“Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” James 4:14
Life is wonderful and fragile. That truth hit home on Monday, March 9th, more so than ever. There are others out there that can speak to the truth of this better than I can. They have experienced pain and hurt at such a deep level that it is hard to fathom.
For the past year and a half, my family, and more specifically, my wife has battled cancer. That is such a fearful disease that it will change anyone who experiences it. When someone is confronted with death in times like that it is, unfortunately, to be expected. While that is difficult in and of itself, there are other times when the threat of death comes upon you most unexpectedly. Last Monday was one of those times. Though countless women have faced death through the ages while giving birth, it is not as common in this country in this day and age.
“It won’t happen to me” is the typical thought.
While I rejoice the birth of my fifth daughter, Madeline Jane, I want to share with everyone the miracle and near tragedy of Monday, March 9th, 2020.
Liz, my wife, has faced many painful procedures over the past year and a half due to her cancer diagnosis in the fall of 2018. She has also given birth to four girls: two with an epidural and two without one. In all, she was tired of pain and procedures. To be honest, I cannot blame her in the least. Being poked and prodded, even if it’s for your own good, is tiresome. So, with baby number five, Liz was sure she wanted an epidural.
The last five months, she had battled ICP, a disease of the liver that affects pregnant woman. It is a difficult malady to endure for that long. Knowing this, and with the increase in her liver levels, she had a scheduled induction so that the baby would survive. (A stillbirth can be a consequence of ICP.) So, this was no light matter.
Now, before an epidural is given, the anesthesiologist goes through the list of possible side effects. We understood them and agreed to the risks. Liz has had two previously and neither one had been a problem. Unfortunately, this is where it all began.
Around 12:30 PM, the anesthesiologist entered the room to begin the epidural. I stood in front of Liz to support her, as there might be times that it was painful. She had done it before and handled it really well. During the procedure, the anesthesiologist and nurse would ask her a series of questions to make sure that everything was okay.
“Can you wiggle your toes?”
Liz assured them that she could. I glanced down and watched as she did so. This whole time, I was standing next to the heart monitor. Her heart rate was consistently in the 70-80 range. I watched as the paper printed the the beats.
By this time, the anesthesiologist had some trouble threading the epidural and asked the attending doctor to assist. By the time the attending doctor entered the room, the epidural was done and completed.
Liz could still wiggle her toes.
The anesthesiologist said that her legs will start to feel heavy, and that that was normal. The sensation soon spread through Liz’s legs. Unfortunately, it didn’t stop there.
Soon, she began telling us that it was difficult for her to hold herself upright, and Liz began to tip over involuntarily. The nurse assured her that we had her, which we did. When Liz began to tip over, I grabbed her in my arms and held her upright.
Mere seconds passed and Liz said that it was becoming difficult for her breathe. The nurse tried to calm her, but Liz was calm. In fact, she was too calm. She could barely speak.
Again, Liz said she couldn’t breathe. This time, the words were barely audible. The nurse asked, “Are you all right?”
Liz, whose eyes were closing, shook her head, “No.”
I can literally start feeling my heart thumping in my chest.
Once again, Liz says, “I can’t breathe.”
Her eyes close. The nurse says, “Stay with me, Liz. Liz!”
Liz’s eyes snap open, but she isn’t there. Her eyes are open, but she is gone. I’m not sure if she sees me. According to the nurse later that afternoon, Liz looked at her with an “I’m dying” look.
By this time, Liz is mouthing that she can’t breathe. The nurse pulls out an oxygen mask and cups it around Liz’s mouth. It says that Liz’s oxygen is 97 percent, but in the next second it begins dropping rapidly. I watch the monitor. 96. 95. 93. She is quickly losing oxygen.
The nurse hits the emergency button.
In the next second, the door slams open. One after another, doctors and nurses rush in. Mere seconds pass and twelve to fifteen people are already in the room.
My heart feels like it is going to break through my chest. “Is this real? Am I going to have to tell my children today that their mom is dead?”
I’m trying to think. I say quick prayers. “Please, God. Don’t let her die. I can’t do this alone. Please God.”
Then I hear a word that, by the grace of God, I didn’t fully comprehend at the moment. One nurse said, “She’s flatlined.” My eyes went to that same heart monitor from before. I can see it now, just as I did then. The squiggly, scribbled line was straight. There was no movement whatsoever. There was no electrical activity in her heart. Liz was lying lifeless on the hospital bed.
Liz went into cardiac arrest.
I’m trying not to cry. Why? I don’t know. For all intents and purposes, my wife had died. The full impact of this was not known to me at this moment. I almost became stupid. I never had felt so powerless, so impotent. I couldn’t even be near her to hold her hand.
Epinephrine was the next word I remember hearing. The doctors were talking to me at times, but I don’t remember what they said. Even now, I can remember their looks, but not their words. At this point, what could I do? I could barely even pray.
A nurse looked to me and said, “Do you have a family or friends here?”
I remember saying shaking my head and saying, “No.”
I then saw a text on my phone from a friend that said, “How are things going” (Don’t answer if you don’t want to.) Praying for you guys.”
I text back, “Pray. Somethings happening. Something not good.”
I shoot this text out to some family and friends. Even that was difficult.
One nurse says that the baby’s heart rate had dropped in half. She is losing oxygen because Liz is losing oxygen. They talk to me and tell me that they are taking her to the OR. One nurse says that she will stay with “the husband.”
How stupid I must’ve looked. How confused I was. I did not know if I would ever see my wife alive again. I did not know if I would ever see my baby alive at all.
I can feel the adrenaline. My hands are shaking. The nurse is asking me questions. It is difficult for me to answer without my voice shaking.
Is my wife dead? Is my baby dead? These are the thoughts I have to deal with. These are the possible realities that I must face. On a day I should be celebrating life, I may have to mourn death instead.
Even now, it sometimes becomes too difficult for me to think about. I can still hear my wife’s gasp, “I can’t breathe.” I can still see her shake her head when she is asked, “Are you all right?” I can still hear the nurse’s declaration, “She’s flatlined.”
Despite all that, the Word of God says, “In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.” Job 12:10.
It is only a matter of minutes before I find out that Madeline Jane is born. It is over an hour and a half later when I find out that Liz has truly recovered and is breathing on her own.
The Grace of God is exceedingly rich! He gave breath to my wife, Liz, and my newest daughter, Madeline Jane.
Praise the Lord!
Scott Keen is the author of three young adult fantasy novels, Scar of the Downers, Rise of the Branded, and War of the Downer King.