Yesterday was a hard day.
Unfortunately, Facebook always reminds me every year in my memories when it’s the anniversary of the surgery that changed my families life.
That cold March morning, my thirty-one-year-old self walked into the hospital with my thirty-seven-year-old husband. We both expected he was going to have a quick, easy laparoscopic surgery and was going to be home in a few days to recover. You can read all about it here.
We were so wrong.
Today, I decided to take a look back at that time, and how our lives have changed since then. My memories of that time are very vivid – and very hard – so be forewarned this isn’t an easy, happy go lucky kind of article.
As soon as I saw the post in my Facebook memories, I knew. It’s the start of weeks of posts throughout the crisis. Here’s what I know is coming:
- Yesterday was my initial post, where I mention that the surgery was a bit more complicated than expected and my husband would be home in 4-5 days. The “more complicated” refers to the fact that his surgery couldn’t be done laparoscopically and had to be open surgery.
- Sometime in the next five days I’ll post that he could use some cheering up. He was having an unusually rough time in the hospital, having difficulty getting up and around.
- Then, four days from now, I will post that he went in for emergency surgery. Then that he was in the ICU.
- For the next five days, I will continue to post that he’s in the ICU, on a ventilator. I won’t include many details because I don’t really feel like talking about it.
- Then there will be a post about how he is awake and talking! Hooray!
- Eventually, the posts will come that he’s headed to a rehabilitation center. Then that he got to come home a few hours for Easter, one that he’s landed back in the hospital, and finally one where he’s come home.
Throughout the year I’ll also see memories of his follow-up surgery six months later, as well as his reconstructive surgery three years after that. But nothing is as painful as this initial time.
Why? It’s not about what I posted. It’s because the postings trigger memories of what I didn’t post.
What I Didn’t Post
There are so many things I didn’t post about. Why not? Because I was afraid. Because so much happened, and I didn’t want his family (or mine) finding out about it all on Facebook. And because frankly posting things on social media was around at the bottom of my priority list.
Here are some of the things I didn’t post.
The memories of sitting next to him at the hospital after the original surgery, as he struggled to recover. When he started to run a high fever on Saturday. On Sunday when he started having not only the high fever, but a hot and hard belly, and rigors (which were basically like seizures). And I didn’t know why.
Memories of him getting a CAT scan on Sunday evening. Arriving back to his room after the CAT scan was complete, to be told his surgeon was already on her way and he had to have surgery NOW.
Running down a long hospital hallway to the operating room, where the surgeon and anesthesiologist were waiting at 8:30 PM on a Sunday to take him in right away. Calling my mother, who was watching my two (at the time) boys and expecting me home any minute. Telling her my husband was going in for emergency surgery and I wasn’t going to be home.
My sister in law happening to stop by at that time for a visit, running down the hallway with me. The last thing my husband said before being wheeled in was to her, saying “make sure she eats something”. I hadn’t eaten all day because I was so worried. And I would barely eat for the next five days.
When he was essentially dying of sepsis, he was thinking and worrying about me.
My in-laws arriving at the hospital, sitting up in the waiting room with me and my sister in law. They brought donuts so I would eat something. I ate nothing. The OR screen that shows you who is in surgery had only one patient, because no one is having surgery at 9 PM on a Sunday. We watched and waited. Because what else could we do?
Of the surgery being done, being told he was in recovery, and then being told about 45 minutes later he was going to the ICU.
Waiting in the ICU waiting room for hours with no news. A nurse coming over to me, his wife, to sign a form listing all the things I gave them permission to do. It hit me then why being married, and having these rights, matters. When I asked how he was, she said they were “settling him in”, which I think is ICU nurse code for “saving his life”.
Curling up in a ball at midnight in the ICU waiting room chairs, crying, because I didn’t know what was going on.
My mother in law (a former ER nurse) calling practically yelling at the ICU staff to let us in to see him, telling them his wife was practically hysterical. And she wasn’t wrong.
I knew something was so wrong.
Seeing my husband for the first time on the ventilator, with dozens and dozens of IV bags behind him. Hooked up to what seemed to be a million machines. A machine measuring his oxygen, pulse, respiration rate, and blood pressure. And the blood pressure being so very, very low. It was 60 or 70 something over 30 something. I had never seen a blood pressure so low.
Screaming in the car on the drive to my parents house. Begging God to not let him die.
Getting to my parents house at 1:30 AM. The boys were asleep, and blissfully unaware of what was going on. I told my mother, who told my father. None of us got much sleep at all.
Waking up the next morning, Monday, and being terrified. Had he died during the night? I was supposed to go to work. I was in the middle of my MBA, and I was supposed to be in work that week. What was I going to do with the kids? What the hell do I do now?
Calling my work, hysterical, to say I wasn’t going to be in. Telling them what had happened. Getting a shocked response on the other end, and support to do whatever I needed to do. I had been at this work for just under a year, meaning I technically was not eligible for FMLA.
Spending the entire Monday in the ICU, except when they threw me out a few hours to go try and get some rest. Telling my oldest sons teacher what was going on. Making arrangements with my mother, grandmother, and mother-in-law to take turns with the boys so I could be at the hospital.
On Tuesday morning, my oldest son (then 8) asking if Daddy would be home today. I had to tell him that the doctors had to make Daddy go to sleep for a while because he got very sick. I wondered how I would tell him that Daddy died.
