“Everything’s Normal Again. Nothing Will Ever be Normal Again.” These are the words I wrote in a post one month after we had returned to Earlham after spending 46 days in the hospital and drawing very near death. This is the last installment of these real time reflections from five years ago. It has been a valuable investment of time and emotional energy for us.
As I think back now to those last 3 days (March 25-27th, 2009) at St. Marys Hospital in Rochester, MN I have many thoughts and emotions. We drove the four hours from Rochester to Earlham on March 27th the same day that Benj was celebrating his 15th birthday.
Having just spent 46 days in the Mayo Clinic hospitals and having nearly died these things permanently changed my DNA. It was all still very overwhelming to me on this day that we finally made it home. I was relieved to be leaving the hospital, yet at the same time very sad as well. I had developed a strange kind of dependence and comfort in being in the safe environs of the hospital. To now leave this place that had forever changed my life was not comforting at all. In fact it was downright scary and discombobulating.
The therapists had become my second family during these intense days of rehabilitation. Many of my fellow patients whom I saw regularly in therapy had also made significant progress by this time. Many of them had been released. But it was not comforting to be coming home. I knew that this was what had to be. I wanted to come home and be reunited with my children and sleep in my own bed, but at the same time I didn’t want to come home. For I knew even then that the road back would be rocky and paved with difficulties.
I recognized even during those early days that Karla and I had just been through an intense war together and as such were about to enter into the same sorts of psychological life issues that real soldiers returning from combat experience. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a term that should not just be reserved for combat veterans. It can also be rightly applied in medical situations like ours. I have also asked numerous doctors about this idea because I had never previously come across it. All have agreed with the general nature of my comparison.
Reading through the list of PTSD symptoms was like reading our autobiography without even having written it yet. I forewarned Karla that she would probably experience some of the symptoms of PTSD and she did. These things take some time and much talking to work through and I’m very happy to report that five years removed we are both doing very well spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, and in every other way.
Even though I am not serving as a pastor anymore and have no job, nevertheless I have a peace about the future. I am forty-nine years old and have basically no idea what the near future holds and yet I am at peace. Karla is at peace. Our children are still wild. No, strike that. Just checking to see if you were really reading this or not. Our relationships as a family have never been better.
To give you some idea of why I was a bit nervous to come home I will share some of Karla’s blog postings from the final few days in the hospital. And to help you understand exactly what level of functioning I was at let me tell you this. I posted on April 26th, 2009 that I estimated my right side movement at 50% of what it had been previously. Also, one month after I arrived home I was doing three pound arm curls with my right arm.
My speech was still coming back and word finding becoming less of an issue, but these things were all there lying in wait. One month after I had come back home I was already 100% independent so far as the tasks of daily living were concerned.
But so many things were on my heart and mind during those days. I was simultaneously trying to do the full time job of rehab including strength training, retraining my brain to learn stuff, thinking about my family and also the effect this ordeal might have on the church. It was all so overwhelming to me at the time.
Plus, to top things off I wanted to give the Easter message on April 12th, 2009, just 15 days after I had returned home. I did preach that message, brief though it was, and with a break in the middle so I could rest. We stopped in the middle and sang a hymn and then I continued. I didn’t preach again for six more weeks. I know that at one point during the stay I was down about 40 pounds or more…but even more than that just felt overall very weak still. Again, let me remind you that just prior to the surgeries I had been in the best shape of my entire life. I’m not sure what it was that propelled me to work out so intensely in those last few months leading up to the surgeries but I am certain that the condition my body was in was nothing but a big plus for my making it through all of this alive.
A friend of mine left the following encouraging comment on the blog during these days and I share it with you now, not to make much of me but to make much of the God I put my hope in during these tumultuous days when life seemed so ephemeral.
“Been through the fire” is certainly an appropriate image, and a Biblical one. Of the thousands of things God has been doing these days, one of them is lending Mike credibility as a pastor. When he stands next to a hospital bed and quotes Isaiah 43, no one will ever think, “Easy for you to say; you don’t know my situation.” In fact, as he recounts his own story, they will be massively encouraged that God’s promise is true: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you will not be burned, and the flame will not consume you.”
