I want to share my sister's story although it doesn't have a very happy ending. My narrative is long and rambling but it has helped me to talk and write about it. If you are visiting this web site, you have likely suffered a loss from this illness and maybe it will help you also to know that others have had experiences similar to yours.
At the time of her illness, my sister Pam was 42 years old and had no chronic health problems other than her history of smoking for 30 some years. She had recently finished her college degree and gotten a teaching certificate, and was successfully starting a career as a high school math teacher. She was also the mother of 4 children, aged 10 to 15. She lived near my parents in Texas, and she and her children were a daily part of their lives.
Pam suffered a subarachnoid hemorrhage from a ruptured brain aneurysm on the afternoon of March 25, 1999. She had the classic symptoms described by many others here on this support page. She temporarily lost control of her motor functions and could not drive her car, rolling it over several curbs and blowing the tires before stopping at the roadside. She was assisted by a very nice lady named Julie who helped her out of the car and to a blanket, taking details of Pam's phone number and my parents' names and phone number, getting others who stopped at the scene to call 911, getting her purse, providing company and assistance while they waited for the ambulance. This woman visited us during our two week vigil in the CCU waiting room, and even attended Pam's funeral. I will be eternally grateful that such a sweet and caring person was with my sister during her last conscious minutes. At the roadside, Pam described more classic symptoms of a brain hemorrhage, feeling nauseated and saying that her head felt like it was going to "blow off".
After the ambulance arrived Pam loss consciousness and began having seizures. She stopped breathing and went into cardiac arrest. Her cardiac function was restored and she was put on a ventilator. A CAT scan showed a large bleed and that night a drain was inserted in the ventricles in her brain. The doctors hoped for improvement with the decrease in pressure that the drain would provide, and tentatively planned surgery for a day later. Unfortunately, Pam did not show improvement with the drain and remained in a semi-comatose state, reacting only when stimulated. A cerebral arteriogram showed 3 aneurysms, one had signs of recently bleeding. Her doctors were not willing to do surgery at that point, she was too unstable and in a grade IV or V comatose state. They made plans at that point to attempt surgery in two weeks time, after the period of vasospasm had subsided.
My other sister and I were called that evening, about 9 PM my time. I was working a late night at my job in California, my other sister was at her home in New York. My husband called me with the devastating news. My father had called him on a cell phone and they had gotten cut off, but my husband had heard enough to determine that it was a grave situation for Pam. I told my husband that I had to go to Texas, and he said "I know". Having lost one of his two brothers already, he understood my need to get to her as soon as possible. I called my other sister and she said she planned to fly to Texas in the morning. Having some knowledge about the seriousness of brain bleeds, I said, "I don't think she will make it until morning, and I'm not going to be one hour too late. I'm going now and you should also." My husband packed me a bag and met me at the airport. I left my car at work and a coworker drove me to the airport where I caught the last red eye flight to Dallas.
My dad met me at the airport while my mom stayed at the hospital. I would have gotten a rental car but he insisted on picking me up. Being a retired military officer, as usual he was organizing everything, and trying to manage a situation that was totally out of his control. I felt for him, Pam had his blue eyes and was his favorite and she was in grave danger of losing her life and he was totally helpless and unable to do anything for her. When we arrived at the hospital we met my mother in the critical care waiting area. It broke my heart to think of her terrible night. Losing a sister is very painful and hard, but being a mother myself, I can imagine that losing a child must be many times worse.
My mother was beside herself with pain and sadness, fatigued, upset that the nurses would not let me into the CCU right away. I was amazed that Pam was still alive, having been fairly convinced that I could not cross the continent fast enough to see her alive again (but determined to try anyway). I was not very hopeful about her chances at recovery, and was somewhat resigned that she would be lost to us before it was all said and done. I was very concerned about my mother at that point, wishing I could do something to ease her pain, and was glad that I had caught the first flight I could, since my being there seemed to mean a lot to her. She left and went home to shower and change. My dad would not leave, my parents had made some pact at that point to have one of them there all the time.
Over the next two weeks Pam showed some response to sound and touching stimuli, opening her eyes and moving her head, but was unable to respond to any requests. During wakeful periods she seemed alarmed and distressed and fought the ventilator, and it was heartbreaking to see her in such a state. She had been through many hardships in life and survived them all, and it seemed so unfair for her to suffer so much. I don't usually pray, but at the hospital I prayed for Pam. I didn't pray for some miraculous recovery because I don't think God works like that. I prayed that she was not scared and that she was free of pain. I also prayed that she knew that we loved her and would take care of her kids if she did not make it. I felt that I could bear the loss of my sister if only these two prayers could be answered. Thanks to the morphine I think the first prayer was answered, the second one I'm not so sure about. I remember telling the "patient representative" (a special service nurse) that my prayers are never answered, and she said to me "that must be such a burden". But just maybe this time my prayers were answered.
Although I don't attend church and would not consider myself a "religious person", I am fortunate to have the belief that death is not the end, there is something afterward, something wonderful. I have this belief thanks to a "visit" from my grandmother when I was 21 (she died when I was 14). This "visit" was a wonderful gift that has helped me tremendously during times like this. Without this "visit" I am sure I would never have formed any spiritual beliefs at all. I am a scientist by trade and do not delve into the spiritual aspects of life very often. Having strong beliefs in science, prior to this "visit" I felt that science and God were pretty much mutually exclusive. After the "visit", I realized that there is more to life than our bodies and this Earth. Previously I always insisted on a scientific or mathematical explanation for everything, after the "visit" I had one belief that needed no proof whatsoever.
Pam had excellent, competent, and very caring medical care, and I make this remark after working in hospitals for many years myself. Our family was camped out in the waiting room during the entire two weeks she was in the hospital. My parents were committed to leaving a family member there all night every night, and we took turns between my mom, dad, sister and me. We didn't want Pam to die without someone who loved her by her side.
After about 10 days my sister and I flew back to our respective coasts to tie up loose ends before returning to Texas, and towards the end we let a dear family friend take a turn at night. During that two weeks we had many visits from family and friends. I had forgotten how many relatives I had in Texas, and I was so glad to see that my parent's friends and the kids' friends were visiting often to help them through this. They visited over and over, bringing food and comfort items, and their love and support. One man who was a friend of my parents even brought his big yellow dog to the hospital parking lot for me to pet, and as I was very grateful as this was very comforting for me.
Teachers and counselors from the children's schools came to see the kids and bring them schoolwork and offer support. The medical staff was honest with us and sensitive to our requests, which helped a lot. Pam fought a tough battle but had problems with her heart, lungs, cerebral pressure, spasms, strokes, and ultimately a bacterial infection that could not be controlled. She gave up the battle on April 8, 1999. My parents were with her at the end, I hope she felt their love as she slipped away.
We buried her next to her grandparents and great-grandparents in a beautiful country cemetery that she would have loved. Her funeral was amazing, the church was packed and there were flowers everywhere. There were so many people I did not even recognize many of them. I think every relative I have was there. Even my ex-husband and Pam's ex-husband were there.
My sister did not have an easy life, or an easy death, but I feel now she is at peace. Our family is grieving but going on with life. My parents and the children's father are raising the kids and they all seem to be coping alright. The outpouring of love and support from family and friends has been tremendous and helped us all a great deal.
Thanks for reading my story, I hope it helps whoever reads it.
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