WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) - Nikki Spearman asked the medical staff not to trim too much of her husband’s beard. Lee Spearman had grown his red beard to Santa Claus length for the holidays, and if she had to bury him, she thought, she wanted to be able to recognize him at the funeral.
The doctors at New Hanover Regional Medical Center were removing Lee from the mechanical ventilator and planned to insert a tracheostomy tube into his neck. Lee had been in a medically induced coma for 11 days, and about a week earlier a doctor delicately told Nikki to gather the family. She understood what that meant.
A bacterial infection had spread throughout Lee’s body, shutting down his organs. By Dec. 24, not much had changed.
Doctors were prepared to remove the ventilator and quickly cut through Lee’s neck to establish a direct connection to his windpipe. When the ventilator shut off, Lee made an audible sigh - a single breath of hope.
Nikki and the doctors expressed their disbelief.
“Did I just hear that?” the doctor asked Nikki.
Even doctors, Nikki said, considered it a Christmas miracle. And medical staff - who stoically observe pain, recovery and death on a daily basis - shed a few tears, Nikki said.
The trach was never installed. Hours later, doctors decided to cut off his dialysis machine. His kidneys started functioning, too.
Lee was on his way to recovery.
That Lee was suddenly battling for his life surprised the Spearmans. Lee, 54, had some arm pain and was feeling lethargic after some long days helping out at a Christmas tree lot in Wilmington. He showered at his mother-in-law’s nearby home and couldn’t muster the strength to dry off, so his mother-in-law put him in his vehicle and Lee drove himself the few miles to the NHRMC Orthopedic Hospital, formerly known as Cape Fear Hospital, for what he thought was a broken arm and the flu.
Nikki and their son, Tom, drove to Wilmington from the family home in Ingold. After a short time at Cape Fear, doctors determined that Lee needed critical care. So they loaded him up for a frantic ride to NHRMC.
Lee’s blood pressure dropped to 50/20, and his body temperature hit 107 degrees and stayed there. In the ambulance, Lee stopped breathing and had to be resuscitated.
When Lee was being rushed from Cape Fear Hospital to NHRMC, he pleaded with his wife of 28 years - “Don’t leave me.”
For more than 40 days, she visited Lee’s room when she could, talking, praying and singing in his ears.
After numerous tests, doctors determined that an infection was ravaging his body. Its origin would never be determined. The family wondered if his missionary trips to Rwanda and Tanzania, places where sanitation does not meet American standards, could have been the source of the infection.
Lee had made several missionary trips since his position was eliminated at the foster care organization he started. He and Nikki have run group homes throughout their adult lives. In fact, that’s how they assembled their family. In their 20s, they adopted three children they had fostered. Once all of them had been raised, Lee visited a Pender County farm to meet David, who they call Dee. Lee called to ask Nikki if it would be OK if they fostered him. She consented. “Good,” Lee said. “He’s in the back seat.”
The Spearmans were then contacted about fostering Gabrielle. They agreed, and by the way, a social worker said, she has two younger sisters. So Molly and Mia joined the family. The Spearmans fell in love with the girls and a spirited boy named Levi, and adopted them all.
Lee liked to spend time playing croquet, whiffle ball and throwing Frisbee with the kids. And he and David would tinker in the garage, building go-karts and fixing bicycles. Suddenly, Lee was gone, locked away in a hospital an hour from home.
The kids didn’t know Lee was fighting for his life. The youngest children had been told that doctors were working on his arm - a half-truth based on the origin of the infection.
Nikki moved into the surgical/trauma intensive care unit at New Hanover Regional Medical Center, sleeping in the waiting room, but only when a family member was nearby to wake her when she could visit Lee again. She showered in the neonatal intensive care unit, where her adult daughter, Beth, watched over a baby she intends to adopt.
The nearest bathroom became her refuge. There, she had conversations with God. Negotiations proved fruitless, blame was pointless, understanding was difficult. She even recognized that Christmas in heaven might be what Lee, a minister, would want.
Finally, she stopped praying for Lee’s recovery. Instead, she prayed for peace.
“I had to have peace,” Nikki said. “I needed peace whether he lived or died.”
Meanwhile, friends and family members built the Christmas anticipation for the couple’s children.
On Dec. 24, the Spearmans’ five youngest visited their mom at the hospital. They opened gifts that family friends had supplied and they talked excitedly about Christmas day.
As they were leaving, Gabrielle and Dee, the 10-year-olds, sensed that their dad was experiencing more than arm problems.
Nikki only told them to continue praying. Later that night, Lee took his first unassisted breath.
