Written November 5, 2019
This is PART TWO of a three part post on the life and death of my oldest son. Today’s post covers the day of the accident and his death. If you have any unease about this, you should leave this website now. PART ONE is about his life up to the day before he died; PART THREE is the day of Jeff’s funeral.
Dreary. Dark. Thunderous Rain.
“Rain, rain, go away, come again some other day . . .”
I had slept in because of my migraine. A weather migraine, but still. I have lived with daily migraines all my life. I wake up with pain, I go to sleep with pain. I’ve had all the medical tests, scans, x-rays, MRIs, etc. and kept all the food and activity diaries, blah, blah, blah. No reason has ever been found for my migraines. They just are. I spent years going through a long, long, lonnnnnnng list of prescription medicines in hopes one might help. Thirty years of trying this and that. Thirty years of doctors who said, “It’s all in your head.” (Yes, doctor it IS. Now HELP me!) I do have a medicine that helps now, but it has limitations to dosage and use, so I only take it for the very worst migraines. This had been one of the worst, so I had taken a dose in the wee hours of the night and slept it off.
I finally dragged myself out of bed to take a shower. I needed to get over to the nursing facility where Jerry was still recuperating from his failed spinal surgery in June. We were also waiting for his doctor to dismiss him to come back home since nothing could be done for him at this time. But there was still a delay on that, and not because of the doctor.
August 4 of the past summer had brought flooding rains to our area. The place where our apartment was located had taken on several inches of water and everyone had to be evacuated. I’d stayed at my son Jeff’s house from then until mid-October while the building was being dried and some reconstruction completed. Jeff and Amanda were beyond great while I stayed there. We brought my dad’s old Army cot down from the attic and I used that while granddaughters Madison and Kara shared their room with me. Lots of fun with my grandkids, Andrew (age 12), Madison (age 9), and Kara (age 6). I had so many great one-on-one conversations with Jeff . . . his work schedule had him off earlier than Amanda and before the kids were out of school. I got to see my son’s life up close as an adult – as a husband and father. So many things to be proud of and what he had achieved so far in his life! He and Amanda were looking forward to paying off some bills, doing some remodeling on the house (which is the house I grew up in), maybe taking a vacation with their kids or just themselves . . . getting things in order finally after so many years of struggles!
When we tenants were allowed to return to our apartments, we faced another obstacle. The company that had been in charge of packing and protecting our furnishings and other belongings had several employees who had to be held liable due to the damage and theft of our property and personal documents. I had to replace a number of things before Jerry could come home and be comfortable.
After my shower and getting dressed, I went to see what I had lying around to eat. One banana. I ate that while listening to . . . the rain.
I considered calling Jerry‘s room to ask would he mind if I stayed home for the day. I already knew he would say yes, but I always asked regardless. I sat down on the recliner and just stared out the window . . .
“Mom . . .”
It was John. What’s that sound in his voice?
“Mom, don’t freak out. Jeff’s been injured. It’s bad . . .”
I almost lost my breath and went to my knees, but I felt Someone immediately hold me up.
A whisper in my mind… ‘you’re the strong one.’
“Does Amanda know? Did you call her?”
“I’ve tried. She doesn’t answer.”
“I’ll get hold of her. Did you get your dad?”
“Yes, he and Patti are getting ready to go to the hospital.”
“Have they already taken Jeff to the ER?”
“No, it just happened. EMS is on the way.”
“Okay, are you with Jeff? Anyone else there?”
“Yeah, I’m close. People are here.”
His voice was getting shaky. I could hear him losing it . . . I knew he had to be fighting the anxiety he lives with daily.
“I’ll take care of calling Amanda . . . we’ll meet you at the hospital.”
“John – be careful!”
Adrenalin rushed into my brain as I quickly grabbed my purse, then my cellphone and called Amanda‘s number.
I hit her number again.
I knew whatever she was doing, when she saw me calling a third time, she would answer.
I hit her number a third time.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m in a management meeting.”
“We need you at the hospital. Jeff’s been injured.”
“On my way!”
Just before she clicked off, I could hear her tell the others, “I have to go, Jeff’s been hurt.”
