March 21, 2019

Patients’ stories of recovery bring joy to care teams

Former Vanderbilt Health patient Chris Peters remembers the day he found the motivation he needed to fight for recovery after nearly dying from complications from the flu.

Tanna Walker, RN, center, organized the Great Saves event that reunited former patients, from left, David Riegler, Matthew Neal, Jeffrey Wells and Chris Peters with medical staff members from VUMC’s intensive care units who saved their lives. (photo by Steve Green)

by Jill Clendening

Former Vanderbilt Health patient Chris Peters remembers the day he found the motivation he needed to fight for recovery after nearly dying from complications from the flu.

Last week, Peters and three other former patients of Vanderbilt University Adult Hospital intensive care units returned to share their gratitude during a panel discussion with those they credit with saving their lives.

They were also joined by former patients with longer recoveries; all of their stories are featured on a “Great Saves” display in the Surgical Intensive Care Unit (SICU) hallway to inspire patients and their families.

“There was a day that really touched me,” Peters said. “They’d been coming to my room every day, trying to move my legs and help me stand up. A physical therapist comes in and says, ‘We’re going to make it to the door today.’ I’m like, ‘I don’t think so.’”

At that point in his story, he spotted the physical therapist in the audience, Chris Turner, who has assisted patients in VUMC’s intensive care units for the past seven years.

“There he is!” Peters yelled and pointed. “Chris, dude, I love you, man!”

That day, the pair slowly shuffled the few feet from the ICU bed to the door, and what was waiting there changed the course of Peters’ recovery.

“We made it to the door, and when I looked out, it was like the entire hospital staff was standing there giving me a standing ovation,” he remembered. “That just really motivated me. When I got back to my bed, I said to myself, ‘Stop feeling sorry for yourself, and let’s do this.’ I knew I had to do intensive therapy to get my lungs back into shape where I could actually walk on my own.”

The audience listening to the patients was filled with Vanderbilt Health team members that cared for them for weeks and even months as they healed. Many wiped away tears and hugged individuals they were overjoyed to see standing, talking, laughing and enjoying their lives outside the ICUs.

“Seeing pictures of them on the board and then seeing them here in person, is very touching,” said Turner, who remembered how Peters struggled for every breath. “It definitely makes me feel like I’m in a great place and in a great profession. I work on three ICUs here, and just being able to see the progress these patients have made, even in times that are really tough, gives me new energy.”

Liza Weavind, MBBCh, MMHC, medical co-director of the SICU and medical director of the Burn Intensive Care Unit (BICU) thanked the patients and their families for coming back, and explained why it was so special to see them.

“We usually see patients and their families at the worst times in their entire lives,” she said. “We pour our hearts and souls into them. We know that some of our patients are going to make it, and some of them aren’t, but we really never know what our patients do when they get back to their normal selves. So, it’s amazing to see you getting back to your normal selves, doing your normal things and coming back to tell us that the work we did was worthwhile.

“What we do every day, sometimes it breaks us. But to see you come back, you’re filling our buckets back up again. And we’ll take it forward, and we’ll give it to the next patients we have in our ICUs. From the bottom of my heart, and from the hearts of every single nurse and every single physician and every single respiratory therapist or physical therapist or pharmacist that works with you, know that you are doing an amazing thing coming back to fill us up and show us the outcome of our work.”

Former patient Jeffrey Wells recounted his story as he arrived at VUMC with liver failure and received a second liver transplant in March 2018. Wells had multiple post-operative complications before being discharged at the end of April 2018.

“Many of the doctors my wife talked to did not give me any chance whatsoever,” he said. “They were going to call hospice and make me comfortable until I passed, but my wife would not accept that. There was one surgeon that would take my case, and that was Dr. Alexopoulos (Sophoclis Alexopoulos, MD, chief of the Division of Hepatobiliary Surgery and Liver Transplantation). And I’m very grateful for Dr. Alexopoulos for taking a chance on me, and I wish he was here today.”

His wife, Karen, thanked the staff for being honest and for also caring for her while her husband was hospitalized.

“The nurses seem to know when I needed a friend to talk to, when I just needed someone to be there and they sensed the times that I just needed my space,” she said. “It was helpful to have someone there that I felt like was family by the time we left.”

Former patient David Riegler, a kidney transplant recipient, came to the VUMC emergency room in April 2017 with kidney failure, including severe abdominal bleeding. He went into cardiac arrest twice before undergoing emergency surgery. He suffered multiple complications and was hospitalized for two weeks. His wife, Andrea, thanked the hospital staff for their compassion, from the moment they arrived.

“When I got to the ER, I was in hysterics, screaming and crying,” she said. “Social worker Jenny Newson had her arm around me the whole time. She called my family, she waited for my family with me, and she got them from the door in. She was a real help and I never really got to thank her for that.”

Former patient Matthew Neal was 24 years old when he was involved in a high-speed car accident. He suffered a traumatic brain injury, collapsed lungs and multiple bone fractures. He had a small chance of survival. He was unresponsive in the intensive care unit for more than a month before he began following commands. He walked into the event with his parents, Scott and Sara Jo Neal, and his brother John Michael, astonishing many of his care team.

“I had therapy at the Shepard Center in Atlanta, then I came back to Vanderbilt to the Bill Wilkerson Center to finish my therapy,” Neal said. “I was able to go back to classes at UTC (University of Tennessee-Chattanooga), and I’m graduating this semester with a degree in computer engineering.”