By now, these hospital trips had become fairly routine. Dad would go in because of some pains in his chest and we would all grab our ‘go bags’ and meet at the hospital. Over the years we watched the CAMC hospital in Kanawha City expand and grow into one of the largest in the area. At one point or another we had been to every waiting room so when a nurse or doctor would say, “We are taking Jackie to so-and-so”, we knew exactly where that was and the quickest way to get there. We also knew where all the snack and pop machines were located on the way so that we could replenish our stash. We had all spent many a night walking the halls of CAMC Hospital.
When I was teen, and even well into my twenties, I liked to go sit near the Emergency Room and look out the window to watch the helicopters land. It never dawned on me as a kid however as I got older I soon realized that when someone was being transported via the helicopter this usually meant something was seriously wrong. We had seen the faces of family members being told there was nothing else that could be done for their loved one who had just been a tragic car accident. We had prayed with families who we did not know. We had cried along with them as they started the grieving process. Some of them would ask, “who are you here to see?” to which our response would be, “Oh our dad is here having another heart catheterization”.
The whole experience for us had become routine. For example, I recall one night back in 1996 when my family was sitting in the waiting room while dad was having another procedure done. Given the numerous heart catheterizations he had done over the 9 plus years, I suspect it was another one of those. Or it could have been an angioplasty procedure which we started referring to as the roto-rooter. My sister and I decided that we need some non-hospital food. It must have been well after 9:00 pm so where could we go to get some food. We decided on pizza so off we went. On our way back, we stopped at a local bank branch we had just seen a commercial for on the TV in the hospital waiting room. This bank was offering loans from an ATM like machine. I was twenty-three years old at the time and had been working in WV State Government for a few years so I had a pretty steady job. So pretty much randomly, we stopped at the branch for this bank, completed the loan process, and out popped a $1000 check. At twenty-three years old, this had to be one of the craziest things I had ever done. Yes, the hospital life for our family had become fairly routine.
However, this latest experience seemed unusual given dad’s non-responsiveness when the ambulance had finally arrived at mom and dad’s house. He had always been responsive in our previous hospital trips so this one was starting out very surreal. Actually, in the previous trips to the hospital, even though he had been in extreme pain, he still kept his usual jovial self and would sometimes even make fun of his own situation. Dad was always concerned with how he looked so the first thing he would ask for when coming out of a procedure was “Where is my comb”. This hospital trip was so different.
When we arrived at the hospital, they immediately rushed him into the emergency room and started working on him. After what seemed like several hours had passed we were finally able to go back one at a time to visit with him. He had been given a TPA which at the time seemed to be helping because he was at least coherent now.
“Hi dad, how are you feeling?”, I said quietly as I entered is pod in the emergency room.
“I feel ok son, that pain in my neck is gone”, he relied without his usual smile.
“Are we at CAMC?”, he asked
“No dad, they think you have had a stroke so the ambulance brought you to General”.
He replied with “Can I have some gum?”.
“Ok dad, let me check if you can have some gum”, I replied as I started looking for a nurse.
Dad had had chronic neck pain for as long as I could remember. Because the stroke had paralyzed that entire side of his body, his neck pain was gone. Though he was somewhat coherent, the damage to his brain had already begun. When I returned with the piece of gum, he tried to chew it however given the paralysis, he started to choke. The nurse came rushing in and fished out the gum and said, “Ok, so I guess he cannot have gum”.
So it was another night in the hospital for our family – this time the surroundings were different and the routine we had become accustomed to was gone. A new hospital and new medical condition but the same prayers. He remained in the Emergency Room most of the night but was eventually moved into General Hospital’s stroke wing.
The next morning, as I entered his new room, I said, “Hey dad, still feeling OK?”
“Did WVU beat Pitt?”
I lied and said, “Yes, dad WVU beat Pitt”. I did not want to upset him anymore.
“What was the score?”
“Oh, we won by a couple points”.
“Where is Bugs?” he relied asking where was mom.
“She went home for a little bit to take a shower. She will be back soon.”
“I love you, son”, as he drifted off to sleep.
“I love you too, dad”
Dad had slipped into a coma on the morning of Thursday February 18th and his last words to me were “I love you, son” – words that I will never forget. This last conversation that I had with my dad was special. I am not sure if he heard my reply but some day, when we are finally reunited with our loved ones who are in Christ, I will be sure to tell him again.
The rest of the week still to this day feels like a blur. Hundreds of visitors came to the hospital. My sisters, mom, and me all took turns sitting with dad. He never woke up and never said another word. Tammy brought me clothing to change and I took showers at the hospital. I never left.
Dad’s heart doctor came to the hospital one evening and said, “Well it is not his heart. His heart is the strongest organ he has right now.” We always thought that when dad passed into eternity that it would be due to his heart.
The doctors at General called us all into a separate waiting room. There must have been 30 to 40 people in this room. My immediate family plus dozens from the church and some of dad’s co-workers from when he was working at Mountaineer Gas.
“You have a couple options”, one of the doctors said.
“Due to the stroke, Jackie’s brain is swelling. We can perform a procedure where we go in a remove the top part of his skull to allow his brain room to expand. This would give him more time to live and may prolong his life however he would most likely be in a coma.”
“Or we can just let things go as is…”
By this time, the room was full of tears. The realization had set in that my dad was not going to come out of this one. The doctors asked again and neither of my sisters nor my mom had the ability at the time to make any decisions so I stepped up and said, trying to hold back the tears, “No surgery! My dad would not want to live like that.” Twenty-six years old and I had just made the decision to let my dad die.
The room dispersed and I went off to a stair-well and just started to pray. I knew dad was going to die and I knew there was nothing I could do to stop it. But I knew that only God could comfort me now – no one else.
My dad died in the wee hours of the morning on February 20, 1999.