Jan. 31, 2014. It’s been two years since I left Northside Hospital with a new lease on life. … Things have changed a lot in the past 24 months. I have changed.

On Jan. 7, 2014, I flew back from the national championship game. Florida State defeated Auburn, and my thoughts were with Ed and Nick Villanacci, friends who had planes, trains, and automobile’d it across the country to Pasadena, Calif., to watch their beloved Tigers. Indeed, that’s a long way to go to have your heart broken in the waning moments.

On Jan. 8, I went to Shorter University to begin a project regarding the school transitioning to NCAA Division II. It also was my younger son’s birthday; I dropped off his cookie cake at the baseball field so he could share it with his teammates. (Yes, even at 19, his mom still sent a cookie cake to keep the lifelong streak alive.) I drove back to the Turner campus, dropped off a couple of co-workers, pulled out of the guard gate …

That’s the last thing I remember until Jan. 27, when I woke up from a coma.

In the meantime, H1N1 evolved into BOOP (bronchiolitis obliterans organizing pneumonia) and eventually bilateral pneumonia. The doctors were trying to figure out what was wrong with me. I was struggling to breathe, and nothing they tried seemed to relieve my breathing issues. My wife was counseled to begin thinking about funeral arrangements.

My mom, a nurse, had made the trip to Atlanta. She spoke the doctors’ language and understood what they were doing, trying, fighting against. Ultimately, the docs called for a Hail Mary, a cocktail of eight different drugs to be pumped into my body. “It was basically do or die,” my mom told me later.

Atlanta was in the throes of Snowpocalypse and my friend Will Frampton was on the TV. “That’s Will,” I said. My mother was in the room. I think she cried. I was alive. I was awake. … However, no one knew just how awake I was. There were a couple of times during that three-week stretch where everyone who knows me — or at least those in my intensive care room — knew I was alive:

• My hands were fully functional. The nurses would put mittens on my hands so I could not grab the 2,983 wires sticking in my body. I, unconsciously, took off the mittens. The nurses would put them back on. I would promptly take them off. My wife said the nurses chuckled the first hundred or so times I took off the mittens — then they taped the mittens at my wrists. Yep, I still found a way to take off the mittens.

• I had an adverse reaction to a change in meds; I was seeing “tree people” and was not restrained easily. Today, I remember a Sinclair gasoline sign; the green dinosaur is vividly clear in my memory. I had stopped at a Stuckey’s and these “tree people” were trying to grab me. I do not know how I escaped. Bits and pieces of the nightmare continue to come to me as the months pass.

• Then there was the night when I decided to remove my breathing tube. My wife says the doctors had been discussing it for a couple of days. Maybe my subconscious took over and I channeled my inner Dr. Doug Ross. Whatever the case, late at night, my wife heard me cough. She looked over and I was holding the breathing tube. The doctors were not amused. However, no one had experienced a coma patient removing a breathing tube, so I chalk it up to a triumph of the human spirit.

Not having a breathing tube in your throat prompts doctors to take drastic measures to ensure the patient can breathe. They strapped a mask to my head and pumped oxygen — a lot of oxygen — into the tube; there was no choice except to breathe. Maybe that was the moment when I began to shake the cobwebs. I remember struggling to breathe. I remember struggling to keep up. I remember being scared. I also remember thinking of my girls — Peyton, who was 15, and Reily, the 8-year-old. …

I had to breathe. When I was conscious, the doctor asked me how I felt. My reply: “I want to go home to see my girls.” That first night of being back among the living I watched How I Met Your Mother — Season 9, Episode 16 “How Your Mother Met Me.” I fell in love again with the forgotten La Vie En Rose. I tweeted it to Peyton: “G’night from the ICU. Two nights crying with this scene; miss my girls: http://t.co/RjlWNI36Li … Cannot wait to dance with @peytonnichole.” (I now listen to that song every morning on the drive to work.)

Getting home to see my girls would not be that easy. The monitor near my bed had a handful of numbers. It didn’t take long for me to realize which one was most important — and I was a long way from where the doctors wanted me to be. But that became my white whale, and I was determined to slay it. PBS was the only port in the storm to get away from local TV’s coverage of Snowpocalypse. I watched Salinger at least three times (and bought the DVD after leaving the hospital). I ate a lot of ice cream too, between cups of ice chips. And then it dawned on me: I have not been getting out of bed to go to the bathroom.

