September Past – Part I

Around 2 a.m. CDT September 16, 2004, Ivan struck the U.S. mainland near Gulf Shores, Alabama as a Category 3 hurricane with 130 mph (210 km/h) winds. Ivan then continued inland, maintaining hurricane strength until it was over central Alabama.

My husband, Robert, and I traveled to Georgia to ride out the hurricane and when we returned home we found no damage, only tree limbs and debris strewn about our yard. I cautioned my husband not to try and clean it all up in one day since having a manicured yard is a must in his world, nonetheless the next day he worked outside until it was all cleaned. The next day he even went to my brother’s house to help him clean up his yard. I was grateful for his generous spirit but something inside me made me wish he hadn’t gone. I didn’t express that to him and I couldn’t explain it, I just felt he shouldn’t have gone. When he returned he mentioned that his shoulder was hurting. He probably had done more yard work than he needed to the past two days but I offered to rub his shoulder with Icy Hot. The next morning he said the pain was worse. He took Advil but said it offered him little help either.

For weeks Robert’s shoulder pain reminded him it was there. He said it was sometimes worse than others but always there. Since we both thought it may have been a strained or pulled muscle I made an appointment for him with my chiropractor.  Soon after that appointment and before he could return to her he received a letter from the veteran’s administration in New Orleans, Louisiana stating that there was an opening in their schedule for him to attend a class he had been waiting to get in. He would stay at their facility during the week and return home on weekends. I had mixed emotions about our separation but I knew it was something he needed and wanted to be involved in. As weeks progressed his pain did too. Finally, he went to a doctor and had an ex-ray. On November first, his birthday, the results of that ex-ray were read to him. I will never forget that I was working at my desk when I received the telephone call. It was from the veteran’s administration doctor who identified himself and said, “I was going over the ex-rays that we took of your husband last week.” with hardly a breath between the sentences he said, “I have determined that he either has tuberculosis or lung cancer.” I dropped the telephone, scrambled to retrieve it, and asked, “What did you say?” in a voice that I knew was barely audible. He repeated his statement. “May I speak with my husband?” I asked, for lack of knowing what else to say. Robert could only say that he really didn’t know how to tell me and, yes, I heard the doctor correctly. I asked him to call me when he left the doctor’s office.

When we hung up I couldn’t hold back my tears any longer and a flood of them streamed down my face. I knew, yet I wasn’t sure Robert knew, that if we are talking tuberculosis that was terrible news but if we were talking lung cancer, I remembered reading that it was the number one cause of death in medical conditions! Immediately I prayed. I researched my suspicions and unfortunately found that I was right. I explained the situation to my boss and left work that day.

I prayed all the way on the twenty-five mile drive home. When I got home I was armed with too much information and too little time to prepare. Robert had to come home immediately. I knew he wanted to finish his program but that hardly seemed feasible now. I needed to see him. Talk with him. Figure out with him how we would invite God to join us in what I perceived as the fight of our lives. His life was my life. I saw no lines between them. Whatever he faced, I faced. We had truly become one. When Robert called I told him how I felt. He agreed to forego the program.

He arrived home and we discussed having the diagnosis verified and how we would just take God’s hand and proceed from there. That is exactly what we did. We were referred to a reputable pulmonary doctor who ordered the tests, PFT (pulmonary function test), bronchoscopy, tissue sample, etc. needed to confirm the condition. The results endorsed squamous cell carcinoma but the pulmonologist stated that he believed its position rendered it inoperable.

The pulmonologist referred us to the best oncology surgeon in the city. After taking a PET scan we met with Dr. Walker, the oncologist, and on the first of December we reviewed the results. Robert was given the option of radiation and chemo, radiation or chemo alone, surgery, or whatever combination he felt comfortable with. He cautioned that the mass had invaded three ribs, was in a precarious position but felt confident that he could reach it. Without hesitation Robert elected surgery and my stomach cartwheeled. Dr. Walker explained the probable hospital stay would be five to seven days after surgery. “You’ll be home in plenty of time for Christmas,” he said. The surgery was scheduled for the morning of December 4, 2004.

My sister-in-law, Barbara, and I came with Robert to the hospital and despite all of the festive Christmas decorations there loomed an air of unwanted change. We prayed together and waited for the mass to be removed from Robert’s body and the healing process to begin. It came to pass that the wait was far longer than anticipated.

Instead of leaving SICU (surgery intensive care unit) in the three to four days we expected, he remained there eight days after experiencing atrial fibrillation (an irregular heartbeat that increases the risk of stroke and heart disease). Robert was moved to a room after that but was given medication that caused unexpected problems the following morning and was rushed to CCU (cardiac care unit) where he stayed for seventeen days. There another problem developed but an especially astute nurse recognized the symptoms as pericarditis and a pericardiectomy (pericardial window) was performed to correct it. He mightily struggled for his life, Barbara and I mightily prayed and asked everyone we knew to do the same. Still, the prognosis was dim. I had not heard Robert’s voice in twenty-five days and the enemy heckled that I would never hear it again.