If I close my eyes, I can hear the sounds of the Canyon. I hear my tires turning onto the caliche road, crunching and spitting dust in the slow and steep descent down into camp. I hear the swish of the Frio River as I drive into it, the creaks and thuds of the car as we bump along the limestone riverbed and the echoes from the canyon walls. I can hear the voices of campers playing in the distance, a giant splash as someone catapults into the water from the riverfront at Singing Hills and the changing pitch of the water as we drive past the dam. These sounds are like a cozy blanket I wrap around my mind. They provide intense comfort, security and calm. Many times in life I have closed my eyes and conjured up these sounds. For a moment, I am briefly transported to the place I first fell in love with as a shy and anxious 12-year-old camper. The place where I learned you could love God and still have fun, where you could do things you never thought possible and you could feel unconditionally loved and accepted by those around you.
In the summer of 2015, my family of five came to LLFC for our annual Family Camp trip and shared the news of my pregnancy with LLFC staff and fellow campers. We were so excited to welcome a fourth child into our family. Despite my morning sickness and fatigue, we enjoyed our camp adventures and looked forward to returning the following summer with our new baby. I pictured wearing her in a baby carrier and hiking up to Antenna, jumping into Blue Hole with her as a sort of LLFC baptism, and giggling with delight as we watched her siblings introduce her to camp life. I pictured the six of us in our cabin with a ridiculous amount of baby gear, laughing at all we’d packed and the inevitable circus that would be our life with a new baby. I looked forward to all of that.
In the summer of 2016, we did return to camp with our healthy new baby, but things were much different for me than what we pictured the year before. I returned not wearing my baby, but instead, wearing a small backpack that held the batteries to power my portable life-supporting heart pump (LVAD). There would be no jump into Blue Hole. Immersion in water could cause my heart pump to stop working, so going near the water was not even an option. Instead of a car over-packed with clothes and baby supplies, we were over-packed with medical supplies, gear and medications.
It was difficult to explain how we got here. I awkwardly shared with others that three short days following our baby’s birth I suffered a heart attack at home. It was caused by a rare event called SCAD (Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection). In total, I spent 60 days in ICU and underwent four open-heart surgeries and numerous procedures as doctors did everything they could to save my life. My native heart was simply too damaged from the SCAD to recover. I didn’t qualify for a heart transplant at the time because my kidneys were failing and I was on full-time life support and dialysis. The only option left was to implant a heart pump called an LVAD (Left Ventricular Assist Device) and hope for the best. I had been unconscious for most of a month so my husband had to endure all the bad news and make all the decisions for my care. He chose to have surgeons implant the LVAD knowing he’d have to explain all this to me if I survived. The implantation of the LVAD was a success and made it possible for me to stabilize, wake-up and eventually transfer to a rehab hospital. There I spent several more weeks rebuilding my strength and relearning how to do things such as stand, sit, walk, eat solid food, and a variety of other basic functions.
We had signed up for Family Camp before any of this happened and I questioned if coming to camp in 2016 was even a possibility. My husband was determined he would make it happen for me, for us. Family Camp was, after all, “our thing,” and he knew being at camp would help my recovery. Though we didn’t dare say it, we both knew this might be the last time I’d ever get back to camp. Even though I was home and recovering well, my condition was critical. I looked fairly normal and was capable of so many things, but inside, my heart was dead.
I relied on the LVAD to stay alive. The pump carried with it high risks for infection, stroke and equipment failure. We had two options. Live with the numerous restrictions and risks on the LVAD or try to qualify for a heart transplant s. We hoped we would be able to start the qualification process for transplant after we went to camp. We had no idea what our future held at that point, but we knew we needed to get our family to camp. Our family needed the space that is created in this Canyon to reflect, reconnect and heal.
During camp that summer, I took extra time to look around, to notice the beauty of the place, to see it again with the fresh eyes of a child. I journaled. I prayed. I cried. I slept a lot. I did manage to hike up to Antenna with my trusty heart pump, and I’ve never been so proud of myself. I delighted at the sight of Steve jumping off the cliff at Blue Hole and swimming with our kids. I relaxed and marveled at how gracefully my husband handled it all. He not only took on the bulk of all kid-related responsibilities, but he took care of me as well. Each night after putting our kids to bed, he would perform a sterile dressing change on my LVAD exit site in our little camp cabin. Each day he made sure I was rested and hydrated and fed according to plan. He made sure I had a great place to sit so I could watch fireworks on the Fourth of July from the camp lawn. He made sure to dance with me under the stars at the Rodeo Dance, my favorite camp event. Our time at LLFC that summer was magical and emotional. I privately sat on the back porch of our cabin and begged God to save me, to heal my heart, to guide me, to allow me to see my kids grow up and to have the privilege of raising them. I thought if nothing else, I could at least make sure they had a love for this place, the place that had sparked a lifelong love for Christ in me. A place where they could come in the midst of whatever challenges life might throw their way. Maybe that was the last gift I would give to them. I made Steve promise he’d always bring them back here and that Laity Lodge would always be a part of their lives.
