Tuesday morning, September 19, 2006: The phone rings; my mom calmly says, "Your dad is being taken to the hospital in an ambulance." No real information, no details, no panic.
This was not the first time I'd received such a phone call. My dad's health problems had started six years earlier, and I had become accustomed to hearing scary news from my mom. And over the course of those six years, the phone would ring many times with news of my dad's health.
Mid-August 2000: I call my mom after getting home from school. I tell her about my day and ask about hers. She tells me she's been sitting in the ER with my dad all day. He has an aortic aneurysm and they have scheduled surgery for September 6.
September 6, 2000: Mom makes me go to school. She says she will call the school when Dad is out of surgery and someone will come get me so I can visit him. It's close to lunch and I haven't heard anything. I'm sitting in choir, anxious, nervous, and growing concerned. Mr. Hinton's office phone rings - I can see him talking through the glass window. He calls me over, and says, "You didn't tell me your dad was in surgery." I start to cry and he calmly tells me, "Your mom called and said he is doing fine. Someone will come pick you up shortly." I burst into tears, thankful that my dad is okay. Mr. Hinton shares the news with the class, and they pray for me. I go to visit my dad and watch them wheel him through the hallway and into the ICU. A huge wave of relief rushes over my family.
September 7 or 8 (can't remember), 2000: After recovering fairly well, Dad's lungs suddenly collapse and he is in critical condition. Doctors tell us he has developed ARDS - Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome - from years of working at a roofing manufacturer and the surgery was the catalyst to trigger the sudden onset of symptoms. He is put on a ventilator and we are told that 40-60% of people who have ARDS do not survive.
September, October, and the beginning of November, 2000: Dad spends most of this time in a medicated coma. He responds sometimes to voices, loves having his feet rubbed, and is having all sorts of crazy dreams that we will learn about when he wakes up. When they do finally bring him out of the coma, he is like a newborn baby. He can't talk, he can't walk, and he's skinny as a rail. He can't even write - although he begs for a pen and paper and makes all these scribbles and we pretend to know what he's telling us. Mostly he wants water. He's agitated most of the time, but has moments of happiness when we do what he wants. Mom has spent so much time at the hospital that it feels like I've lost both parents for a while. Thankfully, my cousin Steve has let me live with him in Northport during all of this. Dad gets moved to Northport DCH for rehabilitation and is released to go home just before Thanksgiving.
He recovers, but he is different. He has to learn to do everything all over again. He picks most things up quickly - except for driving, which was terrifying in the beginning. He drove me to school one morning and went straight in a turn-only lane and I thought I was having a heart attack! I had my driver's permit, so he let me drive to school and he drove himself home. He always made it back alive. :)
A couple of years later, he has open heart surgery. It's a scary procedure, but he recovers very quickly. It was a completely different experience than his last surgery. He goes home within a reasonable amount of time and seems to be doing very, very well. His health continues to deteriorate slowly. It's as if he came out of a coma and his body just quickly began to age. With his lung problems, his organs did not receive enough oxygen and so his body is aging quickly. He requires hearing aids, takes a plethora of medications for a number of ailments, and mom forces him to retire as soon as possible. But, he's alive and able to live a normal life.
January 2006: I am at work in Birmingham and my cell phone rings. It's my mom. "I am taking your dad to the hospital. We were at the doctor's office and the doctor said your dad needs to be admitted. He's lost a lot of blood..." My then-boyfriend picks me up at work and we carefully race to Tuscaloosa. I am scared, but I try not to let it show. Dad is once again admitted to the ICU, receives several units of blood, and is tested for everything under the sun. The doctors can't find anything wrong with him, but he slowly starts to get better and is miraculously okay and goes home within a week.
Months pass, everything seems to be okay. I celebrate my 21st birthday August 18, 2006. My parents drive up to Montevallo for my party - not too many 21-year-olds have their parents at their birthday parties. I'm glad I did.
Tuesday morning, September 19, 2006: The phone rings; my mom calmly says, "Your dad is being taken to the hospital in an ambulance." No real information, no details, and no panic. Thinking this is just another one of those crazy hospital visits, I am actually not worried. I call into work, leave Arnold with my boyfriend, and head to Tuscaloosa.
The hospital is being remodeled, so I get lost on the way into the ER. A nurse lets me in a back door near the CT-scan room. Coincidentally, my dad is being wheeled towards this room. I see a nurse pushing a man on a stretcher and it isn't until he is literally two feet away from me do I even realize it's my dad. He looks sick and is not acting like himself. I tell him I love him and the nurse lets me wait outside the room. As she wheels him back to triage, I walk beside him. My nerves are starting to take effect because he tells me he is in a great deal of pain. My dad never complains, and his persistent griping has me worried. In the triage room, he begs for us to flip him from side to side but we know moving will not ease his pain. The doctors refuse to give him any pain medicine until they determine the cause of the problem. I have never seen my dad in so much pain, and my helplessness is overwhelming.
