Part 5: Bolton teacher with cancer rebounds from near-fatal pneumonia
Editor’s note: This is the fifth part of the occasional “Learning to Live Again” series on Dianne Young, the Bolton High School yearbook sponsor who learned in April 2013 that she has a rare form of brain cancer.
For the past year, Bolton High School teacher Dianne Young has worked, taken care of her family and remained upbeat despite exhausting chemotherapy and the strain of having terminal brain cancer.
She pushed herself hard, and her immune system was weak. What happened next seemed almost inevitable, in retrospect.
A long cold, a bad cough and shallow breathing made her miserable, and on March 8 her blood pressure and temperature soared while she was alone. Her husband was taking their sons to Scout camp, and two friends visited and were alarmed at her condition. They called him and bustled her to the emergency room at Saint Francis Hospital – Bartlett.
“I remember none of this,” Dianne wrote afterward. “I don’t remember anything about my friends coming over to save me without them being aware at the time they were doing so.”
Her husband, Robert, arrived while she was still in the ER. At one point, six staffers worked on her for about half an hour while he paced outside. The team sedated and intubated Young (inserted a breathing tube into her windpipe) and placed her on a respirator.
He learned that she had double pneumonia and was headed to the intensive care unit. IV drips kept her on heavy doses of steroids and antibiotics, and doctors temporarily suspended her chemotherapy so she would be stronger to fight back.
Then the family waited.
Robert wrote later, “I simply spent the next week, wanting to talk to her at least one more time.”
Her condition was grave. He began checking on how to arrange her funeral.
“We’ve got kids, and the world doesn’t stop spinning for anybody,” he said. His voice roughened, and he added, “If the worst thing happened, we needed to be prepared.”
They became more hopeful as days passed. She stayed asleep for almost a week while her body recovered, with ups and downs. Her fever ebbed. Steroids flushed her face and chest a bright red, but she needed their help. Her breathing speed and depth improved, and her oxygen levels climbed.
She was asleep, but not fully unconscious. Young later said she dreamed drug-induced nightmares for nearly a week.
“It was absolutely the worst thing,” she said, “but it saved my life.”
Family and friends supported the Youngs during the ordeal with prayers, meals, childcare and help sending out communications via an online journal at caringbridge.org/visit/dianneyoung.
Meanwhile, Robert sat by the bed, watching the respirator breathe for his wife.
A turn for the better
Young began opening her eyes and responding on March 12, communicating with blinks for yes or no. Her can-do spirit pushed her past both big and small milestones. It was March 18 before hospital staff could remove the breathing tube and take her off the respirator. Then she learned that the long intubation had traumatized her vocal cords.
Young could croak and whisper a few words, but not much more.
She began eating solid food again two days later. The hospital moved her to a transition room and then sent her to Healthsouth Rehabilitation Hospital on Austin Peay on March 24 for therapy and rest.
Her family brought her home, at long last, on April 4.
She returned bruised, wobbly and unable to speak above a faint whisper. She was recovering from the lifesaving treatment as much as from the illness. Black bruises marred her forearms from the restraints, which many patients need to prevent them from yanking out a breathing tube while semi-sedated. She needed a walker to steady her steps because her leg muscles had atrophied after a month of bed rest.
Her younger sister, Monica Chimielewski, flew in from Phoenix, Ariz., to help during the hospitalization and afterward. The sister recounted seeing Young, looking weary but alive, with “little stick legs.”
Chimielewski said, “No one wants to see their sister looking frail.”
During the hospitalization, Young had two blood transfusions. Colleagues and students at Bolton High School donated 111 units of blood in her name. Houston High School also hosted a blood drive in her honor.
“That was really amazing,” Young said about the schools’ efforts.
What’s ahead for her recovery
Today, she is regaining her strength and coordination with physical and occupational therapy. Speech therapy is improving her voice. She can’t work in her flowerbeds yet, but she promises herself the time will come.
She lives three miles from Bolton High School and hopes to return to work in May, just in time to say goodbye to her seniors.
“You have to try to just be a regular person,” Young whispered. “Keep doing your regular things. Cut back. Do as much as you can do.”
What she needs now is time to heal, help with preparing meals and rides to therapy because brain cancer interferes with her ability to drive. She tries to remain positive despite uncertainty about how new school districts will affect her job.
Her first blog entry after the pneumonia crisis said she does not take any day for granted.
She wrote, “I am grateful to see the next morning, praise God and be thankful taking it one day at a time!”
Re-telling her story later, Young said, “This has shown me that my walk with God is number one. My family is number two, which is why I’m staying home through May. And number three is work, and He will provide. I need to reach out every day to God. So that’s how I’m growing strong.”
HOW TO HELP
Friends, colleagues, neighbors, students and other caring members of the greater Bartlett community have asked what they can do to help Dianne Young and her family as she continues fighting cancer and recovering from pneumonia. She said it’s hard to accept assistance, but she is touched and grateful for the help.
Her greatest needs are:
- Driving. Her brain cancer interferes with driving, so she needs a ride to and from rehab three times a week, some transportation for her sons and, when she is stronger, rides to and from work. Friends can volunteer by emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org or texting her at (901) 568-7034. Note: No calls, please; her voice is still fragile.
- Meals. Standing up at the stove with tired legs and a walker is challenging.Young and her family appreciate help through donated meals. Donors can coordinate through this website: http://www.takethemameal.com/meals.php?t=XQNW5129.
- Financial assistance. Although she has worked through chemotherapy and other cancer treatments, her recent hospital stay and a month off work have hurt the family’s budget. It’s a worry for Young. “It is a huge burden of mine, and I pray every day to let it go,” she said. “Because I know God will provide.” Anyone wishing to donate can contribute to the “Vincent Robert or Dianne Young” account at Trustmark Bank.
Written by Carolyn Bahm, editor of The Bartlett Express. Contact her at (901) 433-9138 or via email to email@example.com.