Thursday April 23rd 2009 is a date I will never forget. On the Wednesday evening Simon and I were supposed to be going away to Dorset for a mini-break, but as Simon had a headache we decided to go down on Thursday morning instead.
We were up bright and early, just putting the last bits and pieces in the car when the phone rang. It was my daughter Kristie, who lived with my twin sister Tina and her husband, Woody, and their family. She told me that Tina was in hospital about to have an emergency operation. She had suffered a brain haemorrhage late on Wednesday night and was due in theatre any minute to have life saving brain surgery. I felt my legs go to jelly and I could hardly speak. I had been speaking to Tina only the evening before and she had been totally fine.
I went straight to Tina’s house as her children all needed to be cared for and I wanted to be with Kristie too. Tina and Woody had been unable to have children and had adopted seven learning disabled children over the course of several years. They ranged in age from three to seventeen at the time. It was an unreal morning, trying to hold myself together for the sake of the children, but desperately waiting for the phone call from Woody, who was at the hospital, to find if she had made it through the surgery. Finally just after lunch Woody rang to say she was in intensive care but that the surgery had been successful. I was over the moon. I had been praying so hard and felt that my prayers had been answered.
Within a couple of days Tina was moved to the High Dependency Unit and was doing well. She complained of the most dreadful headache but the staff told us that was quite normal due to her brain surgery. After just a few more days Tina was moved to a general neurological ward and appeared to be making excellent progress. She was able to walk and talk quite normally and have a shower and walk around the ward. The expectation was that she would be home within the week!
Kristie and I were visiting her daily and on the Thursday, just a week after her operation, we had all been sitting chatting about the programmes she would be watching that evening when the nurse brought her tea, which included a small bowl of ice cream. Within minutes Tina’s speech was becoming confused and then I noticed that she was having problems eating her ice cream. Her hand was making odd movements and she was unable to hold the spoon. I alerted the staff on the ward and they explained that she might have some fluid on the brain and would carry out a lumbar puncture to release any fluid. When I left the hospital that evening I was obviously concerned, but the staff had been very reassuring and it seemed that this was quite normal and that the lumbar puncture was routine.
The following morning I rang the hospital and they asked me to visit urgently. They explained that Tina was once again in intensive care. I was not at all prepared for what faced me that day. The consultant explained that Tina had suffered a massive stroke due to having a vasospasm, a rare side effect of the brain surgery. In layman’s terms, the blood vessels within her brain had gone into spasm and no blood had been able to reach the frontal lobes. I was warned that they fully expected her to die. I don’t know how I managed to physically stand by her bed, I was shaking and crying so much. She was lying there covered with wires and tubes, buzzers kept going off and she was fitting, which was terrifying to watch. The machines that were keeping her alive required almost constant attention by the special nurses who were with her. I couldn’t believe that she had been doing so well and now they really thought she would die. I prayed so much that day, I asked God why this happened and kept telling Tina over and over again how much I loved her and that she would come through this ok. When I eventually left the hospital that evening I emailed every healer I could find on the internet asking if they could please send Tina healing.
I really didn’t think I’d be able to sleep that night, but nervous exhaustion thankfully sent me straight to sleep. I awoke in the morning dreading the news from the hospital. I phoned and they said she was ‘stable’, but added that there had been no improvement. I went to the hospital as soon as I could and was met by the ward sister who told me to expect the worse. She explained that only the machines were keeping her alive, and even if she did survive the prognosis was that she would be severely disabled and unable to enjoy any quality of life as her brain was so badly damaged. Yet again I sat with her, talking to her, stroking her hand gently. I prayed that she would not leave me. I had lost my Mum, my Dad and my brother all within the space of three and half months just a few years before, and I just couldn’t bear the thought of losing my twin sister too. I talked to her about our childhood, about the fun we used to have, about family memories, even about the battles we’d had. I just felt that I could not give up.
