THOUGH I WALK THROUGH THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH
I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me… Psalm 23:4
Written by my daughter Tracy Wilhelm Yoder
Fast forward to 2016. Annual cardiology appointments were a part of life but something had begun to happen. Wesley couldn’t walk through a Walmart parking lot without being winded. Every evening he got home he feel asleep and found himself so fatigued, he could virtually only work, eat dinner, fall asleep then make his way upstairs to bed. Something was not right. That October Hannah and I went with him to see his doctor and braced ourselves for the news. The valve he had received in 1994, the valve which was intended to last 50 years, was failing. Wes would need open heart surgery again.
December 14, two nights before surgery, the kids and I ordered pizza and had it delivered to Wes’ hospital room for it was the night of the Survivor finale and we were determined to make it a family night. What a precious evening we had. Two mornings later, December 16, our pastor and deacons came to pray over Wesley and he was wheeled back. There was no reason for concern. No one was worried. No one had any feeling of alarm. We had been here before, but when “Yoder Family” was called over the intercom and asked to meet in the family conference room we knew something was not as right as rain as we’d hoped. As Wes’ mom and dad, Luke, Hannah and I sat down, we were greeted by his surgeon and his cardiologist. Something was definitely not right. We were only two hours or so into surgery. It was then his surgeon, Dr. Speir, opened his mouth. “We’re not certain,” we should continue. Incredulous, we listened. They had not yet opened him but all preliminary pre-op indicated valve replacement was not the best option for my clearly sick husband. We listened as Dr. Speir explained medication and other options might be better and, in his opinion it was best not to do this surgery but he would defer to us. Defer to us. We had to decide if Wes should have open heart surgery for the second time. Sitting there dumbfounded, all I could think of was how my husband couldn’t make it through an entire day without falling asleep on the couch right after dinner. How his life had virtually ceased to exist outside of work because all the energy he had for a 24 hour day was fully expended by 6:30 each day. How he couldn’t hurry through a Walmart parking lot without being winded and how all of this had gotten much worse over the past two months. As he went on, my alarm grew. He truly felt we should not proceed but I knew we could not continue living the life we were living. Wes’ quality of life was not the life he longed to live. I argued our case and explained how desperate things had become. I was no doctor but I was his wife and his surgeon blessed me by hearing my input. Trying not to cry, I begin to explain I could not take the man, who was not present to speak for himself, home the way I brought him in. Never before have I been so sure of the need to convince someone of my viewpoint yet so aware I was completely out of my league. I looked to each of my children—one on my right and one on my left who sat silently but nodded in agreement. We all knew there was only one answer. He had to have this surgery. It was then his cardiologist, a man truly sent to us by God began to speak. Dr. Sherwood shared with all of us how he had seen Wesley in August and then again in October and witnessed a significant decrease in Wes’ health. He tried many a medication and, before arriving there, we attempted a number of the suggestions Dr. Speir suggested, all to no avail. To our great relief and to the credit of an extraordinary team of doctors, both his cardiologist and his surgeon then determined our input was the most valuable. Until the day I die I will be forever indebted to those two men. We left that room and I broke down on my daughter’s shoulders from the weight and magnitude of the decision we had just been forced to make, but nothing would prepare us for the remainder of the day’s events.
That day was one of the longest in history, and believe me, our family knows how to wait. The hospital surgical waiting room has a board where families can watch to see the progress of their families and when a patient number changes color it means their status changes. We had been blue—meaning “in surgery,” for hours and hours and hours. All we wanted was for that color to change. Finally, the color changed from blue to green. Wes was out of surgery and our name was called. As we walked into that same family conference room, the very first words Dr. Speir spoke to us were, “We made the right decision.” The first valve was too small and severe calcium build up on it hindered it from functioning properly. None of that was able to be detected during the pre-surgical testing. Wes was being closed up and we should be able to see him within an hour. Our sighs may have been audible. God had given us the wisdom to do what was right. His faithfulness to us abounded once again.
When an hour passed and then an hour and a half and nearly two hours approached, we knew something wasn’t right. All the other families who sat with us throughout the day had come and gone and we were one of only two families remaining. All too familiar with the ICU, I decided to go back and check with the nurses to see if they could give me a report on my husband and help us understand why we had not yet seen him. As I approached the desk, the nurse told me the ICU was closed due to a patient emergency. Puzzled, I headed back to the family waiting room. As I walked back into the surgical waiting area and explained the situation to Hannah, Luke and my in-laws, I remember as clear as day what Hannah said to me. “That couldn’t be our patient, could it, Mom?” As quickly as she finished her question, I chuckled slightly and responded with complete confidence, “Oh no, Honey. God has not brought us this far to leave us now.” Our waiting continued and when a nurse came in to tend to the only other family in the waiting area, I walked up to her and asked her if she could check on Wesley. Standing in front of us she called back to the ICU and began her conversation. When she looked at me and asked me what his name was again, that all too familiar dread and alarm welled up in me again. When my mother-in-law asked me from behind if everything was ok, all I could do was shake my head. I didn’t know how or what but I knew everything was sadly not okay. As she got off the phone, the nurse told us she was going to get the head of the ICU to come meet with us—tears fill my eyes as I type this—for all the emotions of that day rush back as if it all were yesterday. Within moments we found ourselves meeting with a doctor we had never met before. The stress Wes had endured during surgery had been more intense than any of imagined and he had flatlined in the ICU. Doctors and nurses rushed to his aid, including his surgeon who was in the parking garage when Wes coded. At least nine individuals did their best to give him the medical attention he needed and because God determined, Wes was stable. We would later learn, this was the second time Wes coded—the first time being on the operating table. What we thought was intended to be a simple valve replacement was nearly the day the Lord determined was the one which would be our last with Wesley.
