Billy is VERY SICK. According to the doctors, he is “as sick as a person could be from a medical standpoint.” It’s not just limited to stage IV stomach cancer anymore. Billy has developed an infection in his abdomen and it is VERY SERIOUS.
I know you’re asking how this could possibly be happening. Many of you heard about Billy’s walk off of the plane yesterday when he arrived at Walter Reed. It is true that he walked off; it’s not a rumor. But the other truth is that his walk could not be completed without massive amounts of effort, and quite a bit of pain.
Billy is not one to complain. Many of you know that. He takes a hit. Life doesn’t go his way. And he shrugs his shoulders, accepting what has come, and moving forward the best he can. Consistently through the last 2 ½ weeks, the nurses have come in his room to asking, “On a scale of 0-10, how’s your pain?” He hasn’t really complained. He just gives the number—sometimes verbally, and sometimes by holding up fingers on his hands—and the nurses move to address the situation. Most of the time, they’ve been able to get his pain down to 1 or 2. It has crept up to 5 or 6 at times, but then they’ve gotten it down to 1 or 2 again.
But that’s not the case anymore.
Since Billy arrived at Walter Reed yesterday afternoon, his pain level has been climbing. It held steady at a 5 or a 6, and then increased to 7. Sometime yesterday or today—I can’t remember when it was—I asked him for his pain level as he grimaced. “I don’t know,” he said, sort of groggy. “I can’t put a number on it. It just hurts.” Many times last night as I stayed with him in his room, he’d ask me what time it was. “1:15 in the morning,” I told him. He replied, half moaning, “Oh, God…” The time was creeping by so slowly.
But time until what? He didn’t know. He just wanted the pain to go away.
The physicians at Walter Reed have been collaborating and working hard to assess Billy and come up with the best treatment possible. This morning, as they did “rounds”, a group of 10 or so came into Billy’s room. The head physician wanted to fill us in on what they were seeing, and what they had planned for the day. It was an ambitious list:
- Paracentisis (drain the fluid from Billy’s belly)
- An ultrasound to look at his bile system—to inspect for any kind of blockage
- Perhaps he would get albumin (in an IV line)
- The GI doctors would reassess his anatomy with an endoscopy (camera down his throat), and possibly consider a stent to help his stomach to drain
- Someone from nutrition would come in and start the TPN (a bag of fluid nutrition)
- Starting the PCA (patient-controlled anesthesia) pump
That was the list this morning. By mid-afternoon, it was clear that the day’s list had to change. The ultrasound happened, as did the paracentisis. He got the PCA pump, and someone from nutrition came. But then it all stopped. We met with the physicians in Billy’s room, and Dr. Gallagher told us that there was something wrong with the fluid from Billy’s abdomen. There always has been something wrong; the liquid shouldn’t even be there. The cancer is producing the fluid, and it causes swelling and pain in his belly. But this time, they weren’t able to drain much fluid. According to Dr. Gallagher, the fluid was probably “unlike any other fluid that had been drained from his belly before.” (He’s had this done 3 other times.) The doctor proceeded to tell us about his fluid. It was thick, like mucus. It was yellow—the wrong color for this kind of fluid. It should be more of a dark green shade. And it was filled with bacteria. Billy has developed a major infection (sepsis) in his abdomen. There is “unequivocal evidence.” Billy has an elevated heart rate, his blood pressure is falling, and there are three kinds of bacteria in the abdominal fluid. It’s not good.
To make matters worse, there is an even greater danger. If Billy’s bowel tears, all kinds of bacteria will leak out from his intestines. In the words of the doctors, it will be a life-threatening situation for him.
At this point, the doctors are unsure whether his bowel is already torn. They can’t quite tell.
Everything inside me wants to scream. I was in Billy’s room earlier, and my mom came in to gave me a hug. I know I can’t break down in front of him. I have to be hopeful and strong. But when my mom hugged me, I lost it. I fought to contain my emotion. “I have to get out of here,” I whispered. She let go, and I left. I went to bridge overlooking and outside garden and bawled. This can’t be happening to my little brother!
