The Virginia Witmers

What's Happening and What We're Learning


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Rest and Reflection

As our family settles back into our home and routine, we’ve been thinking and talking about all we’ve experienced over the past couple weeks.

In many ways, this hospitalization was more difficult for John, and for Maureen and me as well, than his first two (though it was much shorter than the 35 days we spent at UVA after his birth and first surgery). During the first two hospital stays, John was an infant. Now that he’s a bright and observant 5-year-old, he’s aware of what’s happening to him, and susceptible to fear and anxiety. He will remember parts of this experience. Maureen and I kept our promise that one of us would always be with him. We played a larger role in caring for him, comforting him, and helping him process what was happening.

This was hard, but it was also meaningful and rewarding. The other day we were talking about everything that has happened, and John explained that sometimes hard things can be good for you, like the medicines he hates that keep him healthy. Our children all know from firsthand experience that bad times are rarely only bad, but often deliver blessings, such as deepened relationships (with others and with God), tangled up with the struggle. On a normal day most of us don’t expect to hear our friends say, “I love you,” but difficult times authorize all of us to speak more freely. Remembering a dark period in his family’s life, the writer Frederick Buechner referred to the “fearsome blessing of that hard time.”

For me, one of the blessings of what our family has experienced is the opportunity to see even more fully what an amazing person Maureen is. Her strength, courage, intelligence, and kindness have shone especially brightly these past few weeks.

In several ways, this hospitalization was easier than the first two. We already knew the layout and routines of the PICU (we knew, for example, that being present for morning rounds was the best way to learn the latest about John’s condition and treatment plan). And we already knew many of the wonderful doctors and nurses who cared for John.

An excellent Child Life specialist encouraged us to keep a journal of John’s experience so that we could help him understand and tell his story. On the other side of an experience like this one, especially when the outcome is as positive as John’s, it’s easy to forget all of the uncertainty and anxiety of being in the middle of the situation, when things can still move in any direction. During John’s hospitalization our emotions swung back and forth. Even in the midst of steady improvement, watching him struggle with pain and fear was often enough to make it feel like an awful day rather than a smooth path toward healing.

As always, we leaned heavily on family and friends. It’s been absolutely beautiful to see the creative, sacrificial, joyful generosity of so many good people. We can’t thank you all enough for how you have cared for us. As always, we have leaned on God. The day after we returned home, our family prayed through the Bible verses that I shared in the posts written while John was in surgery. We rejoice that these words are true.

“I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121:1-2)

“Trust in the LORD forever, for the LORD GOD is an everlasting rock.” (Isaiah 26:4)

“When I am afraid I put my trust in you.” (Psalm 56:3)

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)


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There’s No Place

Like HOME!

It’s hard to believe, but after an intense but relatively short 10 day stay in Charlottesville we are back in our sweet house. After John’s chest tube was removed on Thursday evening, things started to move quickly. Once he started acting more like himself, eating, sleeping, using the bathroom, taking his medicines by mouth and taking walks, the doctors and nurses wondered what was keeping him in the hospital. When they couldn’t answer that question, they all agreed it was time to discharge! It all felt very fast but we also saw that he was healing well and knew that he would heal even better at home. So for the first time since 5:30am last Thursday, John experienced the fresh air of a beautiful June day.

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While John is healing quickly physically, we are seeing the effects of all he’s gone through in other ways. Last night, he had 2 night terrors. He could not be calmed and was yelling some of the same things he yelled when he was having those traumatic procedures. We know that we will need to acknowledge and talk through his fear and pain for a long time to come.

We are thrilled to be in our own space and our own beds tonight. We could not be more grateful for the excellent care we received at UVA. Seriously, it’s amazing the amount of knowledge and kindness that exists in that place! And we are exceedingly grateful for your support (more on this in our next post) and prayers. The Lord hears and answers abundantly!

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Another Great Day

John slept peacefully last night. The past two mornings, he’s woken up crying and afraid. This morning, as I sat praying for him on the sofa a couple feet from his bed, he fluttered open his eyes and gave me a sleepy little smile. Then he closed his eyes and drifted back to sleep. The rest of the day has been almost that good.

Even the most difficult part of the day was a major step forward. Having the central line removed from his neck was traumatic for John, but it means he’s finished with IV fluids and medications, and we’ve loved that he’s no longer tethered to an IV pole.

The most important development of the day was being moved out of intensive care and into a room in another part of the hospital. This will likely be our last stop before being discharged. Amazingly, we may be heading home in the next day or two!

We all enjoyed visits from friends from Charlottesville and Harrisonburg, who brought laughter and fun and balloons and popsicles into John’s new room.

John’s transformation over the past couple days has been wonderful to behold. As he’s shed wires and lines and tubes, particularly the painful chest tubes, he’s become faster and stronger on his walks. He’s also smiled and laughed more. He had a big grin on his face for much of the afternoon. He’s feeling good. We all are.

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What a Day!

Phew! Our heads are reeling from a day full of activity and progress.

