I leaned down real close and made him look me straight in the eye. “Luke, can I please take you to the hospital?”
I uttered those words to him after a week of a downward spiral of pain and suffering. The most emotionally draining week of my life, that is, until the next week.
Luke got hit by a car while riding his motorcycle. She didn’t see him and three seconds later he was smacked to the ground with his lower leg basically broken in half. The doctors set his leg, threw in a rod and a bone graft and sent him home to heal. But, his leg never quite seemed to be healing right, even 5 months later. His road rash wounds still weren’t healed. His leg still hurt him, more than it should that far after the accident.
But, finally, the day came; he was cleared to walk without crutches. He could walk with his boot and by the end of the month the boot would be off and he’d be back at work. It was the best news he’d had in all of those 5 months. It was the best news I had gotten in our short time together. Finally a sign that things were progressing.
Just two days later, he was in pain, which was pretty normal for a person walking on a leg that hadn’t been used with severely atrophied muscles. This pain was debilitating but, he had nothing to compare it to. He’d never walked on a previously broken leg that hadn’t been used in 5 months. Thankfully, he found a leftover prescription for Percocet to help curb the pain. He said it would only really kind of work for one hour and the pain would only come back with a vengeance. Very early Tuesday morning of that week, he felt something more serious might be happening and took himself to the ER. After a quick once over, they determined it was just sever muscle pain and sent him home with a prescription for a muscle relaxer. This news only slightly put me at ease. I was not completely convinced that he could be suffering that much pain from sore muscles. His leg was starting to get really swollen and his road rash wounds had opened up once again.
At this point I felt so helpless. He couldn’t really get around. He seemed to be in a slight daze and he would mostly just sit and try not to focus on how much pain he was in. I was frozen in what I should do. I felt I had to take care of him and there was literally nothing I could do for him. I had to believe that he was going to be fine because it was just too much to think of the worst.
On Wednesday, I was surprised when he still wanted to go through with plans to have dinner at our friends’ house. He hadn’t been out of the house in 4 days, and he said it was the best thing for him. It was painful to watch him struggle to walk with the crutches that seemed, previously, like natural extensions of his arm. Also, it was just hard to see him back on crutches after he was told he could stop using them. He gingerly lowered himself into my car and the whole ride there, I was fighting back tears. Tears that are the culmination of the already emotional week. My eyes stung as I tried to ferociously stare at the road so that he wouldn’t see my cry. He didn’t need to be bothered with my insecurities right now. I had to be strong for him.
Dinner was mostly just me talking and him dipping in and out of sleep, sleep induced by his extreme pain most likely. I never quit worrying. Things only worsened on Thursday when his text messages started not making sense. One text would be all jumbled up, but the next would be a totally normal, coherent sentence. I was equally confused and worried. I was doing my daily check up on him and I asked him about the weird texts. He said his hands were shaky from the pain. I believed him, because why wouldn’t I? I left still feeling uneasy. A slow dread started to creep in. I cried silently to myself the whole way home, feeling as helpless as ever. My pleas to God were for peace and humbleness.
Friday was another day of jumbled texts and half coherent Luke. Why wasn’t he getting any better? He asked me to get some things to dress his wounds before I stopped by that evening although, I wasn’t even convinced that he really needed these things because of how weird his texts were. That night he couldn’t even come and open the door for me. He was lying in his bed in the dark. His body laying unnaturally under the covers. It was a painful and truthfully emotional scarring sight. I sat down on his bed and tried to muster some words out of him to no avail. Literally what the hell is wrong with him, this is not right at all. I stayed for about thirty minutes just lying my head on his shoulder while leaning over his pain filled body. He told me to go home. He needed to sleep and rest and it was hard to do that with me there. It felt a sharp pain right in my heart. The only thing I could do to not feel helpless was to sit with him and now he didn’t even need that. I left in an emotional puddle.
As soon as I burst in the door to my apartment, I lost it. I was face down on my floor heaving with sobs. I don’t know if I’ve ever cried that hard in my life. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that helpless in my life. I was at a complete loss for everything. My cries to God felt fake even though they were the most genuine they have probably ever been. My whole life was operating on a slant.