Just a month ago, we had hung out in Atlanta, talking about relationships, weddings, and plans for the future. He planned to be in Hawaii with the army by mid-October, and we talked about training to run a marathon together sometime next summer. I actually found one in Hawaii on June 26. It sounded like a fun challenge, and a good excuse to hang out together.
And now, I’m not sure how much longer my brother will be alive.
I have hesitated to say such a thing, because I have refused to despair. I believe in a God who does the impossible. I’ve seen miracles happen in my life and in the lives if my family and friends. I believe that God can heal Billy. The painful part is not knowing if He will.
We face some tough choices ahead. If Billy’s bowel is torn, the question of surgery arises. If the bowel is torn because of cancer, the surgeon faces an impossible task: you can’t attach cancer to cancer and expect it to heal. If the bowel is torn, and it’s not because of cancer, surgery could be possible. But it could be too much for Billy’s body to handle. He might not come out alive. And even if he did survive the surgery, we’re not sure what quality of life he would have.
The reality, medically speaking, is that Billy is dying. And nothing short of a miracle will save him.
He’s currently in the ICU at Walter Reed. They’re trying to stabilize his pain, to bring his pulse down, and to bring his blood pressure back up. He’s on a ton of antibiotics, and we’re hoping that his body responds to them. We’re praying that the antibiotics kill his infection. If they don’t, surgery may be our only option. And we’re not sure that’s a good option for him.
There are a lot of hard decisions ahead.
In the meantime, people are trying to get here as fast as they possibly can. My dad and my fourth brother, Chris, are flying out here tomorrow from Colorado. Bobby’s wife, Blair, is flying in tonight. My mom’s sisters and a few nieces and/or nephews are driving from Massachusetts as I write this. We’re trying to be together and with Billy as much as possible.
He’s in the ICU, and visits are restricted to the immediate family. The focus right now has changed. We’re not trying to beat cancer right now (we’ll get to that later). Right now, we’re focused on beating the infection and keeping him alive.
Billy is there, but he’s not the same Billy we’ve all come to know and love. That Billy loves to care for people, to buy things for them, to clean up their messes, to give until he has nothing left, and to make life a lot of fun. The Billy in the ICU is in a lot of pain. He can’t really talk, and isn’t always alert all of the time. He’s needy, and he looks ill. He’s not the same Billy that we all saw a month ago.
The picture at the top of this blog was taken at his graduation from flight school on September 2, 2010. No matter what happens here at Walter Reed, that’s the Billy I’ll always remember.
At this point, the picture is grim, but the hope isn’t gone. He’s still alive. We can still pray. So please pray, for whatever comes to mind. I trust that God will show you how.
You may text, or send Facebook messages or emails. We probably won’t respond right away. And we may not answer calls. We can’t have our phones on in the ICU.
I was in the ICU with Billy a little bit ago. I felt so helpless. It feels like there’s nothing I can do. I spoke to him about our plans for the evening…we were going to get something to eat, and then we’d be back to visit him. He seemed confused. The pain and medicines and trauma are a lot for him to bear. All I could do was to say, “I love you.” And I saw his lips move. I read his lips. “I love you too” he said silently through his lips. But I heard him loud and clear. I know he loves me. He has proven that time and again by how he has lived.
I know some of you may think it absurd for me to write a blog entry at a time like this—but this blog has been good for me, for all of us. It’s the best way I know to let all of us be in this together. I don’t know how all of this will end, but we’re going to need you—our family and friends—to press forward. And I wanted you to know what’s going on. It happened so fast, and it has taken all of us by surprise.
The social worker told us not to try to make sense of it all. “Your brains will be like scrambled eggs,” she said. And she’s right. It’s hard to understand anything right now. Except that I want to be with my brother as much as I possibly can. So I’m off to the ICU…
Thank you for your thoughts, words of encouragement, hugs, prayers, and offers to help. I don’t know how we could do this without all of you.