Friends Like Family

Donna CallDonna Call has more than thirty-six years of life experience on me, yet we instantly became good friends. She was older than my own mother and shared her first name. It was an unlikely friendship under different circumstances, but our similar situation has bonded us together since 1991. She called me her soul sister when we met at Mackay Dee Hospital in the ICU waiting room while my husband, Mark, was in a coma after a car accident and her husband, Wayne, was also in a coma after complications from heart surgery.

Wayne and Donna Call lived in Burley, Idaho while we lived in Sandy, Utah. The miles between us make it doubtful that we would have met otherwise, yet our husband’s critical health conditions put us together under the same roof in the Ronald McDonald home as directed by the hospital.

This small house, which was located by the hospital parking lot, became my home away from home. It had two bedrooms, one bath and living room with a couch, reclining chair and television. The kitchen had a small table, fridge, stove, a few dishes and utensils. In the beginning, I was assigned the basement of this home, which was set up just like the upstairs. After a few days, some plumbing issue surfaced and I had to move upstairs with the Call family. Donna had one room and I had the other. Each bedroom had a double size bed plus bunk beds. I don’t recall a dresser, but there was a closet to put our clothes in. My broken collarbone made it difficult to sleep while lying down, so we squeezed one of the recliner chairs in the bedroom in front of the closet. There was just a little pathway between the bunkbeds and the double bed and another small pathway between the foot of the double bed and the recliner chair. Sometimes I shared this room with our two children and my parents when they came to visit and on weeknights my brothers often took turns staying there.

Donna and Wayne had six kids and since she was spending most of the time at the hospital with her husband, their kids took turns bringing her needed items and staying overnight with her. I believe before I moved upstairs, Donna had a room and whoever came to visit had the second room. Even though I cut their living space in half, they welcomed me with open arms. Once in a while it was such a full house they used sleeping bags on the floor in the living room. We got to know each other well over a seven week period of time. Despite Donna’s own heartache, she took me under her wing, making sure my needs were taken care of and made me feel part of their family.

If it was getting late and I wasn’t home, Donna worried about me. If I didn’t have a family member staying over, she’d send one of her boys to Mark’s room to check on me. They offered to walk me home. They were concerned about my well-being and crossing the dark parking lot alone. I appreciated they cared enough to make sure I made it to the McDonald home safe and sound. They’re kindness was inspiring, especially because they had their own worries and sorrow. I will forever appreciate their friendship. I was grateful for the comfort of this home which became a safe haven from the upset of the hospital. When their only daughter, Janice, came to visit and stayed in the McDonald home, we’d stay up late sharing tears of concern for our loved ones. Amongst the turmoil and worrying about Mark as well as missing my own home and family, I received the great blessing of new friends. Over a seven week period of time they became my hospital family.

Bear Tree 3We moved onto Western Rehab and a few months later Wayne got well enough to return home for three more years until cancer took his life in 1994. For our first Christmas after the accident they mailed us a package full of many adorable bears they had made together out of logs and branches. With the box was a letter explaining they had made each of their children these bears through the years so each family member had a “bear tree” for Christmas. It was a symbol of their love for us. I treasure our “bear tree” and every Christmas as I put it out I’m reminded of their loving care.

This bond has continued on for nearly twenty-five years. We’ve made trips to Burley, Idaho to visit them. We’ve stayed in contact through letters and phone calls. Despite our age difference and the miles between us, our similar experience and concern for one another kept us together. This is a friendship I will be eternally thankful for.

Donna died on her 93rd birthday, January 12, 2016. We made another trip to Burley Saturday for her funeral. By all those who were in attendance, I realized she was loved by many and made all who knew her feel just as important as she made me feel. I enjoyed reuniting with her children and recognized what a tribute their lives are to her. I don’t know a kinder, more thoughtful lady and I will miss her. Donna and her children were a light of hope and beacon of courage during a very dark time for me. I am blessed to know her and her family. I’m thrilled for her as I think about the great reunion she is having with her husband now.


The Move

Moving On2After the doctor left with the agreement that Mark’s update reports would take place in the conference room in the future, I returned to his bedside. I held his hand, hoping to feel his spirit. Where are you Mark? Are you trapped between two worlds? Am I going crazy and imagining movements just because I want to see them? A thought came to mind, or possibly his spirit answering me, all energy is going to fight the infection and blood clot. Maybe, a coma is the best place for me right now.

