I could not turn my head more than a few inches and breathing was difficult. I later learned it was because of a ventilator that had been inserted down my throat. I had even less movement in my arms than usual and I learned later that they were tied down to keep me from ripping the ventilator out of my throat. There was no pain or discomfort. I heard no sound, nor did I detect the presence of anyone else in the room.
The experience was so unlike anything in my past that I knew it must be death. Honestly, I had never given much thought to death. Other than a short moment as a teenager when I thought I was going to drown, I had never come close to a “near-death” experience. However, this moment in the hospital was so different from anything I knew about life that there could be no other explanation. I was also confident that if I was dead then I must be in heaven. I have never considered any other destination. As I pushed through the fog toward consciousness, I remember being very disappointed. If this was heaven, it was not anything like what I expected. I was not unhappy; nor was I angry. It was simply a feeling of disillusionment. If this was to be eternity then I was not sure I wanted any part of it.
The ordeal began on Saturday, the day after Christmas. I remember Christmas Eve at my son’s house as well as Christmas evening opening presents with the family. One of our family traditions is for me to read a Christmas story that I write each fall. I felt so bad that night as I read that I was actually bored by my own story. I also remember cancelling lunch on Christmas day with my brother’s family because I was not feeling well. From what I am told now, apparently there were many other things that happened on those two days that I do not recollect. I had enough sense to make arrangements to be taken to the emergency room but there is nothing else about that day that I can recall.
Any physical malady I have is complicated by the fact that I had polio as a very young child. I have spent my entire life with very limited usability of my arms and legs. In fact, the past three years I have used a wheelchair exclusively to get around, giving up walking with the aid of leg braces and crutches because of the difficulty. The other ramification of polio is the possibility that other systems of my body, especially respiratory, have been adversely affected. After being admitted as a patient, tests were performed and a diagnosis sought. They began with my heart but determined that it was fine.
Monday was a very difficult day for my family. The doctor telephoned my wife early in the morning to ask if I had a Living Will. That is not the kind of phone call you want to receive under those circumstances. My breathing was determined to be the problem and the solution was to insert a ventilator. Because of the failure of my lungs, other problems were appearing and there was concern that my kidneys were beginning to shut down. If I had been conscious, that Monday might have been the most difficult day of my life.
If Monday was the most difficult day of my life, then Tuesday was one of the greatest days of my life. It was the day I met Joy.
It was early Tuesday morning when I woke up and saw the white wall with the Hazmat box thinking I was in heaven. My next memory was of my wife and three sons standing next to my bed. I could not talk, obviously because of the ventilator. I was immediately brought back to reality, aware that I was not in heaven but there was a problem that needed to be solved. My wife Sharon, sensing my new alertness and need to be informed, explained the situation.
My mind was still not working at peak capacity so I cannot explain the sequence or significance of all the events. However, allow me to paint the picture as I remember it. I am in the hospital with a breathing problem, caused by pneumonia. The doctors are concerned about my inability to remove carbon dioxide from my system. The family is concerned for my life but that sense of urgency was never a part of my thinking. As far as I was concerned, I had already been to heaven.
My family began to talk about relatives and friends who were coming to the hospital, some making the trip from great distances and others that we had not seen in some time. I did not realize at the time that many of them made the decision to come because they thought it might be the final time to see me. All I thought was that it was great that so many people cared enough to come and encourage Sharon. I was unaware of the massive amount of tears that were being shed. As people were escorted into my room, I heard many of them stand at the foot of my bed and say, “Hi Terry, you look really good!” After numerous comments about my good looks, I was confident that I did not look that good and there must be something going on. In fact, a couple of days later I asked my son to take my picture so I could see how I really looked. Perhaps they were seeing something that I did not feel. When I saw the picture I was correct, I did not look very good.
There were several very significant events on that important Tuesday. One that I do not remember was provided by my sister-in-law Cathie. Sharon and her sister have been best friends their entire lives and Cathie is a very familiar and comfortable presence with our family. She and I tease each other like brother and sister, but I have always loved Cathie.
Cathie has a special gift from God – she has a beautiful singing voice. She has always been involved in music leadership with her church and there have been times when I have been privileged to preach after she has sung. She has the ability to bring God’s presence into a room with her voice, which is exactly what she did on that fateful Tuesday. While at my bedside, Sharon asked Cathie to sing, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” This has been one of my favorite songs for years, primarily because of the powerful message of God’s constant care and ability to meet our needs.
This hymn became a favorite of mine on a trip to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, many years ago. In spite of my physical handicap, we participated in a mission trip to one of the poor areas of the city, far from the beautiful images that you normally associate with Rio. I used my crutches and also my power chair and people carried me as often as I walked. A few hours after arriving, our group was riding in a bus, observing the steep terrain of the city streets. The coordinator, sensing my apprehension about getting around the next two weeks, sat down next to me and said, “Terry, what do you think?” I was trying my best to trust God’s provisions and I replied, “It’s going to be interesting.”
