Before I go any further in my experiences with Joe, I want to share his birth story with you, because it tells you how hard Joe fought just to be here. His tenacious fight for life was surely a predicator of a personality not willing to let living pass him by.
Joe’s life journey started with a rendering of flesh and spirit that should have claimed not only his life, but his mom’s. Many people today have a hard time believing in miracles, or God, or even a power greater than themselves. For me, Joe’s birth story solidifies my belief that God is real, present, and active in our lives, even when I don’t know it, don’t appreciate it, don’t acknowledge it, don’t feel it. Joe and his mom, Dee, both believe in God’s miracles. They see one every day when they look in the mirror.
On March 3rd, 1986, Dee went bowling. The fact that she was 7 months pregnant never gave her a second thought. Bowling had always been a part of Dee’s life, and she had been active and bowling throughout her pregnancy. She came in to Ashwaubenon Lanes laughing and joking with her friends, just like any other league night. Her turn came up and she threw her first ball. She immediately experienced debilitating abdominal pain, and was barely able to keep her feet. Her scared and worried friends called her husband Don and he picked her up and brought her home.
Once home, the pain did not diminish. Her fear for her baby mounting, she called her mom for advice. Her mom came over, took one look at her daughter, and knew Dee needed medical care. Dee and Don rushed over to St. Mary’s Hospital.
At St. Mary’s, she was brought up to the OB floor and was seen by the nurses, who then called her clinic. The doctor on call for the clinic (not her regular doctor) did not bother coming down to examine her. Instead, he asked what she had for dinner, diagnosed “gas” over the phone, and prescribed some anti-gas medication. Dee and Don went home. Her 17-year-old sister Doreen was there babysitting their two older children, and remembers it vividly. “Don had to literally carry her in the house. Her face was as white as a sheet of paper. It was blatantly obvious, even to me at 17, that there was something horribly wrong.”
However, Dee tried to do as the doctor ordered, hoping it would work. She took the prescription and tried to stay calm while waiting for the pain to subside. Except it didn’t. It got worse. Dee called the nurse to let her know, and was told to take some additional medication, and to try to walk it off. Again, this did not help. Another call to the nurse resulted in the same instructions. By now, Dee was worried and frightened for the life of her baby, wondering how all this pain could be caused by gas. She just wanted it to shift and dissipate, so she would know her baby was still okay. So she followed the nurse’s instructions and, leaning on Don for support, she walked. All night.
As soon as it was light, Dee called her sister Debbie, who was also a nurse. Debbie knew her sister was in trouble, and said she needed to get in to see her doctor. As soon as they could, Don took Dee to her OB/GYN.
Her doctor examined her, and said she was either in labor, had a serious bladder infection, or “we don’t want to discuss the other diagnosis”, by which he meant a uterine rupture. He sent her to be admitted to St. Mary’s for an ultrasound. At the hospital she was told she could not be admitted to the maternity floor, because she was not in labor, so they put her on the general floor instead. Dee’s pain began to increase, and she called for the nurse. This nurse came in, examined her, and then told her she should be on the maternity floor, so she was moved again. By now, the pain was radiating to her chest, and shooting thru her shoulder. Dee asked the nurse when they would be doing her ultrasound, hoping to finally find out what was going on. The nurse getting her into her bed told her no ultrasound was prescribed. A few minutes later, the nurse came back, and acknowledged that Dee actually was to have an ultrasound, and another nurse and an ultrasound technician came in. Within seconds of the ultrasound, the nurses realized Dee had a serious complication, and called for help. Dee soon had all three of the doctors from her OB/GYN clinic at her side, including the one who misdiagnosed her.
Dee’s pain was elevating quickly, and her stomach was beginning to swell. Her doctor let her and Don know that Dee had indeed ruptured her uterine wall and that he would be performing an emergency C-section to save her life and the life of their baby. There was no time to give her meds to help the baby’s lungs – it was critical get him out as Dee had been bleeding internally by then for over 12 hours, and if the baby slipped thru the rupture, he would die. He told Don the baby would be taken immediately to the neonatal unit at St. Vincent’s. Dee was almost incoherent with pain, but she was aware they were going to take her baby, and that his life hung in the balance.
Joseph Donald Christensen was born at 12:24 PM on Tuesday, March 4th, 1986, weighing 3lbs, 14oz. and was named after his great-grandfather, Joseph, and his own father, Don. Because Joe was critical, Don could only watch anxiously as they prepared his little boy for transfer. He did not get to hold Joe. He worried that he never might.
Don’s worry was not misplaced. Joe was okay for the first few hours after his rocky entrance, but at 4pm his lungs collapsed, requiring 4 chest tubes. Joe was also put on oxygen and a respirator, which he fought, resulting in him needing to be sedated. Because of his sedation and the respirator, Joe also needed a feeding tube because he could not be fed with a bottle. Nor could he be held. During this time, they also discovered Joe had a level 4 brain bleed on his right side (they are rated 1-4, with 4 being the worst). Joe was not expected to survive. A priest came to baptize him.
When Dee woke from her surgery, she needed 4 units of blood to replace what she lost. Her sister Doreen and her friends gave blood for the very first time in order to help her. She was weak and distraught, believing she had lost Joe despite assurances from Don and her family. She had not seen nor held Joe yet, and the stress of recovering from her own near fatal ordeal while worrying about her infant son in a hospital across town was literally causing her hair to turn grey.
