Caregving

Through It All, We Are Still Blessed – by Diahanne Harmon

My husband Wendell and I met in church. I enjoyed my career in the field of my degree, and God blessed my husband with acceptance into the Carpenter’s Union after 3 tries. After being told I would never carry a baby to term, God supernaturally blessed us with a son and a daughter. We vacationed in Florida every year.  Life was good, and we gave all the glory to God.  There was no way of knowing our lives were about to drastically change.

In 2012 Wendell was helping on the sideline at our son’s Pop Warner football playoff game. After Joshua’s team won, there was a presentation of the championship trophy. As I watched the celebration on the field, my mother whispered in my ear, “I think Wendell needs to go to the hospital.  He’s not feeling well.” I immediately scanned the crowd and found my husband standing away from the crowd and looking in my direction. I will never forget the look on his face, full of fear and helplessness. I rushed him to the hospital, grabbing his hand on the way there and praying over him the entire trip. 

In the ER, it was determined he suffered a heart attack and had a significant arterial blockage, requiring a stent. They wanted to transport him by helicopter to another hospital, but Hurricane Sandy was approaching our region and high wind conditions required him to be transported by ambulance instead. 

He was taken to Presbyterian University of Pennsylvania Medical Center, which I’m convinced was completely God-ordained. My mother had worked there as a CRNA Nurse Practitioner for over 40 years and immediately phoned the hospital to request the specific medical personnel by name for his stent procedure. After his procedure and recovery, Wendell was released and referred to a cardiology specialist in New Jersey.

Over the next two years, my husband had two more heart attacks and several episodes of Supraventricular tachycardia (SVT), when his heart suddenly beats really, really fast. He was eventually referred to Deborah Heart and Lung Center as they were more equipped to handle his condition.  Under the care of a new cardiology team, he had many cardiac catheterizations, two ablations, and medication adjustments, and eventually discovered the cause of his problems – he had been born with a collapsed section of the aortic heart valve. 

The doctor explained the valve cross sectioned looks like the Mercedes-Benz logo with the openings being the three chambers of the valve.  When his heart pumped, instead of the valves all pulsing the way they should, one of the sections just sort of flopped open and stayed there, causing the heart to pump harder to make up for the lack of blood and pressure needed to supply blood to the body. To correct this major deficiency, open heart surgery was needed to replace the valve as well as a double bypass.

When presented with a challenge, I always put my head down and charged forward through it. With lots of prayer of course, but I also remember having this feeling of numbness.  Even though I was experiencing it, I also felt like I was watching it happen. I can remember having the hospital hallway floor tile pattern in my memory and eventually I began to hate those floors.

On the day of his surgery in 2016, we set up a little corner of the family waiting room and read my devotional, crocheted, and waited patiently with my mother-in-law.  The surgery took a little longer than expected. The doctor eventually came out and explained overall, the surgery went well, however, because my husband had been sick for so long, his heart had enlarged. 

Every time they attempted to close his chest, he would go into cardiac arrest.  The only solution was to put him in a medically induced coma and allow for the swelling to go down. Upon hearing this news, I remember thinking, “If I ever knew I trusted God before, I know I trust Him right now!”  My mother-in-law immediately started to cry and became very upset.  I wanted to cry but told my mother-in-law, “Sorry, but I can’t go there right now.  I have to trust God.”  I think she may have expected me to break down and become hysterical, but I couldn’t. 

Two hours later I was finally able to see him in the ICU, but for only fifteen minutes. I stared at my husband as he lay there amidst wires and tubes and a tower of intravenous medications stacked high next to him.  The nurse told me, “He’s got a lot going on.  We’re not going to make any guarantees.  We’ll see how he does in the first 24 hours.”  I left the hospital feeling numb.

Six days later Wendell awoke from his coma. It was shocking to see the physical changes in such a short time. He was not able to do a lot of things. I fed him and washed him until he was able to feed himself.  He had to relearn the simplest tasks. The nurses celebrated when he took his first walk halfway down the hall with the aid of a walker.  After a rapid progression of recuperation, he was transferred to rehab and was home two weeks later after completing a course of cardiac physical therapy. 

The next few years were full of tracking medications and regular doctor appointments and checkups.  During those years my husband was not able to carry heavy drywall and endure the physical demand of his job, causing him to leave his Union and apply for Disability.

In September 2020, some of my husband’s symptoms returned – shortness of breath, fatigue, and a persistent cough, sometimes called a “heart cough.”  He was hospitalized multiple times and had procedures to receive a pacemaker and defibrillator. At the end of the year, he had a right-side cardiac catheterization to determine his heart strength and was hospitalized for six days.  The day before his discharge the doctor called me at work – the only words I captured in my notes were “weak heart muscle” and “end-stage heart failure.” 

Before he was discharged, I had to wait in the parking lot for his medication to be delivered from North Jersey, with a special nurse teaching me how to maintain the new medication to keep his heart beating.  Wendell had to wear the medication in a pump around his waist in a fanny pack that ran to a pic line in his arm through a catheter going directly into his heart.

