MAY 15 – Making my way back
My arrival at Mil Park Hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa.
The man on the left is the flight doctor. Right is the nurse who tortured me for hours.
I think it was the night I came home from the hospital for the second time after the infection that I was sleeping in a recliner in the living room at the Barton’s flat where we were staying. It was far too difficult for me to lie in a bed because my whole upper body hurt from having my sternum cut open and my ribs spread apart. When I turned in the bed I could feel my ribcage being pushed out of shape so it felt lopsided. I would simply push things back into shape but the muscle pain, though not excruciating, was always with me and my torso was still bruised from the surgery. I had wanted so badly for a miracle so we could go back to Gulu. I had prayed intensely for a miracle so that might happen but it was increasingly evident this was not the kind of ailment that goes away in a day or two.
A world class surgical team performed my surgery
They cut through my sternum and used a spreader to access my heart
I was thankful just to be alive, but I didn’t want to go home. I was feeling depressed and sorry for myself. In some ways I felt like a failure for leaving the mission after less than two full months when we had made an 18 month commitment and were feeling such success. I never served a mission as a young Elder but have looked forward to serving as a senior missionary for at least 20 years. Uganda was the perfect mission for Eileen and I and I didn’t want it to end this way or so soon. Then suddenly, in the middle of my pity party I felt a strange sensation of warmth come flooding over me until it covered my whole being. I started to cry. I couldn’t help it. I tried to stop but I couldn’t because I felt completely reassured at that moment that everything that was happening to me was no accident. It was all by design and was all part of a greater plan that I didn’t know about or understand. I began to understand that there is another plan for our mission and it’s not our plan. But whatever the plan is it will play out on the Lord’s time table. My job, for the next weeks and months was to be patient, work on recovering as fast as possible, and accept whatever is in store for us as what the Lord really intended for us all along. So that is what I decided to do—wait and work toward recovery.
A stint wouldn't work so a vein from my leg got my ticker workin' again.
Super glue instead of stitches left a nice neat scar like this one
The next 5 weeks or so were very difficult. I was sent home from South Africa to the U.S. with a catheter in place because after my night of torture with Ugly Nurse my bladder was distended and couldn’t send signals to my brain when it was time to urinate. Long story short, I couldn’t pee. The urologist at Milpark Hospital wanted to operate. Dr. Chabra, who is a urologist, encouraged me to hold off and let the bladder regain its normal shape in a few weeks so it would start working normally again. That sounded much better to me so that’s what I did. It took two weeks for me to get in to see a urologist but when I told him my story he said, “Here is what we will do. We’ll try an experiment and see if things are working. My nurse is going to back flush sterile water into your bladder until it’s full. Then we’ll see if anything comes out.” He left and the nurse injected water back up into my bladder through the catheter tube. When I couldn’t stand the pain any more she pulled the tube out, gave me a cup to catch anything coming out and left the room for a few minutes. When she returned she said, “I put in 130 cc’s. Now I’ll go measure what is in the cup but it looks like 135 cc’s.” She goes out and 5 minutes later the doc comes in and just says, “Congratulations. Everything seems to be working properly.” He shakes my hand and sends us home. Thank you Dr. Chabra!!
I took my physical therapy in this building and from the picture windows on the top floor I had beautiful views of San Antonio.
It took much longer to get in to a cardiologist. I was gaining some strength but was still sleeping a lot and the pain in my chest and upper back were always there. I didn’t want to be around the family much. I moved slow and seldom smiled or joked. I just was not myself. I have never experienced anything like this and was slowly becoming depressed. When I finally did get in to see my cardiologist, Dr. Mancuso, I was really happy when he said, “My goal is to get you to a point where you can do anything you want to without fear of having another heart attack.” And I said to myself, “I’m going to do everything I can to help you achieve that goal!” I started working on that the same day by taking a slow walk on David’s treadmill for 30 minutes. The machine was set on the slowest speed of 2 miles per hour, but that was all I could do.
After finishing P.T. I started working out at this Health Link gym.
A few days later I started physical therapy (P.T.). People say that PT stands for Pain and Torture. I said that too when recovering from shoulder surgery several years ago. The pain was excruciating but this was different. I was sore. The wounds from my drains were still healing and pretty raw. It was an ugly sight to look in the mirror. I had shooting pains in my pectoral muscles and spasms in my upper back muscles. The PT who did my assessment gave me a bunch of physical tests and then told me he wanted me to start walking every day for 30 minutes but not to worry about speed or distance. So I started walking. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 2:00 o’clock I was with my regular PT, Careese Ngyuin who gave me a set of exercises every day that was challenging. I worked hard every day and sweat like a mule. The first two weeks was all leg work and nothing that would put stress on my heart, but that changed after two weeks and she started working my arms and legs and finally mostly upper body work. Some of the exercises were grueling, like sitting on a stool with wheels and using my legs to claw myself 3 times around the therapy room and by the end 4 times. I hated that. It was so exhausting but I never quit. I just wanted to get better.