I told a friend down the hall what was going on and that I’d call to let her know how things were going, then nearly sprinted to my car. As I plopped into the seat, I called Jerry’s room, told him what was going on and would call him as soon as I knew anything.
I took a deep breath before I started the car and did what I’ve always done at times like this…. prayed for strength, whatever comes.
Again the whisper… ‘you’re the strong one.’
I walked into the emergency room and straight to the reception desk. I told the receptionist that my youngest son had called saying my oldest son had been injured at work and would be coming by ambulance but I didn’t know the details yet. She was very nice and so understanding. She asked for his personal information just to get things started until Amanda could get there.
After a few minutes, John came walking in the ER door. I could tell he wasn’t doing well emotionally or mentally. I remember asking him if the ambulance was on its way; he said they were trying to stabilize Jeff before transporting him but that they should be there any minute.
Amanda came in the door at that point, so I turned the information-giving over to her at the reception desk. John went down the hall to the restroom. I went to a chair and sat down. Soon, my ex-husband George (Jeff/John’s dad) and his wife Patti arrived, followed by their son Christopher, and her son Johnathan, all asking what happened and what was going on. All John could manage to tell us was that a medical oxygen cylinder exploded and hit Jeff in the back of his head. The receptionist came over to tell us she would let us know as soon as the ambulance arrived and asked if she could get us anything. We thanked her, no nothing at the moment, and then we sat for what seemed like hours.
After a while, the receptionist came to let us know the ambulance had arrived and that we could go stand in the hallway to see Jeff wheeled by if we wouldn’t go into the EMS walkway. Amanda, John, myself, Patti and George all went to the area she pointed out and waited. I leaned over to look around the corner of the wall; I could see the back doors of the ambulance were open but nothing else. We stood there in silence as we waited.
Finally, the EMS personnel came by with Jeff on the gurney. Just as they passed us, I looked right at the back of his head. I saw the long, jagged, bluish cracks in the back of his skull that the cylinder had made. My only thought was, “This isn’t going to end well.”
We went back to the lobby and met a nurse who took us to a private family room; we sat while doctors examined Jeff. While waiting, one of the company management personnel came in and John introduced us to Jim P.
I was able to talk with Jim P. for just a bit alone. I learned that he had happened to be passing by the loading dock door where Jeff and the new hire that Jeff was training were working when he heard all the noise. He said John was there by Jeff, then other employees came over. Someone was calling 911. He knelt down by Jeff, took his hand, talked to him, and began praying.
I asked him, “Do you think he knew you were there . . . that he heard you?”
“I know he did.”
After a few minutes, a nurse and two aides entered the room. I can’t remember exactly what the nurse’s first words were, but she did say that the hospital didn’t have the specialized equipment to treat brain trauma patients of this severity. She said the closest trauma unit was St. Francis-Via Christi Hospital in Wichita (which is one hour away by car), but because of the thunderstorms they wouldn’t be able to transport him via the helicopter – it would have to be by ambulance. She paused for a few seconds, then said…
“I have to tell you that these types of traumatic brain injuries almost never work out.”
In my peripheral vision, I saw Patti turn away and lean into George. By now, John was visibly shaking. I could see Amanda trying to think, to speak, but not able to do either.
Then the nurse added, “If you choose to go to Wichita, only one person can ride with him in the ambulance.”
Jim P. piped up and said that the Airgas company policy is that someone from upper management has to ride in the ambulance with the injured employee to witness and verify everything that happens.
I could have screamed right at that moment but my mouth went absolutely dry. I absolutely could not believe that Amanda would not be allowed to ride with her husband in the ambulance!
I decided no one else was going to be able to say or do anything, so I asked if we could all see Jeff before they transferred him. “Of course,” the nurse said.
She took us to the room where Jeff was . . . Amanda was the first by his side.
Then me. He had a breathing tube and some wires hooked up. I remember saying, “Jeff, this is your momma, the doctors are going to take good care of you.” As I looked at his face, I saw his bulging right eye move in response to my voice. I nearly gasped aloud, but kept it in.
He was alive at that very moment! He’d heard me!
I must have frozen because Amanda tugged on my sleeve and said, “Let George and Patti see him so the ambulance can go.”
