Fighting for David

Leone Nunley with Dean Merrill, Tyndale House Publishers
Fighting for David: An Inspiring True Story of Stubborn Love, Faith, and Hope Beyond Reason

An Inspiring True Story of Stubborn Love, Faith, and Hope Beyond Reason

From Bad to Worse

When the sun came up the next morning, the hospital corridors quickly resumed their busy pace. The day shift of nurses arrived to review their caseloads, while carts of breakfast trays emerged from elevators and doctors began making their early rounds.

Soon a medium-height man with light hair and wearing a lab coat came walking toward me. He was perhaps in his forties and seemed very confident. “Hello, I'm Dr. Hill,” he said. “It's good to see that you made it all the way from Hawaii. What time did you arrive?”

“About midnight,” I answered, reaching out to shake his hand. “Thank you for calling; I know it was hard to find us.”

“Yes, I'm glad I got through to you.”

He had already checked on David that morning and quickly began giving me an update. “Your son remained stable through the night, even though his condition is very grave,” he said. “I've seen the results of the CT scan over in radiology, and it shows what I expected: a coup-contrecoup injury. The brain, as you know, is a soft organ that resides inside the hard shell of the skull. When a sudden impact occurs, the brain at first slams toward the skull wall, causing some damage-but then it rebounds the opposite direction and hits the other side of the skull, injuring that part as well.” Dr. Hill motioned with his head to illustrate.

“It appears that David hit the pavement on the right side of his head-the 'coup' impact-but the more serious damage is in the left temporal lobe-in other words, the 'contrecoup' part of things.

“Of course, there is diffuse edema-swelling-all throughout the brain, which is what is causing the increased pressure. That's our real concern. We're doing everything we can to bring that under control. And keeping him sedated is all part of the strategy.

“Do you have any questions I might answer?”

I hardly knew what to say. The whole thought of brain injury had always made me shudder. It had to be the absolute worst thing that could happen to a person's body. The only query I could come up with was, “Do you think he'll be all right eventually?”

Dr. Hill paused, as if to choose his words with care. “It's much too soon to say,” he finally replied. “There's a lot we can't know for now. When he arrived here yesterday around eleven o'clock, he evidenced what we call 'decerebrate posturing'-rigid arms and legs, toes pointed downward, and head thrown back. As you see now, at least that has ceased. We just have to keep watching and waiting for more developments.”

And with that, he stood up to move on to the rest of his busy schedule. It was hard for me not to have a clear plan of action to follow. I wanted somebody to say, “We'll do this, and this, and then this, and at the end of such and such a time, your son will be fixed.” But it wouldn't be that simple.

I went looking for a phone so I could call Dale and tell him what little I knew. It was reassuring to hear his voice. He told me he had succeeded in getting onto the Tuesday flights, which meant he would see me sometime Wednesday. He said the church had already volunteered to bring meals for the boys while he was gone, since they would have to stay there for school. “Don't worry, honey,” he concluded. “They'll be okay, and I'll be with you in just two days.”

I then returned to the ICU nurses' station, pleading for as much time with David as they would allow. He looked the same as when I had arrived the night before-comatose, unmoving, unaware. At every visit, I would stare at him, stroke his hand, stroke his feet, and tell him I loved him so very much. I had no idea whether he could hear me or not. But I would talk to him anyway. And then all too soon, the nurse would signal that I must leave again.

My energy was drooping after a night of almost no sleep, but I couldn't go. In between my bedside vigils, I was buoyed by the phone calls from Yakima that started to pour in. Friends from the church, neighbors, fellow employees from Penney's, business contacts of Dale's-they all wanted to find out the latest news and to tell me they were thinking of us. What a strength those calls were to me. They let me know we were not alone. The hospital staff eventually joked that maybe they needed to put in a private line just for us.

What Actually Happened?

Late that day, a call came from a stranger. “You don't know me,” the young-sounding woman started out, “but my name is Linda Sharp. I was at the accident scene just after it happened, and I haven't been able to think about another thing since. I had to call to find out how your son is doing.”

“Well, he's in a coma, and he's not doing very well,” I replied. “The main damage is to his head. There are no other injuries or broken bones that we know of.”

But what I really wanted was to hear her story. “Tell me what you saw,” I added. This would be my first contact with an eyewitness.

