Monday, May 29, 2017

Take a breath….

This is it:  the moment we've all been waiting for.  This is the culmination of years of work, oceans of tears, reams of papers, buckets of sweat…you name it.  This day will go down in history as "The Day That Couldn't Happen."  Or maybe "The Day The Impossible Happened."  How about "The Day That Was Never Supposed to Happen"?

I don't know what to call this day, because calling it what it is seems so anticlimactic.  But here goes:  Monday, June 5, 2017, is the day my son graduates from high school.

I told you it seemed rather tame.  After the opening paragraph, you might have thought we were sending another man to the moon, but no---we're simply celebrating Dale's graduation from Bethel Baptist Christian School.  He has completed his high school courses successfully and is ready to march across the platform to accept his diploma.  We're very proud of him.

If you are new to our family's story, let me fill in some background details that might help you understand the title I chose.

Five and a half years ago, my son died.

You read that right.  Five and a half years ago, on Friday, August 5, 2011, my son Dale, along with his two older sisters and half the youth group, went on a teen activity.  They headed for the coast two hours away to enjoy some sun, water, and general goofiness.  Dale was new to the youth group, having just finished sixth grade two months prior.  Amanda, our oldest, kept an eye on him, concerned that he would pull some crazy shenanigans (he did that a lot!  Still does…).  Katie, our second oldest, played with her friends while the chaperones watched over everyone.  Throughout the morning and into the afternoon, the group was having a great time.  Teens were wading in the water, scouring the beach for driftwood, or just soaking up the sunshine.  The day was perfect…until two of our boys got their legs swept out from under them.  The undertow quickly carried them out into deeper water than they could handle, and they began to cry out in distress.  Two people nearby, a father and his daughter, heard them and responded; the father managed to get the one boy safely back to shore, but the girl, only twelve herself, was struggling to help the other boy, Dale.  They tried swimming to shore holding onto her boogie board, but the ocean swamped them.  Nicole, that brave young lady, recalls feeling Dale near her, grabbing his belt, and shoving him up towards the surface.  When they broke through, gasping for air, she told Dale to swim for shore with all his might.  Glancing back, she saw him right behind her.  But when she reached the beach, moments later, he was gone.

Frantic calls began flooding the emergency lines, reporting the incident.  Rescue personnel went into action:  police headed out to the beach, ambulance drivers raced toward the scene, the volunteer water rescue team started suiting up.  A photographer overheard the calls on the police band and followed the line of vehicles out to the water.  I'm so glad he did because he sent us every picture he took that day, from the time he arrived to the time Dale was pulled from the water…over twenty minutes later.  Paramedics worked on Dale's lifeless body right there on the beach, giving him CPR and even using the paddles to try to restart his heart.  Remember:  the youth group is right there, watching everything with horrified, disbelieving faces.  Our teens were the first responders:  they knelt on the sand, some of them face down, prostrate, and begged God that Dale be found and then that he'd regain life.  Our daughters were there when the panicked call went out to clear the water because Dale was missing; they were there when their brother's body was carried ashore, arms dangling.  They were there when he was strapped to a stretcher and loaded in an ambulance to be taken to the hospital.  The scars they carry to this day are emotional and deep…

I have never been so proud of my family as I was that tragic day.  My husband's first words when informed of the accident were "We need to pray."  Once the girls arrived at the hospital, before they even got to go back to Dale's room, Chad told them and me, "No matter what happens now, God will receive the glory."  Mind you, we all thought Dale was dead.  The paramedics had managed to restart his heart, but Dale wasn't breathing on his own, and the doctors were kind but offered no hope whatsoever.  We were warned that Dale's body might simply give up and shut down completely; we were told that, even if he regained consciousness, he might be in a vegetative state or unable to walk, feed himself, might need to wear a diaper, might not be able to talk.  Dale had simply been underwater, without oxygen, without pumping blood, for too long.  My girls stood at Dale's bedside and sang praises to our God.  I had long prayed that God would use our family to bring honor and glory to Himself.  None of us had any idea what He was about to do.

