get up from the chair they had me in so I could see what was going on but Erica and her posse made it pretty clear I was either staying put or leaving the unit entirely.
Have you ever been in a situation where you are simply so ... I don't even know the words to use ... but just where I couldn't think straight. I couldn't comprehend anything, I could hardly breathe myself. She was doing so much better earlier. This simply wasn't happening. I called Tonya Scott, from church, who had been there that first night. She told me she was on her way.
Shortly after 1 AM on the 16th, the cardiologist and other doctor came to where we all were sitting, and said they had been doing CPR for over an hour. There was no sign of any mental activity, no response that would indicate to them that there was still life. He said they could continue but it was doing even more harm than anything else.
A few moments passed, and I told them to do what they had to do.
Do what needed to be done.
A few minutes later the cardiologist came back and said they were finished.
I tried to call Christine's parents. No answer. I called again, as soon as the machine picked up I hung up and dialed again. Her father answered the phone. I don't remember what I told him, other than to talk to the doctor. The doctor graciously took his call, and from what Erica told me they were on the phone for a little bit. I called Christine's aunt Janet, with whom Nathan had been staying. My God I couldn't help but to see in my mind's eye, and I still see it to this very minute, the "I love you mom" on the whiteboard next to her bed, in his sloppy handwriting, that he wrote the very first complete day we were here. Everything, all of the events of the past 13 days, sped through my mind, like a videotape on "rewind." There were other people talking around me. It was chaotic. They told me to stay put. I don't know.
Tonya and her daughter Jackie arrived. I think they made it from Tabor City to Wilmington in just shy of an hour. I don't even know what time it was anymore, but Erica said we could go in and see her body.
I wanted to scream, yell, beat on someone. I wanted everyone on that damn unit to know how I felt. I didn't care if I woke every single patient there. This couldn't possibly be happening. What about the blessing I gave her? What the hell good was faith when THIS was the end result? I remember feeling sick, like I was going to be sick.
Tonya, Erica, and the chaplain went in with me to see her body. Everything had been cleaned out of the room. All the poles, the electronics, the monitors, pumps, everything was gone. Even the personal effects, the stuffed animals, clothings, her glasses. All that mess had been bagged up and put in a corner. They had a blanket up over her, she looked like she might have gone to bed. But she was very thin. Her face sunken a bit. I didn't know what to do. We just sat there for a few minutes. I touched her hand, it was chilly to the touch, but not cold, per se. Maybe she had been putting groceries away in the freezer.
The whiteboard had been erased, clean. That rooted me to the core. Nathan's message was gone. Now, listed as of shortly after 1 AM on the 16th of August, 2016, his mother was gone too. Gone to a place I can never get her back.
Her dreams gone forever. The things she loved doing, her genealogy, being with Nathan, teaching... left behind. Nathan, a 9-year-old kid, without a mother. For some reason I'll never understand, God saw fit to take Nathan's mom away, even though he is supposedly a loving God. All the fighting she did over the past 13 days, gone.
Aunt Janet arrived before daybreak. I thought of Nathan... how on earth were we going to tell him? Aunt Janet is a registered nurse herself, and she said she'd discuss it with him when she got back to Mebane (NC). I turns out that Nathan woke up in the night, sometime shortly after Janet left; he said he was feeling really sick to his stomach, that something was wrong. He knew. Janet didn't have to tell him.
Me? I didn't know what to do. Well, that's not entirely true. I knew I wanted to stay at least until the day shift nurses arrived. I covered that in a previous blog. I couldn't help to notice but there was already someone else in the room Christine had occupied.
Eventually Janet left to head back up to Mebane. I packed all of the personal stuff that had been in Christine's room in the trunk of the car. As far as I was concerned, I'd never open that trunk again. I went back to the SECU house where I was staying... and locked myself in that room to be alone with my own thoughts. Except I couldn't think. I couldn't ... think. I just sat there. I couldn't even cry. There wasn't any. I didn't know what to do, so I went back downstairs into the common room at the SECU house. But then I got down there and I didn't feel like socializing with anyone so I went outside and walked around the grounds before going back upstairs. I remember being completely exhausted... this was suppertime Tuesday and I had been up since Monday morning. But there was no way sleep was going to happen.