She began to talk about how she and her three young children had spent Saturday night with a friend in Lewiston, and they were headed back north that Sunday morning to go to church. “When we came up to the top of the Lewiston Grade suddenly, there was your son lying right on the double yellow line! His smashed-up motorcycle was off to one side, and the other car was parked in the grass, with the driver standing alongside holding a baby girl.”

(Lewiston, I should explain, sits in a valley at the junction of the Clearwater and Snake Rivers, along with its twin city, Clarkston, Washington, just across the state line. This was a stopover for the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804 to 1806, which is how the two towns got their names. Opposite the towns, a steep ridge rises some two thousand feet above the valley floor. U.S. 95 winds to the top of this ridge and then divides right at the state line. U.S. 95 keeps going northeast toward Moscow, Idaho, while U.S. 195 splits off northwest toward Pullman and Spokane, Washington. This junction was where tragedy struck.)

Linda Sharp had not actually seen the impact, although I learned the facts a bit later from the state patrol. The driver of a '77 Oldsmobile Cutlass was coming down from Pullman, with David riding somewhat behind him. The man, instead of proceeding on to Lewiston, wanted to bear left to the northeast toward Moscow, his home. But he missed his turn-and then suddenly slowed down in the roadway to figure out how to remedy his problem. David swerved to miss him but couldn't react fast enough to avoid clipping the back of the car, which catapulted him through the air a sickening distance of thirty-nine feet. He slammed headfirst into the pavement and skidded another twenty feet before stopping.

“This was out in the middle of nowhere,” Linda continued. “Only one man had stopped to help before me. He was bent down, just rolling David over, when I pulled up. I could see your son in a tan flannel jacket with thick quilted lining, and he had on insulated riding pants. The only blood was just a little coming from one nostril. But the face guard was absolutely shredded, from the right jaw area to the middle.

“It was horrible. I rolled down my window and yelled to the man, 'Has anybody called an ambulance?' He said no and asked if I would do that.”

Linda then went flying up the road in search of a phone. At the first house, about a quarter mile north, she found a group of young guys who apparently had been partying all Saturday night; they obviously weren't going to be of much help. She drove on another half mile to a farmhouse and started banging on the front door. Just then a man came out of the barn. He brought her inside to call the Washington State Patrol. He also volunteered to go back to the accident scene with her, bringing some blankets, because the temperature was only in the high thirties.

“When we got back, the first man removed David's helmet, which was a mess,” Linda continued. “David didn't flinch at anything; he didn't open his eyes. There was no expression at all. His face was absolutely pale.

“I thought it was interesting that the other driver would not come near David. He just stayed over by his car, holding his baby-a little girl about ten months old. He made no comment, no response-maybe he was in shock. I gave him one of my son's bottles and also some diapers I had along.

“We moved David just enough to get his wallet out of his back pocket. There I saw his driver's license, with that good-looking picture. I realized he must be a college student from Yakima.

“Finally, another man stopped-an older gentleman. He said he was a doctor; he looked as if he might be retired. He bent down over David, and then he said something that just sent chills down my spine: 'He's not going to make it if he doesn't get to a good neurosurgeon within an hour. And he probably won't make it anyway.'”

Linda started to choke up as she told what happened next. “I burst into tears. I said to myself, Oh no-he can't die without his mother! Nobody this young should die without their mom! I took off his right glove and held his hand, rubbing it as I quietly prayed and prayed and prayed for him to keep living somehow.

“See, I'm probably still emotional from the birth of my own son just three months ago. The mother-son bond is just so fresh in my mind. I couldn't stand the thought of him dying without you being at his side.”

By now I was crying too. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” I responded. “That just means the world to me, that you stopped and comforted him. I don't know how to thank you enough.”

“Well, I just had to do it,” Linda said. “The ambulance finally came and took him away. I drove on to church with my kids, but when we went inside, I couldn't concentrate. I took my kids and went home again. I just sat the rest of the day in my rocking chair holding my infant son.”

Then suddenly her voice strengthened. “Leone, I just want to say one more thing to you.” She paused. Then, “I saw the situation with my own eyes, and that accident could not have been David's fault.”

I heard what she said, but to be honest, I didn't pay a lot of attention in that moment. I was too consumed with the current crisis. I did remember to pass the comment along to Dale when he arrived, however.


Sometime Monday I stopped by St. Joseph's business office to sign insurance paperwork on behalf of David. I showed them his insurance membership card as part of our family policy provided by Dale's employer in Hawaii. This hospital was not affiliated with our insurance company-but in an emergency, that didn't matter.