After a restless night, Saturday came. I made my way to The Anchor for our church-wide conference. I don’t know why I thought I could manage to go and listen and focus. These all escaped me. I felt outside of myself. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I didn’t want to engage. I drew back within myself. After a few more seriously confused texts from Luke, I decided I had to go by soon.
I walked back to his makeshift bedroom that used to be the dining room. I don’t think he had moved in the 21 hours I had been gone. I knew this was bad and serious and scary and out of my hands. His “healing” leg was slopped off the bed. It was the first time I’d seen it in days. He hadn’t changed his wound dressings. They were soaked through with blood and puss and who knows what else. There was a terrible smell and he was the most confused he had ever been. He could barely lift his arm to eat the bananas I had sliced for him.
This had to be taken out of my hands. I asked his roommate if his pain was ever this bad after his original accident. He said this was exponentially worse. That’s when I leaned down into his face and pleaded with him to let me take him to the hospital. His delirious mind reluctantly agreed. I started to realized the severity of the situation when he could not even lift himself up to a sit. I sat down next to him and somehow managed to sit his dead weight body up. Next step: pants or rather shorts. There was no way we were getting pants over his leg that had swollen to one and a half times its size. The shorts barely made it on because he was too weak to lift himself up. Trying to put his leg into his walking boot was comical. He insisted that I put a sock on his bloody swollen leg, which was just not going to happen. I finally convinced him out of it after he insisted I was being “too forceful” with him. After inching himself slowly to the edge of the bed, it was time to stand up. He could not even support half of his weight on his good leg. There is no way I was personally going to get him to the hospital.
I’m going to have to call 911. What the heck? I had never done that. How were you supposed to act? What if this wasn’t THAT serious and they laugh at me for calling in an emergency?
I left the room and my hand shook as I dialed the numbers you were never supposed to even pretend to dial. I calmly answered all of the responder’s questions and moments later an ambulance was coming to us. I started gathering things together. His pain pills, his water bottle, jacket, keys, phone, wallet. I was in crises mode. I had to make sure I had it all. Five minutes later, the EMTs showed up five deep. As soon as I saw the worry in their eyes, I knew calling the ambulance was the right thing to do. It took 3 men to get him into the stretcher. They rolled him out of the house and down the road to the Vanderbilt University hospital. I followed the ambulance in my car. The only emotion I felt in the moment was relief. A complete release of all of the burden I had placed on myself the past week to take care of him.
I sat in the ER waiting room and texted my parents and a few friends who we were both close with. Brad was the first to respond and let me know that he was on his way. No questions asked. I was so relieved to just have someone with me during that crazy frantic time. Someone who would calm me down and be there to bounce words off of. I might have gone actually crazy if I were alone in all of this.
Twenty minutes later, I was allowed to be with him in the ER room. I have rarely felt more stressed and insignificant in my life. There were dozens of people buzzing in and out aggressively asking questions like, “Who was responsible for his wound care?”. And immediately the guilt and shame began. His brain was in and out of delirium. He really had no idea where he was or what was happening, which actually was probably the best thing for him. Doctors and nurses threw around words like ‘amputation’ and ‘septic’ and the dread only worsened. But, I just thought they were reasoning through worse case scenario and tried not to take them too seriously.
I grabbed his phone and knew it was going to be my responsibility to call his parents and let them know what had transpired over the past week. I had never even met them before. I paced the ER back hallway my hands subtly shaking and my feet unable to be still. From the other end of the phone, his mom greets me as if I were him, “Well how are you, baby?”. I can’t imagine the panic she must have felt when she heard my voice on the other side of the line. As I was speaking, I don’t think I knew the words that were coming out of my mouth. I tried to sound as calm and collected as possible as I explained that Luke was in the ER because his leg was hurting him really bad and the only thing I could think to do was finally take him to the hospital. It was a short call and at that point in time, neither of us realized the severity of the situation.
In an amount of time later (I had no idea of time reference that first 24 hours), all the news we received was bad. His leg was severely infected, like really really bad. Amputation was an actual threat. His delirium only worsened. His previously healed leg wounds leaked like never before. He was getting sicker by the minute. The infection was most likely raging through his blood. The ER staff looked worried. This is never a good thing. I knew I had to call his mom back and let her know that this wasn’t just a short trip to the ER with a solution of a prescription for pain meds.