Nothing has been the same. 364-days-and-change have gone by. And I still want to know why.
Thinking about the people with whom I came into contact over the two-week period August 2-16, 2016. Some will be forever remembered, particularly the nurses at the CCCU. There were many who rotated through while Christine was on the unit, but some really stick out to me including Whitney Dempsey, Carrie Cuevas, Leslie Tudor, and Erica Thacker, as well as many others whose names escape me as I write this. I am especially grateful for the level of dedication that these ladies demonstrated in that unit. They were so very patient with my constant questions and always had a smile on their faces. I often wondered... the CCCU is such an intense place to be. They are surrounded by death every day; people usually aren't on that unit for 14 days. They are there for a short time, and either are transferred or they die. That's the simple truth. I often wondered how those nurses could maintain such a level of ... just happiness ... that they carried. I watched Leslie and one of the other ladies watching a Youtube video, singing along ... it just baffled me. One of the ladies said every now and again you'd see them pulled off the side of the road bawling, but when you're "on the clock," you turn the emotion off and do what the job requires.
But they do go way above and beyond, in my view. I was staying at the SECU House in Wilmington, near New Hanover -- it's like a Ronald McDonald house, a low-cost option for families of patients who are in ICU or NICU, or cancer patients. Anyway, I had gotten a call at about 6:15 AM on the morning of August 9, 2016; it was Carrie, from the CCCU. I could tell immediately by the tone of her voice that it was not good news. She said that Christine had coded again, they were doing CPR, and I needed to get there. Now, in the lead-up to this, Christine had been making steady gains. She was successfully extubated, she was moving around, they were working on getting bedside PT, they were weaning some of the meds, etc. Apparently Carrie had just been in the room to do some routine things, and Christine was awake, alert, smiling, and relatively content. Christine had asked Carrie to adjust her pillow a little bit, which was done, and then not 2 minutes after Carrie left her room the alarms started going off... Christine had gone into V-fib. Carrie's work station was RIGHT OUTSIDE of Christine's room. That's how quick it changed.
This ultimately was Christine's second heart attack while in-hospital.
Carrie had called me, and I dressed and made the mad-dash over to the hospital from the SECU House. (I blatantly ran the red light crossing 17th street in Wilmington, going through it at a good 30 mph.) I got there and they wouldn't let me on the unit, as they were still working on her. Carrie met me in one of the waiting rooms. As soon as I saw her I lost it. This nightmare was like Groundhog Day. Carrie grabbed me by the shoulders and I could see the tears in her eyes as well. We hugged, cried, and prayed. Her strength is what got me through those moments.
Carrie left to go back on the unit to get an update. She came back out and said they were taking Christine to the Cath Lab again. She said that they had restored the heartbeat, but the situation wasn't good. Carrie was very honest and straight, she didn't try to sugarcoat things. I loved her for that. I asked if I could wait outside the doors and see Christine on their way to the lab and Carrie said that would be ok, but I had to kind of stay out of the way. Ok, no problem.
They brought Christine out and she was somewhat conscious-- her eyes were open. They had all the tubes and wires and crap back in her again though... I just couldn't believe this was happening again. Anyway I tried to be my sarcastic / witty self and told Christine to stop doing this and don't give them a hard time in the lab. She did glance at me, and I think she tried to shake her head 'no' at me, that she wouldn't "give them a hard time." Maybe that's what I wanted to think at the time (and now too). The team had paused for a moment for me to say this to her, but then they wheeled her down the hall to the Cath Lab. Carrie said it was going to be a while now before I'd hear anything again (I think she was trying to politely get rid of me), but I wasn't going anywhere. I stayed in that damn waiting room the entire time they were in the Cath Lab.
