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.