1. Lee, Heather Nicole

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Can you imagine lying in a hospital bed knowing the only thing between you and death was needles and tubes? My sister Lauren experienced just that at the age of 8. She underwent abdominal surgery and a second follow-through surgery. The effects of her surgeries are experienced daily. Through my sister's illness, my entire family reached out to each other and realized the importance of cherishing the relationships that made us who we are.


On April 15, 1998, Lauren awoke with sharp pains in her abdomen. She was vomiting and had a fever. This sweet 3rd grader who played with baby dolls nonstop after school could not muster the strength to go visit our brand-new baby cousin, Carlie, who was born that very night. Our mom thought it was the flu until my little sister became pale and the abdominal pain worsened. Four days later, she was hospitalized at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital. After 2 weeks of intensive care, she was transferred by ambulance to Shands Medical Center in Gainesville, Florida. The pain associated with the jarring she felt when she was shoved from bed to gurney to ambulance made Lauren writhe and whimper, and we whimpered with her. Finally, after numerous tests, my family felt little comfort in knowing what was wrong with our innocent little girl. The doctors diagnosed Lauren with acute ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease.


The doctors treated Lauren for 4 weeks using extremely high doses of steroids intravenously. That failed to cure her large intestine, and it swelled to the point of bursting. She endured the excruciating pain of veins that rolled while she was being tested, and she got angry. We got angry with her. The doctors described this swelling as megacolon.


At that point, the doctors were very worried about my sister's life. The large intestine was not working properly, and she had already lost a great deal of blood. An emergency surgery was scheduled. A great team of doctors removed her large intestine, giving her an ileostomy. This surgery took close to 11 hours. We, her family, prayed. We prayed for the outcome we wanted and for the strength to handle the one we didn't want.


After the surgery, I felt nervous as I approached her room. I wasn't sure what I would see, or even worse how I would react. As my mother and I walked in, her fragile body was covered in white sheets and her pale face was swollen like a balloon. She had tubes running all through her body. It was the worst sight I had ever seen. I exited her room feeling hopeless and helpless. Lauren looked like she was gone from us, and I hadn't heard anyone say I could do anything to bring her back. Even though I had prayed through those 11 hours and although that prayer was comforting, I kept hearing the message that I was not in control, and that scared me. Not knowing the eventual outcome really frightened me.


We were not to know the outcome for a long time. One year later, after giving her digestive tract a "cooling off" period, Lauren underwent a second surgery at Shands. The goal of this surgery was to reconnect her small intestine to her rectum. The doctors completed this operation beautifully!! Even though this surgery was successful, for 6 weeks, Lauren had to endure up to 40 painful bowel movements daily. These movements caused a burning feeling because of all the acid in her bowels. Lauren cried for weeks, and that was very difficult for my family because there was nothing we could do to stop the acid from burning her raw. Lauren was mean and short, and she shut us down when we tried to talk with her, but all that time, we saw the frightened child's eyes.


Now, 6 years later, Lauren's traumatic ordeal is still not over. She still suffers from not having a large intestine. Lauren uses the restroom more than triple the amount of timesan average person does. Not only does she continue to suffer physically, she also suffers psychologically. This illness limits her physical activities, as well as her social activities. When Lauren goes out with friends, she is not able to eat dinner and then go see a movie without having to use the restroom. She can never be away from a toilet for an extensive amount of time because when she feels the urge to go, she has to go right then. For Lauren not to be near a bathroom is very painful for her and could cause her more problems in the future.


In some respects, time has stood still. Lauren is still a helpless 8-year-old. In some other respects though, Lauren has handled her disease very well, and her maturity level surpasses that of many adults. Only her family and closest friends know of her situation. My sister has blossomed into a gorgeous young lady, who is very intelligent and believes her illness happened for a reason. She has been given a second chance, and she is determined to accept the life God has designed just for her. Through my sister's positive attitude, I learned to accept her for who she is. Lauren is my best friend and I can honestly say we are sisters that have a bond second to none.


This family journey also birthed in my mother sympathy and faith that she did not realize she could have. My grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins drew closer to us than ever before, and we were wrapped in a blanket of tenderness. As for me, Lauren's illness brought home the idea that control over life and death is not my responsibility. My only responsibility is to love each day and to appreciate the opportunities I have to do that-to love.