One of the Cath Lab nurses came to see me after some time had passed (I honestly have no clue how long it was). Christine did indeed have another heart attack, and a clot had reformed "downstream" from the first one. This nurse didn't give me much more info, other than to say the cardiologist would be in to see me shortly. Ugh. Meanwhile she was being prepped to go back to her room on the CCCU, once again on full life support.
The cardiologist came in to talk to me. He said this was not a good situation. There was indeed another blockage that they were able to "mostly clear" and stent, but that there was still a lot of material in there. I specifically asked, "can't we get the roto-rooter in there and clean it out?" or "how about a bypass?" The cardiologist said there was so much damage to the artery that it would be like trying to weld a piece of new plumbing pipe onto a piece of pipe made out of thin, fragle, crumbling lead. It would never hold up. Therefore any form of open heart surgery was ruled out. Ultimately, if she made favorable gains and was able to pull through this, she would be placed on a list for a heart transplant. !! WTF?!?!?! Eight days ago the woman wanted to go out and cut the lawn, she had homework to do, etc.
Anyway, we went through the whole procedure again (except the hypothermia). They had to keep her on life support, the balloon pump, and then slowly wean things down again over the course of however long it would take.
Those nurses were the warriors in the trenches during this time, and I can't heap enough praise on them for their efforts. They offered cheer, comfort, a shoulder, a laugh, and reassurance. They answered every question, every time, without hesitation or eye-rolls or anything of the sort. The nurse manager of the CCCU (and I regret, deeply regret that I can't place his name right now) told me that if I needed anything, for myself, personally, at any time 24/7, to just pick up the phone and call the unit. They were part of MY health care team, not just Christine's. That really, really meant a lot. I knew without a doubt that Christine was in the single best place she could be.
When Christine ultimately lost her fight, it was late in the night, about 1 AM (August 16, 2016). Erica Thacker was the nurse who stayed with me the ENTIRE TIME the rest of the team was doing CPR and working on Christine. This wonderful young lady helped a person (me) at the lowest moment in life, absolutely shattering HIPAA and JCAHO regulations by allowing me to stay on the unit at the time, helped keep me from ending up on a gurney in the next room. Her quiet reassurance and advocacy through the whole ordeal was a steady, guiding force. (I'm going to cover that awful, awful evening in a later post.) At any rate, I made the decision to stay right there in the CCCU waiting room until the morning shift arrived, because I wanted to personally thank Leslie and Carrie for everything they did (they were both there when Christine started to decompensate earlier the evening she died). When I was buzzed in to the unit, Leslie was sobbing. She saw Christine's status update on the computer or wherever, and I guess I caught her moments after seeing that. She just couldn't believe what had happened. We hugged and cried together.
Carrie and Erica were at Christine's funeral service. They brought a card signed by the entire staff of the CCCU and the Cath Lab. This card is put away in a safe box with Christine's family history items.
These nurses were simply wonderful. They could have been (justifiably) standoffish if they wanted. The CCCU is a very busy place. They treat EVERY patient the same way. One day when I was visiting Christine someone else on the unit coded. Carrie popped in and whispered for me not to leave the room until she came back through, and pulled the curtain mostly shut. I watched as they worked and worked on this patient for a good long time, so many people in and out, but nobody running around all out of control... it was a very paramilitary-type controlled situation. I'm not sure if the patient died or what their disposition was; they wheeled the patient out of the room eventually but I didn't really want to eavesdrop anymore than I already had.