The next phone call, I couldn’t even pretend to not be freaked out. My voice shook and showed all the fear that was stuck inside my body. Lori, his mom, could tell. I could hear the fear also in her voice, trying to be masked by calmness. I tried to convey to her just how serious things were and I think she got the picture. She had a flight booked for the next morning to be in Nashville. A second wave of relief in this emotional cluster-cuss.
I think we spent about 3 hours in the ER. That’s three hours of him not receiving any antibiotics, not receiving any treatment, just people walking in and freaking out. It was beyond frustrating. When he was finally admitted to a room, we were taken to the 9th floor of what’s called the Critical Care Tower, called the Surgical Intensive Care Unit or SICU. We had barely settled in to a room when they moved us down the hall. (We later found out that the room we were placed in had more attentive care and was for severely sick patients.)
He was hooked up to about 10 different IVs immediately and was finally getting some form of treatment. Brad and I were mostly speechless. We tried to talk with him, but the delirium was heavy and he was barely stringing words together much less making sense. We knew we both could not leave him that night. He could not be alone. Little did I know that when I left my house at 10am on Saturday, I wouldn’t be returning until 9pm on Sunday night.
I have never had a worse night’s sleep, if you can even call it that. Nurses were constantly monitoring him. Any noise that he would make would send me shooting up out of the couch turned bed and over to him. Brad nodded off and on in a chair. At 6am the next morning, they whisked him away to surgery. Surgery to open his leg up and survey the damage that had been done. This type of surgery is called debridement, a cleaning of infected tissue. We found out post surgery, that there was a lot of dead skin and muscle and tissue. The infection had gotten worse over night. They hadn’t worked fast enough to prevent skin and muscle from dying. This infection was so aggressive and relentless. The situation worsened so quickly it was hard to even know what was happening.
During the first surgery, Brad and I, barely able to speak, made our way to Fido to try to eating something and definitely drink coffee to ward off the effects of the most stressful night of my life. We ate mostly in silence, staring aimlessly out onto 21st Ave in the dreary and cold Sunday morning. I’m sure that people thought we were either on a really bad first date or in the middle of a huge fight. If only they knew what was really rolling through our minds that morning.
After returning to the hospital, we anxiously awaited Luke to be out of surgery. When they finally wheeled him back in, we found out how serious the infection was. His orthopedic surgeon said that they had lost a lot of tissue. The infection was everywhere in his leg, his knee, his ankle and all over his lower leg. The metal rod was completely compromised by the infection as well as the bone graft and both had to be removed. He was most definitely septic, the infection was circulating through his entire blood stream.
He was intubated and on a respirator, he was still hooked up to an ungodly amount of IVs and was sedated. This was the state his mother first saw him. When she walked into the room, I thought for sure she was going to pass out. I quickly grabbed her into a hug to prevent this from happening.
Now, you have to realize, this is really the first time that we have really met. We had been introduced previously, but for all intents and purposes, this was our first time interacting. Luke and I had only been dating for two and a half months. This was a huge thing for all of us. A crazy, crazy huge thing.
In that moment, she realized just how serious the condition of her son was. It was extremely painful to watch and be a part of. After the initial shock wore off, I attempted to fill her in on the of the details that she missed from the past 24 hours. It was all just a blur and I found it hard to grasp how to even explain all of this to her.
The rest of that day was filled with exhaustion and anxiety. I hadn’t been home yet and still found myself in the same clothes stained not only with hospital, but the terrible occurrences of the day before. His mom and I quickly bonded over the tragedy we both found ourselves in, mostly fretting over what was to come in the next few days, hell, the next few hours.
I finally went home that evening around 9:00 and all I could do was barely make it through a shower and flop into my bed and try to fight off the terrors inside my head every time I closed my eyes.
Monday morning brought another debridement (clean out) surgery of removing dead tissue from his leg. Despite Dr. Obremsky’s (his orthopedic surgeon) positive outlook on the whole situation, we all couldn’t help but be devastated. I spent the rest of the day updating people with both my phone and Luke’s phone. I was the central command station, furiously updating everyone I could, transferring contacts into my phone, all while distracting myself from what was actually happening. I couldn’t even begin to comprehend all that was happening, so I just kept myself very distracted.
