‘I heard her voice and knew our lives would change forever. ‘Nic, you need someone to drive you to the hospital.’ I looked at my daughter and saw her eyes well with fear. ‘Momma, what happened to Daddy?’: Mom recounts near-loss of husband, stresses importance of ‘telling kids the truth’

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“‘Momma, I could tell how Daddy was doing by your heartbeat.’ Our world shattered. That moment when you know your life will never be the same. It happened at 10:55 p.m. on May 29th, 2020. I knew immediately when I heard a dear friend’s voice on the line that our lives were about to change forever. Without saying a word, I calmly walked out of our bedroom, where I was cuddled up with our daughter watching a movie. Something we did anytime Daddy was away. A ‘girl’s night.’ The calm of our quiet country home became instantly deafening. ‘Nic, Michael had an accident and is unconscious. You need someone to drive you to the hospital. He’s being transferred by helicopter.’ I had just talked to him an hour earlier. He wanted to tell his girls he loved us and to sleep well. ‘Is he okay?’

‘Nic, they are doing everything they can. He isn’t responding. You should call someone to be with you.’ Her voice has always brought me comfort. This night was no different. What you hear about trauma is real. I was numb. I was calm. I knew I had a role to fill for the rest of our family. I needed to remain calm and get clear information before I could call them. Then, I looked at our 8-year-old little girl. She knew—without any words, she knew. I saw her eyes well with fear. ‘Momma, what happened to Daddy? Can I come with you?’ I knew in that moment, my reaction would stay with her for the rest of her life.

Courtesy of Nicole Smithback

I had no idea what our next step would lead to, but I knew we could do hard things. I hugged and kissed her head. I promised I would tell her everything once I knew more. I promised her I would never lie to her. The next few moments were a blur of police officers and emergency responders calling me, providing Michael’s demographics, insurance information, and confirming the hospital address for me to go to. Michael had left earlier that afternoon on his first outing since the COVID`-19 Pandemic. He kissed us goodbye that morning and left. We had debated for days on if we both felt comfortable with him going golfing with friends. COVID-19 was the least of our concerns that day.

I called my close friend and her husband to come stay with our daughter. They insisted on driving me to the emergency department, and her husband would stay with our daughter until we knew more. I was quiet the entire drive. Upon arrival, I walked into the emergency entrance and was greeted by a staff member who asked if I was here for the ’40-year-old truck accident with head trauma.’ His words took my breath away. ‘Head trauma? No, I’m here for my husband Michael, he is coming in via med flight.’ He said, ‘Ma’am, we have an unidentified man with head trauma coming in, I’m sure it is your husband.’ At that moment, I was escorted by a solemn social worker to a small, littered room. A room meant to allow family members to react to what they would tell me in private.

‘I’m sorry, your husband has suffered a significant head trauma and the surgery team will come in to talk with you shortly. Do you have family you can call? Do you want me to get the chaplain?’ With COVID, no other visitors would be allowed to come to the hospital, but due to the trauma of his injury, they allowed my friend to come in and sit with me. I opted not to call family yet. I didn’t know anything, and I didn’t want to cause panic, knowing they would be helpless. I’d need them desperately in the next few hours/days, so my hope was to save their emotional energy. The attending trauma physician came in. She was kind and empathetic, all while wearing a mask and face shield. Her body language read, ‘I’m so sorry, we’re doing everything we can,’ but she said, ‘Your husband’s injuries are not correlating with his clinical exam.’

She explained he was not responsive to verbal, physical, or visual stimulation. My Michael, our world, most likely wouldn’t survive the night. I remained calm. I could only do one thing, I had to focus on him. The neurosurgery resident came in next, in his face shield and mask, and his body language matched his words: ‘Ma’am, your husband is not responding upon neurological exams…’ His words trailed off as he looked nervously through his face shield toward the floor and everywhere but in my eyes. I wondered to myself, ‘Has he ever had to tell a 40-year-old wife that her amazing and healthy husband, who had so much to live for in the life they’ve built, would not survive this accident? Has he ever had to think of how he would deliver this news? Do they teach this in medical school? When he chose to be a surgeon, did he prepare for this moment?’

I moved in closer to him, ‘I’m grateful for you and your team and the care you are giving. This is my husband, and I need you to speak up so I can hear you. Please look at me.’ He paused and started over. ‘We’d like to do surgery to see if we can better understand why his clinical exam is so poor. He has given us no neurological response except a cough reflex. If his cough stops, I’m sorry, but we’d recommend no further lifesaving intervention. I need to be clear: we do not anticipate this surgery will help him clinically, but we’d like to have you sign this authorization.’ I paused and took in the moment. In this small sterile room, with an old leather couch, three chairs, a phone, and a few dirty cups laying on the table. This moment would forever be burned in my mind. How do I tell our beautiful daughter Daddy isn’t coming home? What do I say to his mother, his little sisters, my parents, and sister, who love him as their own? How do I tell his friends?

