Monday, December 08, 2008

A Life-changing Event

[Warning. This is a long post, but true - 20 years ago today. Read it only when you have time.]

I knew Lil only slightly when she invited me to her cabin in Lutsen, Minnesota, in the fall of 1988. We had gone to the Mower County Fair together one night in August and I had been over to her furniture store in September. Occasionally we would eat out after church on Sundays -- someone else was always along.

When Lil found out I didn't have to work on Veteran's Day, November 11, 1988, she asked me to go to Lutsen for a couple of days. First I drove to Waseca on Friday morning. I went to their apartment, which was above their store. It was really beautiful. Lil made waffles for us, and then we set out on our trip. The North Lakeshore Drive along Lake Superior was beautiful. I had never been beyond Gooseberry Falls. When we got to cabin (which is also beautiful!), she made delicious soup and then we discussed how far it was to Canada. She said, "Why don't we drive up to Thunder Bay? So we did! We shopped and ate . . . and talked -- and talked - - and talked! Spending that much time together, two people start to get close. We got back to Lutsen late that evening. She made our beds and before you knew it, it was Saturday. On Saturday we shopped in Grand Marais and downtown Lutsen, had a wonderful dinner at the cabin, and closed up the cabin to head for home.

Sunday, November 13th, my left arm started tingling. All around my elbow it tingled like pins and needles. By Tuesday it started to ache more than tingle. So I went to our medical department at Hormel's where I was working. The nurse said it probably just needed a heat treatment, so she put a vibrator with heat on it for about 10 to 15 minutes. I went back to her on Wednesday and Thursday. It was getting no better. I was taking aspirin every 4 hours. By Monday of the next week, November 21st, I decided to see my own doctor. He x-rayed it and recommended traction. He arranged for a physical therapist to give me treatments. He put 20# weights on my neck and while I was lying down, he stretched my neck at regular intervals for 20 minutes. He did this for 10 treatments. Meanwhile, I was getting worse. At work, the only way I could endure the pain was to have my left arm raised above my head. I was beginning to lose my strength all together. After the 10th session, the therapist had me go upstairs to consult with my doctor. My doctor tested my reflexes and there were no responses. He said that my situation was serious and that I should go to Rochester to the Mayo Clinic to see a neurologist. At that time I didn't know what a neurologist was, so I asked, "Do you think I'm crazy?" He laughed and said, "No, you can't fake a non-response in a reflex test. A neurologist specializes in spinal matters." He went on to tell me that I should waste no time in going over there and that he couldn't recommend any doctor in that department since that was not his speciality. He suggested I go to the Mayo Clinic and tell them at the front desk that I was to be an "emergency start."

I knew I had to arrange to be gone from work, so I told him I'd go on Wednesday. I went home and called Lil. She said she would contact her sister who had a lot of friends at the clinic. Well, all of her friends had retired! Then I called my sister to tell her, but when her daughter answered the phone, she informed me that Janet had fallen and broken her leg and was at the emergency room at St. Marys Hospital in Rochester.

Tuesday I went to work and told them I had to start going through the Mayo Clinic. I would begin appointments Wednesday and I wasn't sure how long I would be gone.

On Wednesday morning Lil picked me up and we drove to Rochester. We went to the main part of the Mayo Clinic and told the secretary my situation. Then we sat down, a heating pad wrapped around my shoulder. By 9:30 that morning I was seeing the first doctor. He gave me a brief physical and asked many questions. Then he told me to come back at 1:30 to see a neurosurgeon. During the break, Lil and I went to see Janet who was in a room at St. Marys. She was in rough shape. She had suffered a spiral break in her lower leg and was in a lot pain. Dave, Lil and I went to the lunch room at the hospital to eat a bite while Janet was in x-ray. Then came my 1:30 appointment. The doctor I saw was the head neurosurgeon. He looked at me and checked the x-rays I had brought with me. He said my 5th or 6th cervical disk was ruptured, pinching my nerves and deadening my entire left arm. He recommended surgery right away. He said I could go home and think about it, but not for very long. I knew I was in such pain that all I wanted was to be well again. So he made a call and said I could be scheduled for the next day and that I should check into St. Marys Hospital that night. Then he let me use his phone to call home and work.

