‘He was gasping, pale and sweaty. I held him down so the nurses could get close. They wouldn’t come near him. Something was wrong.’: Woman loses husband to ‘pain attack’ after machinery accident

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“It was just a broken foot.

I will never forget September 13, 2017. It was a Wednesday. My youngest had just turned 2 three days before. We walked to my mom’s from school drop off. We sat on her porch in the sun, I finished my last sip of coffee – and my phone rang.

Courtesy of Allie DeVries

It was my husband, Dan. I answered but something was different. He was in pain. He was panicked. That wasn’t like him. Dan was the most level-headed, nonchalant, self-proclaimed comedian, I had ever met.

I drove to the hospital. Not really knowing what condition he would be in when I would get there – his mom called, his brother called. I told everyone the same thing I was telling myself. Stay calm. There’s no need to worry until there’s a need to worry. I would be at the hospital soon.

When I got there, there was an X-ray cart just outside of his room. I saw him. He was sitting up. And then the first of many images that will forever be seared into my head.

A work boot. Cut open, stained with blood.

Courtesy of Allie DeVries

A quick glance at the X-ray and this was Dan’s foot. And it was definitely broken. A few times.

I came into the room and he looked at me. Gave me some sheepish grin – And all I could think was, ‘Thank God, it’s just your foot.’

Courtesy of Allie DeVries

You see, what happened was, he was operating a piece of machinery, like he did every day. He was removing a piece of sidewalk, like he did every day. But today. September 13. The entire slab of concrete popped out of the ground and flipped over onto his machine.

But it didn’t kill him. It caught his toe, pulling and ultimately crushing his foot and leg between the machine and the 3,000 pounds of concrete.

The hospital local to his worksite was too small to handle the vascular damage sustained by the crush. We were going to be transferred to the closest trauma center for surgery.

We waited 13 hours before he was taken to surgery. Murmurs of lost charts and low staff.

I will never forget standing in the middle of the trauma nursing station asking if anyone can help me with the blood all over the floor. Dan was still bleeding. Pretty soon after I lost my cool, he was taken to surgery. It was 10 p.m.

The early hours of the morning. Maybe it was 3 a.m.? I saw the surgeon.

Courtesy of Allie DeVries

They placed 4 rods, one to reattach every toe that had been ‘internally severed.’ The surgeon said he did the best they could and only time healing would tell. Someone would be out to get me when he woke up, about 45 minutes.

An hour passed. No one. 15 more minutes and I’ll ask. 30 minutes pass. I go looking, either to find someone to ask, or someone finds me. Walking the halls of the surgical unit, in the silence of locked doors and 4 a.m.

I walked back to the doors they took him through and picked up the phone.

‘Hi, this is Allie. Dan’s wife. Just wondering if he’s awake.’

He is. Thank God.

‘Can I see him? I just want him to know I’m still here. And I just want to see him to know he’s ok.’

The nurse on the other end told me to go home.

‘I have his glasses. He can’t see without them. And he has to take his thyroid pill first thing in the morning. I have those too.’

The door opened and a nurse came out. She would take him his things and I needed to leave, or they would call security!

I am not someone who needs security. I was a wife, wanting to know her husband came out of surgery alive.

Dan’s mom stayed with me for the overnight wait. We couldn’t understand what we had done to warrant security. I offered to sleep in the waiting room until they felt he could have a visitor. They still told me to leave.

It wasn’t until much later I would know the reasons why.

I made the hour and a half drive back home. I dropped his mom off and went to our house. It was quiet. Our boys stayed with family for the night. I was going straight back to that hospital.

I showered the night off of me and made a pot of coffee. I was exhausted. But the nursing shift would be changing soon and I was going to see my husband.

I made my first of many of the hour and a half commutes from our house to the trauma center. I went straight to those doors and picked up the phone.

‘It’s Allie. Dan’s Wife. Can I see him now?’

They let me in.

There he was. His foot looking like Frankenstein, with the rods sticking out, perfectly straight. I stayed with him in recovery. He was so sick from the pain. They transferred him to a room, he would need to stay about a week until pain was under control. He would have a checkup for healing at the end of the week.

Within the first 10 minutes of being transferred to a room, he had what they called a pain attack. He couldn’t breathe.

I remember being on top of him to hold him down so the nurses could get close. I remember shouting his name in his face telling him to look at me. To breath. His head rolled to me and he wasn’t there in his eyes.

I turned to a nurse and yelled, ‘You have to do something!’ Doctors weren’t answering pages. She had no orders to give him anything. She cried. A crash team was called and I ran. I remember his sister being there and her hugging me and pushing passed her. I just had to get out. I hit the stairwell and just broke. Was this it? Was I going to lose my husband? We have 2 little boys. We have a house, we have a dog. I can’t do this without him. I don’t want to do this without him.

Then he was stable. We would go back and forth between stable and pain attacks for the next 3 days. The medication would make him delirious. He would get angry. The night nurses wouldn’t come near him. Something was not right.

It was 2, almost 3 weeks of taking shifts at the hospital while he healed. Every day all he asked was when could he go home.

A final check up with his surgeon before discharge revealed a scary truth. His foot wasn’t healing.

The tissue had become necrotic. His foot was dying. Dan was sent home to decide if he would prefer to amputate his foot at the ankle or below his knee.