Later that night we were at a rally for all the churches participating in the mission endeavor. A large choir of Brazilian Christians sang the familiar hymn, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” Although they sang in Portuguese, I knew the words well enough to sing along in English. It was as if God Himself was reassuring me that everything I needed for the next two weeks would be provided, and it was. Ever since that evening when God used a group of believers who spoke little English to teach me a great truth, it has been one of my favorite songs that has blessed me often.
I do not remember the song in the hospital, but apparently Cathie leaned over the side of the bed and sang it directly into my ear. I wish I could have seen the hospital staff as she sang. If it was like what I have observed at other times with Cathie singing, there was a quiet sense of God’s presence, an awe that filled the room. The day was off to a good start and God was getting ready to do something special.
I do remember my friend Charlie coming to visit. Charlie is the kind of man that when you meet him you know that he is either a salesman or a preacher. If you say preacher you are correct. But he is more than that; he is my pastor in many ways. With a booming, dignified voice, Charlie prayed for me. Once again, I am confident the entire second floor of the hospital was aware of something significant happening in the Intensive Care Unit. My sons still speak of Charlie’s confident plea for God’s provision for my needs. I am told that Charlie went to the waiting room filled with many of my family and friends and led in another prayer. Charlie will testify that God did something special on that Tuesday in my hospital room. We were not sure what it would be, but God was in the process of changing our darkest hour into a powerful experience of His glory.
It was on that same Tuesday evening, as a patient in the Intensive Care Unit of the hospital that I met Joy. She was working the night shift as a nurse. During my thirteen day stay I had many nurses, some were better than others, but I have no complaints about any of them. They all cared for my needs and worked hard for my health.
But there was something different about Joy. She was a nurse simply because she cared about people. Her caring was so transparent that I immediately latched on to her like a drowning swimmer grabbing a rope. Although she is a good nurse to every patient, I am convinced there was something special about our relationship.
The nurses’ schedules were arranged in such a way that they rotated patients with each new day. However, Joy worked with the supervisors and the calendar so that she was my nurse on most evenings. She took a special interest in me and my situation. Early on she asked about my polio since she had never dealt with the disease. I arranged for her to speak with my Mom and Dad who could explain our experience. She often knew what I needed with the slightest of communication, which was very helpful because I still could not speak and writing messages was very tedious. We even developed a few hand signals that allowed me to communicate some frequent needs.
Although I knew our relationship would be short-lived, Joy was one of the most extraordinary people in my life. Over the years I have had many people saunter through my life for a brief moment but leave a long-term impact. I had a man who took an hour of his time to help me climb some stairs to complete a job interview. I have had numerous people who have gone out of their way to help me with a physical challenge, many of them appearing at just the right place at the perfect time. Joy was one of those people who make life possible.
On Monday morning, exactly one week after the ventilator had been inserted, the doctor came into my room with the good news that all the numbers and test results looked good. He talked about the possibility of removing the ventilator in the next day or two. With my very limited communication ability (pencil and paper), I tried to persuade him to remove the ventilator later that day if everything still checked out. He reluctantly agreed to think about the possibility, but I am not sure he ever gave it much consideration.
When Joy came into my room late that afternoon, she excitedly proclaimed that she heard I was getting rid of the ventilator in a day or so. I shook my head, took the paper and pencil, and scratched, “Today.” She forced me to explain what I meant so I related my hope that was hanging on to a thread to the doctor’s promise to reconsider.
Joy took the bull by the horns as we say in Texas and began to plan what needed to happen in order to remove the ventilator. She actually called the doctor and interceded on my behalf. He ultimately agreed that if certain test results were attained they could remove the apparatus. Joy and the respiratory therapist were diligent all evening, helping me to breathe correctly and watching the numbers.
The final test lasted from eight until eleven in the evening. It did not go well. The numbers were poor and I appeared to be unable to pace my breathing. Hope of removing the ventilator was dim. At the conclusion of the test, Joy added up the numbers but they were not good. After a few moments of trying to figure out why things turned so drastically, the respiratory therapist noticed one of the hoses on the breathing machine was not attached correctly. She reconnected the hose and the machine recalculated the numbers. I was fine. The goals had been reached.
Joy’s countenance was a reflection of her name. The two ladies decided to remove the ventilator.
As they prepared me for the procedure, they warned that I would not be able to speak or cough until my vocal chords had time to return to normal. The device came out easily and the sore throat I had experienced for days immediately disappeared.
I decided to test Joy’s warning about making sounds, so I coughed and it sounded like a normal cough. She looked at me with a surprised expression. I immediately said, “That’s not too bad!” and Joy jumped for joy. Within a few minutes I was asking for water which she rationed out very slowly at first. However, within ten minutes I was feeling good and sounding even better so she brought me a full glass of ice water.
Joy brought her phone and told me to call my son. When Jeremy answered the phone, he thought it was some kind of prank, not expecting his Dad to call at eleven thirty in the evening. He quickly spread the word to the rest of the family. I spent the night talking, too full of adrenaline to sleep.
Joy helped me through one of the most difficult times I have ever experienced. She was reassuring, honest, caring, hopeful, confident, and dependable. I looked to her frequently and felt lonely on the nights when she was not my nurse. Our celebration together on the night the ventilator was removed was an experience of joy for both of us. Her name is more than ironic. It defines what she brought into my life. Through her, I discovered joy.