In case you guys haven’t noticed yet, I love words. Words are the most intimate things you can share with the world. I love words and I love writing them. Words are my therapy. Today I’m going to be sharing a very personal and emotional story about the Fall that changed my life. The events that occurred throughout the Fall of 2014 altered the course of my being and changed me as a person.
It was in September of 2014 when he first got sick. He being my brother, Michael, my big brother Michael. He was 34 at the time and I was 24. I had looked up to him my whole life, both literally and figuratively, as he stands tall at 6’5. I never imagined that I would go from looking up to him to looking down on him in a hospital bed for over a month. It started with a back ache that just wouldn’t quit. His pain worsened over the span of three weeks and as time wore on the number of doctors visits increased while an improvement never came. Caring for his two young children soon became an impossible feat when my sister in law was working. My entire family pitched in to help, and I increased the hours I already spent hanging out with Michael and my two favorite little loves, Hannah, age 3 at the time, and Emily 10 months. It was hard to watch Michael’s health decline rapidly with no clues as to what was wrong, and I remember many times leaving my brother’s house and crying the entire drive back to my house. I wondered what this all meant, and I was afraid for the future, which felt so unknown. On October 3rd my mom and sister-in-law went out to a charity event together while I spent the night keeping my brother company and caring for my nieces. This night was significant for me, because it was the last night I would spend with my brother in his home before he was admitted to the hospital. After the peanuts were fed, washed and snuggled in bed, Michael and I got to hang out, just the two of us, while we waited for our mom and my sister-in-law to get home. It was a rather boring, immemorable night, except for the fact that it would haunt me for the next month or so. When things were uncertain and his health and future were unknown I would go back to that night and replay it in my head. I would think to myself if nothing else, no matter what happens next, we had that night together, just us two. Even now writing this, it haunts me because there were so many times I thought that those moments together, just the two of us, may have been our last. What happened next was unthinkable.
Two days later Michael visited a spinal specialist affiliated with North Shore University Hospital, on Long Island, and was diagnosed with an infection of the spine. He was to be admitted to the hospital immediately to undergo a week long routine of IV antibiotics and care. It was scary and really hard on everyone, but at last it seemed like we had an answer. Things were starting to make sense, and my big brother, my forever best friend (whether he likes it or not) was finally on the mend, or so we thought. A week and a half later he was discharged from the hospital with a pic line inserted into his arm so that he could self-administer IV antibiotics at home for the next 6-8 weeks. We were thrilled to see him come home, but unfortunately his homecoming was short lived. Two days later I was settled into my morning routine of a 5 mile run, followed by a heaping cup of coffee and working on my blog. I had just begun to type a post when my phone rang and ‘Daddy,’ flashed across the screen. I answered immediately and heard panic in his voice. I won’t ever remember what it was exactly that he said, but all I remember is the desperation and fear in his voice. Michael, home alone, was on his way back to the ER because he was unable to get up out of bed. We later found out that the paramedics rushed into his home and to his bedside where he was alone, screaming in pain and unable to move.
My father and I rushed to the ER of a different hospital than his previous admittance, and immediately went to find him. A caring nurse said she would take us right to him, but she didn’t need to because all we had to do was follow the screams to find him. There was nothing we could say or do to help him. I went to his side immediately and told him we were there and that it would be ok, but I wasn’t sure. I let him squeeze my hand for 4 hours of intense, screaming pains. By mid-afternoon we finally received word that he would be transferred to the other hospital where his doctors and records were. We were relieved, but getting him there was no easy feat. When the paramedics attempted to move him his pain level intensified and I was in awe that it could get worse, but it had. During the transfer my dad and I stopped home to get something to eat and pick up my mom who my dad had finally called and filled in. [Editors note: Michael’s wife and children were out of town at a family wake.] The three of us met my brother back at North Shore University Hospital in the ER. Michael, still in intense pain, was at his whits end. Truthfully, we all were, but we were doing our best to stay strong for him. The nurses and attending doctors were doing all they could to help him, but even heavy doses of dilauded, which is a stronger pain medication than morphine, seemed to do nothing. Finally after nearly 12 hours spent in 2 different ER’s we saw Michael’s doctor walking towards us down the hallway. I could have hugged him I was so happy! My brother was extremely lucky to have been treated by some of the best doctors during his first hospital stay, so we were relieved to see one of them coming to talk to us. It had occurred to us during the ordeal that surgery was imminent, and MRI results reviewed by his doctors confirmed just that. The infection had done major damage to his spine and had basically eaten away at the bone. He was to have spinal surgery the very next day to remove the diseased bone. It was after 11pm before Michael was re-admitted and settled into his room, but finally my parents and I went home filled with emotion and heavy hearts as the next days events weighed on our minds.
