By the time I was seventy-six I believed that I was well past any more hospital visits. How wrong I was! If I had ‘been through the mill’ before so to speak, what I experienced in the early part of 2020 consumed more than six months of my life and I still have not fully recovered. I had learned the importance of surrender and acceptance from my previous hospitalisations and this stood me in good stead as I made my way along my current complex medical journey.
After about eight days I was transferred to a private hospital in Queensland for an operation to replace my artificial heart valve, which had grown a poisonous boil causing endocarditis. I also came with a few other complications from previous illnesses or accidents including severe peripheral oedema, hypothyroidism, osteoarthritis of both knees, chronic atrial fibrillation, and osteoporosis with multilevel crush fractures! They immediately transferred me to the Emergency Room where I was held for several hours before being moved to the Intensive Care Unit. I then spent nearly three months in several different wards.
As I would not have survived open-heart surgery, replacing my mitral valve was not an option. The only option was to try to treat the heart infection with a six-week program of intravenous antibiotics and for a while the doctors noted my chances of survival as 50/50 as my endocarditis was at the high point at the worst end of the scale! For a few days it was not clear whether I would ever return home! What else was there to do but accept what was happening and surrender to it. After some weeks the antibiotic seemed to be successful and when the six weeks was up, I was switched to oral antibiotics, which at this stage, I am expected to take for the rest of my life.
During this time, I recall several occasions when I had long waits for procedures or tests while lying in my bed in a hallway in almost unbearable pain and not being able to move any part of my body or attract anyone’s attention! The only way I could manage the pain was to go very still and surrender, although there were a couple of times when I tried to call for assistance even though there was no one around to hear me! But overall, I recall little of what happened during these early weeks or who came to visit.
Once I was somewhat more aware, it was explained to me that the poisonous boil on my artificial heart valve, had burst causing all the poisonous nasties to be carried by the blood supply to every part of my body including my spine and nervous system. This led to Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS), a rare neurological disorder in which the body's immune system mistakenly attacks part of its peripheral nervous system. GBS can range from a very mild case with brief weakness to nearly devastating paralysis, leaving a person unable to breathe independently. Most people eventually recover from GBS although it may take one to three years and after recovery many people continue to have some degree of weakness. A one to three year recovery prognosis certainly requires surrender and acceptance.
At first, I had little movement in my body and limbs but after three weeks or so, I got most of the function back in my arms but the rest of my body was more or less non-responsive. I was transferred to the rehab ward where initially I required twelve pillows to sleep at night – two under each arm, two under each leg, two under my head and one each side of my body between my arm and the bed rails. I could not move my body unaided, so at night I lay on my back with hardly a movement. I had become very skilled at surrendering by this time but I often called a nurse during the night to reposition my aching legs.
Once it was time to support me to walk again, my husband would assist me to do leg exercises in bed although at first he had to move my legs as I could not move them unaided. When I was ready to stand out of bed, I went through five or six different walking frames until I was strong enough to be taken by wheel chair to the gym, as initially I could not stand up. The first walking frame had a belt or strap that went around my body and lifted me up so that I could stand on a small platform and be wheeled around. When I started in the gym, I had two different sessions – one was with an occupational therapist (OT) to support me to be able to cope with daily tasks and the other was with physiotherapists. These sessions focused on exercises to strengthen my body and balance.
After several weeks, as part of the OT training, I was required to do tasks which I would likely do at home. The first was to go to a kitchen area at 7.30am and cook myself a breakfast. I planned to do eggs on toast but the supervisor told me that it was enough to make toast and a cup of herbal tea so I had banana on gluten free toast, which was quite yummy, especially as I had not had bread for many years. Showering myself was a bit more challenging as there were areas that I could not reach both in washing myself and then drying myself. Apparently, I passed that test but I did not feel confident that I had completely mastered showering by myself and I needed some help dressing. Another time I was called to an area where a small drying rack had been set up and I was asked to peg clothes on the rack while still sitting in my wheel chair. I passed that test with flying colours!!
Getting in and out of bed was not possible for me, so many of the exercises I did in the gym were to strengthen my limbs and I had many painful sessions lying on a bed in the gym exercising my legs. At the end of my stay I eventually mastered this and I remember the joy I felt the first night I was able to go to the bathroom unaided and did not have to call for a bedpan!
In between the gym sessions I would often walk up and down the ward supported by my latest walking frame. Initially my right leg was the weakest and most painful and an X-Ray of my knee revealed that it was bone-on-bone. I was determined that it would not stop me walking so I persisted through the pain and gradually built up my leg muscles.
Being in the hospital I had little understanding of what was happening in the outside world, as I never turned on the TV in my room preferring instead to listen to music on my iPhone or just to lie in silence. I did see snippets on the TV news, as when I was walking up and down the ward I would often pause and rest at the end of the corridor where there was a large sitting area, views of the ocean and a TV mounted on the wall. While I heard some news, I had little idea of what everyday life was like outside the hospital as people adjusted to the coronavirus pandemic.
The effect of the ‘pandemic’ (as it was labeled) became more real when the hospital gradually tightened its visitor policy, eventually only allowing one visitor for two hours a day, as it was when I left. However, during my last five weeks the ward doctor was even stricter with me banning any visitors and during the last two weeks he even banned my husband, so I was very much on my own.
After weeks of work in the gym I was ready to come home with a mountain of medications and a wheelie walker. I had a number of doctors for different conditions and towards the end they made comments like 'beyond expectations' and 'my 2020 miracle'. However, without my husband to support me my condition deteriorated and I came home very dehydrated which, added to the heavy pain medication I was taking, caused severe constipation and possibly even a blockage in my bowel. In the first eight weeks I was home, we focused on trying to resolve the bowel problem. As neither of the recommended medications did much to help, nearly every day my husband would massage my bowel and small intestine and finally we had some success!
Before I was discharged from hospital, it was organised for me to receive a Transition Care package, which is a government-funded program to ease the transition from hospital to home. My package consisted of a nurse who was the program manager, the loan of various equipment, a cleaner for one hour every fortnight and weekly sessions with an exercise physiotherapist. This lasted for six weeks after which I was allowed to keep all the equipment except the wheel chair, which I had never needed to use.
In retrospect, I feel that I survived the ordeal as I never for one moment wished that I were somewhere else.
I had long since learned to accept that wherever I was, was where I was meant to be. All I needed to do was to be consciously present no matter the circumstances, to surrender to the process and ‘give it my all’. Surrender in this context does not mean to ‘give up’ as many interpret the word. ‘True surrender’ is first connecting deeply to our divine aspect, which is our innermost, and then being in total acceptance of the process whatever that may be, whatever is going on . . . and playing our part in that to the best of our ability i.e. giving it our ‘All’.
In my experience, Acceptance and Surrender are very powerful in healing so long as we do our part by giving it our All.
Anne McR., Australia
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