I woke up to multiple images standing around my bed. I had been sedated for hours. The last clear memory prior to this was of the surgeons deciding to repair my seeping organs first and of being wheeled to the OR. So much white, lights blaring in my eyes, and pain. So. Much. Pain. Then darkness. At this point, such outpouring of love and God's answer to prayers I had been praying for months sustained me. I didn't know that God was cushioning me for a hard fall once the reality of what had happened sunk in. But that wouldn't be until much later. In the meantime, I would learn a very important lesson.
Little did I know that 50 people from my fellowship of churches were having a "party" in the waiting room. They had heard about the wrong-way drunk driver who had struck me head-on less than 24 hours ago. They were there to see me and/or show their support to my family.
So much had happened in a short amount of time. I hardly had time to process the urgency of everything. I was so filled with peace and awe at God answering me to be concerned about dying. I wasn't ready to die yet. But I was ready to shock everyone with the news that God's answer to my question of what it would take for that series of prayers to be answered was that "something tragic would need to happen."
And I felt honored that God would choose me to bring his plans and my prayers to fruition. The feeling of being chosen filled me with an inexplicable joy. Even the pain, the uncertainty, the violation of what had happened to me and the discouraging health news day-after-day couldn't take that feeling away. It was almost as if I had touched the other side. The truth of this gut feeling that something more happened the night of the crash, as if I left something behind—a piece of myself—would also begin to unravel, but months later.
So, let's begin where we left off. On that cold November 9th morning, while I laid on the gurney in the ambulance, I made a decision. I made a decision to live. I made a decision to fight. Despite the pain. Despite the confusion and complete naivety to what had actually happened, I made the decision to trust God.
Hours after my first surgery, I woke up in the ICU, to those familiar faces. At one point, I was told I needed to rest and that they would stop ushering people in, two-by-two. But, I looked at my sister and said:
"No, I want to see everyone who came here to see me." Needless to say, I got what I wanted. And I joyfully, recounted to each
person who entered my room about my prayer. The only exception was my best friend, Misha. I was afraid to tell her because I feared she would blame herself for what had happened. I told her she would have to wait and I would tell her at the appropriate time.
The look on everyone's faces when I told them about my prayer was nothing short of complete shock. Not just the shock of how God had answered me, but the shock of "WHY" I would pray a prayer like that.
One of my good friends, Ruth Kang, a ministry leader alongside her husband in one of the regions of our international fellowship of churches, and someone I looked up to since meeting in 2009, who in many ways raised me spiritually, rebuked me that night.
She said, "Erin, NEVER pray a prayer like that again."
I since verified with her that she actually said this to me just to make sure I didn't imagine it because I was so drugged up on pain killers at the time. With a chuckle, she responded, "Yes."
I can only assume she didn't actually mean to tell me not to pray for the impossible and surrender to the answer, no matter how hard, but instead that when I looked up at her from my bed in the ICU: pale, weak, needing machines to keep me alive, and swollen from the first major surgery out of six to come (no one knew how many would be needed, just that many more were necessary), that the feeling she felt was of complete fear. Fear that someone she had invested her life in, offered her home to for months when I interned under her and her husband in Milwaukee, WI in 2010, and had grown to love, could slip away at any moment.
During these crucial hours, however, I was determined to remain strong and faithful. I just wanted the surgeons to fix whatever they deemed necessary. And although I was in tremendous pain and sedated most of the time, it was quite obvious I loved the attention I was receiving. I had never felt so important or loved in my entire life. But I knew that everything that was happening was surely because of God. And I found security in that.
Then the 9th and 10th days happened.
November 18, 2014, my best friend Sissy—who had become one of the people I love most in this world after meeting and living together in 2008—came to spend time with me like she had done almost every day. Each week, Sissy found joy in painting my nails a different color so that I would feel a little more beautiful. When you’re stuck lying in a hospital bed and caring for yourself is limited to nurses washing you with washcloths every couple of days and using "shower caps" to wash your hair, leaving your hair feeling more sticky than clean, it is important to have a sense of normalcy. It is important to cling to whatever beauty you can. Sissy reveled in the moments where her soft touch and Ben Rector station on Pandora, would put me to sleep. She loved watching me rest, because she knew I really needed it.