OH MY GOD!

Not only was there a tube down there, but a tube was back there, too! What have y’all done to me?! My mitten-covered hands began trying to rectify the situation, much to the chagrin of my wife, who tried to calm me in my still-altered mental state. Eventually the embarrassment of someone having stuck a tube there and there will wane. (I’m still waiting …)

It was time to go home, my mind told me. I wanted out of that hospital bed. I wanted to be home, to see the kids, pet the pets. … I still had to slay Moby Dick. One of the nurses, bless her soul, told me in a matter-of-fact tone that the doctors would not release me until I hit that number, breathing-wise. Game on. My lungs burned. My chest ached. But I breathed. And breathed. And breathed some more. I was determined to hit the mark — and to finally not have to be jabbed every four hours with a syringe full of Heparin.

On Friday, Jan. 31, a doctor told me today could be the day — but only if a delivery of air tanks could be made to our home. There was snow and ice on the roads, and without air at the house, I was stuck in that hospital room. But somehow the air tank supply folks were able to make that delivery, and when it was confirmed the doc gave the green light.

Except I didn’t have any clothes. They were in the back of our Durango, and it was at the house. More importantly, my wife was not going to trek 25 miles to the hospital in the snow and ice. It was not gonna happen, if left up to her. I knew this, and promptly called a buddy who lived in Atlanta. I knew he wouldn’t be in class because of the weather. I was right, and he agreed to drive me and my mom (and my air bottle) to the ’burbs.

Hospital gowns are not exactly top o’ mind when it comes to hitting the town. They serve a purpose but leave a lot to be desired in the “cover yo butt” department. Nonetheless, I put one on this way and one on that way — total coverage; they’d seen more than enough of my rear end, I figured. After I pulled on some fuzzy yellow socks with grippy bottoms, we were good to go. About an hour later, I was awkwardly making my way up three flights of stairs and just made it to the bathroom. (OK, so maybe catheters do have a purpose.)

Six weeks later, I was back at work. A year and six weeks later, I quit that job. Maybe it was the “tree people,” maybe it was me realizing there was so much more to life than I was experiencing. Whatever, I knew for the first time in 25 years as a journalist that I was not going to be wheeled feet-first from a newsroom. My family, my friends, my life mean more to me than that paycheck did — and I pulled the ripcord.

Now, two years after a near-death experience that I do not remember experiencing and nine months after pulling the plug on a job that I remember all too well experiencing, I’m alive. There were prayers during that three-week stretch that unquestionably reached the heavens. I believe God answers prayers. I believe, for whatever reason, He has things on my to-do list.

March 9, the day before I returned to work, I wrote a note to the folks at Northside. I never mailed it. I should have. So this is my closure moment — the end of a life chapter that changed me forever. For the better. For Him, always:

Where to begin? I’m a journalist, a writer — but I cannot find words to describe my feelings. Simply put: You saved my life. I will not be able to repay that debt; I will not be able to express how grateful I am.

 

I do not remember a lot from my ICU stay at Northside. I do have memories of faces, of voices (and a lot of needles) — but above all, I now know that each of you played to your calling. I am living proof of your professionalism.

 

The humanity that was shown to my wife and mother, that is a lasting memory. In a time when their husband and son was fighting for life, the kindness, the understanding … you will never know how much that was appreciated.

 

And now, after listening to Mandy and my mom bring me up to speed on what happened during my stay, I’m certain the next person who pulls out his own breathing tube will want to say the same thing: thank you. (And can I have some water, please?)

 

Each person at Northside was remarkable. I wish the drugs weren’t so effective so that I could remember everyone’s face and name. No, actually I appreciated the effectiveness of the medication. … Nonetheless, I have a debt of gratitude that is overwhelming.

 

Whenever life is kicking your ass, please know that what you do makes a difference. Again, I am living proof. You brought me back from the brink. All of you, no matter where I go in life, will be in my heart (even the nurse from Auburn).

 

And now, with a full recovery at hand, I look forward. There will be work, play, sadness, and laughter. I wake up next to a remarkable woman each day, and some day I will walk our daughters down the aisle, stand with our sons as they take a wife. … I owe today and all the days ahead to each of you.

 

Thank you, sincerely.

Duane Cross

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