The day started off with John waking up to a lot of tears. His mornings and later evenings have been filled with complaints of sharp and intense back pain, belly pain, and almost certainly fear, anxiety, and general grumpiness about still being here (and we don’t blame him one bit). We came up with another pain management plan and hoped for relief, mainly via narcotics and general pain meds.

Somewhere along the way, the nurse noticed that John’s chest tube output had dropped dramatically. He’d been trending down but it became clear that things were really slowing down. Our Nurse Practitioner told us that the lungs eventually just give in to the new pressures and stop creating and draining fluid. I’ve heard that it can take weeks, and even months. We are so thankful that this what seemed to have happened today. At 5:30 our NP said she felt comfortable removing both chest tubes! It seemed sudden to us but she said she saw lots of signs that made her comfortable with going forward.

They gave John some strong meds so he was pretty loopy. We had to leave the room (and stand outside praying and wincing with every scream) but within a few minutes the dreaded chest tubes were out! Within 30 minutes he was playing “Crocodile Dentist” (thank you, church friends for the incredible daily gifts! This was the one he opened today!) with the NP, making sure she got chomped on after what she did to him 🙂

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We also had a sweet visit from our neighbors who gave Ben an art lesson on UVA’s lawn and took Katie to a bookstore.  They had all our neighbors sign a canvas that says “John Strong and Courageous Witmer”. We feel so loved and generously supported.

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We anticipate a night with much less heavy pain meds and back pain. There’s even some talk of going home in a few days! We’ll definitely leave the ICU tomorrow and move to the step down unit.

What a difference a week makes!


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Two Steps Forward

Today was very good in many ways, but also quite hard at times. John had an excellent night’s sleep. But around 6:15 this morning he woke up screaming and was inconsolable for about ten minutes. My guess is that only some of this was caused by pain. He told me later that he was crying because he was scared. He’s been in the hospital for almost one week now, lying in the same bed, dealing with significant pain. It must be awful to wake from a good night’s sleep and find himself still there. Please pray for peace and comfort and hope and God’s protection over John’s sweet and joyful spirit.

We saw continuing signs of progress. John took four walks. Less fluid drained from his chest tubes than yesterday. He ate a bunch of snacks (and accidentally smeared Cheetos dust all over his white sheets). His bowels are working. He was happy and silly at times.

But early this evening John experienced such terrible pain in his back (we think from the chest tubes) that his nurse had to rush a dose of morphine. And over the past couple days he’s become much more resistant to taking medicines orally, sobbing for minutes before swallowing even the medicines he takes daily (without fuss) at home.

We are encouraged by the big picture. But it’s easy for us, and even easier for poor John, to lose sight of the big picture in the tougher moments. Thank you for continuing to hold this precious child in your thoughts and prayers.


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Slow and Steady

Today was a good day overall for our John. It started out well because last night, for the first time since surgery, our whole family was together in one room! Katie’s cold finally subsided and she was cleared for a visit. We were all smiles 🙂 IMG_5049

John ate pretty well today (including nearly a whole piece of Mellow Mushroom pizza!), had 2 bowel movements, and went for 4 walks! We’re still dealing with two big things that are very much related- pain control and his chest tubes. He was in quite a lot of pain today, especially in his lower back and belly. We know that’s due in large part to the chest tubes wrapping around his insides. It will be a happy day when they come out. Sadly, he’s still draining a lot of fluid from his lungs so that day won’t be any time too soon. We’re hoping that with each walk and each passing day his lungs dry up. Please pray with us that the fluid stops draining in good time and we get those painful tubes out. In the meantime, please pray we can find the right meds to keep him comfortable but able to be up and around (because that’s how the fluid moves).

One bright spot today was a long afternoon visit from Ben. Megan Huffman, our dear friend who is hanging out in town with Katie and Ben for a few days, took them to a toy store and they chose some perfect gifts for John. Fake mustaches make everything better!


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Good Night and Good Morning

Last night was John’s best since his surgery. He woke up twice in significant pain but otherwise slept peacefully. It showed this morning. John was quiet at first, but after waking up more fully he treated the nurses and me to some smiles and silliness.

It got even better after Maureen arrived (it always does). John surprised us by asking to eat some pretzels, followed by apple juice, followed by a fruit wrap.

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He hammed it up for everyone in the room, making us all laugh with funny facial expressions and silly answers to our questions. Then (with an assist from some pain medicine) he took his third walk down the hallway, followed by his posse of cart-rolling, wire-toting, hand-holding supporters. He was feeling dizzy but bravely pushed on, taking a brief rest and then insisting on walking rather than being carried back to his room.

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We are celebrating a good night and morning, and we continue to be deeply grateful for your prayers, emails, texts, gifts, visits, and other forms of encouragement and support. While John was exploring the PICU hallway, Katie and Ben were exploring Monticello with our dear friend Megan Huffman and her and Matt’s two daughters.

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Over the past few days, Katie and Ben have had lots of fun around Charlottesville with Maureen’s supportive and generous parents. Yesterday, they enjoyed mini-golfing and ice cream-eating with the wonderful Tom and Sylvie Moore. Katie and Ben have made things easier for Maureen and me by being flexible, uncomplaining, and willing to go with the flow (granted, it’s been a pretty great flow, thanks to family and friends!).