Praise God for his promise, and your lives as a visual image of His faithfulness for the rest of your lives.
The following are excerpts from the blog posts that Karla wrote during those final three days in rehab before coming home on March 27th, 2009.
“One More Day!” (March 25, 2009)
(Karla) “It’s hard to believe, but Mike only has one more full day of therapy. He has opted to have some therapy on the day he leaves, so we won’t be heading home until about lunchtime. He is not one to turn down a good thing! He will also have several days off before starting up again, so he wants to be sure to get as much in as possible.
Today the therapists spent a lot of time going over therapies he can do at home. We also discussed some areas that he will need to be especially aware of, like curbs and rough terrain. That last part will be especially important when we head to baseball games in May!
The Mennonites just left after singing for us for the last time. What a great group they are and what a great ministry. There were 8 people here tonight, but 18 on Sunday night. They sang “Victory in Jesus.” Hearing of Jesus healing the lame has taken on new meaning. It is far more personal now. Mike then requested that they sing “How Great Thou Art,” which is one of his favorite songs. I am hoping that next year at this time Mike will be able to play it on the piano again!”
“This Has Been the Last Day in Rehab” March 26th, 2009
(Karla) “This will be a quick post, because it is late and I need to be back here early.
Mike had a great day in rehab. All of the therapists spent quite a bit of time discussing exercises he can do at home, as well as a lot of safety issues. We feel very confident as we leave that Mike is ready to be home. He did opt out of physical therapy for tomorrow, but will have an hour of speech therapy before we leave.
I am having quite a wide range of emotions. All of the therapists, nurses, and doctors are very excited for us to leave. I wish I had kept track of every nurse so that I could thank them personally, but that would probably be too overwhelming anyway. Last night, Randy, one of Mike’s first ICU nurses, stopped down. That was very emotional for all of us! He will keep following on the blog, and said that he is looking forward to listening to Mike’s first sermon back when it is up on the church website. Several others have said that as well. How encouraging!
Most of all, we are thankful to God for sustaining us through this trial. A couple of nights ago, I was reading Psalm 67 in the one year Bible. The first two verses say this, “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all the nations.” That is one of the reasons He has been gracious to us in this trial, that His way may be known on earth. We are still discovering ways He has been good to us and lessons we are to learn. So, while we are heading home, the journey isn’t over yet!”
I wrote the following post two days after arriving home.
“Premature Reflections from the Other Side of a Great Trial” March 29, 2009
“Since this whole drama began back in October of 2008, and since we (Sheila Streicher) were able to get this blog up and running about the second week of November, we have had just under 101,000 page views, with the busiest day being Feb. 27th…which must have been heart and lung clot day, when there were 5,449 page views. All this to say that this drama has not been played out only locally. This has been a wide spread God glorifying miracle. But even if it had turned out very differently God would still be glorified.
For may I remind you all of my original posting where I confidently quoted Romans 8:28, which speaks of God causing all things to work together for good to those who love God and are called according to His purposes. This does not mean that all things are good. Not at all. Bad is bad and evil is evil. But it has been my firm conviction throughout this ordeal that this verse was true, as is all of God’s Word.
So when I read in the comments recorded here (of which I have read every one) of a church on the north side of Atlanta, Ga. when a good report was given and the church broke out into applause…for a perfect stranger…or maybe we’re not so much strangers as we are divided by denominations and such…Oh well I’m sitting here weeping as I pluck away on the keyboard with one hand (for though the right side continues to improve it’s not strong enough to type). And there are literally hundreds and thousands of you for whom this same tale could be told regarding smaller Bible study groups, etc. Thank You! This is about as close I can come to actually saying the words “Words cannot express how grateful I am for all of you.” Just give me some time though, and I’ll try to make things right with you all.”
A couple of days later I wrote another post:
“More Premature Reflections from the Other Side of a Great Trial” April 1, 2009
“Karla is the one who suffered the most in this trial. Following the resection of my AVM I ended up spending 14 nights in ICU which seemed like 100 nights with the persistent sleep deprivation. But my vote still goes to Karla for suffering the most trauma during our 46 day stay at Mayo.
