A month before the night we received the frantic call from Charity about Allie’s ambulance ride, Charity met new friends Eric and Charlene at a little church called Calvary Chapel San Francisco. Charity was greeted by Charlene when she dropped Allie off at the nursery. Charlene, a young mother, too, was caring for babies in the nursery. After church service, Charlene and her husband, Eric, invited Charity to lunch where the moms set a future play date for the little ones. Charlene and Eric were tender and immediately bonded with Charity.
Charity called us the day she visited Calvary Chapel San Francisco. Susan and I were so pleased she had found a church community to connect with. She had been in San Francisco for three months and was homesick and lonely and missed the church routine she had grown up with. Charlene and Eric were introduced into Charity’s life for more than friendship. They became a family to me and later to Susan, too.
Eric shuttled me around San Francisco in his car when I needed to run errands and wouldn’t let me pay for gas. Charlene brought home cooked food to comfort my soul and give me a break from the cafeteria food I’d been eating at the hospital. It wasn’t until I ate that home cooked meal that I realized how much I missed my wife. I was glad that she’d be coming to San Francisco soon.
At the end of my first week in San Francisco, Allie remained in a coma and on a breathing machine. The medical team said that she continued to show progress. I couldn’t see any perceptible difference, but doctors said that her continued stability was a good sign. Over the weekend, they made plans to take her off the breathing machine. They had no idea whether she could breathe on her own or not and the only way to know would be to take her off the machine cold turkey.
The most difficult part of discussion about this attempt was not knowing if Allie would actually breathe on her own. If she couldn’t breath without the machine; if Allie couldn’t breathe on her own, the next decision would be when do we take her off the machine permanently. That was terrifying to think about.
I mustered the faith to ask God for a favor and please let Allie breathe on her own. Allie’s story had made the rounds at the hospital and spectators started to gather. People wanted to see what would happen next in this little girl’s life. Our friends from the police department came in.
I called Susan to let her know what was going on. She was going to be in San Francisco soon, and I didn’t want her to see Allie with giant blue tubes coming out of her mouth.
The team went to work removing tape where the tubes went into Allie’s mouth. Plastic pipes snaked their way down Allie’s throat. Once the tape was removed, the doctor gently went to work removing the tube from Allie’s throat. As the doctor lifted the tube from her mouth, Allie rasped out a few hoarse coughs and immediately started taking breaths. Everyone gathered ignored the signs demanding silence in the PICU and clapped and cheered.
I immediately called Susan to tell her the good news. She and her friend Cheryl prayed together in Florida while doctors busied themselves caring for Allie in San Francisco. Cheryl is a faith-filled friend always ready with an encouraging word. She’s someone you want to have praying for you because God always answers her prayers in the most spectacular way. And Cheryl knows it. She keeps a written record of answered prayers. She has so much experience with having prayers answered, she makes bold, faith-filled declarations about how God will come through. In our case, she told Susan not to worry about Allie being in a coma. “As soon as you arrive at the hospital later this week,” Cheryl said, “not only will she be off the breathing machine, but when you get there, she’s going to come out of that coma.” And that was it. You don’t argue with Cheryl and you don’t downplay what she says. She keeps a record of all the prayers God has answered.
I went to pick Susan up at San Francisco International airport a few days after Allie started breathing on her own.
“I’ll never fly again.” Susan said meeting me with a giant hug at the San Francisco airport. Susan travelled light. All she had was a small roll-on suitcase. Susan had no idea that she wouldn’t return to Florida for two more years.
I handed her a Starbucks coffee, took the handle of her roll-on, and said, “Let’s go see Allie.”
While we rode the train into the city, I recapped the past few days since Allie was taken off the breathing machine. Allie breathing on her own brought fresh hope to the PICU. There was a new sense of purpose among the doctors and nurses caring for Allie. Allie was still in a coma, but stable. We were encouraged to manage our expectations, but there was hope that she would continue to improve.
We arrived at the hospital and went straight to Allie’s room. Susan was heartbroken to see Allie in the hospital bed, but didn’t pause. She got as close as she could to Allie in the bed and asked a nurse to prepare Allie to be held. The nurse rearranged tubes and wires and put Allie into Susan’s arms. Within minutes of her arrival, Susan was holding Allie.
Susan held Allie and talked to her the way grandmothers do. “Grandma’s here, baby,” she said as she nuzzled Allie’s little neck and cooed softly in her ear. “I love you, and I’m never going to let go of you.”
Allie began to open an eye.
The response to Susan’s arrival was the strongest Allie had at any time up to this point. Just like coming off of the breathing machine was a giant step forward, this strong neurological response from a child with severe brain damage was tremendous. Up until a few days ago, no one thought Allie was going to leave her hospital bed. Allie’s medical team had very low expectations about Allie’s recovery, so this strong of neural response exceeded anything they’d hoped for.
Susan was happy but didn’t seem very surprised. “Cheryl prayed,” Susan said. “She told me Allie was going to come out of this coma when I got here.”
I was overjoyed. Just a few days before I was having a conversation with the doctor about shutting machines if Allie couldn’t breathe on her own, and now she’s trying to open an eye so she can look at Susan.
Ä’n-ge-los [Greek]: angel, messenger
Our new friends Eric and Charlene are angels. I’m not talking about winged supernatural beings; they were naturally supernatural. They were messengers of God always arriving at the perfect time, this time with another home cooked meal. They knew Susan would be here, weary from travel. Charlene prepared a Mexican feast including hand rolled tamales. There was good food, Susan was with me, a huge step forward with Allie, and new friends. I had a glowing sense of comfort and renewed faith and felt I can’t remember a meal I enjoyed more. We didn’t know these people, but they went out of their way to treat us like family and provide whatever they could. They themselves would never say this, but they were the hands and feet of Jesus during a time I thought that God had forgotten us.
God never forgets. Even in the middle of the worst days, God is perfectly capable of bringing new people into your life. He’s delighted to do it, in fact, just to show you he’s at work. He loves to show off the connections he has in the places where you don’t know a soul. And I think the part he loves the most is that there’s an audience of doctors, nurses, and other patients, standing around watching him show up to turn around the most dismal situations.
Allie continued to slowly emerge from the coma. I had no idea how slow coming out of a coma could be. Allie was still semi-comatose for several more days.
The hospital administration provided Susan and I with a hospital room in a wing that was used for storage and offices. We were comfortable staying in the hospital; we had a shower, the cafeteria, and Starbucks and other necessities within walking distance of the hospital. I jogged in Presidio Park, which was only about two blocks from the hospital, everyday. We had just a short walk to Allie’s room.
Three days after Susan’s arrival, I had to go back to Florida to work. A heavy sadness returned as I walked into San Francisco’s cold, foggy street to catch a cab to airport. It was breezy, and the wind chilled me to the bone. Someone needed to tell San Francisco it was May.
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