Two days later, Sunday, August 7, 2011, a meeting with the doctor indicated we should prepare for the worst.  Up to this point, Dale had exhibited no signs that his brain was still functioning.  The machines were breathing for him; there had been no response to stimuli; the doctor had taken Chad and me aside and told us that they had done all they could.  Chad begged him, "Give God a chance."  That night, Chad asked a doctor to demonstrate what Dale should be responding to.  The doctor leaned over and barked in Dale's ear, "DALE, WAKE UP!"  To our shock, Dale's eyes flew open, startling even the doctor.  The room immediately filled with people, all working to give Dale this fighting chance.  What they didn't realize was that God, now that the doctors had stepped aside, was flexing His muscles, about to show the entire world just what He could do.

Dale began to improve from that moment on.  He began breathing regularly on his own; he began responding to verbal commands as well as physical stimuli; when they took the ventilator tube out the next day and encouraged Dale to cough to clear his lungs, Dale shocked everyone again by saying, "I don't NEED to!"  We spent a couple of weeks at that hospital, while Dale relearned how to walk and breathe properly and all.  Then we transferred to another hospital closer to home, spending the next several weeks there, allowing Dale to relearn how to swallow, how to eat, how to brush his teeth, how to talk, everything.  God's hands were so evident, holding our son, soothing our fears, calming my stress.  I'm deliberately glossing over those first weeks; it's still an emotional topic for our family and me, as the storyteller.  The next year is a blur for Dale:  we went to physical therapy twice a week and speech therapy once a week.  We assisted Dale as if he were a toddler, though he turned thirteen before the first anniversary of the accident came around.  He changed from a young boy into a young man during that time; his voice dropped from its high pitch to a much lower one---he had trouble singing because he couldn't adjust to his different voice very well!

He lost a full year from his life, has only fuzzy recollections of those months, doesn't remember his therapists though he spent so much time with them.  He lost a year of schooling, plus a large portion of the next school year, struggling to figure out how to learn again, how to process information and repeat it on a test.  One of our teachers pointed out recently, "Dale has worked harder toward his graduation than most graduates.  He took six years of high school and crammed them into five."  Four and a half, actually.  To say he's struggled academically would be to say the sun is a little warm.  Dale has had to put at least three times as much work, time, and brain power into his studies as the average student does; school work that should take between twenty to forty-five minutes has taken Dale up to two days to complete.  Our school with its wonderful teachers and principals has worked with us nonstop to assist Dale in every way he needs, focusing on an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) for him and eliminating extra requirements.  As I'm writing this, Dale is downstairs, working on his last English PACE.  He's going to walk across the platform Monday night, June 5, 2017, having actually completed his high school education.  He's not being handed a participation award; he's not being given an obligatory piece of paper so he doesn't feel left out; he's graduating.  Nothing short of amazing describes this accomplishment.

Please realize that none, I repeat, none of this would have been possible without the Almighty's power.  God chose to give Dale life when Dale was supposed to die.  That is my belief.  Dale's life was supposed to end that day at the beach, but God heard His people's prayers and changed His mind, giving the world a chance to see Him in action.  In the weeks following Dale's miraculous recovery, we received an enormous amount of mail from every corner of the world.  We opened letters and packages from nearly every state, numerous countries, and several continents, not to mention the emails and Facebook messages.  This accident, this tragedy, this horrifying incident was used by God to show that He listens and that He has power the wisest doctors do not.  I am not downplaying the tremendous effort those doctors put forth on behalf of my son; their knowledge, support, and caring were more than we could have wished for.  I am saying that, when the doctors said they could do no more, that's when God allowed Dale to wake up, to begin to live again.  He chose to give us back our son, and we will never stop thanking Him and praising Him for His goodness.