Afterward, we all filed out of the emergency department, discussing what we were going to have to do. Getting money and clothes for a couple days were first on our lists because we might be in Wichita for several days. George and Patti were going to go to the bank and then home to pack some clothes. Same with John, plus he was going to get Catina (his girlfriend at that time) and bring her along. I told Amanda she shouldn’t be driving, to which she also agreed, so I told her to go pack her things and let her mom (Jane) know what was going on and arrange for her to watch Andrew, Madison and Kara while we were gone. I went home to pack and quickly call Jerry to tell him what had happened and that we were all going to St. Francis-Via Christi Hospital in Wichita where Jeff was being taken and I would call him when we got there. Then I drove like wildfire to pick up Amanda and get us to Wichita.
When we arrived at the emergency department of St. Francis-Via Christi Hospital, I glanced at a wall clock and saw that it was sometime after 4:00 p.m., but it didn’t register in my mind exactly how much after. So much had happened in the space of a few hours.
We were escorted to a large waiting room. After a few minutes, a nurse returned, saying the ambulance had just arrived . . . they’d had to stop halfway over because Jeff’s blood pressure had suddenly dropped (we believe this was when Jeff actually died). We needed to stay in the waiting room until the medical staff could complete Jeff’s intake and allow the doctors time to evaluate him. After this, I basically lost track of time. Time no longer mattered.
Amanda’s sisters and their husbands began to show up. So did my ex’s family . . . his sisters and a brother and their spouses, and his parents. I think we had been there a half-hour when a nurse came into the room and said they had a smaller family room right across the hall from where Jeff was and led us there . . . me, Amanda, John and Catina, and George and Patti. Everyone else stayed in the big family room.
Jeff’s best-friends and their wives, Thomas and Joanna, and Jason and Holly, had all shown up at the hospital by this time. Thomas had been texting back and forth with Jeff just 15 minutes before the accident happened.
After a few minutes, the nurse returned, saying we could go see Jeff. The doctors had ordered tests, but were waiting on something or other, so we could go in during the interim.
Walking into that room was a shock. Tubes down Jeff’s throat, electrodes hooked up to him all over, the beeps of the monitors . . . tiny trickles of blood in a few spots on his head . . . and his bare feet sticking out from under the blanket at the end of the bed.
No movement except for the slight rising and lowering of his chest as the ventilator pumped oxygen into his lungs.
All I could do was look at him lying there. I couldn’t even form a thought.
Amanda went to Jeff’s side and took his right hand, squeezing it . . . and squeezing it. Looking for a response. Any response.
A couple doctors and a nurse came into the room, asking us to leave for a few minutes while they performed some tests, so we returned to the family room.
I asked Amanda if she wanted me to call Andy (our pastor) to see if he would drive over and be available for our family. She tried to find the number on her cellphone, but couldn’t manage to think clearly so handed it to me. I found the number after a few minutes of wading through her apps and dialed. I got the answering service so looked for Kathy’s number (Andy’s wife) and got hold of her. When she answered, I explained what was going on and asked if she could let Andy know and that we needed his pastoral care and support. She said not to worry, she’d get right on it.
The minutes blended into hours which all became a blur in time. A few of the family went down to the hospital cafeteria for a bite to eat. The rest of us couldn’t eat . . . didn’t want to leave the floor.
Pastor Andy showed up at some point and I took him to see Jeff. When we walked into the room, Amanda was standing at Jeff’s bedside, holding his hand and silently weeping. Pastor Andy moved to the side of the bed and began praying.
After a little while, I decided to wander down the hallway just to get a breather. As I walked out the doors of the trauma unit . . . I stopped in surprise. There were people literally lining the halls.
Every employee from Airgas was there! Every. Single. One. Of. Them.
I was absolutely overwhelmed by the sight of so many dedicated friends and co-workers of Jeff and John. Up and down the corridor, lining both sides of the hallway, were all these people who worked right alongside my sons. There to support Jeff and our family.
Jim P. came up to me and took me up and down the hall, introducing each one to me. Handshakes. Hugs. Quietly whispered words of encouragement. They loved my sons like brothers. Jim P. saying what a strong lady I am. Me sucking in my breath and just kind of mentally shaking my head at that.
That whisper… ‘you’re the strong one.’
