Beloved owner of Mt. Vernon Restaurant finds new hope after near-death experience

May 22, 2018

Jeff Messinger knew he was dying.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Jeff had complications from diagnostic tests and back surgery that landed him in the ICU. At the time, all they could think of was alleviating the pain.

Now, as Jeff lay in the ICU, he heard a nurse rushing toward him, shouting, “We’re losing him!” They did what good nurses do and salvaged the spark of life, but for the next several days he remained in critical condition, at one time hemorrhaging in the brain, abdomen, and colon before it was arrested.

Eventually, he stabilized enough to be evaluated for admission to Siskin Hospital. Though his back incision still had not healed, he and his wife Cindy had already learned to hope through their interactions with Siskin Hospital’s nurse liaisons.

“They were so kind, their phone number was available to us and we could call with questions any time,” says Cindy. “It was so encouraging to know there was a ‘next’ step. And to have kind of a life line, somebody that was human, rather than a robot on the phone. The nurse liaisons gave us the encouragement we needed to look forward and believe better.”

For Jeff, however, his physical limitations were a stern reminder of reality once he was transferred to Siskin Hospital.

“All of a sudden, I had to have help to the bathroom, had to be helped in the shower, had to be helped to physical therapy,” he says. “I felt my independence was gone forever.”

Jeff’s therapy began immediately, even though he was wheelchair bound. His therapists helped him improve his strength with sitting exercises, and then one day, quite unexpectedly, a therapist he teasingly called “Mean Jeannine” pushed him over to the parallel bars and told him to stand up and walk.

“I couldn’t get out the wheelchair at that point,” says Jeff. “One therapist stood behind the wheelchair, and ‘Mean Jeannine’ stood beside me at the parallel bars. She wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, so I stood up and held onto the bar. When I did that, she said, ‘I want you to take two steps.’ But I couldn’t – I couldn’t walk. She said, ‘You’re going to have to trust me. Trust that if you take one step, and you feel like you’re going to fall, I’ll catch you. And if you fall backwards, he’s (the other therapist) got you. So you don’t have far to fall.’ So she encouraged me to take those steps I didn’t think I could take. And I did two steps, then two more steps, and so we got half way across that parallel bar. And then we did the whole parallel bar. I thought I was quite the athlete!”

For Jeff, another difficulty that arose from his lost independence was his inability to get out and socialize with the many friends he and Cindy had made during the decades they owned and operated the Mt. Vernon Restaurant.

“One day, Dr. Elsegroth (Siskin Hospital physician) asked me if I was depressed,” says Jeff. “I told him I wasn’t, but the next morning I woke up feeling very depressed. When Dr. E came by to check on me, I told him he either knew something about me that I didn’t know, or I was affected by the power of his suggestion, because today I’m depressed!”

A short time later, psychologist Dr. Gina Del Gardo introduced herself to Jeff.

“Dr. Del Gardo was so nice and so comforting,” he says. “She helped me understand part of my problem was that I had been so involved socially in the community, had that interaction, and all of a sudden was feeling isolated. You go from helping people, doing things, and suddenly you’ve lost your independence. It’s a pretty humbling experience.”

“And being in a position of needing and having to accept help from others was difficult, though we are so grateful for it,” adds Cindy.

Jeff’s therapists taught him how to compensate for his physical limitations while he was recovering. Though he felt that everything he’d done unconsciously before was now a great effort, it was encouraging to know there was a way to accomplish his will, even if it had to be done differently.

Jeff transitioned from a wheelchair to a walker until he was strong enough to walk one lap around the gym. When he graduated to Outpatient Therapy, he was walking five laps.

Jeff’s inpatient stay had strengthened him and restored his mobility, and Outpatient Therapy Services focused on giving him back his independence.“Sitting in the car was extremely painful for Jeff,” says Cindy. “So Carroll (outpatient physical therapist) would figure out the best way to get in, which cushion worked best, or whether a towel versus a seat pillow worked better.” It made the drive from home to Siskin Hospital’s outpatient clinic tolerable.

Cindy sees the same genuine caring and concern in the Siskin Hospital staff that she observed in the Siskin brothers. As a teenage volunteer at the Operation Crossroads facility established by Mose and Garrison to help severely disabled children, she witnessed first-hand their frequent interactions with the patients.

“Mose and Garrison Siskin came in almost every afternoon from the foundry, still with their coveralls on, to see the children,” says Cindy, who later majored in special education and became a preschool teacher at the Siskin Children’s Institute. “They would bend down and laugh and hug the children, and buckle them into their seat belts. They just wanted to be there in the afternoon to see those little tiny tykes.”

When Siskin Hospital opened its doors in 1990, Jeff and Cindy say it was so exciting to see Mose and Garrison’s dream expanding to help not only children, but everyone, never for a moment thinking they might someday need its services. Contemplating his options in light of his traumatic medical experience, Jeff says his quality of life would have been seriously impaired if there were no Siskin Hospital in Chattanooga.

“If it weren’t for Siskin Hospital,’ he says, “I’d probably still be in a wheelchair. There was no way I could tolerate a ride to Nashville or Atlanta for physical therapy. We’re just so blessed to have this hospital in our town.”

Jeff has completed his outpatient sessions for the time being and is now following a prescribed therapy/exercise program under the direction of a therapist at the Siskin Health & Fitness Center. Today he is walking short distances and continues to improve.

Cindy quotes her life verse, Isaiah 41:13. “I, the LORD your God, hold you by your right hand. And I say to you, Don’t be afraid. I am here to help you.”

“Not only is He holding our hand, but He provided Siskin Hospital with its highly skilled and compassionate staff to hold our hands and walk this journey with us,” she says.

Top photo  courtesy of the Lookout Mountain Mirror.