After making my calls, I went to the Admitting department at the Mayo Clinic. I still had the heating pad wrapped around my shoulder and arm. Lil was so good to me! She helped me with everything. They did my blood work-up at the clinic. And since the clinic was unusually crowded, they instructed me to go directly to the hospital where they would complete the pre-admittance. They also could tell I was in so much pain that I couldn't tolerate waiting in the lobby any longer.

I was admitted to a room as soon as we got to the hospital. Once I had filled out the many forms and answered some questions, Lil took me to see Janet one more time. Janet was going to be released the next day, Thursday, while I was in pre-op.

As I recall there was one complication - my brother Jerry had left for Illinois to pick up Hans at the Great Lakes Naval Station for the holidays. We couldn't get hold of him (there were no cell phones back then!). When they arrived back in Austin and learned of my situation, they turned around and came back to Rochester and I got to see both of them just before I was wheeled into surgery.

Thursday morning, December 8th, just 26 days after my arm was only tingling, I was scheduled to have major surgery. That day started with an echo cardiogram. They injected dye into me and I saw my own heart on a monitor and watched the dye travel through it. It was really fascinating. Following that I had a myelogram x-ray. For that, I had to lie very still while they injected dye into my spine. That was followed with an x-ray of the neck area (5th and 6th vertebrae for me) to locate the exact area of my rupture. Then I waited for the CAT scan. I was so uncomfortable and cold. The nurses covered me with heated blankets in an attempt to get me warm. I was next in line when an emergency accident victim came in and was placed in front of me. When it was finally my turn, they rolled me onto the table and pushed the button for the scan to roll over me, but it wouldn't roll. It only shook. They tried several times, but it wouldn't work. They brought in a repair technician, and finally it worked. It was now about 11:30 am. We had started the whole test procedure at 6:30. At last they wheeled me into the prep-room for surgery. That's where Hans, Jerry and Lil were waiting for me. I was so happy to see them. We got to visit for about 20 minutes before it was time for me to go. You know, it never occurred to me to be frightened. I felt I didn't have any choice.

I lay in a waiting area. I remember being cold and having heated blankets draped over me. They they took me into the surgery suite. I spoke to my surgeon and his assistant a couple of minutes. Then they started the sodium penothal, and I was out.

I understand I was in a sitting upright position during the surgery. I had begun lying down, but while I was asleep, they sat me up and placed my head in a halo. This way they can work on the neck area. I know this because one of the prongs on the halo pierced my forehead and required a stitch. It also gave me a very ugly black eye which lasted all of my 9 days in the hospital and even longer.

The first thing I can remember after surgery was waking up in my room about 8 or 8:30 pm. Jerry said I was in surgery until 7:30. The nurses came in and explained that I had had a surgical laminectomy and the "lamies" had a certain way to lie down with the aid of pillows. They also instructed me how to turn a little or get up. They were very kind and helpful.

The remainder of Thursday through Monday I was in pretty rough shape. I remember my room had a large institutional type clock on the wall, which I could read without my glasses. Every four hours they were giving me shots of morphine. The effect wouldn't start for 20 minutes, and in 3 1/2 hours the effect was gone and I needed more. I would stare at the clock, trying to endure the pain until another shot was in effect.

I also remember Steve dropping off Heidi to see me on Friday. I was really upset about this because I knew I looked about ready to die - - black eye, extreme pain, and dried blood in my hair and some on my face. If I did die, I didn't want Heidi to remember me this way. (I am sure this goes back to my last time I saw my dad alive. He was also at St. Marys Hospital. I saw him last on a Monday and he died the following Saturday.)