I went back through the trauma unit doors and took a few minutes to speak with the physician’s assistant to tell him we wanted all of Jeff’s co-workers and all of the Airgas administration to be able to see him. He said that was perfectly fine, they could come and go with no intereference. Then I showed Jim P. where Jeff’s room was and left him to guide everyone in.
As I finally made my way down to the big waiting room down the hall from the trauma unit, I glanced to the side when I saw a slight movement and found John and Catina sitting in a corner of the hallway on the floor. I know she was doing her best to comfort him, but I could tell how badly this had affected him. I asked if they needed anything; John said they might go down to the cafeteria to see what there was to eat.
A nurse came into the family room and said a woman would like to speak with Amanda about some things. Amanda looked at me and I nodded, knowing she wanted me to come along. The nurse took us to a small unused room and introduced us to Nancy J. of the Midwest Transplant Network.
She explained who she was and told us about the organization she worked with – the Midwest Transplant Network – letting us know the hospital calls on them in situations like ours, explaining their work, how they meet the needs of folks on both sides of the donar coin. Nancy J. didn’t beat around the bush, which I was thankful for. I know Amanda was having a hard time processing information in the midst of this tragedy, so the brochures and other information she gave us were very helpful. She was extremely kind, soft-spoken, so very respectful of what we were all going through . . . making sure we understood they were there for the family, answering questions, providing information, but never pressuring. Nancy J. showed us where her desk was in the unit and said to come to her for whatever we needed or wanted to do. We then returned to the family room and shared the donor information with everyone.
One of the physician assistants and a nurse came into the family room. We were all just sitting in silence at the moment, not talking, not moving. The doctor took a chair and sat down in front of Amanda. I thought, “Oh no, here it comes . . .” I moved closer to Amanda‘s side and put my arm around her. I knew in my heart this wouldn’t be good.
He said, “The doctors have done several tests and they all agree that there’s not going to be any good outcome from what happened.”
I looked at Amanda but saw no reaction or emotion. I wasn’t sure that she was even taking in what he was saying.
The PA continued, “There hasn’t been any brain activity for some time now. The ventilator is keeping his lungs and heart going, but after so long, the human body begins to break down. You should probably consider making some decisions about what you’d like to do.”
I asked Amanda if she understood what he was saying. She nodded slighty and said quietly, “I’m going to have to let Jeff go.”
I looked at the PA, trying to think. I asked, “What is the procedure?”
“We turn off all the machines, but keep the monitors on to watch for any life signs. It takes about 18 minutes.”
“How much time do we have? To make a decision, that is?”
He answered, “All the time you need.”
I thanked him and said we would talk to our family and let him know. He nodded and left with the nurse.
John gestured to me to come with him and we went down the hall away from everyone. When we found a quiet spot, he said, “If you guys are going to let him go, please do it before my birthday so I don’t have to remember it as the day my brother died.” The next day was going to be John’s 31st birthday. I looked at him, so broken and beat down. I didn’t know all the details at that time, but I knew he had witnessed something that would forever change him. I promised we would make sure his birthday was still just his birthday.
Amanda and I walked back to Jeff’s room. She went around to his right side and just stood staring at the monitors. I sat in the chair I pulled close to the left side of the bed and looked down at the left arm and hand I’d held 34 years before when Jeff was born.
I picked up his hand and immediately noticed the warmth was beginning to leave his body. I touched each little nubbin (that is the actual term used for club/stub fingers), and looked at every detail of that hand and arm, basically unchanged from the time of Jeff’s babyhood. A little grime from the work he’d been doing that day at Airgas. I held his hand to my cheek for a long time. I knew it would be the last time and wanted to prolong the feeling of my son’s hand on my face. It reminded me of when he would touch my face with his hand as a baby. I sat there and silently prayed for the strength I would need to help my family through what was to come.
I stood, stretched my back. I felt a hundred years older than when I had awakened that morning.
Walking to the end of the bed, I stopped for few seconds, watching Amanda as she was watching Jeff.
“Amanda . . .”
She made a small choking noise and reached over to Jeff, shaking him.
“Jeffrey, wake up! Don’t leave me! Wake UP!”
