By Tim Paauw
“Where there is life, there is hope.” -Dr. Randy Baker
These were words that Dr. Baker shared with our family as we were in a hospital conference room together one afternoon making life’s toughest decision… are we at a point in mom’s life journey where we should allow end-of-life protocols to happen. We prayed together, took our trusted friend’s advice as a family and decided to maintain course of healing unless vital signs declined to a point where no options would exist for life to sustain.
How did we get into that moment? What lead up to that scene?
On Friday, January 8, 2016 at 3:50PM I know exactly where I was. I was packing up my laptop and putting on my coat to head home. I am a school principal and it was time for the weekend. Our school was nearly empty and quiet as the students and staff had left. I was about to say goodbye to my administrative assistant when my cell phone rang.
“Hello.” I answered the phone.
A friend of our family was on the other end of the call, “Hey Tim, it’s Gary. Your mother was just in a serious head-on car accident and brought to the emergency room by ambulance. I am not sure to what extent the damage is or status of her current health but you will want to head straight to the hospital.”
My head swirled, it felt clouded and my heart was beating out of my chest. I walked out of my office and looked at my administrative assistant and asked for her to pray as I got in my car to head to the hospital to learn more.
As I began my twenty minute ride to there I called my wife, “Laura, I don’t know what happened yet but mom was in a serious car accident and I am going to head straight to the hospital to find out if she is going to be okay. Can you call your parents to watch the kids and then come join us down there?” I told her I loved her and then said goodbye.
When I pulled up to the hospital I called my dad and asked if he was with mom. He sounded frazzled and said, “Yes. Jackie (my sister) and Brek (her husband) are with us too.” He gave me directions to the critical care floor and room number they were at.
I found them in the hallway outside of my mom’s room and asked the obvious questions first, “What happened?! Is she going to be okay?”
My dad said, “She has a shattered right wrist, 2 broken right arm bones, a shattered ankle, 4 broken spots on 2 leg bones above the ankle, and she has 9 fractured ribs. She is in a lot of pain. We don’t know exactly where she was when this happened and we haven’t been given many details about the crash.”
I walked into my mom’s room, holding back my tears and relieved to see her face and hear her voice. “Mom, I love you. It sounds like you are in a lot of pain, but I promise you that we are all in this together for you.”
After sitting with her for a few moments, joking about her menu at the hospital, and greeting doctors that were coming and going I decided to step back into the hall with the rest. By this time, my brother Tom and his wife Emily arrived. My wife Laura was not far behind them. My dad had called my oldest brother Jamie who lives out of state so that he and his family would know what took place. My youngest brother Mark had just left a few days before for a trip to Mexico with Calvin College. We didn’t called him, but I did pick up the phone and called his fiancee (now wife), Tamara, and asked her to come join us at the hospital and explained what was happening.”
Truthfully, I don’t remember a lot of the details of the rest of this day. We spent a lot of it on our phones calling everyone we knew to ask for prayers and to let extended family and friends know. I drew the short straw and got nominated to make a dreaded call to let my grandma (mom’s mom) know that her daughter was in a serious car accident and we will keep he posted when we know more but she is currently in critical care with a lot of broken bones. A hospital chaplain came by at one point to circle us up and led a prayer.
I later found out more about where my dad was at during his initial surprise of this news. He is a doctor who was working with a patient on this exact same critical floor of the hospital when he received the disturbing call that mom had just arrived by ambulance in the ER downstairs. He went from serving as a physician to being a patient’s spouse in moments and ended up 3 doors away from the place he was working.
As that evening drew near, our whole family was weary and no one was prepared to spend the night because we all had raced to get to the hospital. I volunteered to stay with mom so that she would have company and if anything changed I could give them all a call. Dad was going to come in the morning to take over. By this time, we had notified my youngest brother, Mark, in Mexico but told him not to come home as we thought mom was just dealing with a LOT of broken bones and pain.
It was likely the longest night of my life, at least it felt that way. My mom came into the hospital not only with the injuries from this accident but also had a case of pneumonia in her lungs. When I asked a nurse, “What can I do to be helpful?”
She answered, “The best way to help her pneumonia is to have her cough every 30 minutes tonight, but she is going to hurt from the broken ribs that are against her lung–just to warn you.”
The word “hurt” doesn’t even come close to describing the pain my mom experienced as I set phone alarms for every 30 minutes and woke her up to have her cough. “Hurt” more accurately described MY heart as I had to say “Mom, you need to trust me and cough through the pain. It is what is best for you.” Her pain was well beyond that.
I had taken my contacts out and drifted off around 5:00AM on January 9th in the hospital chair next to my mom after spending the night having her cough and trying to keep an oxygen mask over her mouth that kept slipping. That sleep was quickly interrupted as I felt someone tapping on my foot. Though my vision is not great, I looked up and noticed a person wearing a white coat and knew it was a doctor with some sort of needed update.
She said to me, “Your mom lost a lot of blood last night. We needed to give her 9 units over the course of the evening. This means there is internal bleeding somewhere. We need to get her into an emergency surgery to find out what is happening and try to solve it immediately. We will need you to sign this permission form for us to do so.”