I was at work all of Monday morning and afternoon. I would run to the back every fifteen minutes checking the phones, getting updates from his mom and responding to the overflow of texts to each of our phones.
As soon I was done with work at 2 pm, I raced straight over to Vanderbilt (which would become my routine for the next 3 weeks) for the rest of the night. Right after I got there, we found out that the infection in Luke’s leg was staph, MRSA, to be exact (methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus), which is a nasty bug. It’s resistant to almost all antibiotics, except a magic little drug called vancomycin.
The next few days were a blur of surgeries and sedations and delirium.
I could barely tell the days apart. We would get some good news, but it always seemed to be coupled with something else that went wrong. He maintained a fever for almost 2 weeks, his heart rate was high and his blood pressure low for a good portion of his stay in the hospital. The infection decided to hang out in his lungs and he got pneumonia. So, not only was he intubated, but he also was coughing constantly. Hearing someone cough through an intubation tube is a very painful thing to watch.
Wednesday and Thursday of that first week were some of the hardest of the entire stay. His delirium was heart wrenching to watch. He was extubated and could “talk” and by that I mean he could speak in a harsh whisper. He didn’t make any sense, he was saying very mean and terrible things to people he loved, he was having severe hallucinations and made up stories about the craziest things. Honestly, at times, the things he was saying were actually funny. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry so I chose the infamous cry-laugh.
Every day was a new struggle, yet it felt like I was reliving the same day over and over again.
Now, remember, we had only been dating for about two and a half months at this time. I was scared, yet it made me strangely calm to choose him even in his sickness. This basically “forced” me to choose him over and over, which was one of the easiest decision of my life. I was in it for the long haul. Before all of this sent our lives spiraling, I was constantly looking for signs that I should keep pursuing this, that it was worth it, when really I knew it was so worth it all along.
That weekend, his dad came. Lori warned me that the first thing he would do when he saw me, was bury me in a hug. And that he did. I walked into the hospital room, he turned around, and before I could get a quick hello out, I was wrapped up in a hug. Now, I don’t know under what circumstances you have met a girlfriend or boyfriend’s parents, but this was something special. I felt a strange and lovely peace through all of this knowing that Luke was loved so deeply by his family.
Saturday January 26 was a special day. Luke was finally over the delirium, which he started coming out of the day before. He was in his right mind and we got to finally have a bit of a conversation. That evening, I was about to leave the hospital. I was leaning over the side rail to his bed and had my ear leaned in close to him. He voice was barely audible from the hoarseness that the many intubations from surgery caused. I was about to pull away and stand up to go. “Hey!”, he said, and he kind of grabbed me back as much as he could. I leaned my ear in real close and he said, “When I’m all better, can we take walks?” “Oh my gosh, of course!”, I replied. Right before I was about to stand up again he whispered into my ear, “I love you”. My heart stopped and leapt with the most joy I have felt up to this point in my life. He started saying something like “And it’s not just because you’ve stuck around and you are helping take care of me…. etc, etc.” but I didn’t really hear any of those words. I just sank into his words and whispered back, “I love you too. So, so much.” as I kissed his forehead over and over.
Now, let me put this into perspective. He was laying in the surgical intensive care unit with a feeding tube up his nose, a million IVs connecting to him, a voice so hoarse from multiple intubations, and a body that was severely infected. This was probably one of the hardest and lowest point of his life and maybe mine. And I loved him. He loved me. Everything was going to be ok.
As I left his room and made my way down to my car, I couldn’t stop smiling and skipping and feeling like I was going to burst from complete life changing joy.
Luke had 7 surgeries over the course of about 2 weeks.
The last and final surgery was the skin graft and muscle flap to replace all the skin and muscle that died from the infection. The surgery took over 8 hours. It happened the day before my 26th birthday.
Luke got out of the hospital about a week later. And since then, it’s been the excruciatingly painfully slow recovery process. Some of those first weeks out of the hospital were the hardest emotionally. I was finally beginning to let myself process all that had happened. My brain was consumed with empathy and beginning to realize this was a long, long road.
And so continues my life lesson in patience, and more importantly, love.