The rest of Monday was spent at David's bedside as much as possible. Every time I would walk into his space in the ICU, my first glance would not be toward him but toward the brain pressure monitor. The numbers weren't lessening; unfortunately, they seemed to be creeping ever higher. I worried about that, and I could tell that the nurses were concerned too.

By that evening, I finally let Bud and Lori coax me across the street to the hospice quarters for some sleep. It wasn't easy; my heart wanted to be as close to David around the clock as I could be. But I knew that without rest, I couldn't keep functioning at this intensity. The hospice room was pleasantly furnished, and Bud and Lori were right next door.

Early Tuesday morning I was back at the hospital again. David had made it through another night. Otherwise, there was nothing to rejoice over. His eyes were still closed, his color was still dreadful, and he was completely unresponsive, no matter how many times I asked him to blink or to squeeze my hand. Nothing at all.

Sometime that day, the business office asked me to stop by again. When I sat down with the billing representative there, she said, “Um, it looks like we have a problem. We called your insurance company, and they said David is not covered under this policy.”

“What?! He most certainly is! I even showed you his card!”

“Yes, I know. It's strange-because they said their coverage stops at a dependent's nineteenth birthday, unless they keep living under your roof and you pay all their bills. David's twenty-one now.”

“But he's a full-time college student! And why did they give him his card?” I demanded, my blood pressure rising. “It even says his birth date right here on the card: '2-68.' It's now October 1989. They obviously knew how old he was when they printed it last spring. This is crazy!”

To me, this was absolutely the end of the world. My son was lying comatose with a life-threatening brain injury, and our insurance company was refusing the pay the bills?

“Don't panic, Mrs. Nunley,” the billing representative kindly said. “We'll keep working for clarification on this. If in fact it turns out that David is uninsured, then the alternative will be for him to go on Medicaid. We'll help set you up to see Social Security and apply for that if need be.”

I had to just let the mystery go until Dale arrived the next day. Otherwise I would have gone stark-raving mad. He would know what to do. And at least the hospital didn't seem upset. They weren't about to throw us out the door.

Dale was in fact airborne as we spoke, heading for Seattle and then on to Yakima. He arrived late that evening, intending to pick up our waiting Buick and drive on to Lewiston so we'd have more transportation options. While in town he immediately got in touch with the manager he had left in charge of his Yakima company, Four Suns Construction, while we were away for the year in Hawaii. They began reviewing the state of the business.

The more Dale heard, the more alarmed he became. His manager had not kept him informed on a number of projects. The company had borrowed loads of money to build houses on speculation that Dale had never heard about, let alone approved. Late into the night, Dale kept analyzing the books and realizing his once-healthy business was now on the edge of bankruptcy. What could he do to save it?

All this consumed the next day and was still heavy on his mind as he drove across eastern Washington that Thursday to meet me. When it rains, it pours, he thought to himself. David was in the fight of his life to keep from dying, and meanwhile, the family business was about to go belly-up. At least we still had $25,000 in a California bank that could be pulled to appease the creditors. But would it be enough?

The minute he saw me in Lewiston, I hit him with the newest blow: “They say David's not insured on our policy! What in the world is the matter with that insurance company?”

Dale immediately grasped the gravity of the situation. Searching his memory, he replied, “I did get a couple of phone calls awhile back saying there was a problem with David because he was past nineteen, and Kamaole Joint Ventures [the Hawaii employer] didn't have a student plan as part of their package. I said, 'Then how come you enrolled him in the first place? I've got the paperwork right here-the welcome packet, the list of people in our family including him, the wallet card, the whole nine yards.' They mumbled something about 'a computer oversight'-one of those deals, you know. I told them in no uncertain terms that it was too late for them to be backing out now, and they'd better change their records. They said they'd look into it-and that's the last I ever heard!”

“Well, they're singing a different tune to the hospital-now that we need coverage,” I answered. “You can talk to them directly, now that you're here.”

Before any of that, however, Dale wanted to see David. We entered the ICU together. His reaction was the same as mine had been: stunned silence and tear-filled eyes. He loved this stepson as dearly as any of his own sons. He felt terrible that it had taken him four days to arrive at my side.

In time, Dale stopped at the business office to delve further into the insurance problem. The company was still stonewalling. We faxed in a formal protest. With the hospital's guidance, we went together to the local Social Security Administration office to apply for Medicaid, just in case we lost the insurance battle in the end. They were very helpful, and the financial crisis was abated for the time being.

