Saturday, December 30, 2017

2017 - The Year We NEVER Want to Repeat

As we come to the end of 2017, we are more than eager to shake off the dust from the year and move forward.  2017 was the worst year of our lives and one that we truly NEVER want to repeat.  Our year end updates are usually positive with lots of wonderful things to report, which is the norm for most people's yearly updates.  Who wants to report the bad stuff?  It's always better to report the good.  Just as in social media, we fall into the trap of trying to always report the good times and often put forth an embellished representation of ourselves or our lives.  As I started thinking about our year end report and how to make our nightmare of a year look happy and good, I decided to make it real and share with you the good, the bad, and the ugly.  As horrid as the year was, God remained faithful and good, so we find joy and encouragement in that.

The beginning of 2017 found us earnestly praying for God's leading and direction to take our whole family on a family missions trip for the first time.  It was a huge step of faith for us as it was a huge financial undertaking. There were concerns about the safety there with some unrest that had been going on. Then there were lots of concerns with Josh and his Autism and whether or not he would be able to handle the unknowns of new places, smells, language, routines, foods, and people not to mention the eleven hour flight one way when he had never flown before.  On top of that, puberty hit hard for Josh starting this Spring causing mood destabilization with his Bipolar.

The brightest and happiest part of our year was the time our family was able to spend together serving God in our favorite country in the Middle Eastern area.  We were amazed by the generosity of family and friends and our church who financially and prayerfully supported our family on this trip making it possible for us to go and helped confirm God's will for us to go on this trip.  The fellowship we had with our brothers and sisters in the Lord over there was so wonderful and encouraging to all.  It was so wonderful to introduce our boys to them and see our love for these dear friends be shared by our boys.  When things got difficult the rest of the year, I often found myself going back to the memories made during this trip and praising God for such a wonderful opportunity and for light in the midst of so many sorrows.

Upon our return from that trip in May, things quickly fell apart.  I returned to work only to severely injure my back lifting a patient which led to intense physical therapy and monthly visits with an orthopedic doctor as I worked to strengthen the area around the herniated, bulging, and torn L4-L5 disc. By the end of the month, we had to hospitalize Josh to help get his mood stabilized.

Things continued to be intense with Josh even after he returned home, and by July, we had to re-hospitalize him.  From that point on, his treatment team started encouraging us to consider residential treatment.  Our home health aide services for Josh fell apart forcing us to have to take turns leaving work early to care for Josh after school. No matter how hard we tried to avoid residential, that's where God led us.  Thankfully, He used a few moms and one dad to really encourage us in the decision and give us hope.  The process of getting Josh into a residential program was very difficult and took over a month to complete.  Upon admission at the beginning of November, things fell apart with the facility backing out on their word to allow Josh to use his natural supplements and essential oils which help to keep him as stable as possible.  We had to make the decision to leave Josh there for his safety even if it meant allowing his mood stability to possibly worsen without those natural supports.  We then began looking for a new facility for Josh who would allow for the use of his natural supports to keep his continuity of care that has been supported by his four treating doctors.

In the middle of November, I ended up in the ER with severe abdominal pain and found out I needed to have a large polyp removed from my uterus as soon as possible.  Surgery was scheduled for the next week on Wednesday, November 23.  It was a simple outpatient surgery, and I was discharged that afternoon and given permission by the surgeon to travel to my parents' house that evening for Thanksgiving.

By that evening, I started to feel very strange but couldn't figure out what was wrong.  That led to a very scary next 24+ hours for my family as I was unresponsive following a grand mal seizure.  For more details on that whole event, read my blog post about the ordeal.  After a two day stay in the ICU and three days total in the hospital, I was released in time for us to return home from our Thanksgiving trip to my parents' house.

Upon arrival home, many appointments with specialists were made and more tests were done to check into the state of my health.  In less than a week after our arrival home, Josh was able to be transferred to a new residential treatment facility where he was able to resume the use of his natural supplements and essential oils.