It was not until Friday that the hospital allowed her to travel to St. Vincent’s to see her little boy for the first time. She could not hold him because of the respirator, but at least she could touch him, and rub his little arm. His foot fit in the palm of her hand. Seeing Joe sedated and full of tubes did nothing to alleviate her fear, but there wasn’t anything more that they could do.
Dee was shuttled back to St. Mary’s where she stayed for a few more days. During her recovery, her hands-on-care was performed only by nurses. The doctors did little more than talk to her from the doorway. There were no apologies. No admittance of wrong. In fact the doctor who diagnosed her with gas had the gall to say, “Well, it’s a good thing you’re so persistent or I would be visiting you at Schauer and Schumacher Funeral Home”. Within a week, Dee was discharged, and she and Don went home without Joe.
This was a traumatic time for them. As any parent with a seriously ill child knows, the first person you blame is yourself. Tensions mount and anxiety becomes constant. Dee and Don had two little girls at home, so they also had to cope with their feelings of crushing disappointment, helplessness, and fear, all while juggling time between Joe and the girls and holding everything together. They ached to be a whole family.
At Dee’s 6 week check, she and Don confronted her doctor. He told them that her uterus had ruptured, likely at the site of her previous C-section (Dee had her first two girls by C-section, and 28 years ago, she should have been considered high risk). The rupture was the size of a golf ball, and at any time Joe could have slipped thru the tear, killing them both. He told her it was a situation you learn about in medical school, but that you never want to see happen. In fact, he had seen it only one other time, and mother and child did not survive. He also told Dee and Don that there was NO medical reason that she and Joe were alive.
Joe was in the hospital for 88 days. During that time, Dee and Don were called to the hospital several nights for situations where Joe was not expected to live, including a bout with pneumonia when he was only 2 and a half weeks old. Each time, Joe proved them wrong.
Miraculously, Joe’s brain bleed healed on its own, the day before he was supposed to have surgery for a shunt. He was removed from the respirator on April 6th, his mom’s birthday. The entire family was ecstatic – they could finally hold Joe after over a month – but nobody more so than Dee. Holding Joe was the best birthday present!
With them during Joe’s entire stay, and indeed even after his discharge, was Dr. Jim Winston and Dee’s favorite nurse, Betsy (Betsy saved Joe’s life when he had pneumonia. She saw the signs right away and they were able to take immediate action. And while it was still touch and go, Joe surely would have died if she had not noticed). Dr. Jim and Betsy held the hands of Joe and his family thru every process, celebrating every victory and suffering every setback, together. At Joe’s discharge, Dee and Don were again told that there was no medical reason that Joe survived.
When Joe came home, the entire family had to learn CPR. Joe was still on oxygen and also had a heart and breathing monitor to let them know he was getting enough oxygen and that his heartbeat was regular. But, he was home. Finally, Joe was home.
Joe’s family had to be prepared for all possible outcomes, including death. He could be wheelchair bound, blind, deaf, unable to feed himself, or walk, or talk. As it turned out, Joe is legally blind in his left eye, has severe hearing loss in both ears, but boy, can that guy talk. 🙂
Joe also has issues from his brain bleed. It affected his entire left side, and he has little use of his left hand, with no bone structure in his fingers. He has had 8 surgeries ranging from basic foot straightening to sternum surgery (you could stick your fist in inside his sternum before that) to scoliosis surgery (he says that one was the worst). His scoliosis was so severe that it took 10 hours of surgery, where they had to break his back in order to straighten it, and then use 13 screws and rods to keep it that way. Joe has a full back tattoo showing a replica of his surgery. It’s one bad ass tattoo.
One might look at Joe’s experience and wonder why he and his family had to go thru what they did, or if God truly loved us, why do we still have suffering and hardships. I don’t have an answer for that. I think we each have to look for our own blessings in our own lives and in our own hearts. We can’t weigh or measure our lives with someone else’s or allow blessings in another’s life detract from the blessings in ours. We need to surround them with our hearts, and treasure the gifts God has given us.
Joe puts it best:
“I do believe in God. I believe He was not ready for me yet, and still isn’t, as far as living. The tattoo on my inner right forearm is symbolic in a way. Every day that I am here, I feel, is a gift. I try to live my life to the way He wanted, to the best of my ability by telling my story and joining differently abled events. In a way, it is His way of telling me “you are here for a reason. Use the gift of life to the best of your ability”.
I was born a very sick little boy, and sent to St. Vincent ICU. There were lots of sick little babies there with me too.
I was an unexpected surprise being the first boy and all, and I was never given much of a chance being so sick and small.
I spent the first 71 days of my life on St. Vincent’s 6th floor and every step I took ahead the nurses and doctors knew I could do more.
They never once lost hope, as they never do, even when it seemed close to an end – they are so much more than just nurses and doctors, they are what I call FRIENDS.
They took care of me and loved me just as their very own and they really tried to help my mommy and daddy feel at home.
But now I’ve made it through all those hard times, and I will make it through all the rest, because the care I got at St. Vincent’s NeoNatal Unit was the very BEST.
Yes, I guess I truly am a miracle, as I’m so often called, and I’d just like to say-
Thank you for the gift of life and may God bless you every day.
With love to St. Vincent’s Neo-Natal Unit
Joseph Donald Christensen 3/4/86