We had no idea how high the medical bills had already mounted; we were afraid to ask. We focused our attention instead on what was happening-or not happening-at David's bed. We watched and hoped and prayed and searched in vain for any hint of improvement.

Friday Night Crisis

Every day we called the boys back in Hawaii to give updates, of course. We spared them the worst details, however, not wanting to traumatize them. They had enough to cope with, staying in the apartment by themselves. They would ask, “How's David today?” and we'd give a summary report. Then they'd go on to tell about their day at school, what Mrs. Nazzise or someone else from church had brought over to eat, and when the next big game was.

We were also in touch with my second-oldest son, Rob, who was stationed in South Carolina with the navy. Thank goodness he was not out at sea just then. His commanding officer had quickly arranged for emergency leave, so Rob showed up from the east on Wednesday, the same day Dale arrived from the west. Once again, I felt strengthened by the presence of another loved one.

Rob and David had always been extremely close, since they were only eighteen months apart. Rob admitted to me years later that when he saw his younger brother that day, with tubes running everywhere, his first thought was, This is terminal. There's no way. But-I need to be positive for Mom. He just put his arm around me and let me know he was there to support us all.

When I explained to Rob what the various monitors were tracking and how the most critical danger we faced was the rising brain pressure, he nodded soberly. We prayed together then, and afterward, that God would somehow relieve this menace.

Thursday passed, and we moved into Friday with still no indication of hope. Neither Dale's voice nor Rob's voice triggered any response from David. It had now been a full five days since the devastating accident.

Around the dinner hour that Friday evening, Dr. Hill asked to talk with us. His face was taut as he said, “The intracranial pressure is now moving into the 40s. I have to tell you, this young man is going to die unless we release that pressure surgically. The cortex-the outer layer of the brain that is so strategic in receiving input from the eyes, ears, and other senses, then deciding what to do with it-is being pushed so hard against the inside of the skull that it's going to shut down altogether if we don't do something. The option is to go in and remove some of the damaged tissue as well as the buildup of fluid, thereby allowing for more space.

“But-the risks of this kind of operation are major. He might not survive the procedure. He might survive but never wake up. He might be left in what we call a 'persistent vegetative state.' On the other hand, we might be more successful than we think. It's impossible to know at this stage.”

I shook my head in bewilderment. They were talking about taking out part of David's brain! I could hardly fathom something so ghastly. But if we said no . . . we might lose him altogether.

I looked up at Dr. Hill and asked the familiar question that doctors hear frequently: “Well . . . if this were your son, what would you do?”

He quietly responded, “I would go for the surgery.”

I answered, “Then I say we go for the surgery. But could we have just a little time as a family to pray about this?”

“Time is definitely of the essence,” Dr. Hill said. “Five minutes?”

I nodded, and with that, he walked away.

We looked at each other with blank faces. Nobody wanted to speak first. Were we going to lose David either way? So many unknowns.

“To me, this represents our only hope,” I volunteered.

Dale spoke next. “I agree.”

Bud looked up and said, in his careful way, “I'm with you, Mom.”

Lori, being the new in-law in the family, kept quiet.

Rob said, “I believe in a mother's instincts. If you feel this is what we need to do, Mom, let's do it.”

We then got down on our knees, the five of us in a circle there in the waiting room, and prayed together. We pleaded with God to somehow use this surgery to spare David's life.

Meanwhile, the surgical team was springing into action. There was a flurry of preparation; it was obvious they had no time to waste. Soon David's bed was being wheeled out of the ICU and toward the elevator that would take him to the surgical floor.

“You can come along,” an orderly said to me as he waited for the doors to open. Someone handed me a consent form, and I scribbled my signature.

Dale and I squeezed into the elevator alongside our son as the orderly pressed the button. We began to move. I looked down once again at David's vacant face and his closed eyes. I lifted my hands to sweep them back and forth a foot or so above his body as I softly prayed through my tears, “Oh, Lord, please help him get through this surgery. He's in such a critical state. Please help Dr. Hill. Please cause this to help David somehow. Please, Lord . . . please.”

Then the doors opened into the surgical wing, and he was gone.

Excerpted from Fighting for David by Leone Nunley and Dean Merrill. Copyright (c) 2005 by Leone Nunley and Dean Merrill. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.

Posted on BrainLine August 12, 2008.