Home for Christmas

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As 2021 winds down, I keep re-living moments from the past three months. And the more I recall, the more grateful I am for this year’s greatest gift—that I was home for Christmas.

It has been just over three months since “it” happened. But the memories are persistent.

Shirley’s cousin Ev had moved to Edmonton, and we were on our way to help her settle in. We made a mini-vacation of our trip, stopping overnight in Kamloops, then at Lake Louise.

September 18 found us driving along one of the most beautiful highways in the world—the Icefields Parkway that stretches for 232 km from Lake Louise to the mountain town of Jasper. This double-lane highway (93) winds along the Continental Divide through soaring rocky peaks, icefields, emerald lakes and vast sweeping valleys.

September 18 found us driving along one of the most beautiful highways in the world

I wasn’t feeling well, so Shirley drove while I, with camera in hand, excitedly interrupted with, “Could you please pull over here?!” I was so enthralled with the scenery that I was unaware of what was taking place in my body.

We had arranged to stay the night at the Overlander Mountain Lodge just east of Jasper, but first we stopped for supper at the Jasper Park Lodge. We struggled with our choice from the menu. A growing sense of unease distracted me from settling on what to eat.

We ordered our food and I excused myself from the table, hoping that a visit to the washroom would provide a solution.

I was gone such a long time that Shirley asked a waiter to check on me. I don’t remember anyone checking on me, but he told Shirley, “He’s fine.” I wasn’t.

After sitting a long time, I finally knelt on the floor in front of the toilet and gave a big heave. “Maybe I’ll feel better after I vomit,” I reasoned. Instead, I received the shock of my life. The toilet bowl was filled with blood!

It’s hard to describe my feelings as I looked at her

I staggered out of the washroom and across the restaurant, holding on to furniture to steady myself. I could see Shirley staring at me from the far side of the room as I made my way toward her.

It’s hard to describe my feelings as I looked at her. I was in shock. I was filled with a sense of urgency. And there was a sadness at the sense that I might be leaving her.

“Something is seriously wrong,” I told her. “I just vomited a large amount of blood.” Immediately she went to the front desk and asked them to call an ambulance. “My husband is bleeding.”

I was conscious for the first few minutes of my ambulance ride. What happened next I experienced through the recollections of my sweet wife, who shouldered the heaviest load.

Jasper Healthcare Centre is small and not equipped for major diagnostic work. But they saved my life!

Shirley watched as I was brought in from the ambulance. I was covered with blood—apparently I had vomited again enroute.

The hospital was in the middle of a shift change, so there were a lot of staff on hand, and they went to work. They weren’t equipped to determine the source of the bleed, so they focused on getting me stabilized, replacing the blood I had lost. A second ambulance arrived bringing more units of blood.

Shirley says they worked on me for three hours. The doctor told Shirley, “We almost lost him.”

I was transported to the airfield at Hinton, where a helicopter and ER doctor from the University of Alberta Hospital waited. I regained consciousness long enough to see the moonlight reflected from the tail of the helicopter, and to respond to a paramedic’s offer to call Shirley and let me talk to her.

It was brief. “I love you,” I said. Shirley responded, “I love you too. See you in the morning.” I remember wondering if those might be our last words to each other.

I was shocked to learn that, while I was being flown to Edmonton, Shirley was at the Overlander Park Lodge washing the blood out of my clothing and off my wallet. “It took a long time for the water to start running clear,” she later told me.

I remember wondering if those might be our last words to each other

As the story continues it is based on Shirley’s recollections and on a detailed report sent to me from the hospital. In a nutshell, I was sedated and intubated while the doctors worked to locate the source of the bleed. An endoscopy revealed that an artery in my stomach had ruptured. It is a somewhat rare condition called a “Dieulafoy lesion”. A repair was attempted and I spent 7 days in the ICU.

I was moved to the GI Ward on Sept. 26, but the same day it was discovered that the artery was bleeding again. I was sedated and intubated a second time, and a more aggressive repair was done. I was moved back into the ICU where I spent 14 more days. I developed an e-coli infection, a high fever and pneumonia. It was another critical time, with recovery not guaranteed.

At two different times a “massive transfusion protocol” was ordered. Shirley saw me with IV lines in both arms, both legs and in my neck. She was alarmed to see my left arm and hand grotesquely swollen and purple/black in colour. A nurse told Shirley that, in total, I had received 27 units of blood.

A nurse told Shirley that I had received a total of 27 units of blood

Behind the scenes many were praying for my recovery. And slowly the healing began. I remember when I was helped to stand for the first time. It took all my strength to rise from the edge of my bed. My son Tim, who had travelled to Edmonton to visit me, recorded the event.

After a month of excellent care at the University of Alberta Hospital, I was transported to our local hospital in BC, thanks to donations to a go-fund-me started by my daughter-in-law Jennifer. The donations covered the full cost of the air ambulance.

I wrote to thank the owner of the company who provided the transportation at a great discount. He wrote back, “The cost of your air ambulance has been donated to help support those in need of medical care in a refugee camp in Uganda.”

So those who contributed not only blessed me. You also helped these Ugandan refugees.

Once in Nanaimo Regional Hospital I began to turn the corner. Weeks in a hospital bed take an enormous toll on your strength and mobility.

Soon I was walking with a walker. Then I was moved to the rehab unit where I was slowly introduced to exercises in the gym. I kept walking the halls. One day my feeding tube was removed and I was introduced to real food. A few days later, on November 9th, I was discharged—seven and a half weeks after that infamous September 18.

During all that time Shirley visited me every day except one, when I was undergoing a number of procedures. While in Edmonton, she stayed with her cousin Ev. Shirley was my advocate. One doctor phoned to ask, “Was your husband receiving home care before this all happened?” She assured the doctor that I was a fit 76-year-old, going to the gym, walking, skiing. “OK. We are going to get him rehab’d back to where he was,” the doctor responded.

My strength and balance have been returning. I’m at perhaps 80% of where I was. I feel great. Most of all I feel grateful to God for sparing my life and allowing me to return home to my sweet Shirley. The term “Home for Christmas” took on new meaning this year.

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