Call me. Ambulance took Gramma to ER. Unresponsive.
A quick call to Mom solidified the dread. She had stopped by my Grandma’s house on her way into work as she’d been doing all week. Grandma had recently had gall bladder surgery a week prior and was on the up and up, recovering well at home. But on this morning, my Mom found something had gone horribly wrong. As she walked in the house she heard what sounded like deep snoring, but as she rounded the corner and found my Grandma laying sideways, sprawled halfway out of bed – like she had tried to get up – Mom realized what she was really hearing was very labored breathing. She tried to wake my Grandma but to no avail. In so doing, she noticed a red-purple, swollen tongue. Mom – a former RN, quickly called 911. Minutes later the ambulance had arrived and sped Grandma off to the closest hospital near her small town. She was unresponsive, not awake, not tracking with her eyes, but her arms and legs were moving.
The small town hospital said they needed to try to stabilize Grandma and uncover a diagnosis before transferring her the 45 minute drive to the big town hospital that was better equipped to handle her. But in the balance of trying to unearth what had happened to know how to treat her, Grandma’s life slowly began slipping away. They kept her comfortable with oxygen and fluids, but her now empty stare - head turned - eyes fixed hard off to one side - still no responding - seemed to invite reality that no one wanted. The nurses’ words to Mom hung in the air…stale, vacant, not willing to be received…
“She might not pull out of this.”
My white-haired Grandma....so full of joy, speaker of the best one-liners, lavisher of the warmest-unconditional love - you could do anything to her and she’d take you right back, maker of delicious strawberry pie, who stills calls a couch a ‘sofa’, she who gets delightfully giddy over ‘having company’, and perhaps the only one of us who downright enjoys the commotion of all our kids loud and tornado-like – one time I apologized for the sheer crazy of us all and she said, “Oh don’t kid yourself – I LOVE it!” And she meant it. “Just being together,” she’d always say. That was joy to her and she’d always write down little notes about our time together in her notebook that sat by her chair. She had just celebrated her birthday a month ago - #75…but now…this….could it really be over? Was God really going to call her home? Grandma had been a Christ-follower for many years, and we all had a peace that the Lord had given her a good, long life and that her inheritance after death would be eternal life in heaven. But no matter how many years you’ve shared, you still want more….
As I talked with God about His plans for her, He didn’t prepare me for death. Instead, He began revving up my faith. I started recalling dreams that the Lord had given me over the past year in which Grandma was present at future family events that hadn’t yet come to pass. This led me to rehearse and pray out something that He’d been teaching me from John chapter 11….that sometimes when it looks like the show is over….He’s really just setting the stage…setting Himself up for glory.
I began to receive the discernment that she would fully recover. Sometimes, faith can surprise you when the reality of the circumstances don’t match up. But if you’re going to follow after Jesus, then you’ve got to be okay with surprises.
Hours passed, and eventually the small hospital doctors had some sort of diagnosis of an infection in Grandma’s lung and a finding of a seizure. There was more to uncover, but they felt she could now be transferred. However, the doctors forewarned Mom that Grandma was in critical condition and may not make it through the drive. We felt the weight of it - her life was hanging by a thread…but aren’t we all?
The bigger hospital seemed to be her only shot at making it long term. Mom gave the go-ahead for her to be transferred. And so we prayed. “I’m just praying that God is speaking to her, revealing Himself to her while she is unresponsive.” That was Mom’s prayer.
Upon reaching the bigger hospital, Grandma was crashing, death’s shadow closing in. Immediately upon arrival a respiratory tube went in to physically sustain her life. She was then taken to ICCU, where she was sedated into a coma.
Rounds of tests ensued. Eventually the doctors were able to trace the results to give understanding of what had happened (of course this was integral to know then how to treat her): It all started with a seizure in the night. They believe the seizure had happened due to an unknown too-high blood pressure event that possibly was a leftover effect from her recent surgery. During the seizure she vomited, which she then inhaled back into her lungs. (This fluid later developed into aspiration pneumonia.) Because of this fluid in her lungs, she was not getting adequate oxygen to her brain and heart and she then had a heart attack. On top of all this, she had also developed sepsis – a life threatening blood infection in and of itself. No one was sure at what time of night the seizure had occurred and hence how long she had been without adequate oxygen. Of course, this then put forth the grave prospect that if she did recover, she could have brain damage. At this point her mental status could not be evaluated by the neurologist because of the sedation that was helping her body to rest and fight. So we were left to wait. And pray. Sometimes when things are at their worst, that’s the time to believe the most.