The term "hero" gets thrown around a lot, mostly about sports stars. No... sports stars aren't heroes. Politicians aren't heroes. Heroes are every-day people who at some point made a decision to earn a degree in a field that allowed them to make a difference. The nurses on that unit work long, stress-filled hours that I can't even fathom. They handle death with dignity and grace, and manage to smile and say hello to you in the hallway (or on Facebook or wherever). These nurses, in my view, are heroes. Carrie, in particular, was a hero to me the morning of August 9, 2016. Erica was a hero to me in the wee hours of the morning of August 16 (she even came to say hi and visit with me at the SECU house when she was off-the-clock, when I'm sure she had about a million other places, better places, she could have been). They were ALL heroes to Christine during her prolonged stay. They are, and will always remain, heroes to me, and to every patient and family with whom they come into contact. Every single patient who has the unfortunate circumstance to find themselves on that unit ... I would tell them without any trace or shred of doubt or reservation that they are in the VERY BEST PLACE they could possibly be. No, things don't always end as we want them to, but those men and ladies will be there with you every single step of the way. Heroes.
Photo taken by Erica Thacker a few hours after Christine's memorial service, August 20, 2016.
.Why did we move here to North Carolina? Lots of reasons actually, not the least of which was a desire to escape the snow and cold of upstate New York. The house we had in Laurens, New York, was the proverbial Money Pit... the boiler was a nightmare as some church friends know after spending a late, cold, snowy evening cleaning it and repairing it (and getting covered head-to-toe in black soot). The thing was ancient and at least once or twice per season something would go wrong with it. When it was running, it wasn't very efficient... it cost us nearly $1100 every 6 weeks or so for the fuel oil to heat the home (to a paltry 65 degrees) each of the last two seasons we lived there.
Christine was working an incredibly stressful job at Bassett Hospital in Cooperstown, New York. Essentially she was the go-between... between the doctors and other medical providers, and the outsource medical transcription company for whom I was employed. Yes, that led to some interesting late-night conversations. She was "technically" my boss.
But the Bassett people treated Christine horribly. Not her immediate supervisor or her coworker, but those who were further up the food chain. She would take furious phone calls from angry doctors who would unload all of their angry diatribes on her. She would deal with the politicians and the people who were only really concerned about their own career advancement. She worked many... countless days... without taking a lunch or breaks, and would sometimes stay late off-the-clock to get work done. This was a routine 5 days a week, every week, 52 weeks a year. Because health care doesn't take holidays. She NEVER took sick days. I can't remember the exact number, but she and an enormous amount of sick leave built up when she left Bassett. I think they only let her cash out so many hours, but I believe it was maxed. She grew angry. Every day I would pick her up from work and would be ready for her to unload the day's stress.
We had joined a gym, HealthLinks at FoxCare, in Oneonta, NY. We went every afternoon/evening, and she'd take out that frustration at the gym.
Fast-forward to the late winter of 2004-2005. We had a heavy snowfall, probably a foot-and-a-half or so, followed by a bitterly cold Arctic outbreak. Temperatures were well below zero, and a transformer blew just down the street, knocking out power to the village. In fact, power was out in many areas across the county due to the biting winds and frigid temps. The power was out at our house for about 9 hours, and it was 37 degrees in the house when the heat came back on. The baseboard hot-water pipes were, however, frozen throughout the house. Most thawed without issue, but one set of pipes in our mud room / back entrance burst, flooding the room and into our kitchen. That was the point where she said that she was sick of living here, sick of the house, sick of her work, and of everything, and she wanted to move someplace warm.
I grew up spending each of my summer vacations in Whiteville, NC, and then eventually Lumberton, NC. I had always had a desire to go back there "some day" but it was one of those desires that kind of got shut in a storage locker and shoved away in a remote back corner of my mind, likely never to be bothered with again. Like when you stuff things out of site when company comes over, and then you forget about the stuff. Anyway, I said, "I know the place." So we got the ball rolling in putting our house up for sale. We had some unfinished home improvement "projects" going, and we were able to get most of them done.
We listed the house that spring, honestly thinking it would take years to sell the place, given the shape it was in. (Back story-- it was an 1880 Italianate Victorian house that had sat empty for a number of years prior to our buying it. We bought the place for pennies on the dollar, literally, and probably put an additional $15K to $20K into the place... and just barely scratched the surface. But it was located directly next-door to the school, across the street from a daycare provider, next to a pizza shop, right in the middle of town, so it was a good fit. And truthfully, despite the aggravation, the house was fun. It was two stories, with full attic and full basement. There was a cupula on top, and at Christmastime it looked like a great big wedding cake with the three tiers of icicle lights. NYSEG was ecstatic when I paid the electric bill.)