My sister—God bless her— also learned how to wash my hair the old fashioned way by tilting the head of my bed back as far as it would go, and placing plastic wrap under my head. After soaping up my hair, she would pour water from a cup onto the hair and allow the majority of the water to drain into a bucket, as the ICU nurse had trained her. Having my nails painted and my hair washed properly felt like paradise compared to the awful hospital smell, the IV's, and the machines that monitored and helped me sustain life.
This particular day, I was in the most pain I had been in since the night of the crash. My whole abdominal cavity felt like it was going to burst from the pain. I had just been given solid food maybe a day or two before, even though I couldn't eat more than a couple of bites each time.
Sissy stayed with me all day. I was in so much pain I could barely open my eyes. I didn't want the blinds open or the lights on. Lunch and dinner both came. I kept pushing the button to the morphine drip, but nothing was helping. Sissy kept trying to convince me to eat. By the time dinner came, I made a deal with her that I would eat some of my dinner and she could have my lunch, or vice versa. Shortly after eating a few bites, I started to feel somewhat better. But when the nurses came in and told me to drink a large clear and carbonated beverage because I was surely constipated, my gut told me something else was wrong. I argued with the nurse that something was not right, and the staff continued to assure me I was just constipated and would be just fine. I don't have any memory of what happened next except that Sissy left.
The next day a couple more friends came to visit. I happily began to entertain each with my stories of what I could remember of the prayer, the crash, and all the miracles since the night of the crash, when the trauma team came in a second time that morning to check in on me.
Surrounded by at least four residents, I heard a blonde girl, who I identified as the "lead resident," tell the others that I had tachycardia and my blood pressure had dropped dangerously low.
"It's her abdomen. We need to rush her to the OR right now," she said with authority. Within minutes of the team coming in and taking vitals, I was wheeled out of my room on my way back into surgery.
With tears in her eyes, my sister found me just as I was being rolled into pre-op. She grabbed my hand and she and my mom stayed with me until they took me into surgery. No more than 20-30 minutes had passed between the time the resident declared I had a widespread infection, otherwise known as “sepsis,” in my abdomen, and I was taken in for my third emergency surgery. This 7 1/2 hour surgery saved my life for the second time. Thus far, I had already undergone 15.5 hours of surgery and incurred about 27 inches in surgical scars.
The sepsis surgery was to address the first surgery, which had failed. The initial repair made to my colon and small and large intestines hadn't held up. My sister said that when Chief of Trauma/Critical Care Surgery at Northwestern, Dr. Michael B. Shapiro, came out of this surgery, he looked like he had seen a ghost. He said that my abdomen was filled with feces and that my colon was spewing at them. He also said, had it been caught any later, I would have died. The colostomy surgery that he had to perform, although it pained him to do so because of the emotional consequences it would have on a young lady my age, saved my life.
After this surgery and spending time in the recovery room, I was wheeled back to the ICU. I was sedated, but once I started coming somewhat to, I remember having what felt like nightmare upon nightmare about being intubated. The nurses told my family that I would be sedated the entire night.
Ahead of schedule and early in the morning, I awoke to my fears being realized. The surgical team had placed an intubation tube down my throat and into my lungs because when a patient is sedated and unstable, there is a risk of that person ceasing to breathe. I begged the doctors to never use an intubation tube on me again, but this time protocol trumped my wants and needs.
I remember waking up to several horrible and traumatic things. The nightmares only further traumatized me because I had had several nightmares since the crash about suffocating. Each time, I would realize I was dreaming, but would be unable to wake up. Once I did, I would awaken gasping for air.
Check out the full list of other blog posts in this series called, "The Prayer That Changed Everything: How I Survived a Drunk Driver and the Story I Couldn't Tell Until Now" here!