Jerry and Lil couldn't do enough for the kids and me. Jerry took Hans home that first day when they knew I had come out of surgery okay. He went to the grocery store and bought a bunch of food for the kids. They wanted to stay in our house. He and Lil came to see me every day. Lil spent hours with me. We talked and talked when I wasn't sleeping.

For those first 5 days I couldn't bear to be in an upright position. Every time I tried, my head just pounded. On Monday, Dave and Janet came to visit me. It was during lunch time and Janet was on her way to have another x-ray on her leg. Anyway, when they brought my food, they had me get out of bed to eat at a table. I was up for about 3 bites when the pain in my head hurt so much that I began to cry very hard. The nurse put me back into bed. That afternoon a team of doctors came and after examining and questioning me, they decided I needed to have surgery again later that day. At 5:00 pm they put me to sleep again and added fluid to my spine. After coming out of recovery I was again taken back to my room. The instructions that night were for me to lie flat on my back - with no elevation and no turning on my side - for 24 hours. That was really difficult. I think I was awake most of the night. But at 6:30 the following morning, my doctor came to check on me. He said he thought I could try to sit up. I did, and from then on I began to improve.

One day during my recovery, my brother came to visit me. I was allowed to walk for a bit, so he and I walked in the halls of the neurology wing. Jerry had worked in this unit as an orderly prior to joining the Navy. All the corridors were decorated for Christmas and the hospital looked so beautiful. We walked down to the chapel. It was simply gorgeous. I felt so close to God while I was there.

Jerry brought me a tape player with little speakers to put on my pillows, and I enjoyed beautiful music. Then on Wednesday night, as I lay in bed, I heard carolers. It was the most beautiful sound! I hope I never forget it. They came right down my hallway. I decided then that that was one of the best presents I have ever received.

My doctor had explained the high risks of the surgery before I agreed to have it done: 1) dying during the surgery; 2) becoming completely paralyzed from the neck down; 3) having no more use of my left arm; 4) having slight use of the left arm; or 5) be healed. As it turned out, #5 was the end result. Praise the Lord!

I had more visitors in the following days. Hans and Peder came to see me, plus some of my friends. I was released on Friday, the 16th. I sure enjoyed that drive home and being with my kids again.


MamaD4 said...

Donna, you told me about some of this when you were telling me about how you became friends with Lil...another angel in your life who came into it at such an important juncture! You are blessed to have so many wonderful friends.

And I, for one, am glad that it was option #5 too! I am lucky to have such an amazing mother-in-law. I would have found Hans, but I would have missed out on you.

Lil said...

Hi...I actually remember all of that very well. It is no wonder our bonding was so complete...That was just the start of a wonderful friendship. Love, Lil

Badger said...

Holy cow, what a story! Very glad that everything turned out OK. :)

Scuba and I went up to Lutsen when I was pregnant with Sam--feeling very sick still--and I'll always remember it!

I Love Barbershop said...

"I remember too"!

The day that you were released from St Marys was the day I had to go back for the surgery of having a rod put into my knee down to my ankle. I had been having musle spasms in my leg and they started to force the break apart again.

I remember Jerry, Dave and I coming down to Austin on Christmas Day. We went to the church where Jim was ministering and then after church Lil and her family all came over to your home and fixed dinner. After that we sat by the piano and sang.

In some ways the 20 years have gone by fast. And yes, Lil is a very special person. And so are you, my sister, Donna.

Heidi said...

I didn't remember you had to have a second surgery. How has it been 20 years? I am glad you are fine and they were able to catch it in time.

Anonymous said...

I did not realize all this.

I found it interesting that you said you were not scared. I cannot imagine anyone slicing into my neck but then again when you said that the pain was intolerable and you felt like you had no choice I can see where that would be possible.

This was an experience for you--good and bad. Lil was a angel in disguise for you at the point in your life. Glad it is behind you.