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.