‘She’s in good hands. Drive carefully’

Published 9:50 am Wednesday, August 12, 2015

by R.E. Spears

Only as the helicopter launched toward the sun in the humidity of an Ocracoke, N.C., summer noon did I begin to understand the reality of what was happening.

As waves of heat rose from the Ocracoke Island Airport on July 31, I watched my wife make a quick, early departure from our vacation, and I wondered whether I’d see her alive again.

I’d been down past the airport once already that Friday morning, camera and tripod over my shoulders, in pursuit of sunrise photos. When I returned to our vacation rental, Annette fixed me a hot breakfast while I processed the photos from my excursion.

“I’m going to go lie down,” she soon said. “I’m having a really bad pain in my abdomen.”

I followed along, lay down beside her and promptly dozed off. Two hours later, she shook me awake and said she’d been throwing up and felt sick again. When I followed her into the restroom, I knew something was terribly wrong. She was dripping sweat, and her skin felt clammy. She had vomited again, and as I knelt beside her, she collapsed into my arms. I laid her on the floor and saw that her pajamas were soaked with sweat.

A friend called 911, and when the island paramedics arrived, they quickly moved into action. Every time someone would touch her abdomen, she would wail in agony. Their faces registered their grave concerns. One said her symptoms looked like those of a gallbladder attack.

Considering the acuteness of her symptoms, a drive to the Outer Banks hospital was out of the question. The choice was whether to call for air evacuation from Norfolk or Greenville, N.C. The former would be a two-hour and 40-minute round trip. The latter would have her at the hospital in Greenville in 80 minutes.

It had to be Greenville.

As the tiny helicopter arrived, I realized I would not be able to make the trip with Annette. I would have to take the 1 p.m. ferry to Swan Quarter — a nearly three-hour ride — and then drive the hour and 40 minutes to Greenville. By the time I got there, we would have been apart nearly five hours. So much could happen in that time. I said a quick prayer, begging for God’s grace, mercy and healing — grace and mercy for me and healing for my beloved wife.

As the helicopter flew away and I headed to the truck my friend had driven to the airport, one of the island EMTs got out of the ambulance, walked over to me, hugged me and said, “She’s in good hands. Drive carefully when you get there.” He might make such compassionate gestures every day, but to me it was like a drink of cool water to a man lost in the desert.

For the three-hour ferry ride, I felt a peacefulness I couldn’t have imagined. I’d prayed for grace, and God responded by lavishing His peace upon me. I sat. I prayed. I’m not sure what I did, for the most part. But I had peace that my wife was in the hands of skilled medical professionals, and — more than that — she and I both were in the hands of the Great Physician, who loves those who call Him their Father.

Only as I neared Greenville did I begin to worry. I knew from experience when my father died of a massive heart attack that if the ER attendant in Greenville asked me to wait in a room for a doctor to come and see me, it would mean I’d lost the greatest earthly gift I’d ever received.

“She’s been admitted.” Never could I have imagined sweeter words than that. I nearly hugged the attendant.

The nurses in my wife’s wing said she’d had a major gallbladder attack and was scheduled for surgery the next day. She’d been given antibiotics to fight the infection and give her the time to wait for the doctor, I later learned was one of the best laparoscopic surgeons on the East Coast. The gallbladder attack also had caused pancreatitis. They could remove the gallbladder, but she’d have to remain in the hospital with no food or water until her pancreatic enzymes were under control.

Her situation was far more serious than even I had realized. Her temperature on the helicopter had dropped to 94.5 degrees, and her enzyme levels had climbed to 35 times normal levels. She likely would not have survived the flight to Norfolk from Ocracoke. Again I said a silent prayer of thanks for the wisdom of the medical professionals on that little, isolated island.

The next four days were a blur of text messages to family and friends, surgery, phone calls, beeping monitors, late-night visits from medical professionals, occasional Facebook updates and broken sleep. Friends around the Western Hemisphere bathed my wife in prayer. Folks who have never met her and don’t even know me were praying for us both.

Finally, late Tuesday morning, she was released. “Thank you, and God bless,” I scribbled on the whiteboard that had been used to remind us who was on duty at various times throughout our stay.

Indeed, God has blessed me magnificently. I’ll never be able to thank Him enough for what He’s done in my life, for transforming the lost, broken and ruined man I was into the child of God I am today. I’ll never be able to thank Him enough for giving me more time with my dear wife, whom I love and cherish even more today than ever. And I’ll never be able to thank Him enough for the friends, family and strangers who came alongside us and helped us through this crisis.

Annette is now recovering at home. She says it’s hard to believe everything that happened — somehow it just doesn’t seem real. I know what she means. Most of us just aren’t made for the kind of crisis that befell us on Ocracoke last week, so our subconscious minds dull the reality of it.

Praise God, though, for people like the paramedics who literally came to our rescue Friday, people who deal with the reality of such crises regularly and yet do not become so hardened to it that they cannot stop and offer a compassionate hug and a line of encouragement: “She’s in good hands. Drive carefully.”

R.E. Spears is the editor of The Suffolk News Herald. He can be reached at 934-9616 or res.spears@suffolknewsherald.com