The next day we awoke and headed to the hospital to see my brother off before his surgery. Our middle sister came too, and it was a surreal and out of body experience. I suddenly felt like I was in an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, only this wasn’t TV, this was real life. None of us knew what to say or do as we waited for the transport team to take him down to the OR. When they arrived it was time to say our goodbyes before we sent him off for over 8 hours of surgery- spinal surgery is intense and complicated. Though I knew I wouldn’t hear it back, he’s just not mushy like me, I had to utter those three little words. “I love you,” I said, with meaning. “I love you too,” he said, and I nearly dropped dead. It was surreal, and I still get emotional thinking about that moment. My family and I waited in the surgical waiting room for hours as family after family went to see their loved ones emerge from surgery. We were the last family left, but finally around dinner time we got the word that he was out of surgery and in the PACU. His surgeon briefed us and said that the surgery took a bit longer because Michael’s body was not tolerating the positioning at first, but once they got started things went well. Only 2 people were allowed into recovery at once, so my mom and dad went in first, followed by my sister and I. It’s an incredible sight to see someone come out of such an intense surgery, and nothing quite prepares you for seeing a loved one that way. Thanks to some heavy meds my brother was feeling ok and even did a little singing rendition of Dora the Explorer’s “I’m the map.” We really needed that laugh! My mom and dad decided to stay with him a bit longer and my sister and I left to go get dinner. The following day we returned to the hospital to visit him and it’s at this point where the days start to blend into one. I visited my brother nearly every single day, either alone, or with one of my other family members. Some days I would catch him during physical therapy which was hard as he wasn’t quite progressing. He still could not get up and walk, and things didn’t seem to be improving just yet. We still weren’t out of the woods, and everything seemed so uncertain. I often wondered if he would ever walk again. The days were unbearable at times and I watched my parents slowly fall apart each night. It wasn’t just hard, it wasn’t just terrible, but it was torture.
A couple of days post surgery he seemed to be doing a bit better, but then it seemed as if things got worse again. The screaming and the intense pain once again overtook Michael’s body. On one particular day I was visiting when my aunt stopped by. A nurse interrupted and told us that they would be taking him down for an MRI and chaos ensued. Any bit of movement was unbearable for him, and I begged the transport team not to move him to a stretcher but to keep him on his bed to wheel him down to the test. It was against protocall and they would not do it. He yelled in pain the entire way down to the MRI as my aunt and I followed behind. He quieted a bit and was wheeled to the back to await his MRI. My aunt and I anxiously sat in the waiting area. My aunt began to break down a little bit and I willed myself not to cry too. I knew how bad things were, but she was seeing it with fresh eyes for the first time. So many family members and friends know of the experience, but I feel that my immediate family is forever changed. Words, try as I might, cannot truly explain and define the gravity of what occurred. A few minutes after we settled in I heard cries and a pained look flashed across my face, “I think that’s him,” I said to my aunt. I jumped up and tried to peek through the tiny sliver of glass into the back room, and sure enough I could see him writhed on his side, screaming. Sometimes I close my eyes and I can still hear the yells. I even had a nightmare a couple of times that I was alone in a hospital and try as I might, I could not locate the room where the screams were coming from. I begged the receptionist to let me back into the restricted area to wait with my brother, and finally the techs let me rush to his side, seeing the pain he was in. There was no way he would be able to tolerate the MRI in such a state, so we were taken back to his room where his nurses awaited with a heavy dose of pain meds. Eventually he calmed down a bit and I was relieved when my mom showed up for her visit after work. I went home and totally knocked out, grateful that the day was over.
The following day I returned to the hospital, alone, to see my big brother. I soon found out Michael would be going down for another MRI, this time with sedation. We both breathed a sigh of relief! We did not by any means need a repeat of the previous day, but unfortunately that was what we got. Transport again came and insisted on moving him onto the stretcher, despite my pleas. I knew what would happen, and I fare warned them. With any little movement Michael’s pain would be set off. By the time we made it down to the MRI he was again in intense, unimaginable pain. I insisted I wait with Michael in the restricted area, and I remained with him until the doctor came to sedate him. In the waiting room I broke down when my mom arrived trying to explain what had happened. In between tears I also joked that I must be bad luck! I always seemed to catch him during the worst flare ups, yet I am forever grateful that I was there by his side. It was around this time that I began to lose hope. Mostly because I wasn’t sure how much more any of us could take. I’m a crier, like a cries at peta commercials kinda crier, so you can only imagine the toll this was taking. My crying sessions happened at least once a day, often more. It all seemed to be never ending, and I kept wondering if things would ever be the same. The results from his sedated MRI showed that my brother would need two additional lengthy surgeries to add hardware to his back in order to support his spine, which had been crushed from the infection.
Both surgeries went well and my brother finally began to show signs of improvement. Little by little, things started to get better, and eventually my brother was released from the hospital. His homecoming was a relief to all of us, and seeing him reunite with his baby girls was the icing on top. Despite his improvement, his homecoming was bittersweet. It was easy to see that Michael was not quite ok just yet. A bed was set up in his living room so that he didn’t have to go upstairs because he still was very weak. At first he could not walk without his cane, drive, pickup his children or even sit for extended periods of time. Looking at him, it was easy to see that we still had a long road of recovery ahead. He looked thin, worn down and it was clear he had experienced some sort of trauma. Little by little, however, he started to improve. After a long recovery, eventually he returned to sleeping upstairs in his own bed. Soon he was driving, playing with his kids, fishing and boating again. Most importantly, he was back to annoying the you know what out of me and there were no “I love you toos” to be had. He was truly himself again. Ten months later, on July 1st 2015, my brother returned to work.
Though life is back to normal now there are still scars that remain, both literally and figuratively. I will never forget what my family went through and nor will I ever be the same. I am immensely grateful for all that I have been given in this life I call mine. Without my close-knit family and amazing friends I would have never been able to survive one of the hardest times in my life. I think about what we went through often, only now I smile because it reminds me to never take life for granted and to always appreciate everything you have. I am forever changed in the best way possible. I am stronger, more humble and forever grateful. Lastly I am thankful. To all of the wonderful doctors, nurses, and staff at North Shore LIJ, particularly the 7th floor orthopedic unit: THANK YOU. My family and I could not begin to express our gratitude. I’ve always known people who devote their lives to keeping us healthy are a special breed, but after seeing it with my own eyes, everyday, for over a month I am even more sure of it.