But after watching me endure several seizures… for those of you that know her history…that must have have been very rough on her. But then for her to have to endure the heart and lung clot scare and to face the very real possibility of becoming a widow (which she would have been if we had been anywhere other than Mayo or a hospital in San Diego where they perform this surgery) well those are the scenes in which nightmares can germinate.
A few minutes ago Dr. Sundt, the heart surgeon called. We had asked him to stop by while we were still in the hospital. I kept it short and simple . I simply said “Thanks for saving my life.” He made a few comments about how close it was. Yesterday we received via email pics of all the clots after they had been removed. Yuck. I believe there were 22 in all. The one that came out of my heart was 8 centimeters long… that’s 3.1 inches! And it was beefy. I don’t remember much about those days, but again… my wife does.
Not only this, but she had to deal with the added stress of not being home for her 5 children much during this time. This is why I say Karla had the more difficult row to hoe. For the entirety of my rehab I mentally put my children on a shelf…knowing that that they would be better served in the long run by a daddy who gave himself 100% to rehabilitation. And I believe that they are. I gave it 100% ALL the time I was in rehab.
Once we compiled all of my get well cards into a single pile I think it is 7 inches high! To think that each and every one of these cards was hand picked…in person for me is humbling. Thank You! I’ve just begun to read through them all again…for there are some I don’t even remember reading! They are all on my nightstand so that they are the last thing I read before falling to sleep.
After Moses successfully led the Israelites out of captivity there was a song offered up to God. Parts of it include the following… “Then Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the LORD, saying ‘I will sing unto the LORD for he has trumphed gloriously the horse and rider thrown into the sea. Later in verse 11 Moses wrote “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” Indeed.
Thanks be to God and all of you as well!
April 1, 2009 Marla Smith blog comment
“I agree Mike……….Karla’s one great gal!
Yes, several times I couldn’t bear to think of Karla being a widow. She was completely oblivious (in my opinion) to the “things floating around in Mike’s heart” when she was first informed and, I had imagined myself hugging her at your funeral service, Mike. (Sorry for the honesty here). I am so glad you are home! I know God has kept you here for HIS purposes! Glory to God!
Keep working as hard as you can with your rehab, you’ll see the results!
We love you! Steve & Marla”
April 2, 2009 Randy Anderson blog comment
“Dear Mike and Karla,
Mike you are no doubt right. For much of those 46 days you had little idea what was really going on and what the issues and possibilities really were; these were blessed days to be ‘in the dark.’ Karla on the other hand was left to stare at it all with enough clarity and understanding to be often troubled and at times truly terrified by what was happening.
However you are different people now — I can’t but believe that you are more compassionate and caring people now and countless others will be more helped by you than they might have been apart from these terrifying days.
Mike Mason in his book on ‘The Mystery of Marriage’ has a chapter on ‘Intimacy’ that came to mind as I read your blog this morning. Confirming your remark as to Karla’s suffering in this — it relates to the intimacy and oneness of husband and wife. Married couple’s he argues ‘own each other’ more truly than they own anything else on earth; houses, cars even children; after all even the children are supposed to eventually grow up and move away — but the two of you own each other as long as you live — we are each other’s most precious possession by far. Karla, as you note, stared losing her most precious possession square in the face — contemplated losing her most precious possession and being left in that sense ‘alone’ to deal with it all, yes with Jesus help, but still….’
May the seas you sail remain, much , much calmer for a long , long time — this is my prayer for you both (and your children as well).
April 5th, 2009 Randy Anderson blog comment:
“Dear Mike and Karla,
I usually don’t read other people’s mail to you but for whatever reason as I scrolled down to post this I cause the lines from your friend Wendy and found them profound. ‘Nothing in our lives is wasted….God uses it all.’ I know this. I believe this, but I don’t see it as clearly as I should and I certainly don’t live it out with anything like consistency, but if I did how much calmer I would be.
‘Nothing in our lives is wasted…God uses it all.’ Even, or maybe especially, the things that break our hearts and lay us low.
Karla, I hope your hair quits stressing out — and I pray that Mike will be therapy champion in all three categories of his therapy — we are settling for nothing less than the trifecta — only for your trifecta we are not predicting ‘first, second, and third, but first, first and first — really the therapy triple crown. May the Lord soon have you preaching, piano playing back packing with big John in the Big Horn mountains.
