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Love is Strong as Death

This was originally written as a  story-telling piece for LSTC’s service of testimony.  The theme for the week was about God’s healing. My husband Adam and I shared this testimony together in the chapel on February 8, 2018.

Adam : It was the summer of 2011, Elle and I had been married just over one year. I was active duty Army living in Barstow, CA (that’s the part of California most people from California wish wasn’t part of California). I traveled to Sierra Leone for the first time to meet two special little girls. Despite doing all the right things, taking all the right meds, using mosquito nets and bug spray, I still managed to get not one but two different strains of Malaria. One of those being falciparum malaria, which is the deadliest strain. It is not uncommon for people with falciparum malaria to be dead by nightfall in Sierra Leone.

When I returned to the United States and started getting a cyclical fever and chills every night. Elle knew right away that it was malaria. But here’s the thing, since malaria has been eradicated in the United States since the 1950s most of the US isn’t equipped to handle malaria, especially not a small desert town like Barstow. Most doctors in the United States haven’t ever even seen a person with malaria.

I’ve had some scary moments in my life, but this was different. I was completely helpless and getting sicker and closer to death every hour.

Elle took me to two different hospitals, coming back multiple times, begging them to admit me, insisting it was malaria.  We kept getting blown off and I kept getting sent home until Elle said, “We are not leaving. You have to admit him.”  My condition kept getting worse and worse until it started affecting some of my organs, especially my lungs, and I had trouble breathing.  No one was listening to us about how serious this was until it was almost too late.  I remember being ready to give up, feeling myself slip into darkness as I told Elle to call my parents to get them here to say goodbye.  I didn’t realize she had already called them.

Elle : 
The doctors at Balboa Naval Hospital told me that even though he might not react, that he could feel my presence in the room.  They said that my being there was important because it gave him something to fight for.  And with various parts of his body beginning to fail….his lungs full of fluid, his kidneys shutting down….we really needed his spirit to keep fighting.

It had already been a week of holding vigil in various hospital rooms: the ER, the ICU, the CCU, averaging only a few hours of sleep in a hospital chair next to his bed, living off of rare, absent-minded bites of hospital subway sandwiches.  No food was allowed in the critical care unit and I refused to leave him alone, so real meals were few and far between. Finally some of our family arrived and agreed to take shifts with him, holding his hand so that I could take a shower or a quick nap.  

But I couldn’t stay away for long, I was too afraid. The overnight nurses urged me to rest at the lodging provided for me on the hospital campus, reminding me that it was only about 5 minutes from my bed to Adam’s hospital room.  They gave me their personal cell numbers and promised to text or call me immediately with any changes in the night if I would only just go lie down and get some sleep.  As good as those nurses were (and they were amazing) as soon as I would finally drift off, I would wake with a start, a terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach, texting the nurse as I flew to the elevator, breathlessly arriving at his bedside before they even had a chance to text back, “No change.”  It didn’t matter, there’s nothing they could’ve said to me that I would’ve believed without seeing him face to face, being able to trace his eyebrows with my index finger as I sang John Jacob Niles songs to him over the hum and beep of the machines.

At a certain point I realized I had started talking about him in the past tense.  I wasn’t quite sure what was appropriate. He wasn’t dead, or at least he wasn’t dead yet.  But he wasn’t quite here, either. We were in this weird, liminal space and it felt risky to hope. Sometimes holding vigil as his cheerleader felt almost like sitting shiva. My mom hushed me when I started talking about how I would divide up the life insurance to make sure our girls were taken care of.

“We’re going to try to wake him up tomorrow!”  the doctor would say at rounds.  I would make sure to shower, put on makeup, and wear his favorite dress just in case he opened his eyes. This happened several days in a row before he was actually able to wake up. Every day I put on that dress just in case. I was trying to give him something to live for.

Yet even before bringing him down off of the sedation, I had glimpses, moments, that showed me that Adam was still in there, even if it was a type of consciousness I couldn’t quite understand.  The nurses would yell into his ear with no response.  But if I read him Revelation 21 about the new heaven and the new earth, or Ephesians 2 and his favorite verse, “for it is by grace you have been saved…”, he would raise his eyebrows just slightly to show me he was listening. I mentioned Starbucks cake pops (something that had been our “thing” around that time) and a micro-smile flashed across his face.  I said, “I love you,” and he squeezed my hand briefly.  I would kiss his forehead, and he would try to kiss me back, puckering his lips around the intubation tube.  

“It’s Tuesday,” I would say the date, speaking loudly into his ears each day, “You’re at Balboa Navy Hospital in San Diego. The doctors and nurses here are very good.  You can rest.  Your only job is to focus on getting better.”  

But “getting better” was quite a job in and of itself, a job that lasted weeks in the hospital and months of recovery.  It was hard, often dangerous work, this work of healing. The doctors said the pressure level of the machines on his lungs could cause them to burst, but it was the only way to clear them out, to keep him from suffocating as they filled with fluid, a common complication of malaria.

After a couple of weeks they finally lowered the sedation, woke him up, and removed the ventilator. They asked him if he knew where he was.  Able to speak for the first time since the tubes were gone he said in a raspy voice, “Balboa Navy Hospital in San Diego,” repeating the words I had said to him each morning.

In some ways he was the same after waking up – he was still an asshole, cracking jokes with the nurses, and still charming and handsome enough to get away with it.  In a lot of ways though he was different. He had bed sores on the back of his ankles. He had lost so much weight from being on a feeding tube that his butt was too boney to sit comfortably.  His sense of smell was heightened. And he felt survivors guilt…guilt that he was alive when so many children die daily of malaria around the globe.  He was different.

I was different. I felt tender, like a walking bruise.  I had had to imagine, in real ways, life without Adam. After staring down that reality I realized that it was the ordinary things that made up our life together I would miss the most if he was gone. Those little daily things became treasures to me.  And it all felt a little more…fragile. It was as if I had watched him come back to life, and I was so amazed by the miracle of it all that I wasn’t sure I could trust or believe it.

We were different. Together. We were different. Stronger after experiencing weakness. We had tested out the “in sickness and in health” part early on in our marriage.  He fought to come back to me.  I fought to keep him here. And both of us, fighting against malaria, against the bureaucracy of the healthcare system, fighting against the shadow of death itself, decided that we were not going to let the “til death do us part” part happen to us even a moment too soon.

Adam : I don’t remember a lot of details about what happened.  Between the medicine they gave me in order to intubate me and slipping in and out of a coma, my memory is incredibly fuzzy. But I do remember this, something that cut through the haze of sickness

Elle kept fighting. She fought with doctors in two different hospitals trying to get me the tests I needed to confirm malaria. She fought to get me the medicine I needed. She fought to get me the oxygen and blood I needed. She fought with insurance to get me the transfer I needed. She fought to get me life flighted by helicopter to the third hospital – Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego.

This whole time Elle kept fighting, she kept loving me. She never let me be alone. She was by my side constantly. I had never experienced this kind of love before.

I learned how lucky I was to have someone who loved me so strongly, she would bring me back from the brink of death. Because of this experience, I can say with great confidence and assurance that love is surely as strong as death.

malaria bday
Adam came home from the hospital just in time for his 25th birthday, so he celebrated with lots of ice cream cake.

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