This narrative was written by Joseph Pikul, husband of Connie. In 1994, Connie had just turned 43 when she suffered a subarachnoid hemorrhage and collapse. I was 46; our son Matthew was 14; and our daughter Jessica was 12. Jessica's words to the emergency room physician were used to title this narrative.
Some of you write very specific details on your memories of hospitalization. You are either very lucky or very unlucky to have that kind of recall. Connie has no memories of events leading up to or during hospitalization. Connie is blessed, because she does not remember the pain. Connie vividly remembers a flock of white doves in her intensive-care room. The doves were real only to Connie. Matthew, Jessica, and I only remember minutes as hours and very black days. There were no white doves for us. The second operation, which was supposed to be of lower risk, caused the brain damage which Connie deals with today. These unpredictable events changed our lives and we are still adjusting nearly 5 years later. There can never be a right time for a subarachnoid hemorrhage.
So what more can I tell of this family and our dark days. Nothing. You that read this and have trod the path know all too well of what goes on behind the scenes. There are no easy words. There are no get well fast schemes. We must focus on today and the promise of tomorrow. We must try to be thankful in all things. Sometimes, I know, that that is easier said than done.
Today, Connie is the "Mom" of this house and Connie functions as any Mom does. I continue my career as a research soil scientist with the Agricultural Research Service. The picture was taken in July 1998 on the Ontario, Canada shores of Lake Superior. The beauty of the Canadian side attracted Connie and I nearly 25 years ago. We keep going back. We enjoy the reruns. We passed this love and respect for the north country to our children. They are now hooked as we are. Successful parenting is measured by the little things.
Nearly three years ago.........
On July 10, 1994 life for our family dramatically and suddenly changed. We were introduced to terms like subarachnoid hemorrhage and aneurysm...terms we would like to forget. I would like to share our experiences with you. Maybe this writing will also be good for me. We need to confront our demons. The aneurysm is a demon. A ticking bomb...
I will not dwell on medical terms and details. The technology of intensive care is mind numbing to the lay person. The life of my wife hung on that technology and the operators of that technology. I embraced the technology. It provided something tangible, something to hold on to and something to fill my mind with worry. I could not talk to my wife, so I studied the "numbers"" and watched the countless tubes entering and exiting Connie's body and I waited. Many details are forgotten, but emotions easily rush to the surface as I write this.
Connie, our two children, and I were taking part in an after-supper swim party. There was no alcohol, no rowdiness. This party was in celebration of the end of the season for the Sidney, Montana Tiger Sharks Swim Team. I was with the swim team board concluding our business meeting when my wife collapsed on the way into the showers.
Sidney is a small town of about 6500 people in the extreme NE of Montana. We had a good community hospital and if it wasn't for the thoroughness of the nurses maybe Connie would not be here today.
Why is Connie crying in pain from a headache? She is clutching my hand. She knows something is not right. For awhile the nurses in the emergency room blame the heat of the day. Dr. Cooper is called in. The results of a spinal tap and a CAT reveal the worst. We have got to get Connie to Billings, Montana now. A fixed wing aircraft is summoned from Deaconess Hospital in Billings. We have got about an hour and a half wait. My daughter asks Dr. Cooper, "is my mom going to die?" Pastor Betty cares for her flock. She waits with us. Finally, the flight crew pulls in. Quickly and efficiently Connie is made ready for the flight. I am asked if I want to fly over. I decline. My children need their father with them. The nurse points out how serious this is. Connie may not be here tomorrow.
The drive to Billings from Sidney the following morning was the longest in my life, even with Montana's liberal speed laws. We found Deaconess Hospital and my children and I met with Dr. Dolan. There were not many dry eyes as Dr. Dolan revealed his findings. In a later letter he described Connie's condition. "Connie was initially admitted under my care on 7/11/94 after a subarachnoid hemorrhage and collapse. Angiography revealed several aneurysms; a right-sided ophthalmic aneurysm, a right posterior communicating artery aneurysm, a right middle cerebral artery trifurcation aneurysm, a left ophthalmic artery aneurysm, and a left P1 aneurysm...."
In the first operation, three of Connie's six aneurysms were clipped. Connie remained in intensive care for two weeks, about half of that time she remained unconscious. Connie was then transferred to concentrated care for one week and then released to rehabilitation for one week. By the end of summer it was difficult to detect any loss of ability. Round one was complete. It was now time to make the difficult decision to submit to another surgery. We decided to have the operation before Christmas. Because this next surgery was under "controlled" conditions, the doctors were very optimistic that Connie was to be home for Christmas. That was not to be.
We checked into Deaconess December 12, 1994. We were extremely apprehensive. I stayed with Connie till she was wheeled into surgery at about 8 AM. It was well after 8 PM by the time Dr. Dolan found me in the waiting area. The surgery took much longer than expected. I could only think the worst. The operation did not go smoothly. This time the recovery was longer. There was a need for longer rehabilitation. Connie was finally released from the hospital in February.
Connie and I celebrated our 24th wedding anniversary on December 26, 1994. Connie was still unconscious. These were difficult times. When Connie did waken she never mentioned my name. I think that she recognized me, but I was never convinced. Connie was unable to name simple objects, and her physical coordination was impaired. Her time in rehabilitation improved her abilities. Maybe more rehabilitation was needed, but insurance companies have a way of dictating fate. They felt it was time for release, and that is that.
In the home Connie needed supervision. She needed to relearn basic skills. We were fortunate to have community and family support. Slowly, Connie's abilities improved. These times were equally frustrating for both Connie and me. It is difficult to watch someone you love flounder over simple tasks, unable to recall certain important memories, and have such difficulty expressing thoughts because the right words were so difficult to bring to the tongue. It is difficult to wait.
It is April 1997, and this June it will be three years since the first operation. Connie has made remarkable recovery, but the whole episode has changed us. I know we (I) should be thankful. However, it is difficult not to feel sorry for ourselves (at times). We prided ourselves in being fiercely independent. We love the outdoors. We didn't think twice of taking extended canoe trips into northern Saskatchewan. In 1994, another week would have put us on the canoe trail. Had Connie collapsed in the bush, she would not be here today. Our children aged during the summer of 1994. We have come along way. We moved from Montana to South Dakota in 1995. We survived an unusually long South Dakota winter....that may reflect positively on Connie's ability.
I have many questions. Connie is more emotional now than she was before the operations. Any discussion of the operation brings tears. Why is that? Are there more aneurysms? Should we look for more? Why did Connie have so many aneurysms? There was no apparent family history of this sort of thing. Why is it so difficult for Connie to regain the endurance and strength she once had. Why does Connie get so tired? Connie is on Dilantin. We blame the medication. A controlled attempt to get off Dilantin failed with a seizure, so we have given up on that option.
I worry, every time Connie gets a headache. I worry every time she says don't worry, I am fine.
Time does heal. Some days it is difficult to have a positive attitude. I do not doubt for a minute that it has been Connie's will, and the grace of God, that has brought her this far.