Courtesy of Nicole Smithback

I could do this. He would do this for me. I took a breath. ‘Can you give me a moment? If surgery is not going to determine his chance of survival, I need just a moment.’ I needed to breathe again, and I knew with him standing there, I couldn’t hear Michael. He calmly agreed and said he would go and do one more neurological exam on Michael to prep him for surgery in case I decided to do it. For more than 17 years, I’ve known what he was thinking before he even spoke. His calm and steady voice was always in my head. I knew his hazel eyes better than my own. I hadn’t been able to see him yet. I could feel the silence trying to suffocate my thoughts. I couldn’t hear him. The doctor kindly stepped out of the small room, leaving me to imagine losing my everything and our daughter’s entire world. A world without her Daddy would mean childhood as she knew it would be taken away from her.

Due to the severity of his injury, they allowed my friend to come into the small room with me, even though in the time of COVID no visitors were allowed. She held my hand, desperate to make it okay. I can’t imagine how helpless she felt in that moment. She sat in silence holding my hand while I silently processed. I called my parents. I would need help with our daughter, and they live two and a half hours away. For some reason, in the middle of the night, my mom answered almost immediately. ‘Mom, Michael has been in an accident and it’s very bad. I need you to come.’ I didn’t explain anything more. My next call was to his little sister and his mom. I calmly explained to them Michael had an accident and it was very critical. I would call them again as soon as I knew anything more. The fear in both of their voices was piercing, and I’ll never forget the pain in that phone call. In that moment when I knew very little, I knew two things: 1.) My Michael would never, ever give up on us, and 2.) We can do hard things. We can do so much more than we think we’re capable of.

Eight minutes later the doctor returned, and with him came an odd feeling of positivity. ‘Ms. Smithback, he’s responding to his neurological exam. I don’t know how, but he’s responding. He is still in very critical condition, but would you like to see him?’ My world stopped turning again. I needed to see him. ‘Please understand—he’s sedated and on a ventilator, but you can see him.’ I was escorted to a trauma bay in the emergency department, where they notified me he had no other injuries except his severe brain injury, and they would monitor him for now. If he continued to show signs of response, they would transfer him to the neurological ICU for intensive monitoring, but I should understand he remains in very critical condition. Except for being on the ventilator, he looked so peaceful. Exactly as he did earlier that morning while sleeping next to me. It was 5 a.m. I wouldn’t sleep for three more days.

A kind nurse came in to let me know he was about to be taken for another CT scan and then be transferred to the neurological ICU. I said I would wait for him if they’d just give me the directions on how to get there. ‘I’m so sorry, you can’t go. You’ll need to come back at 8 a.m. Due to COVID-19, visiting hours are restricted.’ I had to leave the love of my life. My daughter’s Daddy. I had to go home. I showered and sat on the shower floor in tears. It was the first time I cried. The one person I couldn’t call was the only person I needed in that moment. Him. Then, I went downstairs to hold our daughter when she woke up. I told her in an age-appropriate manner what had happened to Daddy, and what our next step would be. She held me, and calmly said, ‘I know Daddy will be okay.’

The next day I spent sitting next to him, with my head resting on his chest as he was in a medically-induced coma. The day after, he woke up and was doing well enough to be extubated. He did amazing. We spent the day trying to help him remember what had happened. He was even miraculously able walk to the sink to brush his teeth. The next day, three days after the initial accident, he was rushed into emergency surgery due to his brain hemorrhaging. He had to have a section of his skull and a portion of brain removed due to damage and swelling. The surgery took about five hours. I sat in his room, alone, until visiting hours were over and I waited at home for a call from his neurosurgeon. He fought like hell. Through scan after scan, physical, occupational and speech therapy, IVs, swallow tests, blood draws, and neurological exams—he fought.

19 days later, he came home to us. Six months later, I don’t look at the world the same. I believe in miracles. I believe in unexplainable acts that are bigger than us and bigger than clinical medicine. I believe that an incredible medical team, a little luck, and a whole lot of love and hope saved Michael’s life. He has now had his skull bone replaced, he can drive, and he is back to work. He has been released from all restrictions and all therapies. He has made almost a full recovery. Most importantly, he tucks his baby girl in at night, every night, and lays next to me in bed.

Now, when we talk with our daughter about those extremely difficult weeks Daddy was in the hospital, she tells us she could always tell how Daddy was doing by my heartbeat when I told her. Tell your kids the truth. They deserve it. They need it. Through it all we learned grace, grit, and resilience. Give grace to yourself and those around you. Show grit in the hard times, you can do so much more than you believe. Be resilient in those hard times.”

Courtesy of Nicole Smithback

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Nicole Smithback. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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