Dale continues to struggle each day with various skills.  He has difficulty walking, especially using stairs; he is very unsteady on surfaces that are not level (like gravel, thick carpet, changing from one flooring to another); he speaks more slowly; sometimes his brain literally gets tired and he can't think any more; he must have assistance to walk anywhere; his limbs jerk without warning; writing takes time and effort.  I could continue the list, but I don't want to focus on the negatives.  Dale can brush his teeth, use the restroom, and dress himself; he can read and understand; he's still crazy and goofy; he's worked through anger at God and is now more accepting of his abilities and limitations; he is still stubborn and will argue with a signpost. He's still…Dale.  God, in His infinite graciousness, not only brought our son back to life but gave him back his life.  Oh, not the one Dale had planned out, not the one we parents dreamed of our son living in the hazy future, but a special life that only God Himself could have imagined.  God allowed Dale to live when he should have died, and now Dale is set to graduate high school.

What Dale's future actually holds is unclear still.  Dale still has desires and goals, and we're working toward making those a reality.  We have looked into various opportunities and courses for disabled individuals; we have begun the lengthy process of having Dale declared disabled so that he can receive assistance that will enable him to pursue whatever he desires, whatever God desires.  For us, it's best not to dwell on what might have been---we don't do well when we start thinking about all that we used to wish for.  Not that we haven't talked about Dale's former dreams and goals, but we know too many walks down memory lane lead to anger and depression, which is counter-productive to moving forward.  God understands when we cry out in confusion and pain over the "used-to-coulds," but I believe we bless the Father's heart when we follow those cries with words of acceptance and gratitude for all He has done.  If you don't know our family personally, you might think that we're holier-than-thou people who float through life with our heads in the clouds.  Trust me---nothing is further from the truth!  We're an ordinary family, full of regular human beings, who faced one of life's greatest tragedies and are even now living in the aftermath of that event.  We feel the pain, the anger, the disillusionment, the fear, the abandonment, the "we were serving You, Lord; why did You let this happen?"  We simply chose---and still choose---to trust.  We.  Trust.  God.  Every day.  Every hour.  Every minute.  It's not easy and it's not pretty, but it's the life God gave us, and we're going to trust His plan…and live it.

So, kudos to all those graduating high school this year.  It took a lot of work and time, but you've earned it.  Congratulations also to all the parents and grandparents who've worked so hard to get your graduate to this point.  Goodness knows, we need a vacation after the last twelve years!  Maybe a refreshing week in a mental ward….

To everyone who has read this blog, especially those who have been following Dale's story since the accident; to all the wonderful folks who have prayed for our family; to the generous individuals who have blessed us with food, clothing, finances, and more; to the newcomers who are just realizing that the young man we're talking about is "that boy who drowned" whose image is forever frozen in our minds because of the heart-wrenching picture that headlined news accounts of the accident; to our God, Who is faithful and kind and all-wise and forever; to you we say, "Thank you."  You have touched our lives in ways we can never fully explain without choking on tears.  You have blessed our hearts with your love and prayers.  You have brought our son and our family before the throne so often that God's attention is always on us.  You have been so encouraging with your words and caring questions and love.  It's been a journey, hasn't it?  One we would never have chosen to embark on, but one that has changed our lives and enriched our lives in ways we could never have imagined.  And it's not over---I'm not shutting down the blog just because Dale is graduating.  Life doesn't end after graduation.  Just as life doesn't end after death…. Please, if you have never thought about where your soul will spend eternity after this life is over, please read the section of this blog entitled "Something Dale Would Like You to Know."  Talk to someone about God's desire for you to spend eternity in heaven with Him.  Please don't let another moment pass without settling this all-important matter.

We all want to see God's hand in our lives.  We all would love to feel His presence working with us through our hardships.  We all desire a demonstration of God's might and power.  Our family knows God is still in the miracle-working business.  We see one every time we look into Dale's eyes.

I've decided what to title this post:  "The Day Only God Knew Was Possible."

Mark 10: 27  "And Jesus looking upon them saith, With men it is impossible, but not with God: for with God all things are possible."

