At age thirty-six, Mindy Whisnant was diagnosed with a large, non-cancerous brain tumor. In June of 2016, after a fourteen-hour craniotomy, Mindy fell into a coma. Her husband Greg, their eleven-year-old daughter Ashley, and other family members stayed by Mindy’s intensive care unit (ICU) bedside waiting, hoping, and praying she would awaken.
As the days passed, Greg kept notes in a journal. He recorded who visited the hospital and whom Ashley stayed with back home. Then came time for Greg to tell Ashley that her mommy (and daddy) wouldn’t be coming home anytime soon.
Greg writes of sleeping on lobby couches using Mindy’s spare pillow. Nurses took blankets to him, because they knew he wasn’t going anywhere. Leaving only to eat, shower, or accompany family members to the hotel connected to Barnes, Greg preferred staying as close to Mindy as possible.
As documented in Greg’s journal, Mindy first opened her eyes on July 8th, 2016. On the 11th, a setback resulted in a tracheotomy surgery. The next day she was fitted for a helmet to protect the hole in her skull. Greg writes, “I read lots of facebook posts. Got [Mindy] to smile a little bit.”
Though Mindy was “awake”, today she has no recollection of anything, including her thirty-seventh birthday or being transferred from the ICU to the step down unit. According to Mindy, she woke up ten days later, on July 28th, the day her memories begin.
“I remember hearing Greg arguing on the phone with insurance figuring out where I would go for rehabilitation. I thought, Huh, I must be going somewhere.
“I noticed I was very small. I was caved in. I’d lost twenty pounds. I’d had a trach and I was wearing a helmet. My words were only coming out two or three at a time. There was a point when I wanted to communicate. I wanted to ask what the hell just happened, but I couldn’t. I didn’t know what to ask. People were telling me it’s August, and I didn’t know what happened. They didn’t want to tell me, because they weren’t sure if I was ready.
“There was never a decompression moment when everything came out at once. Little bits were communicated over time. Greg told me about the skullcap surgery, because I awoke wearing a helmet. I had to wear it anytime I was awake.”
Mindy had to relearn speaking and using her body, including the progression of sitting up, standing, and walking.
On August 2nd – one year ago today – she was discharged from Barnes-Jewish Hospital and moved to The Rehabilitation Institute of St. Louis. There she underwent daily physical, occupational, and speech therapy.
“Speech therapy was difficult, because I still had a feeding tube, but physical therapy was the worst. It was exhausting.” Her core strength – once capable of lifting 115 pounds overhead – was gone. Left hunched over, Mindy used pole walkers to learn how to hold herself up again.
“I wanted to cry, but I didn’t want to upset the people there for me.” Family members who had stayed by Mindy’s hospital bedside remained with her during rehab. Each time she accomplished a new milestone – such as making it across the parallel bars, first with assistance, then without – at least one family member sat close by cheering for her.
During a trip home, Greg received an unexpected visitor from the Decatur Memorial Hospital (DMH) Foundation. The Foundation oversees the Assistance Shared in Kindness (ASK) program, and is funded entirely by DMH employees for coworkers in crisis.
Unbeknownst to Team Whisnant, a coworker completed the necessary paperwork outlining Mindy’s eligibility. Due to her extreme circumstances, the ASK program paid for two month’s of their mortgage.
Insistent on staying by Mindy’s side as much as possible, Greg had gone two weeks without a paycheck. The ASK program’s generosity made it possible for Greg to continue staying with Mindy.
On September 13th, the day before their fourteenth wedding anniversary, Mindy was discharged from rehab.
Mindy never used the wheelchair sent home with her, relying instead on a walker. “I wore shoes in the house so I wouldn’t trip.” Even with the helmet, falling was a major concern while her head healed.
“Greg wanted me to tell him when I was getting off the couch so he could help.” One night she just wanted to use the restroom. “Greg saw me in there and called me out. ‘So you think you can just get up on your own now? Mindy, if you fall, I can’t keep doing trips down to St. Louis. We’re a team, we have to be on the same page here.’ He was right.”
Mindy returned to DMH, continuing physical and occupational therapy daily and speech therapy two to three times a week. She had to be driven to every appointment; it would be months before she would receive clearance to drive again.
In addition to Mindy’s care, Greg’s return to work took priority. For that to happen, the moms took daily shifts. “Greg’s mom came from 5:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.; my mom from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Greg from 2:30 on.”
Mindy, with her mother-in-law at the wheel, sometimes got Ashley on the school bus. Neighbors helped by driving Ashley to and from school as well.
One day a scent stirred a sensory memory from Mindy’s hospital stay. “When my mom visited me in the hospital, she brought a face scrub, Kroger brand. I felt ashamed and scared and dirty. But she would take the time to put it on and help me get it off. It felt wonderful to be scrubbed clean and new. I still use that brand, because the smell makes me feel safe, secure, supported.”
Mindy’s days consisted of lying on the couch, going to therapy, and walking the neighborhood with her walker. “Then one day I decided I didn’t need the walker in the kitchen, because it got in the way, so I just did without. It was fine.”
Walking unassisted was a major milestone; showering by herself for the first time was a turning point. “I wasn’t supervised, and I didn’t have my shower chair. But then it went downhill fast. I found a scar that I didn’t used to have that looked like a cesarean [scar].”
A fat layer removed from her pelvis and inserted into the eyebrow area helped with rebuilding. “I got out and asked Greg, ‘Is there anything else I’m going to discover? I don’t like to discover stuff.’ I thought I had my head wrapped around it all, but no.”
When discouraged, Mindy “compares back” as she says. “One day I attempted to vacuum. I did about a three-foot square and had to stop. Then I checked myself and said, ‘But last week all I did was lie on the couch and watch daytime tv.’
“Then one night I made dinner. It took forever and people were starving, but I did it. I could easily spin down the rabbit hole, or I could assess, be thankful for a, b, and c, and take it from there.”
Update: Surviving a Brain Tumor and Coma: Mindy’s Story, is a three-part series.