Mid-afternoon, we received news from the big hospital doctors that changed everything. The doctor and cardiologist said that all the things that had happened to Grandma were reversible. I had never been more in love with a word in my life. The doc said Grandma’s condition was now stable. Her heart damage was ‘not bad’. The neurologist assessed her next. He said he was observing no signs of stroke at this time, and did not see any signs of it or a brain bleed on the CT scan. He noted that she was fighting the tube in her throat which he said was good that she was gagging.
And we laughed. We laughed for the first time since morning. “That’s our girl!” we said. Because if you know Grandma, she is a gagger. Just the thought of going to the dentist could send her into a gagging spell. Once when I was a little girl I went to her appointment with her and I still remember the hygienist giving her a pep talk through the x-rays as she sat gagging and spitting out the mouthpiece just about each time that the picture was almost taken. I think it took 45 minutes to get the x-rays. And she’d always gag at dirty diapers, and certain smells, and would sympathy gag when other people would gag. So this…this was fantastic. Faith can surprise you and faith can make you laugh even when it’s dark and faith can bring a turn of events in a moment - in a single word. Reversible. And isn't everything under His hand reversible...redeemable afterall?
Late that night Jake and I visited Grandma in ICCU where Mom hadn’t left her side. Grandma looked like people do in the movies. All hooked up. Unconscious. Fragile. Still so many things yet unknown. The respiratory machine’s steady breaths were the backdrop to our prayers. Jake started… “Lord, if You’re going to bring her back, bring her back fully. Completely. Please give her a sound mind, restore her mind and body entirely…otherwise Lord, please take her home…”
I finished… “Lord, it says in your Word that when the Centurion’s servant was dying and He sent word to You to ask You to come and heal him, the Centurion had faith that if you’d just speak it – just send your Word – that his servant would be healed. Lord, we have this faith. We believe that you can just send your Word and heal her completely…”
Mom quietly affirmed and praised and thanked as we prayed. Tomorrow would tell. We headed home, and waited for Glory.
* * *June 12, 2015
The docs started weaning Grandma off the sedation to allow her to wake up. She opened her eyes. Wiggled her fingers a bit. Mom said it was hard to tell if Grandma recognized her. Mom was telling her things and Grandma would shake her head yes like she understood. She was still unable to talk because of the breathing tube. She had an MRI scheduled to double clear her for a stroke and to check her brain. After that, the nurse kept her off sedation the rest of the day. Grandma is a popular one in our small town, so she had lots of visitors that trickled in to see her that afternoon while she was awake, but none that Mom could tell that Grandma showed signs of recognizing.
I couldn’t wait to go and see her. I got there early evening. When I walked in, her eyes were closed. Mom began to wake her, nudging her arm gently, “Janel’s here,” she said.
Grandma’s eyes opened and as she turned to look at me I said, “Hi Grandma…. it’s Janel. I came to see you.” And then. Grandma’s eyes crinkled up into a smile and tears filled her eyes and rolled down her face. As I continued to talk to her she just kept trying to smile as best she could, hindered only by the respiratory tube still down her throat….the soft tears rolling slowly, gracefully down her cheeks. I looked at Mom who was in a puddle of tears all her own. We knew it. She recognized me! Her emotions and thoughts were there! Faith can surprise you and faith can make you smile even when you’re in the unknown and faith can bring a turn of events in a moment - in the crinkling of an eye.
I smiled all the way home.
The nurses told us that chances were good that Grandma could get her respiratory tube taken out tomorrow. She was doing most of the breathing on her own with just a little assistance from the machine now.
Tomorrow would tell. We went to sleep, and waited for Glory.
* * *June 13, 2015
The neurologist was in. He had the results from the MRI and said he was seeing a reversible encephalopathy called PRES in Grandma’s brain. Basically it meant that there was swelling on her brain. There was nothing to do for it, but he expected it to go down on its own over time. This condition mimicks the effects of a stroke, but it is not a stroke. He said this is why it seems she doesn’t always recognize everyone so far. All I knew was there was that word reversible again. Love marks of a Redeemer. Grandma was also able to follow the commands of the neuro test (wiggle your toes, squeeze hands, follow the light with your eyes). Everything was still a go to remove her breathing tube in the afternoon. We knew this would be the big reveal of how things were functioning in her brain – when she could finally communicate with us verbally.