"Luke 15: 24  "For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found."

Monday, February 20, 2017

Life can be unexpected….

Who was it that said, "The more I try to do, the more I fall behind"?  This describes my life perfectly.  I keep telling myself to stop volunteering for activities and functions---and I've succeeded to some degree---but then life decides to add twists and turns to my days, and that's when things get absolutely chaotic….

Take, for instance, the month of January.  New year, new beginnings, fresh start to life, right?  Not so much for the Ostrander family.  Over the Christmas holidays, my second youngest, Ashley, was sick with what was probably the flu.  She had a slight fever, vomiting, and a burning sensation in her stomach that finally went away after about a week.  Her appetite took a little longer to return, which meant poor Ashley was feeling ill for most of her school vacation.  Fast forward to Thursday, January 5.  My second oldest, Katie, began feeling a similar pain in her stomach, accompanied by fever and nausea.  She was ill clear through Sunday, January 8, when she spent the day vomiting.  By that night, she was asking to go to the ER, but Chad and I both said that would be extreme.  After all, she'd not been vomiting even 24 hours; they'd tell us it was just the flu and to drink fluids.  Monday seemed to bring some relief:  no more vomiting, although the abdominal pain was still there, presenting itself in waves.  I'd spent the weekend on Google attempting to pinpoint exactly what Katie's symptoms indicated---intestinal virus, appendicitis, female problems---and could only conclude that she'd picked up whatever flu bug Ashley had had earlier.  We honestly thought she'd continue to improve and would eventually feel better.  Boy, was I wrong!

Katie's pain persisted throughout that week.  She was upset about that for multiple reasons:  (1) she didn't feel at all well; (2) she could only eat bland foods in an attempt to pacify her stomach; and (3) she had told me she had an important job interview on Saturday morning, January 14, that she simply couldn't miss.  Chad and I encouraged her to keep her basic schedule, getting some housework done during the day and going to her cleaning job at night.  That makes us sound like bad parents, I know, but our philosophy is the world doesn't stop just because you don't feel well.  Hindsight, however, tells just how off we were!  Her appetite was greatly diminished, and she just didn't seem to be getting any better, despite eating a bland diet and drinking as much water as she could handle.  Friday, January 13, I tried to get her in to see her doctor, only to find out that it had been so long since we'd seen the doctor that we were no longer considered current patients.  Blessing in disguise?  I started the request process to be accepted back as patients and decided to just take Katie to Urgent Care.

That place was packed!!!  So much flu going around, so many ill people---I was scared to breathe.  Katie had to wear a mask, since we thought she had the flu; her skin reacted, causing a slight rash on her face.  We finally got called back to an exam room where the nurse took her vitals and registered the information in the computer.  The doctor took another ten minutes to come in, but that was to be expected with the overflowing waiting room.  When she entered, she asked us to explain again Katie's various symptoms and how long they'd been persisting.  Then the big moment came.  The doctor asked Katie to lie back on the table so she could examine her abdomen…..and Katie couldn't do it.  Her stomach/abdomen had been hurting so much that it was easier to stay in a semi-hunched position; thus, it simply hurt too much to try to lie back and stretch her abdomen out fully.  The doctor took all this in with one glance and stepped back.  "I think there's something bigger going on here than I can treat, and you need to go the ER," she said.  Katie began crying.  "No, Mom, I can't be sick!  I can't go the ER!"  I assured her that she'd be fine once we got things figured out and not to worry about the job interview because she could explain once she got better.  That was when the big news broke:  "Mom, I don't have an interview.  I have to go to the airport!"

