July 23, 2011 dawned like any other Saturday after a long week at work. I woke around 8 a.m., and began to plan out my day. I had the usual weekend errands on my list: shopping, bills, cleaning, laundry. It was a little early to be getting up, so I snuggled in bed, watched a little mindless TV (Disney Channel, I think), and pet my cat, Skitty. I planned to get moving around nine.
The phone rang at 9:28 a.m. as I was separating the laundry. I glanced at the number, and since it was a number I didn’t recognize, I almost didn’t answer it. Sometimes, I wish I could have ignored that call and have everything stay the same.
That was the call that changed our lives forever.
I heard the words no military Mom ever wants to hear. “Ma’am, I am sorry to have to tell you this, but your son, Derek, was injured while out on patrol this morning.”
The room spun. Everything disappeared. I sat in a daze listening to the calm, professional voice on the other end of the phone. I couldn’t comprehend what I was hearing. There was so much I needed to know, but most important, I needed to know that he would live. The Captain could not promise me that.
I immediately dialed my sister, Yvette, who was on vacation with her family in Myrtle Beach, SC. I hated to interrupt her down time, since she does not get much of it, but I knew I needed her, and I knew if I did not tell her immediately, she would never forgive me. I then ran to the basement to tell my father.
Once I had told Yvette and my Dad, I was a little calmer. A little. Microscopic. At least I was no longer crying. As hard. Now it was time to shatter Krystina’s life. She was on the beach with her mother and her aunt. I told her that Derek had been injured. No response. I told her that he was hurt bad, and that his legs were gone. She simply said, “Okay.” She was in shock. She later told me she turned to her mother after I said that and started to cry. Her mother took the phone and I relayed what little information I had. Within a few hours, Krystina and Raffaela walked through my door.
After I called Krystina, it was time to change my children’s lives forever. Michael had just arrived home from the Navy the day before. He was out with friends, so I called him. I then woke Kellina, Ryan and Sean and told them the devastating news.
The next few days were a blur. My phone was never further than arm’s reach, even when I sat in court. I asked the judge’s permission to keep it in my lap in case the Army called with even a little bit of news. I jumped every time I heard it ring. I begged, pleaded, bargained for any news, any iota of information that let me know he was still alive. The Army was very good at keeping me informed, even though news from Khandahar, Bagraam Air Base, and then Landstuhl, Germany was not always accurate.
I just wanted hands and eyes on. That finally happened. It felt like a lifetime later, but it was only six days. Krystina, Kellina, Sean, and I took off for Bethesda, Maryland on Friday morning, July 29, 2011. Michael and Ryan followed soon after.
Derek arrived about an hour after we did. What I saw broke my heart. My strong, healthy young man was lying in a bed… broken. His legs were gone. His right arm was in a brace. He was wearing a cervical collar. He was yellow. His dreams were shattered. He had wanted to either become a cop or join the FBI. Martial arts was his life. Everything would be different now. Would he even live?
Those first days, weeks were stressful, hard, incomprehensible. Several revisions to the wounds after he arrived in the US caused the amputations to creep higher. For a while we were afraid he would lose his pelvis. He had several fractures – skull, jaw, pelvis. His right arm was broken with severed tendons, muscles and nerves. The doctors could not say whether he would ever have a functioning hand again. He had TBI – traumatic brain injury, as well as internal injuries, including acute renal failure. He also had about seven different infections fighting to take him from us. He went septic, full system shut down, and the doctors told me they didn’t know if they could save him.
Over the next several months, we struggled to keep Derek alive and get him stronger. 228 days in the hospital. 36 surgeries. 19 procedures. 129 blood products. 54 days on a ventilator. 98 days on oxygen. 34 different medical teams.
For four months, the doctors could not promise me that he would live. He was still considered “in the woods.” It was a happy day when the doctor walked in and told me the woods were in the rear view mirror.
In addition to having to watch Derek suffer and fear we might lose him, the changes in our lives since this happened have been numerous. Some are positive, and some are not. I lost my job, and in this terrible economy, I am not having much luck finding another. Krystina had to leave school and work to be by Derek’s side. I left home for nine months. Kellina, Ryan and Sean had to leave their home to live with my sister for all those months. Raffaela and Dennis lost their daughter and Michael lost his sister when Krystina left home to be with her soldier. Yvette and Brian had to deal with three additional teenagers in their household. Joey, Eric and A.J. (my nephews) had their home invaded by three teenagers. My father, who is still not over the loss of my mother, had his life turned upside down and feared the loss of someone else he loved. And then there is the extended family and all of our friends who also felt the effects.
However, as bad as this has been, there have been wonderful experiences.
We learned to celebrate firsts again. His first words were, “chocolate milkshake.” We celebrated when he rolled over on his own, sat up, took his first steps.
There is a wonderful community of wounded warriors who bond together in their shared experiences. They have the best attitudes, and if they can do it, what’s my excuse? There are triple and quadruple amputees running around the matc. And those prosthetics make great beer mugs. The carbon fiber keeps the beer nice and cold. I don’t know this from personal experience, but I’ve heard stories.
The medical staff and support staff at the hospital are some of the most wonderful people I have ever met. Top notch. Best medical care in the world.
I have made lasting friendships with people with whom I credit saving Derek’s life, and people who were so wonderful to us during the hell we lived.
The kindness of people overwhelmed us. North Caldwell and Parsippany both adopted Derek as theirs and stood by us. We received care packages, donations, letters, visits, too numerous to count. We met celebrities and politicians.
Non-profits helped us with dinners, rooms when family visited, necessities, and friendships.
And Derek beat the odds. His recovery has been long and hard, but one year later, the soldier so many thought would not survive his wounds has faced the worst and come out on top. He is on schedule to get his knees in about a week. He has gained weight and looks healthy. He is strong. Most importantly, he has a never give up, never give in attitude that will take him far. He jokes about his condition and show us all that Derek is still Derek, only shorter, as A.J. said.
Throughout this journey I have often said “Climb to glory, soldier. All the way. To the top.” We have made it. There is still more to be done, but we are there. Derek will dance at his wedding. He will walk Krystina down the aisle. I always knew it in my heart, but now I see it.
Thank you to all who have traveled this difficult road with us. Thank you for the prayers, care packages, time, love, tears. I will never forget you.