In the meantime I started to do some homework on looking at property in NC. I found several listings that caught my interest in the Laurinburg, NC, which is west of I-95 in Scotland County. But until I knew what kind of money I could get, it was mere window-shopping. I did some more work and ... eventually was able to get a preapproval through a mortgage company.
When I showed Christine the property listings I was viewing, she was like, whatever, just as long as it's not like "this" (where we were living currently). At the same time, through a series of good fortune, the realtor showed our house to a couple, and they simply loved it. Turns out, this was the manager of a Lowe's home improvement store! And the wife collected sewing machines, and was simply delighted with the place.
They put an offer to us... I believe it was late October of 2005. The problem with saying yes, is they wanted a short closing. They wanted to close before the end of the year. Which meant we needed to get our butts to NC and find a place to live!
So Christine told her boss she was taking the first two weeks in November off since she had a ton of vacation time to use anyway, and we loaded up the car and headed to NC. We looked at the homes in Laurinburg, and there were a couple that fit the preapproval terms and were really seemingly good fits for us.
Back at the hotel one evening, though, I said I wanted to go to Whiteville, since we were so close. I hadn't been there in over 20 years, and I wanted to see where my great-grandmother had lived and where I spent many summer vacations as a child. She's like, sure, and lets check out some of the properties there too.
When we got to Whiteville, Christine said "this is the place." For some reason she knew this is where we would end up. In the end, we ended up with a little 1300-square-foot house about 6 miles north of town. Mind you, we were moving from a 3000-sq-ft house to 1300 sq ft. We had a lot of crap to get rid of, and had to do it in a hot hurry as the people really wanted to close on the loan.
When we got back to NY, I immediately arranged to get the largest dumpster I could find, and just started hauling stuff out. Very little care was given to what was being tossed; if it was in the attic or basement, it was history.
At the end of the day, shortly before Christmas 2005, thanks to the Madero family of Morris, NY, and several others, we had a U-Haul loaded up and ready to go. We signed the papers and were officially homeless. The Madero family graciously allowed us to crash in their basement for a few days before we headed to NC. We had to wait until after the first of the year to actually close on the new house because of the holidays. So we lived for several days in a Best Western in Lumberton, NC (as they allowed pets). The realtor did allow us to unload the truck before the closing, which was helpful, because we had to get the truck returned and Christine's dad (who drove the truck), needed to get back to NY.
January 2, 2006, we closed on the Peacock Road property and officially sealed the deal to living in North Carolina.
Now that the back-story is all done, here's where I'm going.
The best-laid plans often get thrown straight in the trash. When we moved here, the PLAN was for Christine to attend Southeastern Community College, between Whiteville and Chadbourn, to begin working toward a degree in Elementary Education. That is what she had always wanted to do. And it was something she was genuinely good at.
Well the first detour on that plan came in February 2006 when we found out we were expecting Nathan. We had tried for 5 years to have a child without success, and believed that the only way we would have a child would be through adoption. Anyway, we were overjoyed that we were having a child. Due to some health issues Christine had, her pregnancy was deemed to be high risk. This meant making weekly trips to Wilmington, NC, to New Hanover Regional Medical Center. This put her educational pursuit on hold, and I continued to work my medical transcription job. Unfortunately the weekly trips to Wilmington became twice-weekly trips to Wilmington, which put a big dent in my work hours and, subsequently, my income (I did medical transcription work from home, and was paid "piecework").
Nathan made his grand entrance to the world on October 24, 2006, at New Hanover. The greatest moment of our lives, bar none.