Also in December, I suddenly got taken out of physical therapy and discharged by my orthopedic and listed as "permanently disabled" with lifting/weight restrictions and permanent light duty classification due to my back injury in May.  After consulting with a lawyer, I am working on getting an appointment with a physiatrist to be able to resume physical therapy and work my way up to a higher lifting weight ability which will continue to be covered by workman's comp.

Just this past week, I was cleared by the cardiologist regarding the heart complications I was experiencing since my hospitalization in November.  There was concern about permanent damage to my heart from my dangerously low sodium levels that caused the near-death experience in the first place.  However, the symptoms were not from the damage but instead a complication from the de-conditioning from being so sick in the ICU and the Neurocardiogenic Syncope I have had since college that had been under control until my hospitalization.  The cardiologist believes I will make a full recovery and that it will just take time for me to return to "normal."  My blood tests this past week also showed that everything has returned to normal limits, which occurred much faster than expected, and we are grateful.  The only outstanding concern is related to a new brain lesion found when a CT Scan was done while I was unresponsive.  I have followed up with my neurologist about it who wants more MRIs done, but we are not in a hurry to follow up on those tests for now.

Meanwhile, during these crazy months, there's Tim and David, who are just trying to survive and cope with all of the drama.  Tim has has his own various battles to fight including trying to keep up with his work at the office especially when needing to miss work due to Josh's or my needs.  Despite a difficult and interrupted work schedule, he had his best year yet in growing his business.  We are grateful for God's goodness in that!  Tim has also had to juggle for this past month his own daily responsibilities while picking up many of my own responsibilities since I have been too weak to do much and have spent a lot of my time resting on the couch or in bed.  We have been grateful for our church family and other friends who have helped us greatly in providing meals during this difficult time.

We have thanked the Lord so many times for David this year.  His early years struggling with failure to thrive, his immune disorder, and subsequent illnesses and antibody transfusions have helped make him the resilient eleven year old kid that he is today not to mention the hardships of being a brother to someone with Autism and other mental health struggles.  David took each thing in stride with very little complaints, yet we know how much he is struggling inside and how he fights to bottle it up.  Seeing him struggle with depression and anxiety symptoms was difficult, and we increased our efforts to help him work through his struggles.  On top of that, he began middle school this year as a sixth grader and experienced insane amounts of school work that even overwhelmed me as his mother.  He has had to struggle through a hard school year this Fall while dealing with so much drama in his household, and he remains resilient!  We see evidence of his faith growing.  Struggles aside, we have also seen David continue to blossom in his Taekwondo abilities, and David moved up into a full sized violin.  Being faithful to our promise, we purchased him his very own full sized violin, and we all enjoy listening to him play.  David had the privilege of playing very last minute (less than a week before the concert) in his school band in the Spring and also performed a violin solo during the concert.  In December, he had the privilege of playing his violin in the Concert Band (made up of 8th-12th grade instrumentalists from his school and another local Christian school) even though he is not in Band at school.  He was given a little more notice this time but still had one month less to prepare than the rest of the students and didn't have the twice weekly rehearsals like they had.  We love seeing David shine and use his abilities from God to bless others.

Josh is now thirteen years old, and he is doing well at the new residential treatment facility and has been there now for almost one month.  We are seeing signs of God at work in his heart and his life.  He is thriving in the highly structured environment that the facility provides and is enjoying being able to be back at his special school he had to leave when he got transferred to the first residential treatment center.  We pray that this time away will be a growing experience for him and will help him to be more stable and able to function at home and in the community to help him thrive.  He remains an animal-lover, and his cat and guinea pigs continue to be one of his greatest loves.  We look forward to when we can have him living at home with us again hopefully sometime in 2018.

My back injury has made me rethink my line of work and my future as a nurse.  I have began to look once again at options for becoming a midwife and have increased the number of clients I have as a doula.  I don't know what God has for me, but I am seeking His will and walking through the open doors He provides.  I am also trying to figure out how to increase my business of wellness coaching and essential oil education to be able to better serve my clients and grow my client base to help people live more natural and healthy lives.

