Sunday, October 20, 2013

Content With A Broken Neck

Seven years ago Karen was in the middle of body-abusing radiation treatments for brain cancer that had been discovered a few weeks before when I'd come home to find my wife unconscious on the floor. Those moments of fear and confusion seven years ago waiting for the ambulance, the pallor of death, the unconscious fear and confusion animating her face ... that picture forced it's way onto the mantelpiece of my consciousness like an unwelcome memorial where it will sit for the rest of my life.I have been spared familiarity with death, but I have not been spared familiarity with the look of a body in shock, desperately trying to gather its fading resources to to stave off that dark enemy.

The morning prior to that collapse seven years ago she'd woken with a headache and nausea and had been resting all day. Loathe to spend an entire day unproductive in bed She'd come into the living room to rest where life was still buzzing around her. I found her laying there on the floor after rushing home from errands with the most important goal on my mind at that time being to get Josh to his soccer practice. When I saw her unresponsive on the floor my priorities, and in fact my life, found a whole new order.

It was seven years ago this past Tuesday that our life was forced out of its comfortable unbroken tedium. This past Tuesday had the same cadence to it. Karen hadn't been feeling that well; a passing bug that had already inconvenienced many of our friends. An upset stomach had tried and done a pretty decent job of keeping her in bed much of the day. It was around 9:30pm and the girls were already in bed and asleep. Josh and I were sitting on the couch watching a video on dog training, an activity that indicates just how far from our minds was another life changing moment. Karen slowly walked down stairs having had as much as she could take of the prone position. A normal person in her weakened condition probably would have ambled over to the couch to rest. But if Karen is not asleep then she is doing something productive. So she made her way to the kitchen. I looked over and noticed her apparently unloading the dish washer. My attention turned back to the video and my hopes of a well trained fox terrier.

That was the last moment of comfortable normalcy we will experience for the foreseeable future.
Moments later we heard a groan followed immediately by a terrible crash. Before the sound had found a place to rest Josh and I were up and moving toward where we'd seen Karen standing moments before. As we rounded the kitchen Island I saw that scene that has for seven years haunted my fears. Karen was on her back, unmoving, unconscious, her eyes open and bearing that expression of unseeing shock,confusion, and and fear.

I found words racing in fear and disbelief from my mouth that would normally constitute blasphemy, but in that moment were the simple pleading expression of supplication to the author of our lives, "Oh God, no." So many thoughts can compete for attention in those moments. Practical thoughts of how to bring her back to consciousness and how to get her to the hospital. Feelings of disbelief at a twist in the plot that we know from experience can be so painful. The nagging question of whether we have enough energy to go through this again. And it may sound callous or strangely pragmatic, but the fact is that we just switched to a medical share program and they will not cover costs for medical expenses incurred due to her previous condition until after seven years after her last treatment. That seven year limit is this December 28th. The fact that this recurrence was taking place within sight of that goal just seemed like a laughably bitter irony.

I chose not to call the ambulance because I knew that the short two minute car ride to the E.R. was not going to affect the cancer that I assumed had once again gripped Karen's mind. It was only moments before Karen began to gain some level of consciousness again, though disorientation is not a strong enough description of her state of mind. Last time this happened as she came in and out of consciousness she clearly told me that she didn't want me to make a fuss and that she would be fine. This time she put up no fight. That really worried me. "Something must be really wrong" I thought, "if she isn't arguing with me about taking her to the hospital." The more compliant she became the more sad I became. Not that Karen has a naturally rebellious spirit, but she certainly doesn't like undue attention and she just wasn't putting up any objections whatsoever. Her childlike, confused, compliance made it easier to move her body into the car, weighed on my heart.

I was numb. As Karen became more lucid the seriousness of the damage to her brain was becoming more and more clear. She seemed to have no short term memory at all. "What happened?" "Have you called Steve and Kristy?" "Why am I here?" became the chorus of the next few hours.

I often think of that analogy that Andy Fletcher used in a sermon many years ago. Our lives are like a cup filled to the top. When life bumps us we find out quickly what really fills our hearts. Does anger, bitterness and doubt spill out? Well, we'd been bumped again. I didn't know what to feel. I was sad. The normal sanguine smile that so often finds its way like a reflex onto my face had been pressed too far down by the weight of the situation to be summoned up. I remember sitting out in the lobby trying to figure out who I needed to call when I made eye contact with the receptionist. I didn't smile. I felt like a smile in that moment would be a waste of a suddenly very scarce commodity and would just be too much to bear. I needed to store up every scrap of energy I could in preparation for the hard stop at the bottom of the great hole into which we'd just been plunged.

My inability to smile sat in stark contrast to the sweet and simple countenance that graced Karen in those uncertain  hours in the E.R. She was so peaceful. It was in part the fact that she was not quite in her right mind, but it was also an exhibition of what really does reside at the center of who God has made her over the years. She has been molded by the artful hands of her heavenly father into a woman who trusts the sometimes very baffling providences of God. Jesus has walked far to closely with her over the past seven years for her to doubt his care and love for her. And though our bodies may waste away we know that in the end these bodies of ours will be swept up with the rest of creation on that day when everything will be restored. This brokenness is only a temporary problem for these objects of mercy. She knows this and even though she may not have been able to articulate all of this in words in those scary moments, her countenance did a far more compelling job of speaking these truths.

Shortly after Karen was seen by the E.R. doc she was taken to get a quick CT scan of her brain and upper spine. Given her past experience with brain cancer the CT of that part of her body made sense. Up until that point however it never occurred to me that she could have injured her neck in the fall. It was not a very long fall. I was happy that the doctor wanted to be thorough, but I knew basically what the pictures would confirm and I had to keep fighting back the words like widower, alone, and motherless, that kept asking for time to be heard.

