This week marks the one year anniversary since my husband, Jeff, fell ill from a staph infection. At this point a year ago, I could not look ahead and see how things would be - could not feel, could not think, could not even imagine, really.
Some of you are new here, some of you never really knew what happened. Since I want to write the events of that time down for our children, I hope that you will feel free to read along. We all need hope, don't we? The story of his illness/recovery and that of the rest of our summer and the birth of our ninth baby will take some time to tell. I understand that it is lengthy, and not everyone will want to read it. That's okay - I just want to be sure that it is written down for our children. Some of them had no idea how sick their Dad really was. Since they were mostly home taking care of each other (feeding, bed times, laundry, etc.) they were unaware of a lot of what was going on. Our big kids really had to step up to the plate last year. They kept our family going, kept us together. What would we have done without them?
The staph infection and sepsis which threatened Jeff's life came without warning out of the blue. It was early May, 2010, and our family was emerging from a horrible flu. All of us, except for Jeff, had been ill for days. Although we had not told anyone other than our children and a few other people, I was 16 weeks pregnant with our ninth baby. The flu brought high fever, vomiting, and achy joints.
In between taking care of the rest of us, Jeff had been working around our home and on another old "fixer-upper" he had gutted. He had been working on plumbing in a crawl space, and thought that he had wrenched his hip a bit as he stepped down between the floor joists.
Jeff has a Birmingham Hip, which is a type of resurfaced joint. Because he had limited mobility and pain due to a claw-like bone spur on his hip joint, he had the surgery done in April, 2007. He healed well from that surgery, but did have to take care to not injure himself again. His days of bungee-cord jumping were over.
Despite the twinges of pain in his hip joint, he mowed the yard in the evening and seemed to be fine. Around midnight, he woke up shaking uncontrollably. He was sweating profusely, with nausea. He did not have a fever at first, but as the night progressed his fever climbed. We were sure he had finally succumbed to the flu. He had the same symptoms as the rest of us, right down to the joint pain.
I wrapped myself around him, trying to calm his shaking, trying to warm him, then trying to cool him - trying to find him some comfort, somehow.
We made it through the night and thru the next day, still thinking he had the flu. We went ahead and celebrated our son Josiah's 8th birthday on Monday. We were a few days early, but since it was Jeff's day off from work we took advantage of the day. Josiah wanted home-made chicken nuggets and home-made macaroni and cheese. Our biggest sons were away from home for the day. I remember being really stressed because of having a few less helpers and trying to salvage the day for Josiah. Jeff was not beginning to feel any better like it seemed he should. By bedtime the pain in his hip had intensified to the point that he could scarcely walk or bend to sit. We pulled out a cane I had found at a thrift store and brought home in the event that my parents ever needed it. Jeff used the cane to support himself as he walked - but we could not even begin to knock the pain with over-the-counter medications. He continued on with ever-increasing pain and chills and nausea throughout the night.
At some point we both realized that this was not the flu, that he must have something wrong with his hip joint. But what? It came on so suddenly. When the second morning came, we called our family doctor. She told us to go to the emergency room.
Looking back, I have kicked myself a hundred times for not getting him to the hospital sooner. Why didn't I realize this wasn't the flu? Why didn't I suspect something was wrong with his old surgery site? Our doctor assured me that if we came in sooner they wouldn't have realized the severity of it, either, and would have likely sent us home to wait it out. I don't know about that, I just know that I suffered severe guilt that I did not realize how bad things were. As it was - I insisted that when morning came we would be going to the doctor and I would not take "no" for an answer. Jeff didn't resist much at all.
He slowly got ready - trying to remember everything he needed to do for his family should this be a big deal. I raced around trying to leave things in order for our children at home alone for who knows how long. Jake was 17, Nick - 15, Emily - 14, Julia - 11, Josiah - 8, Samuel - 5, Benjamin - 4, Mariam - 2 and in the middle of deciding that she was going to potty train herself.