I had to still be sleeping, this had to be nightmare. It was not. I was so shocked I couldn’t process what was happening. I replied, “Let me call my dad and have you explain what is going on. I am nervous to sign anything because I don’t get what you said and he is a doctor, he will know what I should do.”
I handed the doctor my cell phone after telling my dad she needed to speak with him. Not long after, it was handed back to me and my dad sounded sad and replied, “Tim, sign the papers. I will be down there right away. Please let your siblings know this is an emergency.”
What my dad understood that I didn’t is that this was life-threatening and an unknown picture vastly different from the one we faced the night before. Not only did I call my siblings but I also called our pastors from the churches we attend. Both pastors volunteered to come down and join us, one of my church elders was also along for support. When my pastor and elder arrived, I gave them a big hug and through tears said, “I’m not ready to lose my mom yet.” They paused and allowed the tears to flow. Then they responded, “Let’s pray together.” Through that prayer, I remember a calm in my heart that I couldn’t explain. It was the first time I knew what people meant when they say “I can totally feel and need your prayer.”
As we all waited in the waiting room, we were alerted that this would become a critical 5 hour surgery with unsure outcomes. Decisions needed to be made in the operating room by the surgeons that were split second and drastic, eventually turning out to be life-saving ones. We sat together and prayed often for mom, for the surgeons who were working on her, and ultimately that God’s glory would be seen in this no matter the outcomes.
Mom came back up from that surgery with an open wound-site intentionally as she was too fragile for the process to finish. She was in an induced coma and receiving oxygen. It was one of the hardest sights for any of us to bear. We were told she had bleeding from her liver that they were able to seal off. They also needed to remove portions of her intestine that were bleeding. “Fragile” barely begins to describe her condition at the end of that day. She was on a ventilator for breathing, her lungs expanded because of a machine at this point.
We decided to take shifts with her so that as a family one of us would be with her at all times in case she were to pass away. I couldn’t believe this was the same person I was with the night before, it was supposed to be only broken bones we were working on.They would need to go back in for a second critical surgery in a couple of days to seal the open wound if she were able to live long enough.
We decided at this time to have my brothers Jamie and Mark fly home and let them know they should come because she likely won’t survive this. Both made it within a day after that time. Jamie’s wife, Halle, also started the trip to Michigan with their children (by car) from Virginia and arrived as soon as she was able.
On Sunday morning I was on my way to mom’s room to join my dad. Within the first hour of being there, one of the main doctors from her surgery knocked on the door and came in. He was in blue-jeans (his day off) and he had a few interns with him. He asked them to check my mom’s condition and asked my dad and I if we could join him in a conference room for an update.
My dad is a colleague of this doctor and knew him well. From the doctor’s facial expression we knew this wasn’t a good meeting. He was grace-filled and calm but let us know that while he was performing the surgery he noticed my mom’s liver was in what looked like end-stage liver failure. My dad wept.
Dad explained to me after we walked out that mom’s percentage of surviving through the week is extremely slim. He told me that even if she survives the trauma she now may die from a bad liver. This was a heartbreaking blow to our already devastating week.
As the day progressed things didn’t get better. Mom’s breathing struggled and another tough decision was made as the doctors gave her a tracheotomy (hole in the neck) and hooked the ventilator up to it instead of through her mouth.
The next day, I remember driving home from a trip to Aldi’s and I needed to pull my car off to the side of the road as I was overcome in tears. I prayed a traditional prayer at first, “Lord, help me to see your presence and to accept whatever outcome you have planned. Thy will be done. Amen.”… I almost started the car but then I remembered a Bible story of Jairus’ daughter where he chased down Jesus to ask for him to save his daughter from death. Jesus granted this out loud prayer request of faith and healed Jairus’ daughter, sparing her from the grave despite all odds and everyone’s sorrow.
Rather than starting my car, I “re-prayed”… “Lord, I will ask more boldly than the first time. Please help my mom. I’m not ready for this. I believe you can give her healing even when that looks impossible. However, I also know that ultimate healing for all who believe in Jesus is in heaven. So, please allow us more time with her despite the current pain. Amen.”
My dad’s specialty is putting feeding-tubes into patients for nutrition support when they are in the hospital and cannot eat on their own. My mom was clearly going to need nutrition support and likely this needed to happen in the next critical surgery to seal up her open wound. Dad didn’t directly place the tube but he was asked what he would like to see happen for this. A dear friend of our family is Dr. Randy Baker. He is someone our family has always loved and we ALL had a tugging sense in our hearts that we wanted him to assist in the upcoming critical surgery. We wanted a familiar face that loves the Lord and knows us. My dad requested that he be consulted for this surgery and the hospital accepted this consultation.
The day of the big surgery finally arrived. We gathered in mom’s room along with our pastors (she was still in a sedated coma, so we hadn’t spoken to her since she went into the first surgery). Dr. Randy Baker and the other surgeons were downstairs preparing. We had asked everyone we know to pray over this day. Many tears flowed as we circled mom’s bed for what our hearts believe likely could be the last time. Prayers were lifted. Our pastor asked if there were any favorite Bible verses that they could read for us at this time. In a moment of beauty, my mom’s nurse asked for a verse that always has served as a comfort for her–it was the perfect verse.