I was sure one day that she had lightly squeezed my hand as I was about to leave, but the nurses assured me that she wouldn’t be able to do that. They said that her brain was unable to distinguish my voice and that she most probably did not have the ability to understand anything I said to her. I ignored their advise and just carried on chatting to her right up until the moment I had to leave in the evenings. Days went by and there was no progress and it became more and more likely that she would just fade away. I was totally heartbroken. I had never lived through such a time. Being an identical twin is impossible to really understand unless you are a twin yourself. We had been together since before we were born. We had shared virtually every part of our lives, most of our childhood and teenage experiences, and even though we had fought dreadfully at times, we were always there for each other and loved one another more than can be explained. Now, days in to her stroke, I was trying to come to terms with the real possibility that this was the end. That I would not have my twin sister anymore.
They decided to carry out a further operation to install a shunt, a drain in her brain, which would release the fluid from her brain into her stomach. The operation was in itself risky, but without it she didn’t stand a chance, the fluid in her brain was building all the time. Again there was the dreadful time of waiting to see if she had pulled through and thankfully she did. We waited for a couple more days to see if there was any improvement, but still Tina just lay there motionless, on full life support, with every vein in her body seemingly linked to some needle to give her life saving fluids and drugs. They even had to start using the veins in her feet as they were running out of veins in her arms, her hands and her shoulders.
I continually asked God why this was happening and what more could I do to help her and her family through this, but I was too upset to hear any answers. Finally, in desperation, I called a medium that I found on the internet. I didn’t want to phone anyone who knew me, I really wanted someone who had no previous knowledge of who I was. Immediately she began speaking to me, she described our Dad in the most wonderful detail, and told me that he was talking about someone very close to me who had suffered a bleed on the brain. She said this person was in a critical condition and was literally between worlds. She then went on to describe our Mum, both physically and her character, and said that she was with both of us. Amazingly she also described our brother and said that he was looking over us and that he was giving me the strength to cope with it all. She told me that Tina was aware of them with her. I asked her why this was happening and she said that Tina had chosen to go through this before she was born. She explained that it was an experience Tina’s soul had wanted and importantly it would show who would support her and who wouldn’t, who would be able to understand, and who would turn away due to the severity of the situation. I did ask if Tina would survive and the medium told me that she couldn’t answer that, but said that Tina had a very strong spirit and that whatever happened was supposed to happen. I was stunned by such an accurate reading, but still had wished that I could have been told what would be the outcome.
The next day I went into the hospital again and as I walked in I said my usual ‘Hi Sis’ and took her hand. I was sure her eyelids moved and then thought I felt her gently squeeze my hand again. I didn’t mention it to the nurses, who I felt sure thought I was imagining it, but inside I felt a warm glow and a real sense of joy. Something in me realised that she had turned the corner, that she would be ok.
For the first time in weeks I felt an inner calm, an inner strength, I knew I could cope, as if I had been shown there was light at the end of the tunnel. I was full of optimism for her future. Tina’s small movements became almost like a secret code between her and I. Many times that day her eyelids moved as I said something funny and her fingers softly brushed mine. I gave her a kiss goodbye before I left and said I’d see her the next day.
The following day I was over the moon to see that Tina had her tracheostomy tube removed. She could breathe on her own! That was a huge hurdle. As usual I said ‘Hi Sis’ when I arrived and I almost fell over when a few moments later she uttered, in a very hoarse voice,’ Hi’ – she was back!!! The nurses were laughing and clapping and the whole atmosphere in the unit was lifted. She didn’t say anything again for a few days, but she still kept moving her eyelids and through her squeezing my hand I could feel her strength grow day by day.
After several more weeks Tina slowly made progress to the point where she was transferred to a neurological rehabilitation unit within the hospital. She was paralysed on her right side, still doubly incontinent, unable to even turn herself, unable to swallow food, and only able to say a few words, but she could laugh, and we would share afternoons laughing at the times we had been through together. I would sit with her and we would watch comedy shows and it would lift her spirits. It really did seem that through joy and laughter she became better and better. Through everything that had happened to her she had managed somehow to keep her sense of humour.