Tim will be taking on more responsibilities at his office this coming year as his dad starts to turn over parts of the company to Tim.  He is excited about the increased responsibilities and the challenges to grow himself and his company that they present.

As I close, I don't want to leave you thinking that 2017 was all doom and gloom for the Russell family.  As difficult and trying as it was, God has wondrously carried us through.  He never failed us.  While we don't understand what He is trying to accomplish in the many things He has ordained for us to go through, we know that He is working all of these things out for our good and His glory.  His sovereignty over our lives is a comfort to us, and the circumstances has helped us to grow our faith and dependence on Him.  I leave with you Scriptures about God's sovereignty over our lives.  May they be a comfort to you as they have been to us, and may you see God's good work in your life as you enter 2018.

1 Chronicles 29:11-12 (NIV)  "Yours, Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor, for everything in heaven and earth is yours. Yours, Lord, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all. Wealth and honor come from you; you are the ruler of all things. In your hands are strength and power to exalt and give strength to all."

Job 42:2 (NIV)  "I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted."

Psalm 135:6 (NIV) "The Lord does whatever pleases him, in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and all their depths."

Psalm 18:30 (ESV) "This God—his way is perfect; the word of the Lord proves true; he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him."
We enjoyed the time we were able to have as a whole family this Christmas Eve when Josh was allowed to come with us to celebrate Christmas with the Russell side of the family for a few hours.  

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Sharing in the Sufferings of Christ at Christmas

Sufferings of Christ at Christmas? Yes, you read that right!  We all get caught up in the joy of Christmas, that most of us--me included--don't tend to think about the suffering and sorrow that occurred on that first Christmas.  This Christmas is a different story for our family, and while the sorrow and suffering has been difficult, it has provided a whole new and refreshing perspective on Christmas for us.

If you have ever lost a loved one and had to go through Christmas without that special someone or struggled with a significant physical ailment or care for a family member with special needs, you too may be able to relate with the sufferings of Christ during Christmas as well.  If you don't fall into any of those categories, it would be healthy for you to contemplate some of these thoughts I'd like to share with you.

Let's set aside the excitement and joy that comes naturally at the thought of Christ's birth because a Savior was born to us giving us the hope of eternal life.  Instead, let's think about what God Himself experienced that first Christmas!  Think about it:  Jesus--God in flesh--gave up the comforts of heaven, the presence and fellowship with His triune Godhead to  physically dwell with humanity on this earth.  He left His exalted throne in heaven to lie in a lowly feeding trough.  His first breath on earth brought him the smells of animals and hay.  He knowingly laid aside the right to be worshipped as God to be rejected by the people He created and came to save.  He came to this earth knowing He had to suffer and die because He was the only rescuer of our souls.  Leaving heaven, a place where there are no tears, pain, or disease, He came to this earth to experience sorrow, heartbreak, physical and emotional pain, and sicknesses just like any other human being.  God the Father sacrified His own Son, and that sacrifice began that first Christmas.  There had to be heartache and sorrow for Mary as she held her precious baby in her arms knowing the prophecies of the prophets and what Gabriel told her.  Instead of the joy of your precious baby, there was a shadow of the suffering her baby would experience on her behalf. Eight days after giving birth to her baby, she was reminded of that with the prediction of Simeon in the temple.  Are you starting to get the picture?

Paul in Philippians 3:10 says, "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings..." We are getting a new perspective in the fellowship of his sufferings this year.