At 2:09pm the excitement began…
She opened her eyes, lifted her head up with a start and looked at me, but didn’t recognize me this time. She gently rested her head back on her pillow and loudly proclaimed, “I see heaven! I see heaven! Beautiful. Beautiful…”
I looked at Mom, not understanding what was going on. Mom’s eyes were clouded with tears and she choked out a whisper, “She told me that too.”
I looked back at Grandma, the Spirit already testifying inside of me, “You got to see heaven, Grandma?”
Sometimes someone else can be your burning bush.
I looked up at the nurses, busy in the background. They didn’t seem to notice that we were standing on Holy Ground.
“When they took the tube out,” Mom said at a low whisper, “she was breathing at a 97 all on her own – even with pneumonia filled lungs. With the tube in you breathe at 100. The nurse said they’d never seen anything like it before – she didn’t even need any oxygen once it came out…”
Sometimes He speaks through a bush in flames. Other times, you just have to pay attention in a hospital room.
Mom and I spent the afternoon just soaking Grandma up – miracle that she was. As we talked with her many things would register, and some would not. She’d have us giggling one minute with comments like,“We have to have Thanksgiving! Feed those kids!” and flooding the room in our tears with the next, like when she turned to Mom and said, “I knew you’d be here Lori, cause that’s love.” Yet the one thing that remained constant was that she did not stop talking about her trip up to heaven. She told the nurses, she told the doctors, and she’d bring it up in the middle of conversations.
“I was too close to heaven if I wanted to live.”
“Yep, defeated the devil.”
To Mom, “I’m saved and so are you.” And, “ I’m going to heaven!” To which Mom said, “Not yet!” and then Grandma replied in return, “Nope - not yet.”
“I was there. Beautiful. I was there. Indescribable.”
* * *June 14th, 2015
Today she kept telling everyone, “I’m a Christian!”
She got to start eating puree food and by the time Jake and I got to the hospital to visit her late afternoon, they had busted her out of ICCU and given her a bright sunshine-filled room on the 4th floor.
And that wasn’t all that had changed. As Jake and I talked with her it was a NIGHT AND DAY difference from the day before. Her comprehension and recognition was right on. She was stringing thoughts together like normal ‘ol Gram. We talked about everything from the NBA playoffs and how Grandma does not like Lebron James (“he’s selfish” :)) to her making JJ’s strawberry pie for his birthday coming up, to more details about her trip up to heaven.
“I was there. I just went up, up, up (motioning with her hands) and then came back down and it was just peace on the way down. Just peace.”
* * *
As the days passed by with Grandma in recovery at the hospital, we literally encountered the Lord healing her body seemingly by the hour. First He strengthened her arms and hands and her motor skills and dexterity returned. Eventually she was able to sit up in a chair in her hospital room, then feed herself with utensils, then stand with the assistance of the nurse, then walk down the hallway with a walker, then attempt stairs, then shower on her own. The neurologist was in to test her daily and it seemed that as each hour, each afternoon, each day went by, her recognition and memory returned fully as the swelling ceased. She was passing tests and checking off boxes and reaching mile-markers every which way we turned. When you are in the middle of a miracle you can hardly believe He’s writing you right into the story.
In the days that followed, as I told and re-told the story of what had happened, I kept wanting to change Grandma’s first words about heaven from “I see heaven!” to “I saw heaven!”. Every writer wants to be grammatically correct after all. But then, the Lord showed me something.
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. [2 Corinthians 4:18]
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. [Colossians 3:1-2]
Eternal perspective was always meant to be present tense. It’s not just a one time happening of seeing God - an eclipse of His glory that then passes to the past. It’s a day to day way to live, way to see. It’s exclaiming as Grandma did each day of our lives, “I see heaven! It’s beautiful. I’m going to heaven!” We can let it - the thought of going - keep us going. Let it keep our minds right. Let it keep us focused and determined. Let it be our wisdom, our guard so we don’t fall for the trickery - the bribery - the glitter of this world. And then maybe, just maybe no matter our earthly troubles, no matter our pain, no matter our loss, no matter our day, no matter our wounds – our scars – our failures – our battles – maybe when we keep our eyes on heaven right now, then maybe like Grandma, we too can live in peace.
“I have told you these things, so that in Me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” [John 16:33]
Saturday June 20th, they kicked Grandma out of the hospital – and she got to go HOME. Not to a care center, not to a nursing home, not to her real home in heaven yet, but to her little earthly home in Green Mountain, Iowa. And her sister came over and did her hair within the hour. :)
And one day, just like it did for Grandma, our faith will become sight.
"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God. Trust also in Me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you." John 14:1-2