Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Life, interrupted

It's been a while since I last wrote here. Why? Well, life got in the way. 

On April 27, as tornadoes bore down to cause massive and unprecedented destruction in Alabama, my brother called 911 and was driven to the emergency room at Jackson Hospital in Montgomery, AL. He was alert but "wheezy" and they were concerned that he had a serious case of pneumonia. He gave the ER nurse his emergency numbers: his wife Marla, his commanding officer (CO), and me, his baby sister.

For some reason, Marla's phone kept going straight to voice-mail so the ER manager called me instead. I was in Georgia with my parents, watching Jeopardy! as usual. I almost didn't answer the phone because I didn't recognize the area code, much less the phone number. But I'm glad I did. I didn't really understand what the nurse was saying to me at first, but it finally got through that my brother was seriously ill and needed family by his side as soon as possible... and they couldn't get in touch with his wife! 

I got the phone number and said I was going to try all the numbers I had and then would call them back in 30 minutes regardless. I had already decided that I would drive to Montgomery if I couldn't get in touch with anyone.

I sent text messages to Marla and her two daughters (in their 20s), and was actually on the phone with the hospital again when Rachel called me back. Apparently Marla had been packing up their house in GA so they could move officially to AL the following weekend, and she had left her phone in a "dead zone". But now they were all getting together to drive from the Atlanta area down to Montgomery... through the tornadoes. (Meanwhile, my brother's eldest, Sara, is a flight attendant and was on a flight which was delayed on the Atlanta tarmac because of the storms. The pilot decided he had to pull the plane back to the airport for gas - so she could get off. Nice pilot!)

Marla, Rachel, Sara and Dan tag-teamed driving and made it to the hospital by about 12:30AM (ET), much to the relief of Dad, who had been tracking them through the tornadoes, and me, who had been waiting to see if I needed to drive down myself. As they were safely in Montgomery (in a house with no furniture), I decided I could finally go to sleep, and then suddenly noticed there was a massive storm outside!

Anyway -- It took several weeks, but they finally figured out that my brother had ARDS - Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome. Probably a result of a flu bug that turned into pneumonia, plus the facts that he had been spraying bee poison recently and he had been smoking for about 40 years. He had not been feeling well the weekend before and he went to a doctor on Monday with a 103* fever -- and was sent home with allergy pills and cough medicine. And two days later, his lung x-rays showed both lungs completely clouded.

Marla called me that Friday so I ended up driving down to Montgomery that Saturday, ostensibly for one day, but I didn't leave again until the following Wednesday. It was supposed to be my last week in GA, and I *had* to drive back to DC no later than May 8 because that's when my dealer tag expired (yes, after 10 car-less years, I bought a car)! Also, Rachel was graduating on May 7. So, I drove back to Eatonton, then drove my mom to Atlanta and back on Saturday for Rachel's graduation, and then drove to DC on Sunday, May 8. The good news was that Dave was off the respirator! He came off the day I left, and he seemed to be improving!

I spent the next week at the DC DMV or sleeping. Or, occasionally, working. I got my temporary DC tag and was starting to get back into my regular work routine when I got another call from Marla. Dave had developed a staph infection and they were going to have to put him back on the respirator.

Two days later (May 20), my cat and I were driving to Charlotte to spend the night with my sister and her husband before heading back to Montgomery. During the week I had been gone, Marla and her daughters had gotten everything moved from Carrollton, GA to the new house in Montgomery.  They still had a lot of boxes everywhere -- but at least they had furniture! 

We woke up early every day to get to the hospital by 9am (Central) so we could talk to the doctor before the 10am visiting hours. Eventually, I worked it out that if I skipped the 1pm visiting hour, I could work a full 4 hours before the 4pm session. (Thank god for the flexibility of my job!) And then we would go back to the hospital for the last session of the day at 8pm. In between, we picked up necessary (and some unnecessary) items at Target, Walmart, or Publix, had lunch, and/or watched TV. It was exhausting, but I am so glad that I was able to spend that time with Marla, Sara, and Rachel. I also got to know Dan (Sara's husband) and Revas (Rachel's boyfriend) better. It sure beat being by myself in my effiiciency apartment in DC wondering what the hell was going on.

And then came the Thursday when the doctor gave us bad news, May 26. The doctor some of us nick-named "Dr. Gloomy Gus" because he tended to be bound and determined to give us no hope at all, told us that morning that Dave was not going to make it. There was a lot of confusion then because other doctors said they still had tests to do, and Dave's "sats" seemed to be doing better. The nurses were convinced that Dave still had a chance, but we sent out the word to the whole family that it was time for them to come say Goodbye.

One of the deacons from my parent's church drove them down from Eatonton; my sister Karen and her husband Carlton drove from Charlotte; and my other sister Cathy flew down from DC and then drove from Atlanta. Marla's twin sister Carla, and her daughter Ashley, drove down from Little Rock, AR. Cathy's flight was delayed in DC, but everyone else got to Montgomery by Thursday night (she got in around 6am on Friday). Mom and Dad were able to visit Dave in the ICU, but Dad was not physically capable of staying too long.

We all met for dinner at Mom and Dad's hotel and it was so good to have the family together - we all laugh so much, even through tears! And Dad got to meet Dan and Revas for the first time. :-) The dinner service was interminable, but it turned out OK because we were all there long enough for the travelers to arrive.  And one of Dave's buddies in the National Guard, Gardner Perdue, came by and was just a gem. The next day we were all in Dave's room and he started doing magic tricks and telling jokes - not like "LOOK AT ME!!!", just kind of "hey, have you seen this?".Soon, the entire family was laughing and smiling - and Dave's sats went up considerably. It was just what we needed.  I wasn't there for the whole show because I figured 75 people in an ICU room was a few too many (OK, 10 or 12), but the rest of the crew could not stop talking about it.

Dave survived that weekend, but he wasn't actually getting any better. My parents had to get back home because they needed their medications, so Cathy drove them back and stayed the night before heading back to DC. Karen and Carlton stayed in Montgomery for few more nights, as did Carla and Ashley.   I'm very glad that I was able to spend one of those nights watching bad movies with Dave. That's what we do. :-)

We learned on Monday that Dave's blood oxygen percentage was very low, and had been for a while, which caused a lot of concern. They did an EEG to check his brain function, but it would take a few days to get it analyzed. The nurses bent over backward fighting for Dave to get better - but, they had been reducing his sedation and he wasn't coming out of it... There really wasn't a lot we could do except wait, pray, and hope.

Meanwhile, Dave's new neighbors had started providing meals for us every night, except the night the guys decided to throw a cook-out in his honor. These were neighbors who, for the most part, had not met Dave. But they knew he was military and they cared and helped us anyway. There were just so many people who cared.  Dan and Sara's friends came down to keep our spirits up (emotionally and liquidly), and it helped SO much!

On Wednesday, June 1, we got the results of the EEG: not good. Not good at all. We realized that we had to make a decision about Dave. With a lot of tears, but also the knowledge of what Dave would want, we made the decision to remove his ventilator the next day.

On Thursday, June 2, I held my brother's hand, and Rachel and I stayed with him. We knew that Dave really hadn't been "there" for a few days, but I still felt the need to hold his hand. It just broke my heart that he really was gone.

And he was. I still can't quite wrap my head around it...

Edited to correct a time reference from 12:30pm to 12:30AM. Doh!

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