In early November I was officially listed for heart transplant. At the end of November, we celebrated my birthday. It was a great day, and I was grateful to have been given one more birthday. As we were getting in bed, my phone rang. I answered and a voice on the other end said “Kristen, we have a heart for you.”
So many feelings flooded in. Fear. Relief. Most of all, hope. We knew this procedure was very risky, and the risk for complications post-surgery would also be extremely high. But we also knew we’d been living with a high-risk situation for the past 11 months. We had to take a leap of faith and be willing to accept the outcome. And we had to go to the hospital for surgery immediately.
Prior to being listed for a heart transplant, I talked with each of our children in the way I thought they could understand at their various ages. Those were the most difficult conversations of my life. And now, gently waking each of them and kissing them goodbye as I left for transplant … these were the most gut-wrenching moments of my life. I didn’t want them to sense my fear. So I smiled and said in an excited whisper, “The hospital just called and they have a new heart for Mommy!” There were sleepy embraces, kisses, prayers, and I wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed with them and hide there forever. But instead, God granted Steve and I courage. With tears and shaky hands, we said goodbye and drove to the hospital.
As we drove, I wondered, what if that was the last hug and kiss I’d ever give my children? The last words I would ever speak to them? Was that the final embrace with my husband in the home we’d built together? How could I walk into that hospital and consent to have this incredibly risky surgery done? It was different the last time when I was in distress and taken by ambulance. This time, I feel fine and am parking in the hospital parking garage, walking into the building and asking for them to do this to me. Dear God, help me! Please give me courage!
I waited in ICU for several hours and visited with arriving family and friends before I was taken into surgery. How do you adequately thank someone for being your father, sister, best friend? How do you fully express your love to your spouse in those final moments before you are wheeled away to the operating room? I couldn’t. It was awkward and painful. But God still gave me a sense of calm and self-acceptance.
I was wide-awake when nurses rolled me into the OR for my surgery. I mostly moved myself from gurney to the tiny stainless steel operating pedestal where my transplant would actually take place. The smell, the color, the sounds of this room and the whole pre-surgery process of a small army of doctors and nurses around me will be forever etched into my memory. It was terrifying, but the sounds of the Frio River and the 23rd Psalm rolled through my mind and drowned everything else out.
It is now almost 6 months later. Now I have new sounds in my life. The sound of a healthy strong heart beating in my chest. The sound of my doctors saying, “You’re healed of heart failure.” My toddler saying “Momma” in her tiny little voice. My older children laughing as they play games and tell stories. The sound of my bubble bath running each night (because after a year of no baths, it is an indulgence I cannot yet resist). My family is recovering from the events of the past 16 months, and these new sounds reassure me that we are healing.
For much of my life, I believed God existed in this Canyon more than any other place in the world. I thought if I could just get to the Canyon, God would really be able to hear me, and I’d really be able to hear him. What I have learned in the past 16 months is that God is absolutely not limited to this Canyon.
God is everywhere.
God is in everything. Especially in the darkest, noisiest, most chaotic places in life. We just have to stop and listen. Put down the distractions and open our ears and our eyes because God is doing incredible things all around us.
It is nothing short of a miracle that I sit here tonight, making my mental packing list for LLFC 2017. I am alive today for many reasons. A courageous person chose to be an organ donor and a grieving family honored that decision. An amazing army of capable doctors, nurses and specialists went to great lengths to save my life and never gave up on me, even when the numbers were clearly not in my favor. My family and friends became my passionate advocates and picked up my life for me, prayed fervently over me, and did the work of caring for my children when I could not. Last but not least, thousands of people prayed for me and God heard those prayers. They didn’t need to pray within the walls of this Canyon. God heard them wherever they were, with or without the accompanying beautiful scenery and enchanting echo.
I will return to LLFC in a couple of weeks and hopefully get to “baptize” my new heart in Blue Hole and introduce it to all the sounds of the Canyon. I will hear the caliche under the tires and the swish of the Frio once more. I will carry these sounds back out of camp with me and this time, I will carry the sound of God’s voice, knowing the boundaries of the Canyon do not apply to him and that his voice is the most important sound of all.