Our family knows suffering, and this year has been full of it -- more on that in my next blog post.  If you heard about our significant trial over Thanksgiving, you know that suffering has been very recent and that it continues as I continue to undergo tests and see specialists as we try to figure out how to get me back to health.  Having missed Thanksgiving, I wanted Christmas, which is also my favorite holiday of the year, to be extra special.  However, no matter how much I prayed and tried to feel better and made plans for Christmas, all of our usual traditions and special family times were missed or fell short of usual expectations because some days, I could barely get off the couch or out of bed.  As I type this, I am viewing our 1/3 of the way decorated Christmas tree that I so desperately wanted to see finished, and it's Christmas Eve!  Christmas shopping? -- still not finished.  We got the essentials done for our Christmas get together with Tim's family today at least.  I finished that on Friday, and we got the remaining few gifts for our sons in the mail yesterday. 
Our 1/3 decorated Christmas tree

Christmas day is a special time to be together as a family, and here, as we prepare for tomorrow, we have our oldest living at a residential treatment facility due to issues with puberty conflicting with his Autism and Bipolar, and our youngest is spending the night at his grandparents' house so that Tim and I can go up and visit with our oldest for two hours on Christmas.  We are grateful that he was allowed to join us for the Russell Christmas get together for eight hours today! That was a blessing!  Christmas is not feeling like Christmas.  I don't even get to enjoy participating in all of the usual festivities because being up and around causes shortness of breath and chest pain and fatigue.  Joy and excitement and motivation to celebrate? - that's a bit lacking this year!
Our only family picture from today

We have been reading through Paul Tripp's Advent devotional called Come Let Us Adore Him that a sweet friend gifted to us. It has been a blessing and encouragement to us in more ways than one. Paul Tripp brings out the sorrow and suffering of that first Christmas which really resonated with me and encouraged me that I can still experience Christmas and even experience it in a deeper way than I ever have before. Paul says, "The Christmas story reminds us that hopelessness is the only door to true and eternal hope...It's true that hope isn't a thing; it's a person, and his name is Immanuel. Celebrate hope this Christmas" (Tripp, p. 93).

I heard someone say just tonight that you can't experience true joy until you've experienced true suffering.  That is so true.  Despite our current suffering, we do have joy that this is all temporary and that we have a sure hope of eternity with God all because Christ was willing to come to this earth to suffer as a baby and grow up only to die for our sins.  Because of His suffering that started that first Christmas, we can look forward to no more suffering for all of eternity.  His suffering brought us hope!  As we suffer, we cling to that hope, and joy bubbles up as a result.  Because of His birth, God can turn our mourning into dancing lights; He can wipe away our tears; He can be our God of all comfort; and we can enjoy His peace that surpasses all understanding.

This Christmas, we find comfort in our sorrow, we are knowing Christ in a deeper way in His sufferings, and we still can celebrate the hope of what His birth means to us. It may not be a "Merry Christmas," but it remains a HOPE-filled Christmas!

We wish each of you a Blessed and Hope-filled Christmas!

Monday, December 11, 2017

Coming Back from the Brink of Death

On Wednesday, November 22, 2017, I had to have an urgent, simple, outpatient surgery.  I was discharged that afternoon and cleared by the surgeon to travel up to my parents' house as originally planned for our Thanksgiving holiday.  Little did I know that our holiday plans would drastically change within a matter of hours.  As we began our 2.5 hour journey by car, I was in pain and nauseated--something my doctor said would be a possibility and had instructed me to take Toradol for pain and Zofran for nausea.  Because I wanted to make the car ride as comfortable as possible and given my current symptoms, I chose to take 1 Toradol and 1 Zofran.  Instead of getting better as the journey continued, I got worse.  By the time I arrived to my parents' house, I was feeling terrible.  It was all I could do to sit on the couch and be still.  As the night wore on, I began to feel like my head was in a fog.  I knew something was wrong but didn't have enough cognition left to figure it out.  Twice, I asked my husband what was wrong with me which befuddled him, and he just reminded me I was tired from having surgery that day.  Shortly after that, I lost all conscious awareness and memory.  My husband claims I mumbled responses to a few more of his questions to communicate basic needs, but I have no recollection of any of these discussions.

