A Long Ordeal After Surgery (2008)

Woman looking sad

After gallbladder surgery in her local hospital, Sarah Banks was supposed to go home to her husband and kids and then return soon after to her job at the local Wal-Mart.


Elderly &
Chronically Ill

A Long Ordeal

When Music Helps the Medicine Go Down

Instead, she grew weaker, her mind moving like molasses, her arms and legs increasingly wooden and immobile. Three months after surgery, when everything should have been fine, Banks was completely paralyzed from the neck down, mentally confused, and plagued with multiple infections and other complications. That's when she was transferred to Emory University Hospital.

Emory doctors immediately performed a tracheotomy to help her breathe and put her on dialysis to compensate for her flagging kidneys. They diagnosed porphyria, a metabolic disorder that had kicked in during the stress of surgery and was wrecking havoc with her nervous system. Dietary and medical treatment began.

Stabilizing Banks took seven months. She then was transferred to Wesley Woods Hospital, not because she was elderly—she had turned 40 while lying immobile in Emory's critical care unit, her husband gamely singing happy birthday to applause from the nurses—but because Wesley Wood is extraordinarily skilled at weaning patients from ventilators and preparing them to live on their own.

More months passed while Wesley Woods doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, and others worked to overcome blood pressure fluctuations and other problems that complicated Banks’s therapy. Her husband traveled the 200-mile round trip weekly, even though he could ill afford the time lost from work, someone to care for the kids, or gas for his old car. Nurses arranged Banks's room so he could sleep at her side.

The first success was when she was able to breathe on her own, the second when the cobwebs seemed to clear from her mind, the third when feeling returned to her extremities and she was able to sit up in a motorized wheelchair.

Banks and her husband declined the long-term rehabilitation that Wesley Woods doctors urged. Her children were growing up without her. It was time to go home. The medical team arranged for her husband to spend several days at Wesley Woods, learning how to care for his wheelchair-bound spouse. He passed every lesson with flying colors.

Both had the determination needed. What they did not have was money to pay for almost 14 months of hospitalization. Social workers managed to get Banks covered under Medicare, which paid a portion of the costs. That left Emory with about $700,000 in uncompensated costs, divided between Emory Hospital and Wesley Woods. But when a weeping Banks said goodbye, kissing each doctor and nurse in gratitude, nobody was thinking about money.