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He went in for what appeared to be a routine surgery, expecting to stay one day in the hospital. Six months later, Eugene Henley was finally returning home, only he was partially paralyzed in his limbs, suffered a paralyzed vocal cord with the inability to swallow and was nursing a new ulcer. No one could have predicted that an operation for spinal stenosis would lead to an allergic reaction that would somehow result in a loss of hearing, speaking, breathing and movement. But that’s exactly what happened to the 64-year-old Cleveland resident, who, like the health care professionals involved, is still bewildered by what happened. According to the Henleys, Eugene retired from Procter & Gamble after working 29 years, but missed interacting with others people. So he went to work for Belk in the retail department in Cleveland. As he was nearing his fifth year with the company, Eugene said something shocking happened at work. He explained, “I had an MRI years earlier and was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease, but I just ignored it. I thought, ‘I’ll keep going until I can’t.’ Then I began to drop things and lose motor skills. The thing that convinced me it was time to do something about this was when a customer at work wanted a pair of pants on a bottom shelf. I got down to get them and I could not get up! Everything just went limp! They had to wheel me out of there in a wheelchair. So I knew it was time to have something done.” Eugene was diagnosed with spinal stenosis, “a condition, mostly in adults 50 and older, in which your spinal canal starts to narrow. The tightness can pinch the spinal cord or the nerves around it, causing pain, tingling, or numbness in your legs, arms or torso,” according to WebMD. Without appropriate treatment, spinal stenosis can lead to permanent nerve damage, paralysis and even death. So Eugene and his wife, Belinda, went in for his surgery on Sept. 14, 2016, expecting to return home on Sept. 15. “The rule was, I had to spend one night in intensive care following surgery and I would be able to go home the next day, wearing a cervical collar (neck brace)” Eugene said. But Eugene did not go home for six months and 10 day — until March 24, 2017. It seemed everything that could go wrong did go wrong, although both Eugene and Belinda insist the actual surgery went fine. “I don’t remember anything past being wheeled into the operating room,” Eugene said. “I woke up nine days later. I had developed complications after the surgery and I coded.” According to Belinda, Eugene had suddenly stopped breathing and hospital staff rushed to get him breathing again, putting him on a ventilator. “I was in absolute shock!” Belinda confessed. “I was there when he coded. He was fine after the surgery. His family from Loudon came down — his mom, his brother and sister — we were all there. He was in ICU by 3 p.m. I stayed until 4:30 or 5 p.m. “I said to them, had I not been here and saw how everything transpired for myself I don’t know that you all could ever have explained to me to my satisfaction what had happened. But I was there. I was right in front of him and he was fine. Then he just leaned forward, couldn’t breathe and they called a code. I stepped in the hall and started praying.” Eugene added, “When I woke up nine days later, I was unable to speak, I couldn’t hear and I couldn’t move! Mentally, I was dumbfounded! I would look at Belinda and she was trying to explain to me what was going on. All I could do was shake my head and ask God, ‘Why?’ What came to me was, ‘I will never leave you, nor forsake you.’ So I knew then that I was going to be all right.” “The drug they used was propofol,” Belinda said. “They were able to turn it up and turn it down. Each shift would turn it down just enough — not for him to come out of it. It was sort of a drug induced coma. They turned in down just enough to give him commands like, ‘wiggle your toes’ and whatever. Then they would turn it back up. That went on for nine days.” According to Belinda, who taught at Cleveland High School for 35 years, the official ruling was that an allergic reaction caused his airways to swell and it cut off his air way completely. The reason for the devastating side effects, however, remains a mystery. “They never determined what he had an allergic reaction to,” Belinda said. “They checked other things that cause complications, but that’s the determination they gave us. The surgeon was just bewildered. He said, ‘I’ve never had this happen before.’ Early on he wanted to call a neurologist to see if he missed something along the way. Even though we signed like 50 papers telling us of different possibilities — what happened to Eugene is very rare. He was in ICU for over two months.” As word got out, people who knew them and heard about his situation started praying for Eugene. Day and night, near and far, people of various faiths offered prayers on his behalf and to this day the Henleys believe those prayers made the biggest difference. The close-knit couple said they wanted to share their experience to express their appreciation to family and friends for all their prayers and well wishes, including the exceptional care they said they were given at Tennova in Cleveland. “People were praying for us, churches that we don’t even know lifted his name up in prayer,” Belinda said. “We wanted to say thank you to the community.” “All the prayers, visits and phone calls on our behalf has been a blessing,” Eugene added. As far as his current condition is concerned, Belinda