Tim carried me downstairs to our awaiting bedroom and put me to bed.  At 1 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, November 23, I screamed a "bone-chilling, blood-curdling cry" that will forever be etched into Tim's memory and made him jump out of bed and turn on the light.  He found me in a full Grand mal seizure.  Tim managed to lower me to the floor to prevent me from falling out of bed and put me on my side as I foamed at the mouth with blood running out the side of my mouth thanks to my biting my tongue.  The seizure lasted about 90 seconds according to Tim.  Because I am the one who makes the medical decisions in the house, Tim decided to wait for me to wake up to ask me what we should do.  I never woke up.  By 3:00 a.m., I had vomited all over myself.  After the second vomiting episode, Tim was really starting to get concerned, but was too afraid to leave me to go up 2 floors to awake the rest of the household.  Just before 6, David awoke, and sensing something wasn't right went downstairs to find Tim and me.  Tim hurried David to wake up my parents to let them know we needed to go to the hospital.  That started a flurry of activity as preparations were made for my dad to drive Tim and me to the hospital 20 minutes away in Scranton.  After another vomiting episode in the car, we arrived at the hospital where the real urgency quickly became evident to all.

I was whisked off to Trauma 1 and pounced on by many specialists.  I was unconscious and unresponsive.  However, I had a lot of meaningless movements that showed agitation and inhibited medical care making medical intervention difficult.  I was injected with Versed, a sedative, to assist the staff in getting blood drawn and an IV line in.  I was given a rating of a 7 in the Glasgow Coma Scale which falls in the severe brain damage category.  My pupils were not dilating or responding, I had no signs of cognition, and I had severely abnormal flexion of extremities to give you a small glimpse of how bad it looked.

Due to my depressed mental status and agitation, the decision was made to intubate me and put me on a ventilator.  I was also further sedated in order for a CT scan of my brain to be done to check for a brain bleed (thankfully, the CT scan showed no brain bleed).  My preliminary blood tests came back with the most alarming result showing my Sodium level to be 121 which is dangerously low!  My EKG also showed some issues going on with my heart which isn't a surprise with low sodium, and I was placed on a heart monitor.  At that point, the doctors were thinking it was too late and that I wasn't going to make it, but they made every effort to get me as stable as possible.  The parish nurse was called in to say a final prayer over me.  The doctors began to treat some other electrolytes out of whack and get me hydrated.  Tim said at one point, I had 4 usable IV sites in my arms and had 3 IV sites being used at the same time to get meds and IV solutions into me.  I also had an Nasogastric tube (NGT) down which they were using to get electrolyte tablets into my stomach.  Once I was stable, they transferred me to the ICU (Intensive Care Unit).
My ventilator

I had a foley catheter inserted into my bladder to keep my bladder draining, and thankfully, the thermometer gage on it alerted the staff to a quickly elevating body temperature.  They discovered I had aspiration pneumonia from aspirating on my vomit, so they quickly responded with IV antibiotics.  Tylenol was given via NGT and a fan was brought in to get my temperature down.

As the hours went by, and I remained alive, and my sodium levels started to increase, the thinking turned to maybe I will survive, but will I be permanently brain damaged or will I ever wake up or will I remain in this vegetative state?  I also continued to be very agitated and was allegedly pretty persistent in trying to pull out all of the many tubes and wires going into me.  While I was intubated and breathing on a ventilator, I had to be restrained in order to keep me from pulling the breathing tube out.  Tim claims that didn't stop me from trying to slide my body down so that I could try to reach the tube with my tied up hands anyway.  Who knew I could be such a fighter when unresponsive??? As the day wore on, I passed a spontaneous breathing trial and was maintaining proper oxygen levels, so I was weaned from the vent and extubated and placed on an oxygen mask.
Hand restraints to keep me from pulling out all of my tubes
Breathing on my own but with an oxygen mask