We looked at prosthetics, we weighed the options. Dan was 28. We had our whole lives ahead of us. Thank God – it’s just a leg.

Courtesy of Allie DeVries

Ultimately Dan decided to have a below the knee amputation. This next surgery obviously had its risks, but when healed it would leave him with so many more options for prosthetics.

He would still run in baseball. He would still teach the boys to skate. We were going to come out of this better than ever.

As he went into this surgery, we both had heavy questions weighing on us. Would he be happy with his new body? Would I still be attracted to him? Would this surgery be as hard to stabilize him as the last?

But to each other, we were our rocks. We cracked jokes about good parking, or maybe I’d be taller. We talked about sledge hockey and questions the boys would ask.

A few hours in to his amputation, I was approached by a nurse.

‘What do you want us to do with his foot?’

This is not a question I ever expected to be asked.

‘I-I-I- think we should wait until Dan wakes up.’

I stammered over wanting to shout, ‘throw it out,’ and remembering him comment on being buried whole. They would send his severed right leg to the morgue, and wait for my direction.

I spent the rest of his surgery calling around to find out who could cremate a leg without the whole person being dead.

Thank God – it’s just his leg.

He came out of his amputation. Calm and stable. He looked to me for the final judgement – how did it look? Did I still love him?

Courtesy of Allie DeVries

‘It’s not as weird as I thought it was going to be [missing a limb],’ and I kissed him. And it wasn’t weird. And we were going to be fine. And I had never loved him so much, than I did at that moment, seeing so much strength in what could have been called a weakness.

We spent our anniversary at the hospital.

And once Thanksgiving weekend was over, they sent him home.

Courtesy of Allie DeVries

We were given a pamphlet on walking with crutches and that was about it. His discharge medication list was a mile long and we had no idea how to care for an amputation.

We spent the next month at home, learning our new normal. Waiting for Monday when we would go and get his new leg. And learn another new normal.

If you remember, I was given the task of finding a way to preserve my husband’s foot. So finally, our local funeral home was able to arrange the transfer, cremation and storage of Dan’s limb until he would be buried with it, much later – or so we thought.

Thursday, November 9, 2017. I went to the funeral home with a thankful heart. I was signing off on the transfer of his foot, thank God – it’s just his foot. It felt eerie signing off as if it was a death, but I was so grateful my husband was at home.

No more than 12 hours later would I be back.

Thursday night was just like any Thursday night. I fell asleep on the couch waiting for him to be ready to make the climb to bed.

He woke me and said, ‘okay, let’s go.’ I was so tired. I ran up ahead of him, turned his side light on and jumped into my side and fell back asleep, just as quickly as I had woken.

He was gasping. He was laying in bed, but he was dressed. His glasses still on. He was pale and sweaty and gasping. I shook him. I yelled to him. I pulled his eyes open. Something was wrong. I called my mom to come right away. I called 911.

My mom arrived while 911 was asking me to get him to the floor. She helped me lift his gasping, unconscious body and started CPR. The fire department came. The ambulance came. They used a defibrillator on my bedroom floor. They tried Narcan and epi and waited for more orders. They never stopped CPR.

I followed the ambulance to the hospital and called his mom crying. ‘Can you come?!’

I paced the hospital. I prayed. This was a pain attack; this was something the doctors were going to fix.

A doctor came out and asked for Dan’s wife. I could bring someone. ‘Thank God he’s stable,’ I thought to myself. I grabbed his mom’s hand and pulled her with me.

They brought me in to him. They were still doing CPR. He was purple. He wasn’t stable. He wasn’t better.

‘At this point, Allie, even if we get him back, his brain…’ the doctor trailed off. I pulled his mom into me to, I don’t know, hide her from this.

Courtesy of Allie DeVries

‘I won’t tell you to stop,’ I told the doctor. ‘I won’t ever tell you to stop, so that’s gotta be your call.’

We waited another half hour in a small room. Me and my mom and Dan’s parents and his sisters, his brother.

And then they came. The doctors and the firefighters and the paramedics. And they told me how sorry they were.

And for the first time in a long time. I prayed the ground would swallow me whole. This wasn’t my life. This wasn’t real. I sat at the hospital for a while.

How am I going to tell my boys? How do you tell your babies something, knowing you’re going to break their heart?

I made my way home from the hospital as the sun was coming up over the trees. It was just a broken foot.

Life and death take you when and where they want you. Dan’s heart couldn’t handle what he had experienced in the 2 months since September 13.

Courtesy of Allie DeVries

I often wonder if he felt something was wrong, but we were just so focused on being positive, and living our life together. He was the love of my life. My high school best friend. Father of my children. My person. And just like that, he was gone.”

Courtesy of Allie DeVries
Courtesy of Allie DeVries

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Allie DeVries of Ontario, Canada. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

Read more stories from those experiencing grief and loss:

‘Mommy, what’s wrong?’ I held her face in my hands and brought her eyes to mine. ‘Baby, there was an accident. Daddy died this morning,’ I whispered to my 12-year-old daughter.’

‘John was my PATIENT, and I was married. With tears streaming down my face, I looked at him. ‘Do you want to get married?’ We held each other in the tightest hug, and just sobbed. Hard.’

‘Is he gone?!,’ I yelled. It wasn’t my husband. He was so excited to be a dad. He was born to be one. I held his hand, telling him how much his unborn son and I loved him.’

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