My now-middle son, then youngest and four years old, telling me he how he didn’t like his “three family” and missed his “four family”. He meant he missed the four of us being together – and missed my husband.
Going to the ICU every day. Sitting next to him as the ventilator breathed for him. Seeing other families in the ICU say goodbye to loved ones, and emergencies get taken care of.
Finally coming in on Thursday morning to see him awake, sitting up, but still on the ventilator. Then they took him off of it, and he could talk. There was celebrating, and talk of sending him up to the hospital floor the following day.
The next day, when I arrived, he was hallucinating. The intensivist (intensive care doctor) running in to immediately diagnose infection, rip open his surgical site to take care of that, send him for a CAT scan, and have an abscess drained.
Getting up to the hospital floor and spending another week there. The boys got to come for one visit, and even though he looked so much better than he had, they were still shocked. Then they couldn’t visit anymore because my husband had e-coli. Yeah, that happened.
Going to the rehabilitation center and spending weeks there. Working, and taking my MBA classes, running errands, and visiting at 11 PM after everything was done. I wanted to quit my MBA after all this, but my husband had insisted I not. I can tell you, though, that excelling in the classes quickly was de-prioritized in my life.
Coming home for a few hours on Easter afternoon, and the boys were so happy. We had two egg hunts that Easter – one in the morning with the three of us, and one in the afternoon when my husband was home.
Heading back to the hospital because of a minor infection, and then finally coming home. My parents helping to move our bed from the second floor to the living room, because my husband couldn’t climb stairs very well. The boys setting up camp in the living room too, sleeping on the floor in sleeping bags, because they had missed their Daddy so much in the past month.
Spending months sleeping in the living room. Doctors visits. Visiting nurses. Physical therapy. More surgery, more recovery. Things gradually returning to a “new normal”, until three years later, when he had to have a major reconstructive abdominal surgery after our youngest was born. Then another long road to recovery, and another new normal.
And here we are today, seven years later. The memories of that time, and what we went through, are among my most vivid memories. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that it all happened. But it did.
How Life Has Changed
The person I was when I walked into that hospital seven years ago is long gone. The family that we were back then is gone too.
We had two kids back then. And we were terribly naive. Even though we never said anything like “oh, medical complications won’t happen to us” we certainly thought it. When we heard the surgeon say “the odds of a good outcome are over 99%!”, we assumed we would be in that 99%. We never thought we would be in the fraction of the 1%. He was young and had walked into the hospital a relatively healthy man.
Seven years ago, I was about eleven months into a new job at a new company. I was in the second half of my MBA. My husband had been laid off during the Great Recession when his workplace closed. Unable to find work, he was receiving unemployment.
I didn’t earn six figures back then, and my net worth was less than a quarter of what it is today. I had taken out a student loan for that MBA, to bridge me between company reimbursements after I left my old company and joined the new one. We had a credit card we put everything on, which we at times struggled to pay off at the end of the month. I had a car loan as well, for a new car I had bought before my husband was laid off.
In fact, we had (checks net worth sheet) about $300k of debt including the mortgage.
I couldn’t take FMLA at the time, even once I became eligible because we needed my income to pay the bills. If I didn’t pay the mortgage, not only would my kids have almost lost their father, but we would have lost our home. If I didn’t pay my car loan, my car would have been repossessed. That student loan was deferred, but if I had quit my MBA because of everything going on, I would have had to start paying on it.
You don’t feel the true weight of debt until you’re in the middle of an emergency situation like we’ve lived through.
Today we have three kids, not two. My grandmother, who had helped us so much in this hard time, passed away four years ago. The little guy is almost as old now as my middle son was back then.
I finished my MBA six years ago, and have been with my employer eight years. My salary has increased. Our expenses have decreased. My husband has been a stay at home dad for over four years.
We still live in the same house. I drive the same car, which is now ten years old with over 100k miles on it. My husbands car is six years old, and we paid cash for it. Most of those debts – the credit card, student loan, car loan – are long gone. And soon the mortgage will be gone too.
Five years ago I spoke about our experience in front of my entire company, inspiring tens of thousands. Two years ago I first wrote about our experience on this site, and thousands of people have read about it. I talked about it at the Lola retreat last year.
I only hope some of those people have walked away inspired to better prepare for emergencies, and perhaps with a different perspective on the importance of pursuing financial independence. And I hope to continue to use this time in our lives to help other people. It was a terrible thing, and a terrible time, so I would at least like some good to come out of it.
Looking Back Helps Me Look Forward
As my Facebook memories continue to unfold over the next month, it will be hard. Looking back, I don’t know how we got through that time. All I can say is that we didn’t have a choice.
Life is messy, unpredictable, and hard at times. Just take it one step, one day, one minute at a time. And although reflecting on that time is painful, it’s also beneficial.
Since so many years have passed, I don’t think about that time too often. These memories force me to reflect and remember just how hard it was. It helps to put life, my goals, and my priorities back in perspective.
In the day to day of our lives, it can be easy to lose sight of what really matters. Problems at work, or with the kids can seem really important. Daily stresses can feel overwhelming.
Reliving this experience, while it’s so hard, reminds me to take nothing for granted. It reminds me why debt freedom is such an important goal for our family. Why spending money on “fun” isn’t important, but using it to make a difference for our family, and in the lives of others, is.
I only hope sharing our story helps to give you some of that perspective too.