Fast-forward to June 2, 2010. The internet in my area was down so I was unable to work. Therefore Nathan and I went to Burger King for lunch, Christine didn't want to go, so she stayed at home. There were some thunderstorms around in the region, but nothing that I thought was particularly remarkable. Shortly after Nate and I got home, the dispatcher's voice came over the scanner saying "report of a tornado on the ground, Bill Hooks Road and Peacock Road." I didn't even put shoes on, but grabbed the camera and rushed out the door. I got the pic, chased the funnel, etc., etc. Everyone who knows me knows that part of the story.
It was me who ended up going back to school. The amount of work I was receiving from the medical transcription company dwindled and dwindled down to a drip-drip-drip, and the money I was making was virtually minimum wage. Knowing that I had to learn a new skill, I went back to school at Southeastern, and got my Associates Degree in Science. I continued on, of course, to Mississippi State, and yada, yada, yada.
Christine didn't return to school until 2013. She was a stay-at-home-mom, and honestly worked harder than I could have ever dreamed. And I maintain to this day Nathan is better off for her being there with him. Nathan is going into fifth grade but reads at a 7th or 8th grade level and is super-super intelligent. MOST CERTAINLY he did not get that from me.
Anyway.... Christine successfully completed a degree in General Education at Southeastern in 2015, graduated with honors (of course) with a 3.97 GPA. She started that fall at University of North Carolina Wilmington, in an on-line program to get her Bachelors degree. She carried an incredible course load, I think her first semester she carried 21 credit hours. She was fast-tracking through her coursework, staying up deep into the night working on homework. She did a shadowing at Whiteville Primary School for a semester, and was going foot-to-the-floorboard.
She was happy. She was doing her schoolwork, being Nathan's mom, going to the gym 5 days a week, losing weight. One of her favorite "hobbies" was going out to cut the lawn in 100-degree heat. She LOVED it.
She was enrolled in her second full year at UNCW when she had her heart attack. Everything was set for her to continue, and she was also on the list to begin student teaching, which she could do locally in Whiteville.
I'm ashamed for being so selfish. SHE was the one supposed to return to school. SHE was the one who should have been celebrating getting her degree. SHE was the one who selflessly put her own desires on the back-burner so I could go on and pursue my dreams. SHE was the one who met Nathan's needs while I continued employment and did my coursework. And I'm the worst person alive for doing it. It should have been the other way around. Now I'm the one "celebrating" the end of my education... and her dream died with her on August 16, 2016. And thinking about it turns my stomach.
This isn't being written as a "feel sorry for Chris" thing, or any other crap along those lines. No... my shrink, sorry, my psychologist said I should write whatever thoughts come up over the next 2 weeks.
August 2, 2016, was a regular boring Tuesday wherein nothing of interest happened. It was a routine day in all aspects. I honestly don't even remember what I did that day... since it was a Tuesday I'm sure I had some transcription work to complete... Dr. DiCaprio usually had a bunch of work due on Tuesdays. Nathan probably spent much of the day doing typical Nathan things, like playing on his computer or his tablet. I don't even remember what Christine did. She might have gone to the gym that morning like usual, or not, I honestly don't remember. I do remember that it was hot that day, the summer of 2016 had been excruciatingly hot. She had wanted to cut lawn and I specifically remember telling her not to. Normally I wouldn't "forbid" my wife anything, it's not a husband's place to do that, but I expressly told her no. So at any rate, the day was just another day.
We had supper and sat down in the evening to have our snack and watch WWE Smackdown. It was just one of the things we did. I remember there being storms in the forecast and, me being me, I was all for that.
That's when life as I knew it ended.
Shortly before 9 PM, Christine very suddenly stood up from the couch. She was as white as new-fallen snow. She specifically said that she didn't feel very good, that her back hurt really bad all of the sudden. I thought that maybe she had sat "wrong" in the chair or something, but since it was approaching the time she usually went to bed, I said "why not just go lie down for bed anyway?" So she went off to the bedroom. I went in to check on her maybe a minute later and she said that the pain was still there but it wasn't as bad, but she asked if I could bring her an aspirin. So I went and got the aspirin and she took it, and I went back into the other room to help Nathan get ready for bed. After sitting back down in the living room, I could hear Nathan saying "mommy, mommy, mommy." I raised my voice telling him to stop bothering her, so she could rest. He came out and said that "mommy is acting really strange." This was 9:05 PM.
