It’s the first night in a week I haven’t been up on the surgical floor at Sentara tracking my brother’s progress. I feel the need to just be still. The air in the evening calm after the afternoon lightning storm rekindles a creative fire dormant in these days spent pacing, swapping updates, and riding the ups and downs of a treacherous terrain.
Just after I posted last Tuesday night, P.J. was rushed to the hospital after vomiting blood. Mom called while I was in the shower the next morning to let me know she was driving down to Hampton. The voicemail chilled my clean skin. She called back while I was getting in the car, unsure where I would be going. “I don’t want you getting in the car,” Mom said. “Your brother might not make it.”
That’s how it began for me, really, though I imagine that each one of my family members viewed this story in a different way, like my students have discovered writing their team fairy tales this week. My librarian friend Mrs. Leonardi took care of my students, and I met my sister-in-law at the main entrance. “It’s going to be okay,” Gabrielle said. “He’ll be alright. I’m not worried.” Her optimism would be a peaceful constant in the uncertain days to come.
The conversations were two sides of the same coin, but each woman, wholly devoted to my brother, brought her own lifetime’s worth of experience and perspective to that moment. Mom has spent more time in a hospital room than anyone should. She’s seen what happens when a potentially fatal condition becomes fatal. With her mother, she saw what can result from a doctor’s error. With her father, she saw how cancer could take someone’s stomach. With her brother, she saw how one could die too young, too soon.
It was David who’d mentioned the low hemoglobin count could be a fatal condition. My oldest brother is a gastroenterologist and a partner in a practice down in South Carolina. P.J. was presenting symptoms for his field. Fortunately, David was able to connect with P.J.’s nurse and physician and help translate and distribute the medical speak to the rest of us.
After thirteen hours with nurse checks every fifteen minutes, three units of blood, and the illusion of sleep in a tiny hospital bed incapable of supporting a 6’3” man without removing the footboard, my brother was moved from the ER for an endoscopy that would reveal a large ulcer in the first part of his small intestine called the duodenum. They would treat it with medical therapy and wait on biopsy results and lab tests to determine possible causes.
I breathed a little easier after David’s post-endoscopy translation text. By Wednesday night, P.J.’s blood count was trending upward, and the hospitalist even suggested he might be released the next day. Only he wasn’t. Mom, Gabrielle, and I attempted to successfully navigate dividing childcare and P.J.-care responsibilities, trying to maintain the normal routine as much as possible for the little ones who just miss their daddy, Skype a poor substitute when they all probably crave some cuddle time.
I could almost track alternating six and twelve hour cycles, encouraging and discouraging respectively. We traversed the ups and downs of P.J.’s numbers on Thursday, too. By Friday, I was getting a call during planning that he’d turned grey and swooned back in his bed. Alarms went off. Mom ran for help. Nurses and doctors came in. Dad was driving down. David was driving up. No one was breathing easy anymore.
Each day, there seemed to be another mountain awaiting us just when we’d cleared the first. Gabrielle stayed with the kids, visiting as much as possible. Mom never left P.J.’s side. Her experiences had prepared her for this moment. She saw potential negligence with a pool of liquid under an IV that had apparently not been nourishing her son for who knows how long. She found a vile of blood in his covers. She listened to warning alarms sounding for twenty minutes during the long night shifts.
Mom didn’t really sleep. The reality of David’s words, that this could be fatal, ultimately made her more fervent than ever. It fascinates me that Psalm 91 had given her spirit some peace during the early hours of Friday morning, the calm before that storm. She was reassured that it wouldn’t be easy, but it would be okay. Perhaps it is because she chose to cling to God as her fortress and refuge, but I watched my prayer warrior mother do real battle in that hospital room. I might be writing a far different story had Mom not been with P.J., intervening for him and advocating for him.
Moses needed his arms held up. So did my mom. By the time David and Dad arrived late Friday night, another endoscopy was scheduled for 8 o’clock the next morning. While the hospital held to the belief that there was no more internal bleeding, his low hemoglobin count seemed to confirm the alternate diagnosis that David had continually held . A surgeon was brought in. He explained that if the endoscopy presented the need, he would do reconstructive surgery to repair the ulceration. More blood transfusions. More boluses.
