War Buddies

The PICU at Mayo Clinic is in the shape of a horseshoe with patient rooms occupying the outside of the curve.  A walkway connects the rooms and curves from one end of the horseshoe to the other. In the middle are desks, computers, and medical equipment.  The nurses told me the sickest kids are in the corner rooms because the corner rooms are the largest. The sickest kids have the most equipment and need more space.  TJ was in a corner room in the left corner of the horseshoe.

A couple of weeks after arriving at Mayo Clinic, a young man was admitted into the other corner room next to TJ’s.  He was very sick. Although I had seen his family coming and going, I never spoke to them. One morning I entered the PICU and noticed the young man’s room was full of medical staff.  Because I had the same experience a couple of weeks prior, I knew what that meant: He wasn’t doing well. I watched the young man’s mom entering and leaving his room. I wanted so badly to talk to her. However, because I didn’t want to intrude on her privacy, I kept to myself.

A few days later, I finally introduced myself.  I learned the young man’s name was Tom and his mom’s name was Janet.  They were from Wisconsin and were quite familiar with Mayo Clinic as they had been there many times before.  During this hospitalization, Tom was fighting Leukemia, but he’d had a variety of health issues for many years prior.  During our initial meeting, I learned that we weren’t going to be neighbors for long because Tom was being moved upstairs.  Before he left, I told him I hoped one day when he and TJ were better, they could meet.

After our meeting, Janet quickly became my closest friend at the hospital.  We ate lunch at the Canadian Honker, took coffee breaks at the Caribou across the street, and once in awhile went for ice cream.  We laughed and cried together and encouraged one another with God’s Word. We even looked somewhat alike, and the nurses from time to time got us confused.

Because she had dealt with serious illness before, Janet was great at giving advice.  I learned many things from her about hospital life and what life would be like when we got out.  Tom also had Down’s syndrome, and Janet taught me many things about special needs and helped me with the transition of TJ being a typical child to TJ becoming a child with special needs.  She built TJ up and told me he was still a cool kid even if he couldn’t talk. I never forgot that.

TJ and Tom were admitted to rehab at the same time, and they were finally healthy enough to meet.  Tom and Janet were now just down the hall from TJ and me, and we visited them frequently.

Sometimes during therapy, TJ and Tom were in the gym at the same time.  From across the room, Tom would yell, “TJ, work hard! Listen to your mother!  May the force be with you!” TJ would then throw his head back, make a loud humming noise, and shake his head back and forth.  That was how he laughed.

Many times during physical therapy, they both walked back and forth in the gym with their therapists, and as they passed by one another, they held their hands up high to give one another a high five.  However, because TJ had eye deficits and had trouble judging distance, they oftentimes missed each other’s hands. They were quite entertaining to watch.

Tom and TJ a few days before discharging from Rehab wearing their matching “Repaired in Rochester” shirts
August, 2013

These special boys had fought many battles to recover their health, and now they were doing well.  They were discharged from rehab within a couple days of each other, and we hoped one day we would see each other again.

Early in the year of 2014, while TJ was at the brain injury rehab facility in Iowa, he had his yearly appointment at Mayo for a heart checkup.  While in between appointments, we sat down to wait in a waiting room in the Gondola Building. I sat in a seat under the windows, and TJ sat directly across from me.  From where he sat, he could see down the hallway, but I could not. As we waited, I saw him looking intently down the hall, and then his eyes lit up. I assumed that someone he knew from the medical staff was walking toward him, but I could not see who it was. Suddenly, Janet and Tom came into my view. What a pleasant surprise!  Neither of us knew the other had appointments that day in Rochester. We just happened to be there on the same day, at the same time, and in the same building. Because I don’t believe in coincidences, I believe it was the love of God allowing two old war buddies to see each other one more time.  We visited for a while and were sad when it was time to tell our friends goodbye and go to our next appointment. It was the last time TJ ever saw Tom.

Tom and TJ during our unexpected visit at Mayo Clinic February, 2014

About a year later, Tom’s Leukemia came back, and after a long, three-year, hard-fought battle, he passed away in late summer of 2015 at the age of 21.  After hearing the news, TJ lay on the floor of our family room sobbing. It was a sad time. Two and a half years later, TJ would also pass away at the age of 21.

After taking some time to recover from losing our sons, recently Janet and I started a tradition of meeting once a year for a weekend. During our visit, we spent the weekend laughing, crying, and talking about our sons and the memories they left. Now that TJ and Tom are together in heaven, we wonder if they laugh and talk about us, too.  Imagining them both healthy, joyful, together, and not in pain anymore is a comforting thought.

I’ve heard it said that the death of a child is one of the hardest things a person can ever go through.  I am very grateful for the friends the Lord has given me to help lessen the pain. I am among all truly blessed.

“From his abundance we have all received one gracious blessing after another.
John 1:16