The airport could only mean one thing:  Amanda, my oldest, was coming for a visit!  A surprise visit, that I wasn't supposed to know about.  My husband and two oldest girls had cooked this up as a special surprise for me, since Mandie hadn't been able to come home for Christmas.  This was the super important "interview" that Katie couldn't miss.  Now I started crying!  The poor doctor just stood there, completely in the dark as to what was going on.  I managed to calm Katie down somewhat, explain to the doctor in a few sentences what was happening, and gather the paperwork we needed to head for the ER.  Next step of our journey:

Once at the ER, we signed in and began the wait to be seen.  They took us back for a few minutes to check Katie's vitals and such, but it was an hour and a half before we were taken to an exam room.  Short for the ER but still interminable when you're in pain.  The doctor came in to see Katie; this time, when asked to lie back, she was able to do it.  The doctor pressed on her abdomen in different places and decided to do a CT scan, since he believed she had a kidney stone.  This was something I hadn't considered, but he seemed to think it was so.  Once the scan was complete, we began the next waiting period; by now Katie was just wanting to figure things out and go home.  The intake nurse had set an IV port which was already causing trouble, Katie was exhausted from pain and illness, and she was still feeling terrible for letting out the secret of Amanda's visit.  Suddenly the exam room curtain whipped back.  The doctor entered and as suddenly closed the curtain behind him, ensuring complete privacy.  Katie and I glanced fearfully at each other; this was not the expected "here's your diagnosis and prescription."  He abruptly said, "So tell me more about when you were sick last week."  We recounted the details of her illness, starting with Thursday and going through the vomiting on Sunday and the persistent pain up to the present.  He said, "Well, it's not a kidney stone.  You have a perforated appendix."

What??!!!  I'd checked appendicitis symptoms, and hers didn't fit the description.  I gasped at his announcement, but poor Katie didn't realize what he meant.  Turns out, her appendix had apparently ruptured sometime Sunday (when she wanted to go to the ER, go figure!), but her body had walled off the area, preventing her from going into septic shock.  After the doctor vindicated me by saying her appendicitis didn't present with the normal symptoms, we were informed that Katie would not be leaving that hospital until she had had an appendectomy.  Thus began our six-day stay in the hospital.  I called Chad, waking him up about an hour before he had to go to work, and told him what was going on.  He called his supervisor (Miss June is a saint!) and was able to get someone to cover his shift so that he could (a) come to the hospital to see Katie and (b) pick up Mandie from the airport.  Ashley was now left holding down the fort at home while Katie and I prepared to spend some unexpected time together in the surgical ward.

Her appendectomy took place mid-Saturday morning, but her recovery would take much, much longer.  Because her appendix had ruptured nearly a week earlier, her intestinal tract/abdomen was a complete mess.  The doctor was able to clean everything out, but he had to use gas to inflate her abdomen so there would be no chance of nicking something unintentionally; he also had to insert a drain to allow excess fluids to be drained off.  We had been warned that the best way to get rid of the surgical gas is to walk around, but this was incredibly painful for my girl.  She did it, though; Katie is a definite trooper!  However, the next several days were horrible:  she was in a tremendous amount of pain from the surgery, the trapped gas pockets were highly uncomfortable, she had zero appetite, and her intestinal tract was nonfunctioning.  The doctors seemed to think everything was progressing normally, and once her digestive tract picked up again and her white blood count came down, they released her.

Thankfully, during this time, Amanda had become the "mother" at home, making sure the kids got to/from school, fixing meals and lunches, and reminding about homework.  We had Monday, January 16, off school, and Chad had already arranged for someone to sub for me on Tuesday and Wednesday so that I could spend time with Mandie---which turned into spending time with Katie, who needed a sympathetic someone with her constantly.  Chad did take a shift at her bedside so that Mandie and I could go to the mall for some fun time.  Katie spent half her time apologizing from her hospital bed for ruining the special plans they'd made and the other half groaning in pain.  Even after we got her home, she was in constant pain and struggling to take the monstrous antibiotics they'd sent her home with.  We kept hoping she'd eventually turn a corner and begin to feel better, but that was yet to happen….