Every day I worked hard and was dripping sweat but the improvement was there after every session. I really looked forward to going to therapy and I felt so bad for other folks who had strokes or young kids with musculoskeletal problems. They didn’t seem to improve like I was. But I just stayed focused on one thing which was to return to the mission field in some way. A good friend asked me it is was really physical therapy or therapeutic recreation. I had to think about that because I really enjoyed going to therapy. I looked forward to it because I knew it was helping. Certain exercises were painful or boring but boxing was great fun even though my shoulders hurt after just a 30 second round. Careese would pair me up with a mail intern who would hold these target things that I would punch away at. I don’t think it was much fun for them because eventually I could punch pretty hard. It was definitely recreation. Plus the people there were very friendly and the atmosphere was informal and non-clinical feeling unlike the PT I got at Milpark Hospital. The PT gym was on the 4th floor of the building with huge windows all the way around. When I was on the bike or the arm bike I could look out and see the San Antonio Temple in the distance and think about what my goal was.
After a few weeks it was no longer painful just to get out of bed and I could sleep on my side, not just on my back. It became less painful to sit in church. The chapel benches and metal folding chairs were murder on my upper back and when the pain got to a certain level I’d have to lean forward with elbows on knees and head in my hands. But that got better a little each week. It was funny how certain types of seating could be really painful but others could be very comfortable. I always looked for a chair that would give me lots of back support and allow me to recline just slightly.
Little by little I could feel myself getting better. Each new day was just slightly better than the last but it was enough that I could tell the difference, especially after a therapy day.
Finally it was the middle of June and I don’t know what happened but one day I turned a corner and started feeling like my old self. The beginning was one afternoon when David and Eileen were working on a huge new flower bed in the back yard. It was a hot day and it looked like a lot of work. But for some reason I just went and started to help expecting that I could last about 15 minutes. But oddly it felt good to be doing something useful even though I hate gardening. I stayed with it until they were ready to quit for the day. And I didn’t feel physically drained when we were finished. The next day, while David was at work, Eileen and I laid down weed barrier over the whole thing and staked it down. I was feeling much better and wanting to do more. It was amazing! It had been so long since I felt really alive and I wondered how long this recovery would take. Nobody told me anything about what to expect as far as recovery. But now I knew I was really getting well. I started thinking that before long maybe I could go back on a mission.
When I first went to the gym to work out I could only use the 8 pound dumbbells but slowly worked up to 10, then 12, then 15 pounders.
July 4th was a good day for me. Didn’t do much but that night I was eager to help the kids light off their fireworks. I was feeling almost normal but still very cautious not to get too rambunctious. I was making great progress in physical therapy and a few days later I had an echocardiogram. I looked at the machine but could tell nothing from the jagged green line on the screen and when I asked the technician how it looked she just said, “The doctor will go over all of that with you.” It was almost two weeks before I saw him and I just had to wait.
When the cardiology appointment finally came the doctor asked me a few questions. He didn’t really explain to me the results of the echocardiogram. I couldn’t tell if he thought I was doing well or not. He just said matter of factly, “I’d like to see you again in October.”
“October I thought! I want my life back NOW!!” I tried to explain that we are missionaries and that I feel pretty good and we would like to get back out into the field as soon as possible. He just said, “Okay, I’ll see you in October.” I was bummed when I walked into physical therapy that day.
Dr. Mancuso, my cardiologist.
|Eileen introduces a friend to Mission President Slaughter and his wife at Sister's Conference|
To our surprise he showed up at our ward and we met with him after church. We talked about possible ways we could serve in the Texas San Antonio Mission or the T-Sam as we call it. Two things that sounded attractive to us was an assignment on the Mexican border in Eagle Pass. Years ago in Michigan I volunteered during the summer with migrant workers from there and I have always been curious about where they came from. The other was the San Antonio Food Bank which serves 58,000 people from 16 counties in South Texas. We visited Eagle pass but decided to give the food bank a try. A few weeks later we visited the place and signed up to volunteer. We had a long ways to go but were on our way back to being full time missionaries.