I went in and found Christine in a full seizure. Her face was dark red and she was completely unresponsive. She wasn't breathing... well, there were occasional gasps every few moments. (I read later on, during the course of her hospitalization, this was called agonal breathing... an involuntary brain-stem response to a cardiac arrest.) Nathan had the wherewithal to call 911 and he brought me the phone. I told him we need help, and he ran out of the room. I talked to the dispatcher and she said to start doing CPR. I had a CPR certification from when I was in high school, 24 years ago. Anyway I started doing chest compressions, or ... what I would call compressions, knowing full well they weren't very effective. In the meantime, Nathan arrived with our neighbors, Derrick and Melony Edwards. Derrick told me to get out of the way, and he took over the chest compressions. I was on the phone with the dispatcher this entire time. Derrick, who is a very muscular football coach, continued chest compressions while Melony tried to get Christine to respond. It started to storm outside a little bit. Nathan ran outside with our bright flashlight to flag down the ambulance. Derrick continued CPR.
Eventually the paramedics arrived. Christine had actually started to respond again so he stopped CPR and I hung up with the dispatcher. The paramedics were in the process of getting all their stuff out when I noticed Christine go unconscious again. The one paramedic started to get the paddles out, the defibrillator, and I had to leave the room. I couldn't watch that. I went into the living room, or my office, or somewhere in the house. I remember Derrick shouting at me telling me to focus and get it together for Nathan's sake. I think I called Christine's parents or my mom. I called Tonya Scott from church as well. That much I'm sure of.
After what seemed like forever the paramedics started to come down the hallway with Christine on the gurney. I could hear "beep beep beep" and I asked the lady if that was a heartbeat, and she said yes it was. She got some information from me and then they got into the ambulance, and pulled out of the driveway in the direction of the North Whiteville FD. I just assumed they were going to the hospital that direction as a quicker way to get onto 701. They didn't "peel out" of the driveway or go racing off into the night.
I told Nate to get in the car so we could go to the hospital. Melony told me not to speed. It was raining a little bit, but there was lightning and thunder, a storm was coming. So Nate and I headed into town the usual way we go. We made it to the hospital without seeing the ambulance at all. At first I didn't think anything of it. I told Nate to go sit down in the waiting room, and I asked the lady at the check-in if they (the ambulance) had arrived... she said she'd find out. Just a few seconds after I sat down I saw the ambulance pull in, followed by "code blue, emergency room." Nathan asked if that was mom, and I said I didn't think so (but in hindsight I knew that it was).
After a few minutes they called us into the back, and we were being taken to one of the smaller exam rooms. On the way I remember watching one of the people write "Cawley, cardiac arrest" on the whiteboard. They wouldn't let me go see her right away.
Tonya (from church) arrived, along with the senior missionaries, the Madeo's.
Anyway after a few minutes the doctor came to talk to me and said that Christine had suffered a "massive heart attack," and there was a blood clot. They had given a clot buster but she needed to go to Wilmington immediately. Since there was a thunderstorm, they couldn't use the helicopter and had to wait for the Life Link bus from New Hanover Regional Medical Center. I asked if I could go see Christine and the doctor said yes, for a minute, but she's not conscious and Nathan had to stay where he was. Elder Madeo, in his capacity as "clergy" was allowed to come with me.
She was there on the bed/gurney/whatever it's called. They had cut her clothing off back at the house, and had a hospital robe covering her. She had been intubated, and several other lines had been attached. This just could not possibly be happening. This was some twisted horrible nightmare. Elder Madeo and I gave her a blessing (a religious ordinance). By this time the Life Link bus arrived. I talked to the paramedic; she said they had full life support systems on that bus, as well as a professionally trained driver. "Don't try to follow us, you won't be able to keep up. We'll be in Wilmington in half an hour, and you will not." (Wilmington is an hour from Whiteville in dry conditions.) By now it was storming pretty good outside.