Last time Karen came back from a CT the result was the  doctor rushing in, barking orders, and with a look of sobriety on his face taking me to a computer monitor with a picture of Karen's head and an unwelcome mass lodged wickedly where brain matter existed at one time. I didn't expect quite the same level of animation from the ER staff this time around but I was nevertheless expecting that same expression of clinical rehearsed  pity.

This is again where life, only hours after the last sharp turn, took another unexpected bend. The doctor came in shortly afterward with the salutation "Mrs. Gregg I need you to keep your head perfectly still." As he said this he didn't break his stride and with the help of a nurse he gingerly placed a brace on her head as he explained that his good news was somewhat bitter sweet. The radiologist's report indicated nothing except that which is consistent with the results of Karen's craniotomy. That was his doctor way of saying that there was no indication that the cancer had returned. I started breathing again and the return of oxygen began to produce a smile. The good news was immediately followed by a disclaimer. Life seems so often full of these complicating disclaimers. "However" he continued, "It appears that in the fall you've broken your C7, a bone in your neck. If the break were farther down in your back then we could just send you home, but given the placement of the break we need to seek the advice of a neurologist."

Upon consultation there was no question, we were going to be transferred from Oakdale to Memorial hospital in Modesto.

I know it sounds strange, but at the moment that the cancer had been ruled out, the prospect of a broken neck seemed good in contrast. A broken neck seemed fixable.

By the next morning Karen was scheduled for surgery. After a detailed MRI it became clear that the break was extremely severe. Without surgery any wrong move could easily cause paralysis from the neck down. So at 8:30 Wednesday morning Karen was wheeled into another surgery. The goal going in was to replace that vertebrae with a new material that would provide the needed structure that the break had compromised. That was until the surgeon discovered just how soft her spine has become because of the radiation that she underwent for treating the cancer. In the end the surgeon decided that to remove the bone would result in a more unstable long term outcome. He left the bone in place, moved her spine back into position through traction, and screwed a plate in place that would provide the structure that Karen's broken spine could not now do on its own.

For those of you who are interested, the neurosurgeon used an anterior surgical approach to access the broken vertebrae. This means that he accessed the damage from the front of Karen's neck, moving all of the vital structures out of the way. Though there were some serious risks possible with this particular approach, when the surgeon finally came into the waiting room after the surgery it was with a look of contentment rather than the look I got seven years ago which communicated with clarity the awful nature of what he had discovered.

So Karen is now home. We are surrounded with the love and support of our family and our church family. Though there was doubt as to the outcome of these events we never once doubted the faithfulness of our God nor of his people. My hat off to Scott VanArtsdalen who had a meal schedule up and running before Karen was even out of surgery. He is quite a man and quite a deacon!

Karen will need to wear the neck brace without exception for the next 3 months. Healing will take some time. But we stand, once again, as objects of God's mercy. I am reminded once again of Paul's words to the Christians in the city of Corinth 2,000 years ago,
"We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead." 2 Corinthians 1:8-9

God continues to be faithful, and though our bodies may continue to break and will one day cease to have the strength to contain our spirit any longer, thus casting our soul into our heavenly father's arms, we know that one day even these broken bodies will be renewed. I will be able to walk with Karen, and do cartwheels with her, without the metal currently holding her body together.


  1. We are praying for you! We are so thankful that Karen is home and healing. May God give you strength and peace in the days ahead!

  2. Thank you for writing it all out, Dave. I am praying for your dear family. Give Karen a hug for me and please tell her that I remember her most clearly from the Women's Encouragement Day last year. My daughter, Sarah, had some scary neurological issues a couple weeks ago from a bout with severe eclampsia when her baby was born. John Stoos is her pastor, and he came often to see her in the hospital, and he told me about speaking at your father-son camp, just days before this happened. I am very thankful that you and your children will be able to share many more memories with Karen, Lord willing, as I will with my daughter and her little boy. But even in the times when God gives us an outcome we wouldn't choose, we know He loves us more than we can ever understand, and we are comforted by the things you mention, as we look forward to Him making all things new.

  3. Thanks for loving your wife and Lord so well David. We just finished watching Paul Tripp's video about marriage and he spoke deeply about the overflow of our hearts. When in times of trouble and trauma what should we expect to pour out? Karen is truly a vessel of God's mercy!
    Lets talk some time about signing you up for the Wilderness First Aid Training:-)

  4. Good words, David. Love you guys!!

  5. Thanks for the update. Now we can compare neck scars. Bet yours won't be noticible at all. I win the Frankenstein contest. Praying for a speedy recovery

  6. We are praying for Karen, not just for healing, but that God would continue to be revealed in this situation.Blessings on the family.

  7. How am I supposed to be an unsung hero if you sing about me? Besides, it was a team effort.

  8. So, so, so thankful that Karen is going to be ok! She is such a blessing to everyone that knows her and such a lovely example of Christ to all. You guys continue to be in our prayers. With much love! Rebecca for the Joneses

  9. We love you guys and continue to pray for you as you allow the Lord to grow you ever more in love with Him during these trials. How thankful we are for each of you and the lessons we've learned as we've watched the Lord at work in your lives.

  10. We are so blessed to be able to fellowship with your family weekly and are so grateful that the outcome is less severe than was at first feared. Karen is always a sweet encouragement to me each Sunday! Praising the Lord for His goodness and continuing to pray for all of you.

  11. So very thankful that Karen is recovering. I am still fighting back tears of thankfulness. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with all of us. Love from Idaho!