Lee’s recovery was a reason to rejoice, but the encouraging news was tempered by a grim reality. The infection had prevented blood from reaching Lee’s extremities. His muscles had deteriorated as he lay comatose and the possibility of nerve damage hung over the family. As Lee faded in and out of consciousness, he woke up to the reality that his life had forever changed - Lee was going to lose both legs below the knee, all the fingers on one hand and all the fingertips on the other.
The children were brought in to see their father the day before his amputation. The dead tissue in his feet and hands had turned them black, so Lee kept them covered for the visit.
Nikki explained that Lee would be losing his legs and fingers. She worried that the children would have a hard time accepting that their father would lose his legs.
But Levi, a 5-year-old with long, dark curls and lively eyes, found some perspective.
“It’s like in ‘Soul Surfer,’” Levi said. The movie tells the story of Bethany Hamilton, the professional surfer who lost her arm in a shark attack. “At first, she wanted a fake arm, but then she decided she could surf without her arm.”
After 40 days of dedicated vigilance, Nikki, stricken by the flu, returned to Ingold. In her place, the couple’s oldest adopted son, Tom, took a second leave from work and moved into the hospital, helping Lee when needed and insisting that he do for himself what he could.
At first, that wasn’t much. Lee’s muscles had atrophied, so any movement was a challenge for the 6-foot-1, 260-pound man. A month after that first breath, his movement was limited to a slight rotation of his head.
Tom, who was adopted when Nikki and Lee were still in their 20s, would help his dad with the simplest tasks - from bathing to shaving to scratching that spot … right … there.
In his eyes, Tom said, his dad hasn’t changed. But there was a moment when he felt the gravity of the situation.
After the amputation, Lee was wheeled back up to his room, and Tom was struck by something he saw - his dad’s bed was shorter.
Lee has shown an indomitable spirit, visiting the nurses from his foggy days in the ICU, thanking each one for their role in saving his life.
During a recent rehabilitation treatment, physical therapist Mike Stine lowered Lee mechanically onto a rehab table. Cradled like a newborn being dropped from a stork’s bill, Lee suggests that others might want to take a ride in the contraption. Soon, the smile was replaced by a grimace as Lee tipped himself to the side and pushed himself back up with his elbow. The move is designed to rebuild the core strength that Lee lost during that month of inactivity. Tom provided encouragement and Lee strained to do one last repetition . and then one more. Lee followed with a series of butt lifts - a move designed to help Lee build the strength to move himself from a wheelchair to a different seat.
“If you ask him to do five repetitions, he’ll do 15,” said Dr. John Liguori, medical director of the NHRMC rehabilitation hospital. “He’s always upbeat and positive.”
“He’s a pleasure to work with,” Stine said. “He has an awesome attitude. He’s the kind of patient that makes you want to come to work.”
Lee doesn’t dwell on his lost limbs. He has been brought back to life, and he will cherish it. His perseverance is rooted in love for his family.
“My main concern is that I don’t want to be a burden on my wife. Her plate’s full,” Lee said. “I want to be at full capacity as soon as I can.”
Nikki wants Lee to do what he can. But she no longer needs him to do everything. When Lee was in the hospital on the verge of death, Nikki realized how unprepared she was to lose him.
She didn’t know insurance passwords or how to pay certain bills. She hadn’t pumped gas in 15 years.
“I was spoiled,” she said. Through necessity, she’s a little more self-sufficient today.
Lee expects to leave NHRMC and travel to his Ingold home soon. How he will get there is still being decided. The family needs a van that seats seven and has a lift - those aren’t cheap, Tom said.
Lee has prosthetic legs for stability, and he’ll get his “walkers” once the swelling reduces in his legs. He still wants to throw Frisbees and play whiffle ball and fish with his children - “all the things daddies do,” he said. How much he’ll be able to do remains to be seen. “I’ve never been an amputee before so I don’t know,” he said.
Certainly, Lee’s outlook has changed. Nikki has seen him shed tears - something she said he wouldn’t have allowed before his hospitalization.
But the same heart resides within the gentle giant - a man who has fostered dozens of orphans, who has adopted eight children, who has traveled to undeveloped countries to minister to the people.
“It didn’t change who he is,” said Tom, seated a few feet from his father’s wheelchair. “I’m just happy that he’s still here. It makes me appreciate him much more. In my eyes, nothing has changed.”
And with that, he pulled out a tissue, walked over to his father’s wheelchair and wiped away one of his father’s tears.
Information from: The StarNews, https://starnewsonline.com
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