Love you both,
April 10, 2009 Randy Anderson blog comment:
“Mike and Karla,
On and on and on the trials go and where they stop nobody knows. David knew something of this, he must have or he never would have or could have written Psalm 13,
Psalm 13:1-3 How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? 2 How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? 3 Consider and answer me…
But by the grace of God you can finish your cycle of trial with the confidence that David finished his… for what was true of David is true of the two of you as well.
Psalm 13:5ff But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. 6 I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.
What a deal — an all but resurrected man preaching on resurrection Sunday — but some day a truly resurrected man will walk the new heaven and the new earth with middle of the night runs to the hospital forever, and ever, and ever behind him. Such is the promise of Easter — such is the promise of God for us in Jesus.
April 11, 2009 (the day before Easter)
(Mike) “Our prayer through all of this has been “Lord, however you can be most glorified…do it.” Karla even confided with me through tears last night that as I went in for open heart surgery [to have the blood clots removed from my heart and lungs] she prayed “Lord, please save him…but if you don’t it’s all in your hands anyway.” It takes an amazing amount of faith to utter such words….”
“If we could see into the future we never would have chosen this path. But we cannot see into the future. The future things are the secret things that belong to the Lord. Some of you, no doubt, are just days away from finding out some bit of news that is even worse than we heard on October 23, 2008. But until you get that news, and even after you get that piece of news I want to encourage you to obey Philippians 4:6-7 “The Lord is at hand, do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God , which surpasses all understanding, will guard you hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
One day before I had been home one month I wrote the following post:
“Everything’s Normal Once Again. Nothing Will Ever be Normal Again.” April 26, 2009
Now, as far as processing all of the events of the past few months. Some of you have confided in me that you too are having difficulty processing these things as well. The church that I shepherd nearly lost this undershepherd. My friends, I encourage you to begin processing these things for yourselves by taking a good hard look at Romans 8:28-29 once again: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son…” All things for good. It’s what the verse clearly says. Even so, I feel like we’re all, especially Karla and me, experiencing some of the symptoms of post traumatic stress syndrome!
Everything is so normal once again, yet nothing will ever be normal again.”
April 28th, 2009 blog comment by Randy Anderson
“Dear Mike and Karla,
All things work together for good. It is remarkable what is inside of those simple words ‘all things’ isn’t it? You would think that minus the catastrophic sorts of things that the two of you have been through people like myself by hearing your story and watching it from a safe distance might more easily count our blessings and move through our ‘catastrophe free’ daily challenges with relative ease; but it is not so for some reason.
I will pray for your physical therapy regimen that you would persevere with discipline and be blessed with progress. Just think, some day you will have a resurrected body — this will be a ‘therapy free’ body that runs like the wind and who knows what else — someday — but not yet. However, ‘now you are a child of God already…’ (1 John 3). We are from God little children… (I John 4)
What a thought. May the grace continue to be with you both.
Well, this is the last “official” installment of this project “Reflections in Real Time from Five Years Ago.” It has been a very emotional experience to have gone back and relived each of those forty-six days. Some information from these 20 installments will be included in the book I am currently writing. We have written 280 posts over the past 63 months. More than 1,200 people have left comments and precisely 157,959 page views have been registered in this same period of time…from 50 or more countries.
It is all so vivid to us still. Well, for me there were several days where I was completely out of commission. But Karla was never out of commission. She pressed on through it all like a real live Rock of Gibraltar. But we all know who the real Rock in this whole drama was and still is.
After safely delivering roughly two million Israelites across the Red Sea from the hot pursuit of Pharoah’s armies, Moses writes of God in Exodus 15:11 “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?”
Indeed. God worked a few wonders in this whole ordeal and Providentially arranged for all of the intricate pieces of this complex puzzle to be arranged in such a way that I remain alive today.
None of us knows what tomorrow will bring. James 4:14-15 tells us that as human beings we are but a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead we must be ready and open to whatever the Lord brings our way at any and every moment in time. Thanks for joining us in this journey!