As the medical team came in to wheel mom down to surgery our hearts sank. It felt like it was the last time we were going to see our mom on this side of heaven. We went back to the waiting room that we had by now become well acquainted with and again sat silent for a while. We forced each other to remember to eat, a funny thing about trauma is you forget all sense of time and have no appetite. In an effort to calm the enormous moment taking place, once in a while someone would crack a joke or share an antidote from their week. However, the truth remained that in each of our hearts we wondered if mom would live through this surgery.
One thing that Dr. Baker explained to me ahead of time is that the longer this surgery would take the better chance mom had of living through it. It would be a 2-phase surgery and each phase should last for a few hours. They were only going to do the second part if she was strong enough after the first. They were making delicate repairs for vital organs and sealing the wound. About 2 hours into the surgery we received a visit in the waiting room from one of the nurses that was in the surgery (Dr. Baker sent her up to help calm our heart). She let us know that the first phase went as well as it possibly could and they were moving into phase two!
More hours of waiting went by. I learned the coffee machine in the waiting room was similar to a Keurig and made great coffee cup by cup. We received a host of texts, emails, and phone calls from people letting us know that they were in prayer over mom and for us. Again, I felt that explainable calm feeling that is a gift from God’s spirit providing peace beyond understanding.
Eventually, the door to the waiting room had a knock. This time it was Dr. Baker himself. He gave my dad a hug and said, “She’s alive and recovering. We were able to achieve our goals today. She will be back in her room soon and shouldn’t have more than a couple of visitors at a time for a while. She will remain unconscious for a while.” My dad squeezed tight as tears rained down.
She was alive! We all high-fived and praised our Lord for His amazing grace. We texted family and friends to let them know that there is quite a road of challenges ahead yet but for this moment she was still with us.
Her story will continue as it is now one year after the accident and mom faces a possible amputation of her right leg yet and experiences various struggles yet with her kidneys and liver. I could tell of the precious moment weeks later where I entered the hospital room and sat next to my brother Mark as we witnessed her first signs of response waking up from the coma, it felt the closest I’ve ever come to meeting Lazarus himself. Or I could write about the blessing experienced as her first-responders from the accident stopped by her hospital room to check in on her and to answer MANY questions we had that were unanswered from the accident. We saw God’s hand at work through them and the others on the accident scene that day that we haven’t met. We thanked God over the past year for her ability to attend our youngest brother Mark’s wedding in June (her first outing from the hospital).
We also learned that in the midst of trauma, life continues. My parents celebrated their 40th anniversary with us from a therapy room in May. My sister had her third baby while mom was in critical condition and we learned that baby Isaiah would also have complications at birth that required prayer and time in the NICU of the hospital. We saw God’s mercy as he protected and healed Isaiah and spared my mom so they can build memories and moments together.
Mom is at her home tonight as I type this, but has spent at least ten months time in various hospital rooms. I have personally witnessed her heart flat-lining more than once and watching her get rushed in response to critical care. She required a lung surgery months after the accident to save her life. She spent a period of over a month receiving daily dialysis as her kidneys stopped and had us convinced that they may never work again (they function now). Her ribs, arm, leg, and wrist bones are completely healed. She survived the ventilator phase and eventually weaned completely off of it and had her tracheotomy even closed back up! She lives in bed or a wheelchair for most of her day but she gets to spend those days with my dad, with us, with her grandchildren (often playing “Uno Dare”).
We don’t know what the future holds. A year ago on this evening I wouldn’t have predicted the changing course of our family’s life journey, but I have never felt more reassured that Proverbs 16:9 is true!!!
Our family has learned that God’s mercies are new every morning. We give Him a deep thanks that mom is with us a year after this all happened and for each day, even the hardest ones. The wounds and suffering she has gone through are strong reminders also for us that even in the midst of the hope for today complete healing is found in Christ’s promise to us as believers that there is a heaven and He is preparing a place for us there, no more sorrow and no more pain.
Another lesson we have taken humbly to heart is the power of prayer from other Christians around the globe. We have been overwhelmed by the amount of people praying and continuing to do so. We can testify first hand to the calm and peace experienced through that from God’s spirit at work answering those prayers, one by one. THANK YOU!!
I’ll end with the first 5 verses of Psalm 31 which we now call “Liz’s verse” as we have read it with my mom many times. I’ve used the Bible in other blog postings because I believe it is the greatest source of truth and provides promises that make life’s puzzles beautiful, even the most painful ones.
In you, O Lord, do I take refuge;
let me never be put to shame;
in your righteousness deliver me!
Incline your ear to me;
rescue me speedily!
Be a rock of refuge for me,
a strong fortress to save me!
For you are my rock and my fortress;
and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me;
you take me out of the net they have hidden for me,
for you are my refuge.
Into your hand I commit my spirit;
you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.