LUMBERTON — Harold Harris came to Southeastern Hospice House in an ambulance from Duke University Hospital after being told he would likely die in a couple of weeks.
That was not what happened, however.
Almost two years to the day after he left Southeastern Hospice House, after defying his prognosis, the 49-year-old and his family visited the facility to talk about their experience and thank the staff who cared for them.
Hunt came to the inpatient hospice facility after a series of medical problems over several months, which began with a heart attack and bypass surgery. Now much recovered, though on disability because of lingering issues with his heart, he has an irrepressible sense of humor as he talks about his medical journey. He grins as he tells stories about how he beat the odds, and he seems to have taken a real joy in being the most unconventional patient Southeastern Hospice House has likely ever seen, like when he was doing doughnuts on a scooter outside or inviting a church singing group for a mini concert in his room. He cracks jokes about a subject some people might avoid.
“I coded three times at Duke,” he said. “I just went downhill. I had a feeding tube, dialysis, a tracheotomy. I had every tube you can imagine. I was on the last form of life support at one point.”
A bacterial infection and a hematoma complicated his progress, and after a relapse while fighting the infection, the medical professionals told the family that he was not going to recover.
“Crazy things happened,” said his wife, Phoebe Harris. “Finally, they made the decision there was nothing else to do. They’d done all they knew to do and so they sent us here. The palliative care team talked to us about hospice, and we decided this would be best for our family and our children.”
Once Harold arrived at Southeastern Hospice House, the couple gathered their five children together to pray and prepare to likely say goodbye..
“We brought them in to talk with them and told them what the doctors said, but, we said, ‘God has the final say,’” Phoebe said.
The phrase “but God,” would turn into a family motto as Harold started improving instead of declining. Repeatedly, the odds said one thing, but God would say something else, Phoebe said.
“Hospice House was a godsend,” Harold said. “People were so helpful. I didn’t want to go to Hospice House, but the first night I got here was the first sleep I’d had in a long time. The next morning I asked my wife to see what it would cost to stay here for a year. The ladies were so good to me, they sort of spoiled me.”
Hunt was at Southeastern Hospice House for three weeks before being moved back home to Pembroke on May 31, 2016. He continued to get hospice care at home for another month before the family revoked the request so he could start seeing physicians again for regular care.
“We can laugh about it now,” Phoebe said. “He was in such good spirits even when he thought he was dying. Finally one day, Dr. Godfrey Onime called me outside and he said, ‘Mrs. Harris, what are you going to do with him? He can’t stay here, he’s too well.’”
Onime is the medical director of Southeastern Hospice House.
In addition, Phoebe praises Southeastern Hospice House physician Dr. Robin Peace as one of the doctors who first gave them medical hope that her husband might recover. According to Phoebe, Peace made a point to run some blood work, which showed surprising news.
“She said, ‘Mr. Harris, it’s not a whole lot better, but it’s not worse,’ and she put him back on his medicines,” Phoebe said. “She was such a blessing. God gave her the perfect name.”
Phoebe said she wished more people understood how helpful and supportive the Southeastern Hospice House care can be.
“They didn’t just take care of the patient, they took care of my family,” she said. “We were all coming in and out. It was the end of the school year, so it was a crazy time at home, and things like, in the middle of the night, to be able to go to the kitchen here and get coffee, or be in these little sitting rooms, or to sit in the gazebo … it was all about comfort. It was just amazing.”
The family gives all of the credit to God, but they will always be thankful for Southeastern Hospice House in their time of need, especially because it was a place they felt comfortable as they openly used their faith to deal with their situation.
“They believe in the power of prayer,” she said. “It was nice to know that we could say we believe in God and God has the last say, and they supported us in that.”
Gathered in one of the sitting rooms on a recent May afternoon, just a few doors down from the room he stayed in as a patient, Harold Harris looks like a well man. The tracheotomy is long gone, as is the feeding tube, and he’s back around his normal weight, after going from 229 to 139 pounds. He sports a combination pacemaker and defibrillator and will gleefully tell you about how he shot three games of basketball with his kids recently, almost certainly against doctor’s recommendations.
“I feel good,” he said. “There’s a lot of things I’d like to do that I can’t, like lifting stuff, but I don’t have any problems. God’s been good to me, that’s the only way we can explain it. But these are some precious people, they’re right at the top of my list of good folk. I can’t imagine doing this job every day. It takes some extremely special people to work here.”
Roxana Ross is content writer/photographer for Southeastern Health in the Corporate Communications department.