Charming drove down that night, too. My little brother Timmy left Pittsburgh at 3 am after catching a brief nap. He didn’t get to see P.J. before his procedure, but David was in the room. This was his field. God had prepared David for just this moment, too. He kept waiting for the doctor to make the inevitable call, and finally inserted himself. “Doctor,” David said, “It doesn’t look like this ulcer is amenable to endoscopic therapy.” Moments later, P.J. was under anesthetic and in surgery for another three hours.
They were all there in the waiting room when I arrived with Charming and fifty donut holes, his idea to bolster spirits. Gabrielle was calm. Her best friend had the kids. Dad’s rock-like strength was comforting to me. Mom was lighter than in days past, likely reinforced by her ongoing conversations with God and her prayer time with my little brother. You need that when you’re facing these mountains each day, wondering if your son is going to make it as you lie awake in a hospital room not unlike one you were in thirty years ago watching your brother die.
My gym mentor Chuck stopped by the waiting room in early afternoon, shortly after Gabrielle got the call that they had stopped the bleeding, P.J. was stable, and the surgery was a success. It would be a few more hours before we could see him. Chuck’s presence fit the new energy the news had brought. I marveled at all the people in this waiting room, each with his or her own story. Dad laughed with Chuck about everyday things. Some normalcy returned to our family as we saw another mountain cleared.
Seeing the incision later that night, I knew instantly more mountains were ahead. It was like the old C-sections that run vertically. They’d removed small portions of P.J.’s stomach and small intestine and reattached the organs. There had been no sign of bleeding because his belly was filled with blood clots. He’d been bleeding internally for a week.
Maybe it was Gabrielle’s unfailing hope. Maybe it was my mom’s fervent warrior spirit. Maybe it was my older brother’s expertise. Maybe it was my younger brother’s prayers. Maybe it was my father’s strength. But Sunday came, and P.J. was walking two laps around the surgical floor. Charming and I presented P.J. with a trophy awarding him the Largest Ulcer of 2017 according to Sentara. David and Timmy headed home, having bonded in the most genuine way with the original four Palma children.
Monday, it was three laps. Today, it was four, and Dad headed north. P.J.’s surgeon is optimistic he’ll be released on Thursday. Throughout these days, the words to an Elevation Worship song Chuck texted me keep sounding in the still corners of my mind. In moments like this one, absent beeping machinery and my brother attached to wires, I hear the words: “Walking around these walls, I thought by now they’d fall, but You have never failed me yet. Waiting for change to come, knowing the battle’s won, for You have never failed me yet.”
This battle was won before any of my family members arrived in that waiting room. God had prepared each of us for that moment, and regardless of any individual role we may have played in his recovery, we stood around his hospital bed on Sunday morning together knowing full well that P.J. is alive because God moved the mountains. While we waited for change, God had already orchestrated those intersections of experience and expertise that would heal and restore P.J.
They were all right. It was potentially fatal. It wouldn’t be easy, but it would be okay. P.J. would be alright. God made us a family. In that little hospital room, Charming snapped a picture of the original gang, laughing together over the trophy, and I understood our family needed to be together. We were stronger together, better able to navigate the mountains and machinery.
That song keeps humming in my mind as I write. The chorus declares, “I’ve seen You move. You move the mountains. And I believe I’ll see you do it again. You made a way where there was no way, and I believe I’ll see You do it again.”
That’s my declaration, too. Day after day, God kept moving the mountains for P.J. that we couldn’t even see. Every time we thought the worst was behind us, another complication brought us to our knees in prayer. There will be more mountains for us. Looking back at the terrain of the past week, I have seen Him make a way where there was no way. And I believe He’ll do it again.
Each of us in that waiting room has his or her own version of this story to tell, but the one common plot element is its theme. We saw God make a way. God moved the mountains. And He’ll do it again.
I hope that golden trophy awarding P.J. the largest tumor of the year becomes a symbol of God’s providence, a still reminder of the power of a faithful family.