Five days later, on Tuesday afternoon, January 24, I got Katie in to be seen by one of the doctors in the surgical practice.  I just felt that she wasn't improving like she should have been---a suspicion confirmed by the doctor's suggestion that we go back to the ER.  We spent four hours waiting to be seen there, having checked in and had a second CT scan done.  Finally, we received the news:  Katie had developed abscesses in her abdomen from the surgery.  The doctors weren't sure if these abscesses were filled with just extra fluids or filled with pus, but they readmitted her because she needed IV fluids and antibiotics.  The ER was so full, we were put in a bed in the hallway!  We were told we would probably stay there all night before a bed would open up in the morning, but we thank God that we received a bed in the newly-opened post-op waiting room---and this bed was in a private room!  The rest of the patients were in beds separated by curtains, but we got a room with a door and a bathroom!!!  Turns out that door was necessary because Katie had also developed an intestinal infection that was highly contagious.  We were only in the hospital two days this time around, long enough for them to determine (1) they couldn't drain the abscesses without causing more damage, (2) the abscesses weren't filled with infection, just fluids, and (3) she had developed an allergic reaction to the original antibiotics.  This time when they released Katie, she had new antibiotics to take and I had specific instructions to scrub the house with bleach to prevent anyone else from getting the intestinal infection. 

The good news is that this time, there was definite improvement!  Katie began having less pain and so needed less pain medication; she actually had to coat the antibiotics with butter to get them to slide down her throat (!); and she began to feel hungry.  Her final check-up with the surgeon a week later revealed some interesting facts:  the antibiotics were causing the nasty taste in her mouth which was in turn making everything taste horrible (that would clear up once she finished the meds), so her appetite would soon return; the sharp pain she still felt when bending over was caused by the still-healing drain site which had had to punch through muscle (as opposed to the laparoscopic site which avoided major organs and muscles); and she had apparently looked "like death warmed over" the week prior when she had had to be readmitted!  He gave her permission to return to work on a lighter schedule at first, then more as she felt able.  She still deals with occasional trapped gas, and she frequently feels exhausted after some activity that would normally just leave her tired.  But she's healed very well and is able to resume her normal life activities, and we thank God so much for that. 

His hand was very apparent in all of this, and anyone who cannot see that is simply not looking.  Her appendix rupturing, her body closing off that area to prevent sepsis, her doctor not able to see her so the need to go to Urgent Care, the dreaded diagnosis, Amanda's timely arrival to help with the house and kids, the two hospital stays, the sub who so willingly filled in for me in my classes, the private room for her second hospital visit, the medication that she thought she'd choke on but that did the trick, the explanation for the extended loss of appetite---everything shows us that God is in control and He knows exactly what is going on, even when we don't.  There are always going to be problems in life and situations we don't understand.  There are always going to be difficulties and struggles and hardships.  There are always going to be unexpected bills to pay and uncertain futures and unanswered questions to face.  The one thing we can know to be certain, settled, and definite is God.  His presence, His omniscience, His care, and His love are always there.  Sometimes in the middle of our crazy, stressed, pull-our-hair-out chaos, we lose grasp of the fact that He's always there with us, right in the middle of the seemingly never-ending storm.  But He is.  When we choose to place our faith in God, we are choosing to align ourselves with Him and, what's more, let Him have control.  It's like we're walking with God through a hurricane.  When we step out from behind His protection and face the storm on our own, we're forcibly struck with the realization that we cannot handle the intensity of the swirling destruction by our own power; we need His hand to shield us from the worst of the storm's wrath.  Oh, we'll still get wet; we'll still get buffeted with strong winds; we may even lose our homes or our health or sometimes our friends and family.  But---and this is key---how much greater would our loss be if we hadn't let Him lead?  If we hadn't given Him control?  If we hadn't yielded to His protection and endured the storm with Him by our side?  I'd much rather face life's storms letting God be my Guide than get angry with His decisions or question His choices and try to strike out on my own.  After all….

Romans 8: 31-32 "What shall we then say to these things?  If God be for us, who can be against us?  He that spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?"