One afternoon in the summer of 1999, my family was at Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City. As we walked toward the polar bear exhibit ("Hey look! Some sleeping bears!"), I suddenly felt an excruciating pain in the left side of my chest. As it continued to get worse, I realized that I may be having a heart attack, which seemed ridiculous to me as a 16-year old. I remember thinking, "What the heck is going on? I don't eat THAT bad!". The pain continued to intensify and my parents quickly decided to take me to the emergency room (sorry polar bears....next time). Once we made it to the hospital, the pain had started to subside. However, we still decided to get a chest x-ray and some other tests on my heart. To the doctor's confusion, my heart looked and acted perfectly fine and he could not give a reason for the pain I had felt (I promise I'm not a hypochondriac!), so we went home. Over the next two years, these unusual sharp pain in the left side of my chest would return for a few minutes every couple of months. I found that if I just laid down and tried to wait it out, the pain would usually go away. Eventually I got used to it.
However, on October 15th, 2001, as I was shopping at the mall, suddenly the obnoxious pain came back again. I thought, "Here we go again. Just wait it out." But this time was different. By the next day, the pain had not subsided, and I could hardly take a breath. When I leaned forward or backwards, it felt like something inside of me was actually moving around. My parents decided it was time to take me back to the emergency room. After another round of x-rays, I was informed that my left lung had collapsed due to a condition known as "spontaneous pneumothorax". As far as I understand it, spontaneous pneumothorax is a congenital factor (not really a disease) that will sometimes cause the lungs of tall, skinny, (good-looking) young men to collapse. Due to the skinny frame, the chest cavity grows too tall and the lungs don't develop quite right. Small air pockets called "blebs" (I'm not joking. Look it up!) develop on the outside of the lungs. The blebs will then sometimes spontaneously rupture for no good reason. I've long tried to find some correlation for why the blebs rupture, but in my case, I was never doing anything unusual at the time of a collapse. Typically, a collapse would occur when I was playing Nintendo (See? Video games ARE violent!), walking, or even just reading a book.
On October 17th, I went back to the hospital for emergency surgery. Dr. Michael Collins (my all-time favorite Catholic) inserted a chest tube through my ribs and into my lung. The chest tube helped to keep my lung inflated while Dr. Collins performed a surgery known as a pleurodesis thoracoscopy, in which my lung would essentially be "roughed up" and abrased to the outside of the chest wall. I have always pictured the surgery as Dr. Collins using sandpaper to make the outside of my lung nice and bloody so that it would scar together to the chest wall (sorry to be gruesome). Therefore, in the event of a future bleb rupture, the lung would hopefully stay inflated since it was stuck to the chest wall. The surgery was successful, but I had to stay in the hospital for nine days to make sure my lung didn't collapse again. During that first stay in the hospital, more than 120 people came to visit me. I felt incredibly loved, and to this day, I am still extremely grateful for everyone who cared for and prayed for me. Throughout the entire ordeal, my mom was always right there by my side. She worried about me so much, and I knew that if she could, she would have traded me places so that I wouldn't have to suffer.
|Love ya, mom.|
|My mom made a cardboard cut-out of me so that I could be a part of the pictures at Amy's wedding.|
For me, the highlight of the night occurred when President Monson arrived. Amy had invited President Monson to the wedding reception because my new brother-in-law Manny's grandpa had fought with President Monson in the U.S. Navy during World War II. We didn't know if he would actually come, but it was so awesome to see him walk through the doors. President Monson spent ten minutes visiting with me and told me that the Lord loved me, knew what I was going through, and that when things became too hard I should just "try to take things one step at a time". It is a memory that I still cherish to this day, and I love President Monson for his incredible goodness and true Christlike example.
|I gave him my best missionary handshake.|
|President Monson visiting with me, my friend Melanie (Pando) Jordan,|
my grandpa Kieth Gillen, and my little bro Matt.
Amazingly, a few days later, President Monson sent me the following letter:
After the wedding, I did my best to recover. I made it back to my first semester at the U of U, and things finally felt like they were getting back on track. Unfortunately, exactly a month later, the sharp pain returned, but for the first time it was on the right side of my chest. The pain was overwhelming, but even more overwhelming was the realization that I would have to once again go back to the hospital for another surgery. I bargained with Dr. Collins to let me wait a couple of weeks so that I could finish my finals (ironically, bad grades was more of a worry to me than the prospect of dying).
On December 11th, I finished my last final at 12:30 PM, and I was admitted to the hospital a half-hour later. That evening I ate my last meal before surgery the next morning (some jello and stale french fries) and then tried to go to bed. Sadly, my mind would not calm down. I got out my laptop and spent a couple of hours IMing one of my wonderful friends, Colin. Colin helped me to calm down and I was finally able to go to sleep.
The next morning Allison, my favorite nurse in the whole entire world, came in to give me some medicine to help knock me out before surgery. After getting the shot, my mom said that I told Allison, "I'm completely coherent! I can do calculus!"
|Allison: Best. Nurse. Ever.|
As my mom was getting on the elevator to go home for some much needed rest, she felt a powerful impression to turn back around and make sure I was okay. As she entered my room, she looked at me and realized that something was wrong. My face had turned blue and my lips were a dark shade of purple. Clearly, I wasn't breathing. My mom ran to get Allison, even though she was in a room with another patient. Allison instantly noticed that I was in respiratory failure, and she issued a "Code Blue Emergency" which brought other medical staff scrambling to my room. At that moment I was clinically dead. As staff began to fill my room to carry out emergency procedures, my mom stepped out into the hall, worried that she would never see me alive again.
Fortunately for my mom (and even more fortunately for me), the incredible medical team was able to get me breathing again. I remember suddenly opening my eyes and feeling the most intense pain of my entire life. I was freezing cold and I was shaking like I have never shaken before. I frantically looked around the room and saw Allison and my mom above me to the left. There was a mask on my face to give me oxygen. Suddenly, I sat up and threw up.....all over my mom. She told me that although it was disgusting, the fact that I was alive completely made up for it.
People have asked me if I remember anything when I was dead. Sadly, I don't. I remember falling asleep after getting the blessing, and then I remember waking up. I joke that I only saw blackness, which means that I have some major repenting to do! In seriousness, it was a wild ordeal. If my mom had not followed the prompting of the Holy Ghost, I would not be here today. I can never thank my mom enough for coming back into my room that night. I have so much life to live. I feel like I still have work to do here on earth, and I am so grateful for the chance. Next post I will continue to write about the rest of my experiences in the hospital. But for now, let me just say, I love you, mom!