Originally created 05/11/02

Gift of life



The nearer Cheryl Stenger got to St. Joseph Hospital, the greater her sense of urgency became.

It was February. Her mother, Susan Stenger, had walked into the emergency room with a headache - "A headache! How bad can it be?" thought Ms. Stenger, a hospice nurse.

When she found her mother, she didn't look good, recalled Ms. Stenger.

A doctor showed the family Mrs. Stenger's CAT scan and told them she had only minutes to live: She'd suffered a severe hemorrhage from a brain aneurysm. Most patients in her condition never even get to a hospital.

Friends who followed the Stengers to St. Joseph called others. More friends and family streamed in.

The dying woman turned gray, then white, Ms. Stenger said. "Her blood pressure was 278 over 170-something. Her pulse was really low, her breathing labored."

Ms. Stenger watched the monitor flat-line while hearing her brother Greg pray over their mother, "Lord, if this is your will, we accept it. If it is not, then Spirit of Death, be gone."

Ms. Stenger knew she wasn't ready for her mother to go, not without telling her how much she loved her, she said. "It was my hospice background, wanting her to know how much she was really loved."

Other places were just jobs, but working as a hospice nurse was a gift to help the family and to be there for the dying, Ms. Stenger said. "I'm the last one to touch them before God."

But now in the emergency room, Larry Stenger cradled his wife's head in his hands while friends and family gathered around to pray.

Though doctors had said the dying woman could not hear or talk, Mrs. Stenger remembers people talking to her in the emergency room. Her daughter asked forgiveness for anything she and her three brothers and two sisters had done, Mrs. Stenger said.

"And then (Cheryl) said, 'You are free if you want to go to Jesus,"' Mrs. Stenger said. "I didn't have any sense that I was supposed to go, so I said, 'It's not my time."'

Doctors moved her to the Medical College of Georgia Hospital then to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, where she underwent surgery to repair the aneurysm.

When doctors talked of shaving her head for surgery, Mrs. Stenger asked two of her sons and Ms. Stenger if they would shave theirs, too. They agreed, said Ms. Stenger, who remembers watching her mother lying in bed and wondering if she would "sooner or later ... fly out of the room," she was such "an angel" and never cross.

Mrs. Stenger had last rites and surgery on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 13. Instead of shaving her head, doctors were able to slip tiny coils through a catheter to repair the aneurysm. Three weeks after going to the emergency room, she went home to Augusta with a walker.

"People kept telling Larry that 50 percent of the people die on the way to the hospital," said Mrs. Stenger, who no longer needs a walker. "Most (of the remaining 50 percent) die within 72 hours, and those who do survive are vegetables."

Dr. Wayne Beveridge of Augusta, one of Mrs. Stenger's neurosurgeons, later wrote the family that some clinical situations defy pure logic.

"There truly is, to me, a God, who reaches out to certain patients and intervenes on their behalf. We must know in our hearts that he has his reasons ... and believe. I feel your wife was one of these."

Having her mother for another Mother's Day is "an awesome gift" from God, said Ms. Stenger. "It is hard to explain. It is very sad that when someone gets sick you realize how much you need them."

Reach Virginia Norton at (706) 823-3336 or vanorton@augustachronicle.com.