Because of Siskin Hospital, I can ride the open trail

June 7, 2020

July 28, 2014 was just a normal day at work when Debra Cook called her husband, Mike, to ask what he’d like for supper. Mike said anything she made was fine with him, and told her he was heading out to the barn to move some horses.

“I think Dustin will be there to help,” Mike said. “But just check on me when you get home.” They both knew their son sometimes worked crazy hours, so he might not be available.

At the end of the day, Debra got home, changed clothes, and went into the kitchen to start supper. On the way, she noticed the open medicine cabinet door, the contents in disarray as if someone had gone through them in a hurry. On the counter sat a bottle of Benadryl.

“Oh, no, something’s happened to Dustin!” thought Debra, since her son is allergic to insect stings. Little did she know the situation was in fact much, much worse.

She ran outside; her daughter-in-law was on the phone.

“Mike got stung and had a reaction,” she told Debra. “But Dustin’s given him an Epi shot.”

Debra relaxed a bit. If he’s gotten the injection, then he’ll be fine, she thought. She didn’t know Mike lay unconscious in Dustin’s car. It was only when she met Dustin later that she learned the full story.

As it turned out, Dustin was available after all to help his dad move the horses from one pasture to another on their farm in beautiful Georgetown. As Mike walked a horse through a gate, a wasp stung him on the ankle. He warned Dustin not to come through the gate. It was unpleasant, but Mike had been stung many times before, so he thought no more about it. Within a couple of minutes, however, he told Dustin he didn’t feel well. When Dustin looked at him, Mike was tomato-red.

“Go get your EpiPen,” Mike struggled to say. But the EpiPen was at Dustin’s house, and he didn’t want to leave his dad alone in this condition. Alarmed, he managed to walk Mike to the car, grabbed his EpiPen from the house and administered the injection. By then, Mike was already unconscious. Dustin headed for a nearby fire station where he knew there’d be EMT services, but they were all out on a call. A 911 call brought an ambulance, which took him to Tennova’s ICU.

Debra waited anxiously to see her husband at Tennova. She thought how different this experience was from a previous episode when Mike had been bitten by a spider. Then, the EMTs let her talk to Mike in the ambulance and see him as soon as they got to the ER, but now she wasn’t allowed to see him at all. She was sure that he’d be conscious, awake and wanting to talk to her. “After all, he’s had an EpiPen,” she kept telling herself. Her pastor, who’d joined her in the waiting room, would later tell her that, as medical staff wheeled Mike in on a stretcher, he’d seen his arm drop off the edge, lifeless.

Finally, the ER physician emerged to brief Debra. He said Mike was in a very serious condition and wanted to wait until the next day to see if there was improvement. By the third day, the pulmonologist and hospitalist expressed concern that Mike wasn’t responding to treatment. A CT and an MRI confirmed brain damage, and Mike was moved to Erlanger for neurological services. There he was diagnosed with “anoxic encephalopathy secondary to anaphylactic reaction to bee stings.” Mike was scheduled for a second MRI, but staff hoped it wouldn’t be necessary because Mike’s condition was so fragile. In fact, Debra says, “I was told that I needed to call Dustin and get him here, because Mike might not pull through.”

The allergic emergency had greatly diminished the flow of oxygen to Mike’s brain. The MRI showed “patchy” damage to the brain, which, Dustin says, can actually be worse than a traumatic brain injury (TBI). As their Siskin Hospital physician, Dr. Manalo, later explained, a TBI is usually caused by an impact or blow to the head and affects the part of the brain in proximity to the injury. In Mike’s case, the “patchiness” indicated the entire brain was damaged from lack of oxygen.

At Erlanger, Mike was completely dependent: he couldn’t stand, walk, talk or eat. Staff told Debra she’d better start looking at nursing home placement since Mike would probably never be independent again.

He did improve, however, without the second MRI, and his ventilation tube was removed, though he remained in ICU for two weeks. Towards the end, he began to recognize Debra, started reading simple words, and talk, though not always intelligibly. But still no motor skills. Shortly afterwards, Mike was moved to an intermediate care floor. The next day, the case manager told Debra she would need to find a rehab facility for Mike because he would likely be discharged by Monday, and suggested Shepherd Center in Atlanta.

Debra thought it would be better to keep Mike close to home. She had requested and received a tour of Siskin Hospital shortly after Mike’s move to Erlanger, but Mike was denied admission because, at that time, his condition was too severe to do the required therapy. Extremely perplexed, Debra walked the hospital corridor, praying and weighing her options, when she bumped into Lora, the Siskin Hospital nurse liaison who had toured her earlier. She told her the whole story, sharing Mike’s improvement; Mike’s case was re-evaluated and he was approved for admission to Siskin Hospital.

Mike arrived in Siskin Hospital’s Brain Injury unit quite helpless after two months in acute care. One of Debra’s church friends had a relative, a doctor of physical therapy, who worked on Mike’s floor. Debra says that when Mike was evaluated, the PT said Mike would need A LOT of therapy, but “we’ll do the best we can for him.” His therapists worked with him and 144 days after the wasp sting, Mike amazed everyone when he walked out of the hospital with a walker.

“Everyone – PTs, OTs, nurses, doctors, SLPs – they just wouldn’t give up on him,” says Debra. “They were just so wonderful.” She said one physician told Mike, “You are the reason I do this job. I would have never dreamed you would have come this far.”

Mike continued with outpatient PT, OT and speech therapy for an additional three months, and continues to see psychology for lingering cognitive issues. Though they’ve since sold their farm and moved to a smaller place because of Mike’s disability, he’s now functionally independent, and happy to be back in the saddle again.

“The staff at Siskin Hospital are just miracle workers,” says Debra.


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