I was at work early one morning when the telephone rang. “It’s for you, Ollie,” my supervisor said. “It’s your mother.” A twinge of apprehension began to build within. My mother never called me at work. The only other time she had ever called was several years ago to tell me that my sister, Linda, had been hospitalized because of her Crone’s disease and she was not expected to live through the night. Fortunately, that had been a false alarm. With this in mind, I tentatively answered the telephone.
“Linda had a massive heart attack last night. She is at Columbia University Hospital in very critical condition. She is only given a thirty percent chance to live. The doctors recommended calling the family to her side.” I could hardly believe what I had just heard. I told mom I would be there as soon as possible. I made arrangements to leave work early that day and also the rest of the week.
I tried to concentrate on what I was doing as I wrapped up my work so I could leave. All I could think about was my sister lying in a strange bed near death. “She is only 48, my younger sister by two years. She’s too young to die,” I cried to myself. Tears were flowing down my cheeks and my body was wracked with sobs. “Please keep her alive, Lord, at least until I can be with her. There is so much I want to say. I want her to know how important she is to me and how much I love her. Please, Lord, don’t let it be too late for me to tell her.”
It is a five-hour drive from where I live to Columbia, Mo. I hurried home and packed for the trip. Ominously, I packed clothes I might need for her funeral. That trip seemed to last forever. I was unfamiliar with the roads. I was stuck on Interstate 35 in Kansas City during rush hour traffic, and time seemed to creep by. I kept thinking about my relationship with my sister. We had always gotten along well, but had never been close. As each of us graduated from high school, we left home, and each other, and started our own lives. We were not brought up to express love to one another. The words “I love you” were not part of our vocabulary as we grew up, and subsequently we did not say these words to one another. It was taken for granted since we were family, brother and sister that the love existed. Therefore, there was no need to express these feelings Now it seemed I would never get the opportunity to tell her in words how much she meant to me.
When I finally arrived in Columbia, I went directly to the intensive care unit. As I gazed upon Linda, lying in the hospital bed, I hardly recognized her. She had always been a small-boned thin woman. She was bloated to almost double her normal weight of 110 pounds. There was a large tube going into her mouth and down her throat. That was the respirator, the nurse said. She was on 100% life support. There was a smaller tube going into her nose, and many other lines invading various parts of her body, altogether, about a dozen lines. She was unconscious from heavy sedation. She lay motionless except for the rhythmic expansion of her chest from the respirator. The monitor registered very low blood pressure and a heart rate approaching 140 beats per minute. Tears welled up in my eyes as I looked upon the bloated lifeless appearing body that was supposed to be my sister. I could hardly wait to leave the room. “Please don’t let her die. It’s too soon. She is too young,” I prayed to myself.
Over the next few days, the doctors and nurses explained Linda’s condition to me. They used such phrases as septic shock and infection, massive heart attack and congestive heart failure. Her prognosis, if she lived, would be heart surgery and very limited quality of life. I spent the next few days eating and sleeping at the hospital. Linda survived through these first crucial days. Her blood pressure and heart rate even somewhat stabilized. Hanging on to that small bit of hope, I returned home and back to work. I returned each weekend. Linda continued her unconsciousness.
I recall the first day I saw her open her eyes. This was about the fourth weekend of her hospital stay. Her eyes partially opened very slowly. I could see her pupils. Her head was turned in my direction and she seemed to be dazedly staring right at me. Her eyelids started to close so I softly whispered her name. “Linda,” I said, “it’s me, your brother Ollie.” Her eyelids slowly opened again and I stared right into her eyes. Suddenly her pulse rate jumped very high, causing the monitor to make all kinds of funny sounds. I really felt she recognized who I was. All I could do was just stare. I could find no words to say to her. Her eyelids slowly closed and she was again unconscious. I shared this with the doctors and the rest of the family. She was to wake up a few more times during that next week, but I was told she appeared extremely agitated and anxious, so she was given a higher dosage of sedation.
It was during the sixth week of her hospitalization that I took a week of vacation. I stayed at Columbia with her so other family members, especially Gail, her husband, could get a few days rest. During this week, Linda started slowly regaining consciousness. The doctors did not want to give her any higher dose of sedation, so she was allowed to slowly wake up. Throughout this week she awoke more often and stayed conscious much longer each time. She was also becoming more aware of her surroundings and could hear and understand what was being said. She was still unable to speak because of the respirator tubes in her throat, but she could move her head to answer yes or no. I asked her if she was feeling “ok”. She moved her head back and forth indicating she wasn’t. I asked if she was in pain; again she moved her head back and forth. I then asked if she knew how much I loved her. Tears began flowing down her cheeks. I knew she had heard and understood! She tried to move her mouth to speak, but could not. I leaned close to her, stroking her tear-stained face. I told her not to try to talk. I let her know how special she was and that everything would be all right. I told her the rest of the family would be coming to see her. I left the room in tears, but this time they were tears of joy.
Over the next few weeks, Linda made remarkable progress. The doctors finally stopped the infection, and since she was somewhat stronger, they started testing the condition of her heart. She gradually lost the excess fluid and looked more and more like the sister I knew. The doctors found very little damage to her heart. It was determined that she was not even going to require surgery. I believe a miracle had occurred. God, working through the doctors, nurses and support staff, had spared her life. After over two months in critical condition, on the brink of death, my sister was going to be able to live a normal life.
As I write this, Linda is being moved to a rehabilitation facility closer to her home. She will be working on regaining muscle control over the rest of her body. I am preparing to go visit her again very soon. I thank God for the second chance He gave me to spend more time with Linda and to renew our relationship as brother and sister. Until almost losing her, I didn’t realize her importance in my life. And yes, I will take this opportunity to say “I love you, sis,” before it’s too late.
--Post Addendum-Oct., 1998
It is with deep sadness and grief that I add an addendum to this story. Linda did initially recover, left the rehabilitation facility and returned home. She appeared to be on her way to complete recovery. While at home, for some yet unknown reason, Linda started regressing. She quit eating, would not cooperate with the physical therapist, and steadily grew weaker. Sometime in September, against her will, she was readmitted to Columbia Hospital, again in very critical condition. She was put back on the ventilator, continuing to grow steadily weaker. Each time I went to visit her, she started crying whenever she saw me, and tried very hard to speak to me. It appeared that she wanted to tell me something very specific. Other family members told me the same thing. Because of the tracheotomy and her inability to write because of her weakened condition, I never could understand what she wanted to tell me. It will probably remain a mystery. I was able to convey how much I loved her, and I could understand when she mouthed those words back to me. On Oct. 5, 1998, Linda lost her struggle for life. I thank God for the time He gave her. Time that enabled all the family to finally learn to say the words that had been so hard for all of us to say. Thank you God, and thank you Linda, for such an important life lesson and teaching us to express our love in words. I take comfort from knowing Linda is with the Lord, and has peace at last.
Ollie L. Belt