It’s funny the things you take for granted. The things you don’t realize you’ll miss… until they’re gone. Like a laugh. It’s one of the things everyone always loved about my dad, and a big part of his personality. Last year – we were afraid we’d never hear it again.
“We were approaching the time when Erin and I would have to make decisions about keeping him on life support,” my mom explains. She’s not exaggerating. It really was that bad. “The doctors said, he’s just got a lot of blood on his brain. And they drilled a hole in his head.”
All we could do was wait around and worry and pray and wonder… how can a person go from being so healthy, to so sick – so suddenly? “We had a couple of doctors who continued to kind of keep our hopes alive and one who was basically telling us to prepare for the worst,” my mom remembers, “he used the words, he wouldn’t want to live in a vegetative state.”
That’s basically what my dad was, for a while - a vegetable. A ruptured brain aneurysm was to blame. One of the best neurosurgeons in the world repaired it – but nothing changed. All of this was happening around Christmas. My dad loves the movie “A Christmas Story” so my husband started playing it non-stop in the intensive care unit, along with the Nebraska fight song. We were desperate for something to trigger some sort of reaction. We also opened a few presents even though no one really felt like celebrating.
“Those were probably our darkest days,” my mom says, “the doctors were completely stymied so they went to what they call ‘painful stimuli’ where they pinched him until he was covered with bruises, and they were sticking instruments under his fingernails… and nothing, no response. He was comatose.”
That’s why my dad’s laugh is music to our ears. And as far as we’re concerned – it’s a miracle that he’s here today.
“Well, I basically had a bad case of strep throat,” Dad says when you ask him about his health. “When, when you were six?!?” Mom interrupts. “I was in the hospital for two days,” he says, wrinkling up his nose as he thinks about the date. “That was in 1963 or 64…” He’s not kidding, and my dad was pretty proud of the fact that he’d never had any health problems. That’s part of the reason December 9th was such a shock. It’s still hard for him to talk about that day. “Ummm, I got terrible dizzy, head hurt, couldn’t get up so I knocked the phone onto the floor and called 911,” he says through tears.
More than a month later we were thrilled that Dad was opening his eyes and sticking out his tongue on command. “Well, I know I was terribly weak,” he says “when I first started to come around I couldn’t even push myself up.” Things were better, but we still weren’t seeing the person we knew and loved. “He had trouble knowing where he was sometimes,” Mom recalls, “he’d seem confused and guess - Rapid City? Denver?” Sometimes he didn’t know who his family and friends were and we wondered if he’d ever be the same. My mom was there for all of it. All 94 days. “Yep,” says my dad, “She was at the hospital every day…sixty of which I don’t remember.”
Bit by bit the cobwebs in his brain started to clear. We saw that grin, and his personality. My mom loves telling the story of what he said to one of the nurses when she was doing the neurological exam, asking basic questions about common sense things. “He said, now wait a minute – I’ve been away for a while – is Nixon still the president?” And that’s when we heard that laugh we’d been waiting for.
Trina Radske-Suchan is the Medical Director at the YMCA Healthy Living Center. She helps people like my dad every day. People who have to re-learn how to eat, talk, walk and think. “The mental aspect is huge,” says Trina, “probably more than the physical in that you can be pretty good physically but if you don’t have a good attitude, if it’s defeating or you’re angry and you have that wall…that’s harder to get through than something physical.”
“Well, that’s true,” my dad says with a laugh. “So I think it’s that and faith in a higher power that brought me through all this.” Faith can play a big role. It did for my family. “I prayed and I prayed and I prayed,” says my mom, “and I knew a lot of other people were praying and believing in God for a miracle.” We got one. And we know how lucky we are. “Especially when you’re in therapy and you see other people,” Dad says through tears, “I’m pretty fortunate.”
We show it all the time on the local news, the adversity people face. It can happen to anyone… the pain, the suffering, the tears. And sometimes, we get to see how one long-awaited laugh … can change everything.