Tears fill Terri Ann Gardner’s eyes as she listens to her longtime friend, Steven Hambrick, recount the events almost two years ago, that left her in a coma.

Gardner was recovering from her second knee replacement surgery at a Tulsa hospital in February 2005.

She came through the first operation on her right knee without a hitch, Hambrick says. He had no reason to suspect this would be any different.

“She had been out of recovery and was back in her room by 5 p.m.,” Hambrick says. “We had supper, watched TV and talked.”

Sometime between midnight and 2 a.m., Hambrick recalls a nurse awakening Gardner, who was on a self-regulated morphine drip for the pain. He had fallen asleep in a chair, and later moved to a couch for the night.

Hambrick says he awoke sporadically, and “I remember waking up and thinking, she sure is quiet.” But, it was not until he was awakened at 4 a.m. by the sounds of a nurse trying to rouse Gardner that he realized something had gone wrong.

“(The nurse) was talking loudly, trying to awaken Terri,” he says. “Then she started thumping her on the solar plexus.”

But Gardner didn’t wake up. A Code Blue was called.

“It was just like she was sleeping,” says Hambrick. “You could hear her breathing.”

Medical personnel exploded into the hospital room. Hambrick recalls hearing words like “her sugar rate is totally out of whack” and “oxygen deprivation.”

Gardner’s blood sugar count was 500.

Hambrick was told to start calling in the family after she did not respond to insulin.

In his own words, Hambrick was “freaked out.”

“(The doctor) told us to start praying,” he adds.

Gardner was transferred to ICU.

The family began their bedside vigil.

At the end of the first week, a neurologist met with Gardner’s family.

The doctor’s words were blunt and offered little hope.

“He told us that in cases like Terri’s, there was a 97 percent chance she would never wake up or live,” Hambrick says, “and if she did, she would be a vegetable.

“The first day we were told that it could be pulmonary embolism, but an MRI couldn’t find any sign of one.”

Doctors could not find causation.

To this day, Gardner still has no clue why she slipped into a coma that lasted five weeks and left her hospitalized for more than three months. What she does know, however, is that it wasn’t her time.

While comatose, Gardner was heard sobbing by family members.

Doctors were skeptical.

“They questioned us,” says Hambrick. “They said, ‘Do you think she would want to live like this? She’ll never remember anything. She’ll never be able to talk.’

“Basically,” he says, “they wanted us to disconnect her from life support.”

The family wasn’t ready. Neither was Gardner. The vigil and prayers continued.

“If there was any kind of reaction, which there was,” says Hambrick, “we wanted to give it more time.”

During their time of waiting, news broadcasts were continually reporting the battle going on in Florida with another Terri — Terri Shavio. Shavio’s case garnered national attention because of the same controversy — whether to or not to unplug her from life support.

Hambrick comes from a strong Christian-based family that believes “everything happens in its own time. Besides praying, I had no idea what to do except keep her body healthy while she was in a coma.”

Hambrick’s decision is what saved Gardner’s life.

“How we deal with brain injuries in the twenty-first century is basically the same way they dealt with brain injuries in the 1700s,” says Hambrick. “Terri’s doctor said there was nothing else they could do but wait.”

During that time, Hambrick fought to get the care he felt Gardner needed. He wanted her to have every chance possible for recovery.

“Doctors had basically written her off,” says Hambrick. “If that’s God’s will, I told them, then so be it. But I didn’t think they had given her a reasonable chance.”

Then the day came, five weeks after Gardner had first drifted into unconsciousness, when Gardener awoke to the voice of Hambrick’s sister saying, “Now, Terri has pretty toes.”

She had painted Gardner’s toenails while she lay in ICU.

“Thank you, but I have sexy toes,” was Gardner’s startling reply.

Those were the first words Gardner had spoken in five weeks and the beginning of her recovery. However, she could only recall a day at a time.

Doctors were amazed. Gardner began verbalizing while still on the ventilator. She could also “suck down a Pepsi faster than God can get the news,” Hambrick says.

Rehab was the next step. After lying on her back for so long, Gardner had lost much of her muscle control. She also had to relearn everything, including how to walk.

“In six weeks time, she had lost one-half of her body strength,” Hambrick says.

Gardner described her condition, “My body felt like Jell-O. It didn’t want to do anything.”

Memory of the three-month hospital stay is still foggy. Gardner can recall bits and pieces of conversations, like her reaction when she was first aware of her surroundings.

“I didn’t remember that I had been through knee surgery,” Gardner says. “I thought I had been in a motorcycle wreck. I had just started riding a motorcycle before I had the knee surgery.”

When Gardner was released from the hospital in May 2005, doctors still didn’t know the cause of her coma. The left side of her body is still weak. She has problems with her balance and is not nearly as mobile as she should be.

“I tire more easily,” she says. “My stamina is not back and emotionally I am a basket case.”

Gardner was unable to return to her job as an office administrator for a Tulsa law firm. She can’t remember even simple daily tasks. Her short-term memory loss has led to panic attacks.

“I don’t drive to Tulsa anymore, because I panic when things don’t come back to me immediately, like which exit I need to take,” she says.

Each day is a struggle. She must keep a calendar with her and write everything down. It is her lifeline.

“I know that people get tired of me asking the same questions over and over,” Gardner says. “It makes me feel stupid and inadequate.”

Frustration is evident in Gardner’s voice as she talks about the things that most of us take for granted, like grocery shopping and cooking. Because she forgets that she has something on the stove, she no longer cooks meals. She also has trouble following a recipe.

The couple can, however, see the humorous side of Gardner’s short-term memory loss.

“If she mentions that we need to go to Wal-Mart, I tell her, ‘we just went there and spent $50,’”Hambrick joked. “It comes in handy because she’ll say, ‘We did?’”

Now, just days before Christmas, the couple are sober when they talk about Gardner’s recovery.

“It changes your perspective on life,” she says. “Life is more precious.”

Hambrick agrees.

The couple will be celebrating Gardner’s second chance this holiday season.

“The fact that she has gone through this ordeal and survived is absolutely a miracle,” he says. “It was not by happenstance. It is a gift from God.”



Carol Round, a retired high school journalism teacher, resides in Claremore. Readers can contact her at carolaround@yahoo.com.