Intermixed with all the worries, the improving numbers in his red and white cell counts were triumphs in my mind, along with his temperature and heart rate going down. With each passing day I was getting more and more anxious to move Mark to a rehab hospital closer to home.

The therapists were getting Mark out of bed two or three times per day now. After several weeks of lying in bed it was refreshing to see him sitting in a reclining wheelchair. Sometimes when his eyes were open, there was a blank stare. Other times I could see he was focused on something. However, every time he was moved, his eyes grew wide and he looked terrified. I felt and understood his fear. He had no control over his body and where it would land. I knew he was aware of the movement; I saw it in his eyes. In a soothing voice, I tried to reassure him everything would be okay.

One day I walked from one area in his room to another and noticed his eyes followed my movement. I walked a little farther away and lost his focus. When I got closer to the bed, I knew he could see me again and as I moved from the left side of the bed to the right side, he lost focus again. As I watched him from his right side, it appeared to me he was searching the left side to find me. I tested this a few times, moving from one side of the bed to the other. I was positive he could see me on the left side, but for some reason could not focus on me when I was on his right side. Every day I read to him and we listened to his favorite music on cassette tapes.

Christopher and Katie were now out of school and my mother was with them most days, but on the morning of June 12, 1991 she came early to be with me for the doctor’s report. Quickly walking towards the conference room she said, “Hi Mark,” as she walked past his room. Mark turned his head towards the door, obviously recognizing his name and her voice. A nurse was following behind her and somehow missed seeing his reaction, or at least wouldn’t admit to seeing it. In the conference room Mom told the doctor she was sure he recognized his name and her voice and he responded. The doctor and nurse would not agree that Mark’s response was worthy of any progress notation.

I was anxious to move Mark to Western Rehab Hospital for several reasons. It had a wonderful reputation for specializing in spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries and it was close to home. They only had a few beds available at the time and I was worried they’d be full when the doctor released him from McKay-Dee Hospital. The sixty mile daily commute to and from the hospital became increasingly difficult with the kids out of school and the frustrations the doctor and I felt for each other were becoming intense.

“When will Mark be released to go to Western Rehab,” I asked again.

“I don’t feel he’s should be moved yet.”

I reiterated my reasons for being anxious to move Mark and recounted all the positive improvements we had seen in the past ten days, including the response my mom had just had.

Exasperated, he said, “Well, if you’re so smart, why don’t you take him out yourself?”

Surprised by his statement, I asked, “Can I do that?”

“Yes. I don’t recommend it and you’ll have to make the arrangements yourself, but you can do it.”

“I’ll do it,” I exclaimed.

I was elated when I called Western Rehab to verify they had a bed for Mark. They helped me arrange for an ambulance to transport him there and requested the medical records from the hospital. I hadn’t been this excited since the car accident. While Mark was sitting up in the reclining wheelchair, I trimmed his beard, shaved his cheeks and gave him his first haircut since they shaved half of his head for the shunt placement, which had now been removed. All trimmed and shaved he looked better than he had in seven weeks and I was confident he was ready to move on to this next stage of his recovery. That night Dad came by the hospital and I asked him to give Mark a special blessing that all would go well with the transfer.

Saying good-bye to the Call family, whom I had shared the McDonald House with and the Peek family, who were residents of Ogden made leaving the hospital hard. These two families had become my hospital family. We spent many worrisome hours together in the waiting room while our loved ones were in ICU. We ate meals together, attended church services at the hospital and shared tears over concern for our loved ones. I knew I’d miss their love and support.

The moveI didn’t take my decision to move Mark from the hospital lightly. I wanted to make sure everything went as smoothly as possible and was hoping I could ride in the ambulance with Mark to Western Rehab. Mom knew of my desire and was supportive in every way, so the next morning she drove me to the hospital and waited with me for the ambulance to arrive. Two EMT’s came to the room and with a white sheet under Mark’s body, they pulled him from his hospital bed onto the stretcher. The IV bag was moved to a pole on the stretcher, while his trachea tube was attached to a portable ventilator, which was placed at his side.

“May I ride with him in the ambulance,” I asked.

“Yes,” said one of the EMT’s, “you can ride in the passenger seat.”

The move1

As excited as I was to get Mark out of this hospital and closer to home, I felt intense gratitude towards the team of doctors and nurses for saving his life. I thanked each one of them as we gathered his medical records and packed up the last few personal items before walking out the door. I was leaving the hospital a changed person, realizing Mark’s life and recovery was now my responsibility. I was confident in my decision, but the accountability weighed heavily on my mind.