I nearly couldn’t take it. I put my arms around her as she sobbed and clung to Jeff. I don’t know how long we stood there like that. I let her cry as long as she needed.
As she began to calm down, I searched for the words I knew needed to be said. Looking from her to Jeff, I urged, “Amanda. . .” I paused. “Let something good come out of this.”
After a few minutes, she sort of nodded.
“Shall we go talk to Nancy and the doctor?”
She was crying again but made her noise of agreement. I asked if she wanted to stay with Jeff longer, but she said no, she knew his body needed to be donated before much more time went by.
I took her back to the family room, then went to Nancy J. and the medical staff and told them Amanda had said they could get things going. I told them we were going to call Amanda’s mom to bring the kids from Hutchinson to say goodbye to their dad and requested that they clean the obvious blood from Jeff’s head and wrap a towel around it so the skull fractures would not be seen by the kids. And then I told them it flat out needed to be done before midnight because the next day would be Jeff’s brother’s birthday. They said absolutely, of course, they would take care of everything right away. Of course, there would be forms for Amanda to sign and people to notify, so they got right on it.
I told Amanda‘s sister to call their mom right away and tell her to bring the kids, that we were letting Jeff go soon. I called the nursing facility where Jerry was and let him know I was trying to hunt down someone to bring him over so he could be with Jeff and say his goodbyes. He said, “Just call my dad.” So I did, and then called the nursing facility to let them know.
Then, I went to Jim P. and the rest of the Airgas family standing in the hall and told them what we were doing. I know most of them had probably expected it the longer time went on, but hearing it made it real. I think I felt the whole group deflate in spirit right then. Jim P. said the company was going to pay for hotel rooms for all the family who wanted to stay overnight so as not to drive in the dark while grieving.
Amanda’s mom, Jane, showed up around 10:00 p.m. with Andrew (age 12), Madison (age 9) and Kara (age 6). When they came into the room, I could see they were confused and frightened. Poor Amanda . . . having to explain to her children that their daddy was in a bad accident at work, that there was nothing to be done to help him, that they needed to let him go.
Kara sat on my lap, Madison on Amanda’s, Andrew standing in front of us. Amanda told them best she could.
“You mean my dad is dying?!?!” exclaimed Andrew. He turned and took a couple steps, ready to stalk out of the room.
“Andrew, come back here,” I said firmly.
He turned back to us, arms crossed.
Amanda talked with them a few more minutes, then asked if they wanted to go see their daddy and say good bye.
At first, none of them did, but then Andrew said he would, and then the girls said they wanted to go, also. Madison held my hand and we walked to the room, Andrew behind me, then Amanda carrying Kara. When we got there, I saw that the nurses had cleaned Jeff up and wrapped a towel around his head.
We stopped at the foot of the bed. I looked at all of them. Even though we had explained that Jeff had tubes in his mouth and lead lines (to the monitors), it was still very unnerving for them to see him that way.
Three sets of wide eyes focused on their dad.
I looked from one face to the next, and the next. I asked Andrew if he wanted to go to his dad. He shook his head no, as did Madison. Kara just hung on to Amanda, slightly hiding her face but still peeking at Jeff. We stayed like that until they were ready to leave the room.
We held and talked to the kids for a while til Amanda told Jane she should probably get the kids back home and into bed. By that time, most everyone else had said their goodbyes and had slowly left one by one to go home. It was just Amanda, me and Jerry, and John and Catina.
A couple minutes before 11:00 that night, a nurse came for us, whoever wanted to be in the room during the final life-signs test(s). I know Amanda, Jerry and I were there. As for anyone else, I don’t remember.
The doctor explained exactly what they would be doing and how they would be monitoring Jeff during that time. He asked for Amanda’s permission to proceed and she nodded her head. The nurse turned off the ventilator and all machines, leaving only the monitors to track any signs of life.
The room became absolutely quiet and still except for the movements of the doctor and nurse as they did various things while checking for any movements or responses from Jeff.
I looked from monitor to monitor, then to Jeff, back and forth, watching his face, his body, for any movement, any sign that he was still somehow alive.
I pleaded silently in my mind, “Come on, Jeff . . . come on, son . . . you can do it . . . “
The minutes went by.
The doctor said, “Time of death 11:26 p.m.”