“Worst case, we’ll just see each other in heaven”.
These are the words I jokingly said to my father in late February 2010.
Because of the events of the previous few weeks, I’d had a recurring but fleeting thought in my mind that one of my parents or I might not be long for this world. Ever the consultant, my mind was trained to go to the worst-case scenario and then launch into risk mitigation. In my heart, I tossed the idea of us simultaneously meeting our Maker aside cautiously even as I spoke the words out loud to my father.
But, I had intended it to be a spiritual joke of sorts to lighten Pop’s mood, not a hazy prophecy of our near future.
At the time, I was six months pregnant with our first and only natural born child. I’d been designated high risk for a couple of reasons: one was because of advanced maternal age and the other was because of two tumors growing rapidly in my uterus along with our unborn baby.
A few weeks before, I’d visited the perinatal specialist who took on my case. After my ultrasound, he’d looked at me somberly when I asked how everything was going in my belly. The last thing he’d said to me before I left his office that day was “Stay pregnant”. As if I’d intended to do anything different than that!
Little did I know that the next time I would lay eyes on him I would be near death and totally unable to make good on his command.
Feeling unwell, I had chalked my symptoms up to unusually high stress levels at work. What had once been my dream job had devolved in the previous few months into a waking nightmare.
I was under emotional duress.
My current job and future career prospects were in jeopardy. But, I was much more concerned about the dwindling chances of our baby’s survival.
To make matters worse, one of my tumors was blocking my birth canal. I’d have to have a c-section no matter what.
I was already experiencing sharp pain in my abdomen whenever I stood upright, a sign that things were indeed headed in the wrong direction.
Nothing seemed to be going right.
So, when I noticed unusual swelling in my lower legs it never occurred to me that it could be a sign of another impending health disaster. It never crossed my mind that it was anything other than normal pregnancy symptoms in an already abnormal pregnancy.
Surely things couldn’t get worse.
But, they did.
Much, much worse.
I’d also been in to see my OB/GYN a few days earlier. My blood pressure was slightly elevated. Nothing to ring any alarm bells for me or my doctor. In the interim days, I’d visit the hospital and a nearby clinic twice to have my blood pressure checked out. Everything seemed fine.
In hindsight, now I know these were the leading indicators that my proverbial health train was about to derail.
No one could have predicted the Job-like experiences that were about to happen to me and both of my parents in the span of a few days.
Returning from a funeral in Mississippi, my mother nearly passed out in the airport terminal days later. She’d called to let us know what had happened, but in mom-like fashion had downplayed the seriousness of her condition.
Mom’s cardiologist had long since encouraged her to deal with a genetic heart condition that she’d been diagnosed with years earlier. She was unequivocally blessed to have lived as long as she had already. But the procedure to correct it was invasive, and Mom had decided it could wait.
Until it couldn’t.
She had to be scheduled for a heart procedure immediately.
My dad and I spoke often in the days leading up to Mom’s procedure. In one of those conversations I’d said to him. “Worst case, we’ll just see each other in heaven”.
We’d laughed about the “worst case” scenario not being so bad after all. If we were going to make an exit from this planet, we might as well all go to heaven together.
I took time off from work so that I could wait along with my family and their lifelong friends in the hospital waiting room while she underwent her procedure. I’d arrived there before dawn so that I could kiss and hug on her before they prepped her.
Even though I’d been given no reason to be seriously worried at that point, I knew there was a chance it could be the last time I saw her alive.
Worst case. Risk mitigation.
Before the procedure began, Mom’s surgeon came out to set our expectations. From what he had seen in her heart scans, it should have been a straightforward and relatively risk-free procedure. After all, he thought he was just dealing with a clogged artery. However, if after observing her heart with his own eyes that wasn’t the case, he’d be back to tell us within the hour.
We’d felt confident that everything would be fine. We knew she was in good hands, and thanked the surgeon in advance for his efforts.
I whittled away the time making small talk, showing off my ultrasound scans and discussing baby names.
Thirty minutes later, our worlds stopped spinning.
Mom’s surgeon came out to tell us that her heart muscle was severely damaged.
In order to correct it, he’d have to attempt a relatively novel and little tested approach – a septal ablation. He planned to inject alcohol into mom’s heart to kill off the diseased tissue thereby giving her a controlled heart attack. All going well, the rest of her heart would compensate and she’d be totally fine.
All going well.
Up to that point, that time in the hospital waiting room was the most tense two hours of my life.
It made the stress of the previous few weeks feel like a trip to DisneyWorld.
The look on my dad’s face as he tried to process the news compelled me to keep a level head. He needed my support more than I needed his at that moment, so that’s what I gave him.
On the outside, I was calm and collected. But on the inside, my mind spun out of control with what-if scenarios.
I was grateful my parent’s friends were there for additional moral support.
We all prayed until the surgeon came back in to tell us mom’s procedure was a success. Those seemed like the longest hours of my life, but the relief I experienced when the surgeon walked back into the room with a smile on his face was indescribable.
We’d made it through. Life would go on.
However, that moment of triumph would only be a short reprieve.
Before my mother was discharged from the hospital, the second storm hit.
My sister called to tell me she was taking my dad to the emergency room.
My heart sank.
Some time later I got my father on the phone and said, “Dad! When I said the other day that ‘worst case we’d all see each other in heaven’, you know I was joking, right?”
Pictured Below: The email update I sent to members of my church
Two weeks later I would be admitted to the intensive care unit of Women’s Hospital with multiple organ failure.
NOTE: The Story I’ll Tell is a series about my personal heath journey. Read Part Two of my story here.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: DALILA JONES STITZ
Founder and CEO, Health Insurrection LLC
Dalila is a native Houstonian and currently lives in Switzerand with her husband and two kids. She received her health coach training through the Institute of Integrative Nutrition and Hallelujah Acres and teaches in-home bible studies and online courses.