I received a crash course tutorial on his medication, how to change the batteries in the pump, how to sterilize the pic line, how to flush the line, and how to change the dressing. I became an instant home health aide.  I was terrified and completely overwhelmed, but there was no time to read over anything. This was what my life was going to be.

I can remember praying and asking God “Why did it have to happen like THIS?” I had lost my mother only months earlier and was still grieving.  I remember telling God, “Please help me!  I don’t want to mess up!! This is all too much!” Messing up could cost my husband his life.  It was just too much pressure.  I literally felt like I was being crushed.

After pleading with God to guide and help me, the first thing He showed me was how to get organized. I purchased an undated planner and created a schedule for my husband’s care.  The calendar noted every day when I had to change the bolus of medication, and what time I had to flush the line.  The pump batteries also had to be changed every forty-eight hours.  I also recorded all of his vital signs daily and tracked the amount of water he drank daily. There was also a whole procedure to disconnect his medication so he could shower. The entire process of showering, dressing, and changing medication and batteries could take no more than twenty minutes.

When we received confirmation that Wendell needed a heart transplant, the doctor asked if we would consider traveling three hours away, to which we affirmed. He immediately contacted his colleagues at the very progressive Hartford Hospital in Connecticut, which completes the most heart transplants in the country.

In January 2021 we headed up to Hartford, where Wendell would be admitted until he received a heart.  Wendell asked me to take a picture of him outside of the hospital before he went in. He wanted to take one when he got out as a testimony.

There was a moment between the time he had the open-heart surgery and the transplant when God showed me specifically how to pray for my husband. As my husband laid on his back, I anointed my hands with oil and anointed his hands, feet, and head.  I also had our children lay hands on him.  Then God told me to lay my body directly on top of his and pray for him.  I could do nothing but be obedient.

The team there was amazing.  They were so attentive, and the doctors called me every day. Because of the pandemic, he was only allowed one visitor for thirty minutes one day a week. Every Friday I would take the three-hour train ride to Hartford, visit him (which usually would end up being closer to an hour) and turn back around and come home.  We did daily video chats as many times as we could.

While in the hospital they implanted an Intra-Aortic Balloon Pump (IABP) to aid his heart function.  They said this would also help to bump him up on the transplant list. Two hearts became available, but they were too small.

Four weeks after he was admitted, on the evening of February 3, my husband was prepped for surgery – a heart had been found! The next day I spoke to the surgeon, his voice groggy and exhausted from surgery.  The transplant was a success, and the heart was functioning great. Thank you, God!

Two weeks later Wendell was discharged but had to remain in the Hartford area for thirty days to get weekly biopsies and antirejection assessments. I had to do another tutorial on medication – memorizing it, learning how to identify it, and knowing he has to take it. He was put on about nineteen different medications including anti-rejection. 

God provided again and we found an extended-stay residence not far from the hospital, with the cost covered by supplemental insurance from my employment.  The benefit of a major organ transplant was enough to cover a month’s stay and then some!  I would go up Wednesday to Saturday and cook for him for Sunday-Tuesday and return each week. 

In retrospect, it seemed as if the Covid shutdown was a blessing as I was working from home with our children going to school and college remotely.  This allowed for flexibility and travel and visitation.  Our son was even able to go to CT to stay for a while with him.

Returning to our home required many adjustments to stay on top of his medication and appointment schedule, monitoring his diet and general care, but we were just glad to have him home.

Back then, the most difficult challenge was keeping things as normal as possible for our children. Over the years they had become accustomed to me having to take their dad to the hospital so often. Somehow, this time was different. They didn’t talk about the transplant, but I was sure to explain everything which was happening and answer whatever questions they had.

Today Wendell is on about thirteen medications. He still requires regular cardiology appointments and has chronic pulmonary embolism, which sometimes leads to ER visits and hospital stays. I am on-call for his care 24×7.

The scripture that has gotten me through everything is Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God.”  When I feel overwhelmed and the magnitude of the situation hits me, I have to remind myself to be still. I have to trust and fully rely on God for everything.

As God is omnipotent, I realize it would be crazy for me to try and do anything without his guidance. Especially during those times when I literally feel like I am being crushed under the weight of everything. I may yell, cry, or get angry, but when the moment is over, I know to give it all over to God. He was and still is my life preserver. I know He won’t ever let me drown.

Prayer for Moms:

I pray, Father in the name of Jesus, I thank you for everything you have done and will still do.  Father, I thank you and pray for anyone that is going through a similar situation.  Lord, give them the strength to be an attentive caregiver.  Give them the wisdom to make the right decisions when their loved one may not be able to.  Guide their journey through this season to remain focused and organized as only you can.  Help them develop a successful care plan and allow them to get rest and time of peace.  Cover them with your peace and give them peace of mind as they trust you.  Amen.

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Want to hear more of Diahanne’s story? Watch her Moms Night In Conversation on Youtube

Or watch on Facebook here.

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