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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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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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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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!).


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Down and Up

Today began with some problems and concerns but is ending on a much better note. Last night John suffered through awful pain. He woke up repeatedly, sometimes hurting so badly that he was inconsolable. This morning when his physical therapists tried to help him stand up for the first time since surgery he threw up and went into tachycardia. Thankfully the team was able to use his pacing wires to get his heart back into rhythm within five minutes. The physical therapists are going to try again tomorrow morning to get him standing and walking.

John has spent much of the day sleeping. He’s experienced some bad stomach pain from constipation, but we’re delighted that he was finally able to present me with the Father’s Day gift Maureen mentioned in her post this morning! He sipped a little lemonade and tried a bite of applesauce and a few licks on a lollipop. We’re hoping that he’ll start eating and drinking more soon.

While John’s still not himself, we’ve seen even more of his personality resurfacing than we did yesterday. He was genuinely interested in the gifts that his wonderful pediatrician from Harrisonburg brought along with her on a bedside visit, and he was funny and silly during a visit from his brother and grandparents (Katie is still sick with a cold). It’s been a great relief to see John improving over the course of the day.


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Sitting Up

John is still very sleepy, but he’s less sedated now than he was this morning, and will likely be taken off sedation entirely at some point this afternoon. He’s opened his eyes several times during the past few hours. He cries from time to time, and we’ve seen some signs of confusion, pain, and fear. John was able to tell us that his belly hurt, and that he had to pee. A few minutes ago the physical therapy team helped him move from the bed to Maureen’s lap, where he’s resting quietly right now.

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Still Sedated

5:30 PM

I’m sitting in John’s room and looking over at him as I type this. He’s been stirring some but is still sedated. He still has the breathing tube, two chest tubes for drainage, and lots of other tubes and wires running into and out of his body. There’s a long incision down the middle of his chest. The team is keeping an eye on his bleeding and acid levels but is pleased with where he’s at for this stage of his recovery. They are hoping to remove the breathing tube tonight or tomorrow morning.

Maureen left the hospital an hour ago to rest a little at the Ronald McDonald House and eat dinner with Katie, Ben, and her parents. Please pray for Maureen as she spends the night here with John in his room. And please continue to pray that God would guard John against pain and fear as he comes out of sedation this evening.