After realizing I was intubated, I looked down and noticed my hands were tied to the bed so that I wouldn’t rip the intubation tube out. Again, here I was, immobilized just like the night of the crash, unable to move, and unable to speak. I felt like a prisoner. It felt like I was suffocating. I had to breathe just right with the machine otherwise I would begin to choke. At one point, I started choking, which triggered my gag reflex and I began to throw up. The nurse immediately told the staff I was nauseated, which I wasn't, but I had no way of telling him this just wasn't so. All I could do was silently beg God to have them take the tube out despite the talk that if I was nauseated, they might leave it in all day.
Then I noticed an image sitting to my left. My sister had pulled a chair close to the bed and was holding my hand as she slept. Had Nikki not been sitting there, I can only imagine how much more terrified I would have felt. I later found out that both she and my best friend, Misha, decided to stay the night, and literally took turns holding my hand the entire night because they didn't want me to be alone.
In order to communicate, I motioned for Nikki and Misha, and wrote words on their hands with my forefinger: hot, cold, up, down. Because of the widespread infection and my spine's inability to regulate temperature properly, I would quickly transition from shivering to sweating within minutes. Also, I couldn't move my legs. Since both legs were in braces and elevated on pillows, Misha and Nikki would have to adjust them pretty frequently so I would be as comfortable as possible. Not mention needing to prop up one side of my body with pillows every two hours to prevent bed sores.
I managed to scribble something else on Nikki and Misha's hands. For the first time since the whole ordeal happened, I broke down in tears and wrote: "Why did this happen? I've tried to be so strong." And for the first time, I saw Misha and Nikki cry too.
But, during my first 10 days in the hospital, I was in a bubble of hope and perseverance.
Everyone had protected me from their own grief, all of the changing health information, and even arguments that had broken out between my family members on what information should be shared with me. However, that night something broke inside of me. The strong, "beast" of a girl (I earned the name "beast" before the crash because of my physical strength and years spent as a personal trainer. After the crash, my sister posted a status update on FB calling me “the beast”), I had nothing left to give. I had reached my limit.
And in that moment I cried out to God. "God, I have nothing left. You need to take over. Please do something."
I was desperate, but I couldn't rely on my own strength anymore. God had been with me all along, which was obvious, both by the outpouring of support and all of the small miracles thus far, but He couldn't let people think, or be tempted, with the thought that my strength alone had carried me through. Instead, God taught me one of the biggest lessons of all.
When writing this, I think of the story of Gideon in the Bible. Gideon was a prophet sent by God to save the Israelites from the Midianites, who had oppressed them for seven years. Gideon's response was basically like a kid who says, “Who me? Couldn't be!"
God assured Gideon that He would be with him and would enable him "to strike down all of the Midianites, leaving none alive." (Judges 6:16) Fast forward to the part where Gideon is assembling his army. He starts with 32,000 men.
God told Gideon, "You have too many men. I cannot deliver Midian into their [the Israelites] hands or Israel would boast against me, 'My own strength has saved me.'"
A total of 22,000 men are asked to leave, with only 10,000 men left. God tells Gideon that there are still too many men and instructs him to separate the men who will fight the Midianites.
"Separate those who lap the water with their tongues as a dog laps from those who kneel down to drink." God told Gideon that, with the 300 men who lapped the water, he would save the Israelites.
The men were whittled down to a rather laughable number because God didn't want the men to think they had won the battle by their own strength.
It may seem that God is late sometimes or that he doesn't hear our prayers, but I'd like to think that God knows at just the right moment when to save so that He will be given all of the glory. When it seems there is no way, He provides one.
I had never come so close to seeing God show up and accomplish the impossible at just the precise moment than during those days in the hospital. The stakes were obviously higher because my life and future were on the line.
And so, in a God-like-fashion, He showed up for me, and responded to my plea in a way no one could have predicted.
Read the previous blog post in this series: "Forgiveness: A Letter to the Drunk Woman Who Destroyed My Life."
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Tags: Ben Rector, church, courage, drunk driving, Faith, Family, Friends, Gideon, God, God's timing, hope, internal injuries, lessons, love, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, perseverance, scripture, Spinal cord injury, spirituality, surgeons, surgeries, tragedy, victim, wrong-way driver