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Thankful for miracles: Family receives encouragement

Wednesday, November 27, 2002

Conclusion of three-part series

Wanda Butts had spent 16 hours in surgery for a liver transplant. Cirrhosis of the liver and hepatitis had destroyed her liver and doctors said she would not survive without the new organ. But the surgery had not gone well. The liver wasn't functioning properly and Wanda had gone into a coma.

The doctors were very pessimistic about her recovery. Every day Wanda's family kept vigil at the hospital. Her husband, Bob, and children, Mike and Tracy, sat in the waiting room with Wanda's parents and brothers. They took turns going to the Intensive Care Unit every four hours. Only two visitors could go in at a time so they split the 20-minute sessions into two 10-minute periods so more family could see her. Most of the time they just sat in the waiting room.

The waiting room was full of lonely people who lived a life in limbo. Day after day. Time had no meaning in the box they called a waiting room. There was the wall-mounted TV, lots of chairs that were too close together, a couple of loveseats, several tables with magazines strewn on them. The people watched but didn't see. Read but didn't comprehend. Glanced around at the other visitors but wouldn't make eye contact.

Just before the designated visiting time, the group, usually about a dozen people, came together. They walked down the hall to the big doors where hope lay on the other side. A little more light-hearted at those times, they'd sometimes smile at one another or even make small talk.

Bob had been living in the waiting room for about five days. Glancing about the room he noticed a new face. She was a little woman, probably in her mid-40s. Very rough looking. Her shoulder length hair was clean but slightly unkempt. The sweatshirt and blue jeans she wore were a little big. Her hands were calloused but her winkled face seemed friendly enough. There was nothing really outstanding about her. She seemed kind of ordinary, just new in the surroundings. It didn't appear that she was with anyone else in the waiting room.

When it was time for the next visit, the lady chatted with Bob as they walked down the hall. She asked who he was there for and what was wrong with his wife. She was visiting a relative, she said, but Bob never determined exactly what the relationship was. Her accent sounded like she might have come from Chicago.

After a couple such visits, Bob began to realize that while he recalled seeing the lady when they walked to the ICU, he never saw her on the return trip to the waiting room. He wouldn't see her again until her next visit. She didn't make every visit. When she was there, she'd chat sometimes with Bob, sometimes with Mike and occasionally with other visitors.

Two days later Bob was sitting in the waiting room. Mike was out in the hall. Other family members were just mulling around, waiting. Bob had a magazine in his hands but he was thinking about Wanda. She's been in a coma for a week now. The doctors gave no encouragement. His hopes were starting to dim. But he told himself he couldn't give up. He knew Wanda wouldn't. Bob couldn't imagine life without Wanda in it.

Mike came to his dad just before visiting time and asked if he could go in to see his mom first. Bob agreed. Then Mike mentioned that he'd been talking with that little lady out in the hallway. She told him that she'd been talking to God and that his mom was going to wake up today. She said it'd be a long, rough recovery but his mom would be OK.

Bob raised an eyebrow and looked a little surprised. Mike feigned a laugh and looked a little skeptical but acted like he didn't want to chance ridicule. They both agreed they hoped the lady was right.

Then Mike joined the group heading back to the ICU, walking ahead of his uncle. Bob waited patiently staring up at the TV trying to keep his mind occupied. All of a sudden Mike came running back in, all excited and yelling. "She's awake Dad!" Mom's awake!"

Bob raced to the ICU. Wanda's eyes were open and she was moving her head around. She couldn't speak because of the respirator but she was awake and everyone was thrilled. But she was far from better.

Wanda remained in the ICU for 2 1/2 more weeks. The respirator irritated her. She had no control of her hands. She couldn't stand up. Medication caused her to hallucinate. Wanda thought her caregivers were conspiring to kill her. She heard music that wasn't there and she was mad at everything.

"I was terrible," Wanda said, a little embarrassed. "Just awful. I told them to take the respirator out. Of course, they didn't. So I bit it in two. It was just awful. I had to apologize to so many people later."

Though awake, Wanda's physical condition was deteriorating. She was transferred back, to the more intensive, transplant unit. She developed terrible mouth sores, had respiratory problems and she was getting weaker. The liver was not producing bile that was required to aid with the digestion of fats, necessary to life.

Finally, her doctor said they'd received another donor liver. They could do a second transplant if she wanted to try it again. But the doctor made it clear that he had serious doubts that she would survive the surgery.

"I told him, I'm dying anyway," Wanda recalled. "And the doctor said, do you want onions with that liver? So I had a second liver transplant. Everything was different this time. I had a real inner peace. I don't know why. My dad said he always believed that if it's your time to go, you go. If it's not your time, you don't go.

"Family is extremely important in the success of these transplants," Wanda continued in her soft patient voice. "My family never left me alone. I had cards and prayers from all over Brazil. I don't think I would have survived without that.

"The second surgery was totally different. I woke up and remembered everything. Knew my family. Gave a thumbs up to my dad. I had a record recovery this time."

She smiled, remembering further back. "I learned that the books were right again, after my first surgery. I'd always been told that people could still hear when they were in a coma. That's true. While I was in the coma I remember hearing my brother, Ronnie, telling me to open my pretty blues. And Bob kept saying, Come on, you can do it. Wake up. I heard that."

Then Wanda returned to describing her recovery from the second surgery. "Oh, I still had a lot of problems. It was months before I could walk again because my muscles had deteriorated so much. I had a "slight" heart attack. I've had both knees replaced and cataracts removed from both eyes. All that was caused from medication. I take 25 pills a day. And I'll have to take this medicine the rest of my life.

But I have a life. I've lived 16 years longer than the Mayo doctor thought I would. I've seen two more grandchildren born that I would have missed. I work a couple days a week at the Putnam County Hospital, so I feel like I'm contributing. I don't know what purpose God has for me but I feel very blessed. It has really strengthened my faith. I try not to go through a day without saying thank you."

Then Bob was asked again about what that little lady in the waiting room had said.

"That's the strangest thing," he answered. "I asked Mike about her a day or so after Wanda came out of the coma. And I've asked him a couple times since then. He says he does not remember, ever, even seeing the woman, let alone having that conversation with her. I don't know what to think."

Do you believe in miracles? Wanda Butts does.

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