His recovery was lengthy but slowly Wes began to regain his strength and the life he had hoped to have returned. In April of 2017, just five months after his surgery, however, he began to grow fatigued again. Perplexed, we were not deeply concerned, just puzzled. After blood work, Wes was diagnosed by our internist as being anemic and his hematologist determined, much to our sadness, the new valve was tearing red blood cells. In August a procedure was conducted to examine the new valve and we were told, the eight-month-old valve was not working properly. Wes needed open heart surgery again—but this time, after the stress his heart had just endured, the prognosis was much more grim. Much more grim. I remember driving home in complete and utter shock with tears streaming down my face. I couldn’t say anything, I don’t think I felt anything—anything that is but numbness. Lord, how were we going to do this again? As I sat in the back seat behind Wes and Luke drove us home, I simply sat there dumbfounded and then, in His sweet, tender way the Lord reminded me of a series of sermons our pastor had recently been preaching about how Joshua sent the worshippers before the warriors when they marched into battle. The radio had quietly been on the entire time in the background but I realized I hadn’t been listening. The song, “Even If” by Mercy Me was playing. As I listened to the lyrics, the message swept over me as a soothing flood cleansing me from all fear.
When there’s nothing to bring me down
But what will I say
When I’m held to the flame
Like I am right now
Save through the fire with Your mighty hand
But even if You don’t
My hope is You alone
To move a mountain
Well good thing
A little faith is all I have, right now
But God, when You choose
To leave mountains unmovable
Oh give me the strength to be able to sing
It is well with my soul
Asking Luke to turn it up, I realized the only way we were going to get through this was to praise the same God who had taken us through every battle thus far for whatever the outcome. Yet again, in His compassion and faithfulness, the moment I began to praise, peace washed over me—a peace that would not leave me for the next four months not through conversations about life insurance and future plans, not even when we had to ask our 17-year-old if he was ready to be the man of the house.
Once again, however, we would find ourselves forever indebted to Wes’ team of doctors for that same cardiologist who had spoken up for us in the family conference room determined he was not satisfied with open heart surgery being the only option. He knew the implications were much too severe and he told us “Wes was too young of a man.” Diligent and determined, Dr. Sherwood found a pediatric cardiologist who performed valve repairs on infants and longed to try that before open heart surgery. Paravalvular repair was scheduled for October and we were told if Dr. Sherwood came back out in less than about two hours it meant the procedure was not a success, but if it took longer, then that was a good indication it had worked. So, yet again, ten months after that day that nearly took him from us, we pulled up to the Heart Institute of Fairfax Hospital. I’ve shared with people I have a love/hate relationship with that hospital. The sight of it brings on a bit of dread each time we pull up but at the same time it is there that the best doctors we could ever hope for abide and for that we are eternally grateful. Wes was taken back and yet again our wait began. An hour passed, two hours passed, three hours passed. The signs pointed to a success. Yet, when Dr. Sherwood came out many hours after Wes started he shared with us they had not been able to make the repair. That same tenacity, however, which had surrendered Wes to a third open heart surgery shown through when he shared with us he felt as if they had gained enough information to make a second attempt. By no coincidence, on December 14, nearly exactly one year to the day after our second open heart surgery, Wes was taken back again. Upon learning it was a success I don’t think we fully comprehended it. I remember seeing Wesley and simply putting my head on his chest listening to that happier valve function the way it was supposed to. Relieve washed over me. God did it again.
That same God has taught us more about His character, more about the need to rely on Him through our circumstances with Wesley than through any other single thing in our lives. My children have learned ‘’Never to let the sun set on their anger.” (Ephesians 4:26) They have learned everyone of the days of our lives are numbered, as it says in Psalm 139. They have learned the Lord is a very present help in time of trouble, (Psalm 46) and oh, so much more. What we’ve also learned is that the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases and His mercies never come to an end. Neediness has taught us this. Relying on the Lord has taught us this. Suffering has taught us this. And for each of these things I am ever so thankful.
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