My mom tells me one of his kidneys was declared non-functioning on Friday and that, more than likely, the source of his pain is because his other kidney is now dead. I am relieved, because I know people can live without kidneys. There is dialysis and I could even donate a kidney if I'm a blood match. He's going to be okay.
Except that he isn't. We eventually find out that his kidneys are both non-functioning and that he has developed sepsis. The potassium in his blood is too high to safely proceed with dialysis, although dialysis is what would help treat the sepsis. He is admitted, for a third time, to the ICU. I stay at my parents' house alone while my mom and sister sleep at the hospital.
Wednesday, September 20, 2006: I don't go back into the ICU room to visit my dad too much. I stay mostly in the waiting room with family. Mom is with him and our family members rotate in and out, each taking turns to visit. Most of my extended family sits in the waiting room with me. I overhear my aunt tell someone, "He is in multi-organ failure. It doesn't look good." No one had told me that yet. Immediately, I want to see him and I do. He actually looks better and by the afternoon, doctors say Dad is well enough to undergo a dialysis treatment. This procedure will help rid his body of the toxins it has accumulated, but we will have to leave while the treatment is performed.
Everyone leaves to go get rest. Mom, my boyfriend, and I go to Schlotzsky's to eat dinner and go back to the hospital once we receive the call saying dialysis is finished. It's about 8 or 9pm. We go up to his room and are amazed at what we see - he looks like a new man. His pinkish color has returned and he's actually in a pretty decent mood. I try to crack a joke and he gets on to me and makes an ugly face at me. He's going to be okay. Mom and I ask if it's okay that we go home and get some rest. He looks healthy enough that we believe we will have a long day ahead of more treatments on Thursday. Dad says that is fine, so we say our good-nights.
Something actually overwhelms me to go up to him, hug him, kiss him on the cheek, look in his eyes and say "I love you." I do that, and tell him to get some rest. Normally, I would have just given him a quick, "Love ya, Dad. See you tomorrow!" I feel awkward as I make a bigger deal of leaving than usual, but I do it anyway. "Mom and I will be back around 7 tomorrow morning." We leave, feeling a sense of peace, and head home.
It's not long until we are both asleep. Mom sleeps in her bed and for some strange reason, I sleep on the couch instead of on the guest bed. A little after 11pm, the house phone rings.
"Miss Lewis, this is Nurse _____ from DCH. Listen, your dad isn't doing very well. You and your mom need to come back to the hospital."
No exaggeration - I really thought she was calling because my dad was agitated. During his "long stay" in the hospital (in 2000), he would give the nurses a hard time and not do what they asked. I truly thought she was calling because she needed my mom and I to help calm him down. My mom, however, knew otherwise. We brushed our teeth, threw on some clothes, and started the 20-minute drive to Tuscaloosa.
Mom says, "When your dad dies, Katie, I am going to need some time alone." I tell her that we are not thinking like that and I put in a Johnny Cash CD. We sing all the way to the hospital. We walk in the front doors and have to sign in. We get in the elevator and press "2". When the double-doors to the ICU open, we are greeted by a nurse.
She ushers us into a small room filled with pictures and depressing poems. She says the doctor will be with us shortly. Mom and I are calm. She knows what is coming, I do not. She is bracing herself, I am optimistic. Dr. Katona walks in, sits down, and releases, "Mary Kathryn, Katie, we did everything we could...."
He goes on to tell us that just after 11pm, my dad went into cardiac arrest. The trauma of sepsis was too great and his heart could no longer tolerate the stress. Dr. K and the nurses worked on Dad for half an hour and were unable to restart his heart. It was over. He was already Home.
From that moment on is another story for another day.
My dad left this world just after midnight on Thursday, September 21, 2006. It was surprising, it was traumatic, and it was life-altering. What's happened in the six years since his death is nothing short of God's faithful grace and the fulfillment of His promises. But in that moment as I sat in that tiny room, holding tightly to my suddenly-widowed mother, my heart was as broken as it has ever been.
In just a few short months, my daddy's first grandchild will take her first breath in the same hospital where he took his last. We've come full-circle, my friends, and my heart is as full and as healed as it has ever been. I know the pain of tragedy and I know the beauty of pure joy and I serve the God of both. Not much scares me now, which I have said before and will continue to say. I can say that with boldness because I have seen firsthand, time and time again, how God restores what the locusts have eaten. He has given and He has taken away, and we praise Him through each and every circumstance.
If you took the time to read this, I hope you heard this key Truth: Life never goes according to "plan." People die, tragedies happen, presidents we don't like get elected, and our air conditioners break. When you accept that God is the owner and ruler of all things, you can learn to let go a little. And when you "let goods and kindred go; this mortal life, also," you will find that God's unexplainable peace has never been more in reach.
Be glad, O people of Zion,
rejoice in the Lord your God,
for he has given you
the autumn rains in righteousness.
He sends you abundant showers,
both autumn and spring rains, as before.
The threshing floors will be filled with grain;
the vats will overflow with new wine and oil.
“I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten—
the great locust and the young locust,
the other locusts and the locust swarm—
my great army that I sent among you.Joel 2:23-25