Coming back from the edge
Post Independent Contributor
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – The early summer of 2012 was a busy time for Terry Glasenapp. He spent much of May and June gardening, stacking firewood, clearing brush for fire mitigation, and building a stone patio outside of his home in Oak Meadows.
That much activity was typical for Glasenapp, 62, a retired Colorado Mountain College clerk who was an avid skier, biker and tennis player.
On Thursday, July 5, everything changed.
That morning, Glasenapp felt a shooting pain in his back, so severe he could barely move. By Friday, after a shot of painkiller did nothing to relieve his agony, he was in the emergency room at Valley View Hospital.
Over the next two days, doctors determined that Glasenapp had contracted a bacterial infection which led to sepsis, a severe reaction to bacteria in his blood. His lungs began to fill with fluid, and his organs, strained by low blood supply, threatened to shut down.
With his condition worsening, family members decided on Monday to have Glasenapp airlifted to St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction.
What happened over the next month is a mystery to Glasenapp – he remembers none of it, and has relied on friends and family to fill in details.
Although he didn’t know it then, he wouldn’t check out of St. Mary’s for more than two months.
As the Thanksgiving season arrives, Glasenapp is on the mend and reflecting on his recent brush with death. He’s thankful, he said, to have another shot at life, and to have gained more empathy for those without the advantages that he enjoys – health insurance, for example, and a loving family.
Most of all, though, he’s amazed that he survived.
“The last thing I remember is a vision,” said Glasenapp, sitting in his living room on a recent afternoon. “I was in the hospital bed looking up at all these people, and they were beaming light at me, and I felt it. The next thing I knew I woke up with a feeding tube in my mouth, a tube in my arm, in my nose. I couldn’t move.”
As he spoke, Glasenapp was sipping a Corona beer, and had just finished strumming a song on his guitar. He seemed content, though his weight suggested illness – he has lost about 40 pounds since getting sick.
After arriving at St. Mary’s in July, Glasenapp was diagnosed with Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS), an illness in which the lungs fill with fluid and lose their ability to oxygenate blood. Causes of the disease can vary, but they include bacterial infection, inhalation of toxic substances or severe injury.
“Its still a mystery what caused it,” said Glasenapp,” though my doctors have speculated that it could have happened through a small cut when I was working outside, or by inhaling something.”
Dr. Paul Salmen of Glenwood Medical Associates, who serves as Glassnapp’s family physician, said the illness was most likely caused by a spinal condition that Glasenapp had contracted called discitis: a bacterial infection that occurs between two vertebrae.
ARDS is not extremely rare – there are about 80 cases per 100,000 people, according to the online medical database WebMD. Yet it has a mortality rate of 30 to 40 percent, not much better than the flip of a coin.
At St. Mary’s, Glasenapp was heavily sedated and connected to a ventilator to aid his breathing. He spent nearly 30 days in that condition.
According to Salmen, surviving that much time on a ventilator is surprising in itself.
“That alone has a 25 percent fatality rate,” he said. “It takes amazing strength and perseverance.”
Doctors bombarded his system with antibiotics and other medications to try to quash the infection.
“They were trying to keep me stable, and looking for gradual improvement,” Glasenapp said. Although they roused him every evening to make sure he was still responsive, Glasenapp said he remembers none of this.
Over the next month there were numerous setbacks, including an episode when Glasenapp’s lungs began to fill with blood, and another infection he contracted while still in the hospital.
“You realize that the human body is strong and the will to live is strong,” said Amy Levenson, Glasenapp’s partner. “But it’s also very fragile, and when you are compromised you are vulnerable to so many other things.
During the course of Glasenapp’s illness. Levenson practically lived in Grand Junction, in a condominium near the hospital that belonged to friends.
“I would spend four or five days there, then come back for a day or so to do my laundry and go to work,” she said. “It was like an alternate reality.”
Glasenapp was discharged from St. Mary’s Hospital on Sept. 11. His vital signs were good and he no longer required supplemental oxygen, but he was weak from spending more than two months in a hospital bed.
Asked about the long rehabilitation process that has followed, he paused for a long time before answering.
“There were days when the pain was so bad that I would shake and cry,” he said. “I remember days that I could only hold one thought in my head,” he said.
He hired in-home caregivers to help him with gentle exercises and stretches, and gradually worked his way up to climbing stairs, walking and taking modest bike rides.
Through the process, he was buoyed by a massive outpouring of support from friends and family. Levenson set up a diary to record his progress on a website called Caring Bridge, and more than 300 people responded.
“When I first woke up, there were messages from my two former wives on there,” he said. “I suddenly got that there were a whole lot of people who were sending to me their caring and their love.”
Glasenapp’s challenges, though, weren’t limited to the physical realm.
His medical care brought a tremendous financial burden, with the final bill likely in excess of $600,000. Thanks to insurance with Blue Cross Blue Shield, though, Glasenapp is only liable for about $16,000 of that. After weeks of phone calls, he recently established a plan to pay it down.
He thinks highly of his insurance company.
“Everyone there has been helpful,” he said. “They have been flexible and generous.”
Before his illness, Glasenapp was still working part-time at Colorado Mountain College. These days, though, he mostly rests, reads and attends physical therapy.
“I’m catching up on sleep from my 40s and 50s,” he said, smiling.
Falling ill so quickly, he said, has made him more empathetic to those without his advantages, such as the permanently disabled and those without health insurance.
“Back when insurance companies used to disqualify you for pre-existing conditions, my old back injury could have come up, but it never did,” he said.
He also said he wouldn’t have been able to weather the ordeal without Levenson’s support, as well as the help of his extended family.
“I didn’t realize the magnitude of her ability to support me, to encourage me through everything,” he said. “I have often thought what was it like for people that don’t have somebody.”
Glasenapp has many people, including three sons, a daughter, and two grandchildren who visited him through his saga.
Today, he is focused on getting back to skiing and playing tennis, two passions that absorbed much of his time before he got sick. Yet he’s remembering to move slowly.
“One day at a time is my outlook right now,” he said.
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