said, “He has a paralyzed vocal cord and the other one was severely damaged, but it has improved. His speech sounds close to normal, but that vocal cord still doesn’t move. I’m not sure how that happened. Then there’s the whole issue with the swallowing.” “I cannot swallow at all,” Eugene said. “We’re still working on that in therapy.” When asked what each learned going through their ordeal, Eugene said, “Life is a vapor and it’s gone. Good health is a gift. Life is very fragile. I’ve learned that. More importantly, God took this opportunity to teach me things — to let me know how much He loves me. I’ve known about Him all my life, but having a real experience where I couldn’t turn to anybody but Him — because I was on my back for six months and 10 days — it was God who got me through it.” Belinda, who was born in Kentucky, added, “I learned things can change quickly. I think it’s important for someone to be there. At one time he had five doctors plus the hospitalist. But doctors come in at their convenience. There’s no set time. If you’re not there then you’re not talking to doctors and asking questions. So for me, it was important to be there. Also, I found out that God gives us whatever strength we need. I was concerned at one point, but I’ve learned to trust God.” When Eugene retired he wisely kept his insurance and as it turned out, his insurance worked to their favor. The bill was estimated to be in the millions, according to the soft-spoken senior. Eugene, a Loudon native described his recovery as “a process,” adding, “physically, I’m not where I want to be. But I have faith that I will get there. When they brought me home that day in March, they brought me in a wheelchair. I was too weak to walk. So I sat downstairs just taking it all in. When it came time to go upstairs, I was too weak to go upstairs. So our son, Gene, picked me up, brought me upstairs and put me in bed. Then I started in-home therapy. I had a physical therapist and a speech therapist. Now, I’m at Siskin Rehabilitation (hospital in Chattanooga) and my mobility is improving. To God be the glory.” After 39 years of marriage and attending Pleasant Grove Baptist Church ever since they moved to Cleveland, Eugene and Belinda Henley said they count their blessings everyday, taking nothing in life for granted, especially family, friends and each other. more
Donna Angelo knew something was wrong inside her body. She could feel it. Despite dismissals by doctors saying it was nothing and one misdiagnosis after another, she knew no one had discovered the truth. Something was terribly wrong inside her body and it was something out of the ordinary. Today, Angelo knows the truth. She had one of the rarest forms of cancer — malignant neuroendocrine tumors, which account for less than 1 percent of all malignant disorders in the United States. Most physicians are not even familiar with the disease. Angelo said she is sharing her story because the nightmare of knowing something is wrong, but not knowing what it is, can be a harrowing ordeal. It can also happen to anyone unless the public and physicians raise their awareness about this rare cancer. Angelo and her husband, Bobby, were a Rhode Island couple who moved to Florida where she worked as a marketing rep for a pharmaceutical company until Feb. 2011. “I had always had digestive issues,” she confessed. “In Florida I went to five different gastroenterologists and none of them could figure out what was wrong with me,” Angelo said. “One doctor told me basically it was just stress, to which I gave him a piece of my mind. I told him if I was a man he would not be treating me that way. He would go to the ends of the earth to find out what was wrong with me. I told him that I knew my body and there is something wrong. So he sent me to an oncologist at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. I saw the doctor there and he did some endoscopic ultrasounds and thought he saw something in one of my bile ducts.” A closer examination revealed she had pancreatitis, but they discovered nothing else. “They had one of the top neuroendocrine tumor doctors there, but he sent me on my way and said there was nothing more he could do for me,” Angelo recalled. “I felt OK for a short while, but then started to not feel good again. There was a specialist at the University of Florida in Tampa and I went back to him.” Still, an accurate diagnosis of her specific condition eluded them. She said, “I had these raised round rashes on my neck. I had gone to a dermatologist and he had taken samples — said it was dermatitis and gave me a topical cream. But the doctor knew one of the things that happens when you have celiac disease is you can have that kind of a rash. So one of the pieces of blood work he did was for celiac disease. It came up positive. At that point we moved to Cleveland in 2014.” Realizing something was still wrong inside of her, Angelo said she and her husband went to one of the top 10 gastroenterologists working in Chattanooga. She asserted, “Because I had celiac disease, he never looked beyond that. He looked at my liver, my bile ducts, my pancreas and thought I wasn’t getting the nutrients I needed and said that is why I was losing weight and was in pain.” Angelo said she was still being misdiagnosed, adding, “This went on for a few years. Then, in May 2016, I went up to Rhode Island to my friend’s mom’s wake and funeral.” It was during this visit Angelo said she became ill to the point of vomiting green bile from 12 a.m. to 4 a.m. She was taken by her friend to the ER at Our Lady of Fatima Hospital, where one of the doctors sent her for a CAT scan. Afterward, a group of surgeons came in and explained she had a small bowel obstruction. After treating her, Angelo said the doctors were able to reverse her symptoms, but told her when she returned home to immediately go and see her gastroenterologist and make an appointment with her surgeon. “They had seen something on the CAT scan,” she said. “They knew I had to travel home, was already weak and didn’t want to burden me.” The doctors at Fatima sent her CAT scan to her gastroenterologist who met with Angelo as soon as possible and told her there was a possible nodule and added, “You have a neoplasm, a growth in your liver.’ I know it wasn’t there a year ago,” Angelo said. A second CAT scan revealed two growths in the liver, which were initially thought to be one thing (atypical hemangioma), but a biopsy revealed another. Angelo and her husband were called back to the office where her doctor told them the growths were malignant neuroendocrine tumors. Angelo explained, “There’s always a primary tumor. These were in my small bowel, which meant they had already spread. It was stage 4, because it had already metastasized to my liver. It’s a very rare cancer. Most people have never heard of it.” “The initial treatment is always to get the primary tumor out. So I was immediately scheduled for surgery. I went to Dr. (John) Gwin who is a surgical oncologist at CHI Memorial Hospital. He was wonderful and he did an exceptional job.” After the tumor was removed, the doctor took out 22 lymph nodes — six tested positive for cancer. “I had multiple tiny little tumors in my mesentery, the area where my organs sit. They were so small they wouldn’t show up on a scan of any type,” Angelo said. “The doctor took maybe 15 of them out. I still have a lot of tumors in there. The surgery was brutal. I was in the hospital for 10 days.” Her surgery was in July 2016. Afterward she went to see a specialists at Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville. Although it took doctors from three different states — Florida, Tennessee and Rhode Island to unravel the mystery, Angelo realized every misdiagnosis was a setback from moving forward with the treatment she really needed earlier. Nevertheless, the retired professional said she is gratefulthe correct diagnosis was finally made. “There’s only a handful of doctors nationally who work, research and treat neuroendocrine cancer. I was fortunate because we had two neuroendocrine specialists at Vanderbilt,” Angelo said. Although there is no cure for her condition, her last scan showed no progression of growth in any tumors. Today, she is stable. Ironically, the pharmaceutical company Angelo worked for in Florida for nearly 10 years was the company that founded the drug now used to slow the growth of her tumors. She admits, “Hearing that I don’t have neuroendocrine cancer for six months was such a relief for me. When I was first diagnosed, I was angry. I was sad. I had a lot of conversations with God that it wasn’t fair. You see, I have tremendous longevity on both sides of my family. My dad died at age 80. His brothers all died in their 80s or 90s. He still has a brother who’s alive at 97. My mom is 90. She had nine siblings and they all died in their late 80s. So it just didn’t make sense that at the age of 62 I would get cancer. There’s no family history of it. So I was scared to death — not so much of dying — but of the pain. I had a little more aggressive cancer than some others. I was scared. I thought, ‘I don’t want to leave my husband.’” When asked what she learned about herself during her devastating ordeal, tears started streaming down her face onto her neck as she reflected on how she was able to face her most personal trial. With Bible in hand and two diaries at her side, Angelo explained she found strength and comfort by reading the Word of God and writing out her emotions throughout her life-changing experience. “I think when people go through trials in life, they need to grasp onto something. I’m a Christian and I still don’t understand why this is happening in my life, but the Lord has given me a lot of answers. I read my Bible every day and I decided to write a journal. It’s my love letters to God. I’ve written down several passages from the Bible that strengthened me. That’s been a lot of help to me.” As she read some of those passages tears continued to flow. She added, “I talk to God and I tell Him how I’m feeling. I ask Him to help me. He’s given me a lot of strength, a lot of comfort. I don’t think I could get through this without Him. My husband is my strength. But God is my salvation.” Another thing Angelo is finding to be therapeutic is keeping busy with her arts and craft. Some of her paintings are currently on display at Area 61 Gallery in Chattanooga on East Main Street. She admits, “For quite a while, because of depression, I had a hard time doing any art. But recently, I’ve started some new projects. When I paint I feel at total peace. I’m also making a beautiful dress that I will wear, because Bobby and I are going to renew our vows on our 25th anniversary, which is in November.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “The annual incidence rate per 100,000 persons of malignant neuroendocrine tumors involving the pancreas is about 0.2 per 100,000 persons.” By making others aware of her journey, Angelo said it is her hope no one has to go through what she did to finally discover the truth — which in a reassuring way has set her free. more
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