Two years ago today, I wondered whether my wife would survive a massive gallbladder attack on an isolated island on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. God has blessed me with two more years with this wonderful woman, and I gave her an extra-long hug this evening as I tried not to break down in tears at how overwhelming the simple memory is to this day. I wrote the following column a week or so after the medical crisis that resulted in her first helicopter ride and my own recognition of the fleeting nature of our lives.
The folks who were involved in saving Annette’s life have my unfailing gratitude, and tonight I pray special prayers for their blessing.
It was only as the helicopter launched toward the sun in the humidity of an Ocracoke, N.C., summer noon that I began to realize the reality of what was happening.
As waves of heat rose from the helo pad of the Ocracoke Island Airport on July 31, I watched my wife make a fast, early departure from our vacation, and I wondered whether I’d see her alive again.
I remember thinking, “It’s not supposed to be this way.”
I had always figured I — the one with the hyper-stressful job and the coping mechanisms that owe so much to bacon and salty snacks — would be the one leaving under the care of paramedics, and she’d be the one standing there, wondering what happens next.
I’d been down past the airport once already that Friday morning, camera and tripod over my shoulders, in pursuit of photos of the sunrise over the ocean. When I returned to our vacation rental, Annette fixed me a hot breakfast while I processed the photos from my excursion. With most of our food gone after a relaxing week with friends, I had eggs, and she had a piece of toast with butter.
“I’m going to go lie down,” she soon said. “I’m having a really bad pain in my abdomen.”
I followed along, lay down beside her and promptly dozed off. Two hours later, she shook me awake and said she’d been throwing up and felt sick again. When I followed her into the restroom, I realized something was terribly wrong. She was dripping sweat, and her skin felt clammy. She had vomited again, and as I knelt beside her, she collapsed into my arms. I laid her on the floor and saw that her pajamas were soaked with sweat.
My friend, Bob, called 911, and the island rescue squad soon arrived. I have no memory of what took place while we waited. When the paramedics arrived, they quickly moved into action, asking all manner of questions about Annette’s medical history — I got most of them wrong, and my wife moaned corrections. Every time one of them would touch her abdomen, she would wail in agony.
I wish I’d asked their names, because I’d like to thank the three medical professionals personally, but I probably wouldn’t remember them if they’d told me. What I do recall is the look of concern on their faces. One of them said her symptoms looked like those of a gallbladder attack.
Considering the acuteness of her symptoms, a drive to the Outer Banks hospital was out of the question, as it would take nearly two hours, including the ride on the Hatteras Ferry, and she’d likely still have to be taken to Norfolk from there. The only question, they told me, was whether to call for air evacuation from Norfolk or Greenville, N.C. The former trip would take an hour and 20 minutes and the same time to get back to Norfolk. The latter helicopter could be on the island and back at Vidant Health Center in 80 minutes.
Seeing the pain my wife was suffering, I barely hesitated in agreeing with them that Greenville was the right choice.
Sitting in the ambulance with my wife as we waited for the helicopter, I realized there was little chance I’d be able to make the trip with Annette. I would have to take the 1 p.m. ferry to Swan Quarter — a nearly three-hour ride — and then drive the hour and 40 minutes to Greenville. By the time I got there, she would have been at the hospital nearly five hours. So much could happen in that time. I said a quick prayer, begging for God’s grace, mercy and healing — grace and mercy for me and healing for my beloved wife.
As the helicopter flew away and I headed to the truck Bob had driven to the airport, one of the island EMTs did something remarkable: He got out of the ambulance, walked over to me at the truck, hugged me and said, “She’s in good hands. Drive carefully when you get over there.” His compassionate gesture might have been the kind of thing he does every day, but to me it was like a drink of cool water to a man lost in the desert.
My dear friends went into overdrive, packing our truck with all our clothes and sundries, informing the ferry workers of my situation and making sure I was OK to make the trip on my own. Leaving them, I felt as if I were in a dream.
Arriving at the ferry just before it left, I got a call from one of the helicopter paramedics, who told me they’d arrived safely, and Annette was in the emergency room. As the ferry left Ocracoke, headed west across the Pamlico Sound, my phone began to lose reception. I would not be able to make reliable phone calls to Annette’s two daughters, so I’d have to wait until I made landfall.
For the next three hours, I felt a peacefulness I couldn’t have imagined. I’d prayed for grace, and God responded by lavishing His peace upon me. The last thing I wanted was for the other ferry passengers to have to see a 50-year-old fat man falling apart in the passenger lounge for three hours. I sat. I prayed. I’m not sure what I did, for the most part. But I had peace that my wife was in the hands of skilled medical professionals, and — more than that — she and I both were in the hands of the Great Physician, who loves those call Him their Father.
Only as I neared Greenville did I begin to worry. When I was called to the hospital after my father had a fatal heart attack in 1999, I went to the emergency room and was told to wait in a room with my mother while a nurse found the doctor to come and speak to us. He had already died, I learned. If the ER attendant in Greenville said something similar, I knew, it would mean I’d lost the greatest earthly gift I’d ever received.
“She’s been admitted. She’s in Room N-328.” Never could I have imagined sweeter words than that. I nearly hugged the attendant.
When I arrived in the wing where my wife was being treated, the nurses told me she’d had a major gallbladder attack and was scheduled for surgery the next day. She’d been given antibiotics to fight the infection and give her the time to wait for the doctor I later learned was one of the best laparoscopic surgeons on the East Coast. She also was suffering from pancreatitis, which, for my teetotal wife, meant some of the gallstones had made their way through the bile ducts and into that organ. They could remove the gallbladder, but she’d have to remain in the hospital with no food or water until her pancreatic enzymes were under control.
I learned that her situation was far more serious than even I had realized. Her temperature on the helicopter had dropped to 94.5 degrees, and her enzyme levels had climbed to 35 times normal levels. She likely would not have survived the flight to Norfolk from Ocracoke. Again I said a silent prayer of thanks for the wisdom of the medical professionals on that little, isolated island.
The next four days were a blur of text messages to family and friends, surgery, phone calls, beeping monitors, late-night visits from medical professionals, occasional Facebook updates and broken sleep. Friends around the Western Hemisphere bathed my wife in prayer. Folks who have never met her and don’t even know me were praying for us both.
Finally, late Tuesday morning, she was released without her gallbladder and with a packet of information, prescriptions and the well wishes of the nursing staff we’d come to know during the previous days. “Thank you, and God bless,” I scribbled on the whiteboard that had been used to remind us who was on duty at various times throughout our stay.
Indeed, God has blessed me magnificently. I’ll never be able to thank Him enough for what He’s done in my life, for transforming the lost, broken and ruined man I was into the child of God I am today. I’ll never be able to thank him enough for giving me more time with my dear wife, whom I love and cherish even more today than I did last Thursday. And I’ll never be able to thank Him enough for the friends, family and strangers who came alongside us and helped us bear the burden of this crisis.
Annette is now recovering at home. She’s in a bit of pain, and she says it’s hard to believe everything that happened — somehow it just doesn’t seem real. I know what she means. Most of us just aren’t made for the kind of crisis that befell us on Ocracoke last week, so our subconscious minds dull the reality of it.
Praise God, though, that there are people like the paramedics who literally came to our rescue Friday, people who deal with the reality of such crises regularly and yet do not become so hardened to it that they cannot stop and offer a compassionate hug and a line of encouragement: “She’s in good hands. Drive carefully.”
— R.E. Spears III