Over the two years Tina spent in two specialist rehabilitation hospitals, she showed incredible inner strength and courage, overcoming the most enormous obstacles. Learning to do even the most basic things from scratch which most of us take for granted. She suffered dreadful setbacks, crippling pain in her paralysed arm and leg, frustration of a damaged brain that would not function as she wished, and the agony of a broken hip from falling over when trying to use a walking stick. She had to be admitted to a normal hospital for a hip replacement operation and this caused even more problems as people didn’t understand her speech and her understanding of language, having had such a serious brain injury. Everytime they asked her if she required painkillers she said yes, even if she didn’t, and by the time she was returned to the rehab unit she was totally bombed by the amount of morphine in her body. It took weeks for her to get back to some sense of normality. She suffered incredible loneliness and depression whilst trying to come to terms with the fact that most importantly, she had lost her independence.
There were so many experiences that had me in tears over the time she was in hospital, but one of the most memorable occasions for me was when she was first able to stand, albeit with support, and we could have a hug. It was the best hug I’d ever had. We were both in tears as for the first time in many months I held her in my arms and she could hug me back too. Another wonderful memory was just before her first Christmas in hospital. The nurses organised a Carol Service and arranged for a local choir to come along and we all sat singing the carols. Many of the patients sang too, including Tina, who still has a beautiful singing voice. They gave her a microphone and she sang Once in Royal David’s City. With tears streaming down my face it took me straight back to when we were both five and were angels in our school nativity play and we had sung that very song together back then.
I was amazed by the most wonderful work the teams at the rehabilitation units undertook to get Tina as far along the recovery route as possible. Their patience and understanding was incredible. I was overwhelmed by the gentleness and kindness of other relatives visiting their loved ones who were also going through the most traumatic times and yet there was a camaraderie between us all, all supporting one another and all living for the time when those dear to us would regain even a little of their lives. The love within the rehab units was so strong. They were places of both immense sadness and unbelievable joy, much laughter and sometimes, sadly, unbearable heartache.
I was stunned by the kindness from the wonderful worldwide community of healers, many of whom stayed in contact with me throughout her two years in hospital. The strangers, literally scattered across the globe who showed an interest and continued to send their healing thoughts to Tina. I will never be able to thank them enough. I was so saddened by the lack of support from the friends and relatives that Tina had. I would never have thought that those whom she had loved and considered close backed away and found themselves too busy to even phone to find out how she was. I was appalled by the total lack of support from social services who I had assumed would be able to offer some kind of help to Woody and the children, but who in reality basically told me that as the children had been adopted and not fostered there was nothing they could do. Just as the medium had said, it was an experience which showed people’s true colours.
It was an eye-opener where friends and relatives were concerned, but it has made us both realise who really matters and who had only been there for the good times. The marriage vow, ‘for better, for worse’, often comes to my mind when I think of the people in Tina’s life who moved away from her and her family during this time, when they needed the love and support the most, and sadly received it the least. Some people even voiced that they felt it would have been better that she had just died. It is something I have tried to understand, but just can’t grasp. Maybe the lessons are for all of them, maybe they too one day may require those they hold dear to have the patience and understanding to deal with such a trauma, who knows. Some things are beyond my comprehension and maybe I will find the answers when I am once again back with my family in the spirit world.
Tina amazed all the consultants and specialists involved in her care. They said many times that her recovery was a miracle, that it should have been impossible for her to make the progress that she has. Although paralysed on her right side she is still improving. She has learnt to walk again, to eat again, has regained her speech, kept most of her memories and importantly has made new friends through her involvement in stroke clubs that she regularly attends. She has become an avid reader, has learnt to master her i-phone and laptop, how to use Spotify to listen to her favourite music, and can play a mean game of scrabble! I feel blessed that I still have my sister and that I have been able to share in such an enlightening experience.
I thank Mum, Dad and our brother Ray, for the continued love and support they have given us, without which I am sure I would have crumbled. I thank God for Tina’s ongoing recovery and for the strength I was given to cope with this. Most of all I thank Tina for being my twin, she is an inspiration.