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Before I tell you more about Bob’s catastrophic brain injury, let’s fast forward to my story. It started when my daughter Britt wrote a post on Facebook on August 27, 2011:

Darling friends and family, we have had a serious turn of events this week. Both of my parents Deb Bruce PhD and Bob Bruce are currently in critical condition in separate hospitals here in Atlanta. You may know that my father has been in the hospital for several months. My mother became very ill this weekend and is now in the ICU. We are not sure how long she will be there, but she is in critical condition. My sister Ashley, my brother Rob, and I ask that you respect our privacy by not emailing or messaging us or asking us any questions yet. We are exhausted and overwhelmed and will let you know how you can help us in the coming weeks. Please keep us all in your thoughts and prayers. Thank you. Britt

Here’s the story: On August 21, 2011, a little more than three months after Bob’s catastrophic brain injury, it was my turn. Looking back, I truly believe that my brush with death was the result of the “widowhood effect,” that happens when a husband or wife dies and the surviving spouse faces a higher risk of dying over the next few months. After all, we had been there for each other daily for almost four decades. Researchers speculate that the widowhood effect is strongest during the first three months after a spouse’s death, when widows have a 66 percent increased risk of dying. No, Bob was not dead but he touched death, and I was physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted from watching my dearest friend die.

My catastrophic illness started with a slight fever for a few days and I felt tired and achy like I had a light case of the flu. It really was nothing big, and I brushed these symptoms off as I had to get to Shepherd Center to care for Bob. What would he do without me there? I even saved email I had written to Bob’s doctor, indicating something was wrong:

[Email to Shepherd Center Atlanta August 17, 2011]
Honestly, I’m not sure how much more I can take – driving to Shepherd daily (now 3 1/2 months—everyday–so like 140 days including Emory ICU) and walking the hot parking deck and halls to see him. I desperately need a major reprieve–some solace for my exhaustion and Bob’s innermost desire to come home. Bob’s homecoming means I can reclaim my life, my work and income; Bob can reclaim his inner spirit, his health and his love of family and friends.

But two days after the fever started, something in my brain changed dramatically. I recall hearing the phone ring and not remembering what I was supposed to do. What did this ring mean? Why did it persist? Why was I so confused? I was vomiting and so very thirsty.

Then someone knocked on the front door. What did the knocking mean? I tried to stand but could not balance. So I called out for Bob (who was bed bound at Shepherd Center Brain Rehab), yet in my delirium I thought he was in the next room. I yelled out that he was never there when I needed him, screaming, “Come help me stand up! Who’s going to help me?”

In reality, I was in deadly septic shock and unaware that I was near death and all alone. Septic shock is when you experience a significant drop in blood pressure that can lead to respiratory or heart failure, stroke, failure of other organs, and usually death. For two days, I slept on the couch dying until my son Rob burst into the house on Saturday morning, alarms blaring. He found me in the kitchen on the floor. I had crawled in there looking for something to drink. He found me… unresponsive.

My son Rob saved my life. He called 911 and later was asked by the EMS technician if I had very low blood pressure. That day my blood pressure was 80/40, my heart rate was 130 and my left leg was throbbing and violet—it was a perfect septic storm. With a very grim prognosis, I was rushed from the ER to the ICU at a nearby hospital. I remember telling the ICU nurse to get my purse and shoes, I really could not stay as my husband Bob was very ill at Shepherd Center. About 2AM, an on-call anesthesiologist came in to put a Central Line in my neck for IVs, and just an hour later I ripped it out of my skin, again saying I could not stay, I needed to grab my keys and head for Shepherd Center to see Bob.

When I awoke the next morning, my daughter Britt and best friend Candy Solomon were standing at the end of my bed. Candy and I had raised our three children together in a suburb in Jacksonville, Florida. Just like sisters, we had similar likes and dislikes, had the same broad smile and curly hair, and had been there for each other when our babies were born and our kids were sick. Britt, our oldest daughter, looked just like Bob with her dark hair and tall, slim frame. I did a double take, thinking for a moment it was Bob. Then suddenly the young hospitalist rushed into my room with the MRI report, screaming, “God! This lady has some horrible shit all the way up her leg”.

I guessed he was talking about me yet I felt no emotion. I felt nothing. Then I heard him tell Britt and Candy, “If you pray, please pray now.”


Deb Bruce
Deb Bruce
Debra Fulghum Bruce, PhD, is a well-known author, senior medical writer and health literary expert. Deb works hard and plays hard! An avid wordsmith and health communications professional, Deb loves boating, fishing and catching blue crabs at her bay front condominium in South Tampa Florida.

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