So they packaged Christine up and headed off for Wilmington... I think it was around 1130 or so by now, maybe midnight, not really sure. Nathan and I headed back to the house to pack a few bags knowing we were going to be in Wilmington for however long it was going to be.... me thinking that this was all some sick mistake and we'd all be back home in the morning.
We packed up and got ready to leave for Wilmington. I stopped by the Edwards' to thank them for their help and to give an update.
Normally I'm giddy over a spectacular thunderstorm but this was not the case. It was one of the worst storms I had ever driven in... and persisted all the way to Wilmington. It rained so hard you couldn't see the road even with high-beam headlights. You could see the road when it was lit by the near-constant lightning. It was one of the most ferocious storms I had ever experienced. I'm only vaguely aware of Nathan's presence on the trip to Wilmington because in my mind this was still all one really intense nightmare.
Anyway we got to New Hanover, but I had no idea where to go. One of the security officers took us to the Critical Care Cardiac Unit where apparently they already had Christine in the cardiac cath lab. I met a nurse outside the CCCU when Nate and I got there -- she told Nathan to go sit in the waiting room. The nurse told me that she had coded again and she was "very, very sick." She didn't have much other information and that they should be out of the cath lab by about 2 AM or so.
Even now, 365 days later, I still have trouble putting all the pieces together from this night. She had been fine. She had been completely FINE all damn day, with no symptoms of anything out of the ordinary until 5 or 10 minutes before Nathan found her. What in the hell was happening? WHY in the hell was this happening? Sitting in that awful waiting room trapped in my own thoughts. Nathan sitting quietly, playing on his tablet. I think that's what the child was doing... I'm not sure. God bless him though, he was very stoic. I think there were some other people in the downstairs part of the waiting/sitting room, but they were nameless, faceless humanoids just taking up space. I can't remember what time it might have been when I called Christine's parents or my own mom to give an update. I just sat there demanding that God tell me why WHYYYY He had done this and where He was right now? I had been drilled in this faith for so many years, now it was hitting the fan and He was nowhere to be found.
At some point the doctor came into the room... I don't even know what time it was. Sometime after 2 or 3 in the morning. He said that Christine had a 100% blockage in the left main coronary artery, and there was damage to the artery wall. He also said there were partial or complete blockages in four other locations. They put 5 stents in. They weren't able to competely get rid of the main blockage. I can still hear that doctor's voice in my head a full year later. He said she was in very grave condition, and they didn't know if she would survive, or if she DID survive, she was "under" for so long they weren't sure what kind of brain activity she would have, but either way the next 24-48 hours were going to be a very critical time. I remember just sitting there ... a case of what...the...f**k...? How in the hell could someone have such severe heart disease and have no f**king symptoms? The woman wanted to cut the f**king lawn earlier that same day! And dear God when you get around to it could you please explain to me why WHYYYYY was He not responding to the blessing we gave her earlier? In a box somewhere I still have the initial copy of the catheterization diagram that doctor gave me. A few minutes later a different nurse came in and explained to me they were going to initiate a hypothermia treatment... this was where they bring a patient's body temperature way down, real cold, to cause the body to go into a "resting phase," which apparently helps "restore" brain function after such a severe heart attack. They were going to keep her down for [x] number of hours or a day or two, I can't remember now. She was on full life support. Her life was a machine. They told me I could go in and see her... they even let Nathan come in but only for a second. When I saw her I think it was around daybreak. She was ice cold. There was no life there whatsoever. What life she had was contained in machines around her bed, with wires and tubes and a whole assortment of shit. Nathan actually handled seeing her fairly well. He wrote "I love you mommy" on the little whiteboard in the room, room #7 in the CCCU. His little message stayed on her whiteboard the entirety of the final 13 days of her life. I can't write anymore right now.