I'd spent a lot of time in the ER in the past year - first when our son Nick was mugged and beaten up, and next when our son Sammy was life-flighted in when he suffered a head wound. It's interesting to look back and see how I handled yet another crisis. My heart was in my throat, feeling the sense that this was serious but not knowing what it was. I knew where all of the free coffee pots were in the hospital, but made sure to pack quarters for pop and food from the snack machine. I didn't plan to leave Jeff's side for more than a few minutes, if that even. Since we hadn't told many people about my pregnancy, I was trying to not wear maternity clothes yet. I basically had one outfit, and it was dressy. I wonder if the ER people wondered why I dressed up to bring my husband to the ER? Along with the limited wardrobe, I had learned that I needed to be a little bit aggressive sometimes to get the right care for the people I love. I wanted to look professional even at that point in order to get respect. Over years spent sitting with sick people in hospital settings, I know that often you get the type of care you command. I'm generally a non-confrontive person - easy to dismiss because I don't look too threatening. I've learned how to be an advocate for my "patient," however, whoever that might be. I also know my husband, and often when he is under pain medication he is either totally "out" or he is too sick to speak for himself. It's a horrible thing that I hate - when due to pain or illness he becomes unavailable to me. It is the darkest place I know and a place I never want to visit again as long as I live - but I was prepared for it: Prepared to make decisions for him, prepared to advocate for him, prepared to be nice and gracious but also ready to grab lapels, stethescopes, or whatever it took to get him some pain relief.
The drive to the emergency room was tense. Jeff winced from the pain at every bump in the road. I kept up a light chatter, pointing out things along the 30 minute drive to try to take his mind off of the pain. I failed. I remember there was a child's shoe lying in the road. I pointed it out to Jeff. I was pretty sure by then that he just wanted me to shut up. I did.
I drove the car up to the door, but I could not help Jeff out. I was not strong enough. An orderly came out to meet us and helped extricate him from the front seat. I parked the car, and by the time I arrived inside another orderly was trying to find a way to get him seated in a wheelchair. He could not bend to sit - his leg and hip muscles were clenching and painful spasms were constant. It was devastating to watch my husband in so much pain.
Within twenty minutes he was taken to an exam room, where the entire process was repeated in the attempt to get him onto the bed. He'd try, and wince, and shake and cry out in pain. The orderly was a big guy with an amazing amount of compassion. Somehow, he was finally able to get Jeff upon the bed - which was small and shaky and slippery. Why aren't ER beds more comfortable? There was no need for me to "get bossy" in the ER - they knew much better than I that this was something serious. They started an antibiotic quickly and soon a grizzled doctor wearing a doo-rag and the attitude of a no-nonsense Vietnam War Vet entered the room. He, too, showed great compassion. He took one look at Jeff and ordered morphine in measured doses until his muscles relaxed. Jeff's muscles are the short and tight type - he is a thickly muscled man, built as strong as an ox. It always takes more than the average dose to get his muscles to unclench, and consequently, he usually responds with nausea and by falling asleep.
Finally, for the first time in days, he was able to have relief from pain and to sleep. For the first time, now that he was not hurting, I could breathe again. We stayed in the room the entire day, repeating the pain-relief/sleep cycle over several times. Labs were drawn, scans were taken, and the antibiotics were pumped into his body, preemptively. There was a orthopaedic surgeon in the hospital, but we would need to wait until he was finished with his day's work before he could do a needle biopsy of Jeff's hip.
I sat by Jeff's bed, rather numb by it all. I read too many magazines. I raised and lowered his head as needed. Held the barf bowl. Covered him with blankets as he shook uncontrollably. Cried a bit in the bathroom, but was mostly too numb to show emotion. I didn't know what was wrong but I had a feeling of dread. I thought about how the kids and I would make it if he died. I have dear, dear friends who have been widowed young and knew that there was no way I was immune, yet knew that I had huge responsibilities and had to hold it together. I knew, all too clearly, that it was a distinct possibility that he might die. It had been my greatest fear since becoming a wife at age 20 - knowing that I could lose the one I loved so immensely. And what about this precious new life? We didn't even have a name or know if we were having a boy or a girl. Would Jeff get to know this baby?
Jeff was eventually moved to a room on the floor for the evening. A needle was stuck into his hip joint and some fluid was aspirated to be tested for infection. If there was infection, he would have surgery the following day. (To be continued.)