by Rachel Chustz
Our family had just spent a fantastic week at a Christian summer camp. We had made some amazing new friends, listened to wise words from an inspiring speaker and had many exciting outdoor adventures. We felt refreshed from a peaceful week, and our spiritual tanks were full. We had no clue what God was preparing us for, and we didn’t know that only four short days later, we would find out.
On this hot July morning, my hard-working husband, Michael, woke up early, as usual. He sang as he showered. His cheerfulness seeped melodically throughout the rooms of our home. He quickly dressed and gathered his things. Our children giggled as their playful daddy chased them around the house for goodbye kisses. I kissed Michael goodbye and told him I loved him.
Only several hours later, I got the phone call from a stranger. The stranger’s voice shook as he regretfully told me, “Ma’am, your husband has been in a very serious wreck.” Michael had run into the back of an 18-wheeler on the interstate. The 18-wheeler was almost completely stopped, and Michael had crashed into him going full speed. “Is he bleeding? Is he going to be okay? Is he alive?” I hysterically asked. The stranger explained that the Jaws of Life had pried him out of his smashed truck, and the helicopter would arrive any minute to fly him to the emergency room.
I was finally called back to see my husband. As I walked in, I saw Michael lying on the hospital bed with a horrified look on his face. His rapid, shallow breathing revealed how difficult and painful it was to breathe. When he saw me, his eyes filled with tears and he whispered, “I am so sorry.” I held his trembling hand and told him that everything was going to be okay. I could hear his broken bones in his chest snapping with each laborious breath.
Michael was moved to the trauma unit where they tried to manage his pain until surgery for his broken legs. Two surgeries later, both of his legs were full of hardware, covered in stitches and were two times their normal size. Michael was kept in a comatose state and remained on the ventilator to allow his lungs, sternum and ribs time to heal.
After several days, I noticed that Michael started to look different. His body began to swell and he started to turn yellow. He also developed a fever and his vital signs were too high. It was very difficult to manage his pain, even though he was extremely sedated, and when they tried to get Michael off of the ventilator, it was clear that his lungs were not ready to support his breathing.
The days in the hospital began to run together. Michael’s reports did not get better. His liver was still struggling, he had developed pneumonia, had several blood transfusions, had a persistent fever, and the doctors were beginning to worry that he had developed Staph. Then the worst news came. Michael had developed Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS). The doctors’ voices were low as they explained everything to us. The hopelessness and fear overwhelmed me, and I begged and pleaded for someone to tell me that he would be okay. Then one nurse explained, “I’ve seen people in much worse condition live, and I’ve seen people in much better condition die.”
My spirited husband, who was usually so full of life, lay so lifeless, taking only breaths that the ventilator initiated. As I stood over him, I saw the deep groove of where his wedding ring was and imagined him saying, “I have never taken this ring off and I never will.” I looked at the messy pink polish he had allowed our two-year-old daughter to paint onto his toes. I begged, “God, please don’t take this amazing man from us.”
As their grandmother read books to our children that night, I hid in my bedroom and listened to voicemails from Michael. His soothing voice sounded so sweet in my ear. I went into Michael’s closet and could smell his fragrance on his clothes. Michael felt so near. I could almost hear him saying the words he said to me only hours after his accident, “Rachel, I can’t tell you why this happened, but I know this happened for a reason. And I know God kept me alive for that reason.” I clung to his words so tightly.
As the fog of shock began to wear off, I was able to see and feel the indescribable outpouring of love from family and friends. Family and friends took care of our children, traveled to be with us, provided us with meals and groceries (which lasted for months!), set up a fund to help with the hospital expenses and constantly offered powerful words of encouragement and heartfelt prayers. They even built us a ramp so Michael could get into our home in his wheelchair. Churches all over our state were praying for Michael and his healing. Our community was lifting us up and carrying us through this terrifying time.
Over the next several days, Michael began to slowly improve. Then, I got the most incredible surprise of my life when I returned for the visitation with Michael one evening. Michael was off of the ventilator and was alert. He could barely lift his head or open his eyes, but when he saw me, he said, “Now there’s the love of my life.” I cannot even explain the joy that I felt in that moment.
We were very careful not to overwhelm Michael as he woke up. He had lost more than 20 pounds and was extremely weak. Michael remembered that he had been in a car accident but didn’t remember much of anything after that. He experienced lots of delusions and post-traumatic stress as he came back into consciousness.
As the days went on, Michael became more aware and was ready to see our two young children, and they were very excited to finally see their daddy. This was such a magical moment for us. Our children eagerly became little caretakers. I remember the tears pouring down my cheeks as I watched our 2-year-old and 4-year-old so naturally and courageously take on this new careful and gentle demeanor with their father.
Michael worked hard. He didn’t let being in a wheelchair slow him down. He was bound and determined to walk. With some great physical therapy and dedication, Michael was walking four months before the doctors predicted. Despite all of his suffering, Michael’s attitude remained optimistic as he focused on making his suffering count. Michael is my hero. I have never seen anything like his faith, courage or perseverance.
This experience has given our family new eyes to see this life. It has revealed to us that even in the wake of such uncertainty and fear, there are so many blessings. It has been a long road to recovery. However, with every trial, we have more joyously celebrated our victories. Michael’s scars are a reminder to us of the miracle we experienced and that God has a very big plan for Michael here on Earth.