In the evening, my parents brought David to see me.  He sweetly sat by my bed and held my limp, unresponsive hand while I continued to lie there with oxygen going in via nasal cannula by that point.  As the sun went down, I got more and more agitated, so David couldn't stay at my side any longer.  He was such a trooper through the whole, scary ordeal.  [He won't talk about how he is feeling after going through all of that which concerns us.  We pray he will open up when he is ready.]
Overnight Thursday into Friday, I was taken off of oxygen completely
Note: David wanted to help calm me down while he was with me and did my hair.  Do you like my hair dew?
Holding steady

I finally had to be sedated again to keep me calm, and Tim entered another sleepless night waiting at my bedside praying that I would wake up.  Sometime early Friday morning, I woke up for the first time.  I was very groggy and pretty confused.  I was shocked to learn that I was in the hospital then succumbed to sleep once more.  Later that morning, I woke up again to relearn I was in the hospital, discover that I was in a hospital in Scranton (for a while, I couldn't figure out how I had even got up there since I didn't remember the drive up to my parents' house Wednesday night at first), and then I felt panicked when I learned I was in the ICU!  I was also disheartened to learn that I had completely missed Thanksgiving!  It took a few more periods of sleep and being awake before I learned the whole story of how I got there.
Sleeping peacefully after having become responsive once again

By the afternoon, I was allowed to get out of bed for the first time.  It set off the heart alarm making staff come running, but it felt so good to get up.  A physical therapist and occupational therapist later came by to help me walk a little bit for the first time.  I learned a new meaning of baby steps!  I had a visit from one of my aunts and then my parents and sister and David.  I am sure David was so happy to see me awake, and it was so good to give him a hug and truly hold his hand.
Working with the PT and OT to walk for the first time
My second walk was with my handsome date as my escort

I was so much better come late that evening, the doctor decided to move me from the ICU to the main floor.  Ironically, I ended up being moved to their pediatric unit.  It was very weird for me, a pediatric nurse, to be a patient in a pediatric unit!  I continued to set off the heart alarm each time I got up, but at least then, only one person came running.
Saturday morning in the pediatric unit
Enjoying our visit with David

On Saturday, I was feeling stronger and enjoyed a visit from David, my parents, sister, and brother.  We were then given the good news that I could go home that evening if my last blood test results came back fine and after I had a brain MRI to follow up on the findings of the CT Scan.  [Back in 2011, I was diagnosed with a brain lesion.  Cancer, Multiple Sclerosis, Lupus, and a parasite were all ruled out, but the four neurologists I did see couldn't figure out what it was.  The decision was made to repeat the MRI yearly and follow up with the neurologist I chose to be my treating neurologist.  After two subsequent yearly MRIs showed no changes, the decision was made to repeat the MRI every few years.  My last MRI was in 2013.  The CT scan revealed another lesion and changes to the previous lesion, and the MRI in the hospital that day ended up showing definitive changes.  I follow up with my neurologist this coming Wednesday to find out her thoughts on the changes and to discuss any long term damage to my brain that may have occurred from the dangerously low sodium levels.]

At 9:30 on Saturday evening, I was discharged following the completion of the MRI.  I arrived back at my parents' house by 10:00 to get settled into bed for the night.  The next morning, we woke up, packed up the car, and left to head back home swinging by the Lancaster area to pick up Josh for a home visit from his residential center he had been at for the month.  Once we were home, I got settled on the couch so I could enjoy seeing my family together and be able to interact with them as I was able.  It was a happy day despite the fact that I was tired and weak.
Settled at home and happy to spend time with Josh

So many people have asked what happened since all of this had been so sudden and unexpected, so I thought blogging about it would be helpful to give a thorough recounting and perhaps save me or Tim from having to rehash it several times a day.  There is still so much more to the continuing story, but perhaps that will be for more blog posts to come.  We are very much still trying to process all that has happened and figure out what God is trying to teach us.  We remain confident that God will work all of this out for our good and His glory and are praising Him for the miracles He worked in my life the two days when I walked on the brink of death unknown to me in my unresponsive state.  One other thing we are confident of is that God's not finished with me on earth yet!  I still have work to do!