Spouse caregivers: Adapting to a new role -- Light at the end of the tunnel
December 14, 2012
- Spouse Caregiver 3 (Last in a series)
JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO -- Monday, Feb. 19, 2007, started like any other day for a spouse whose husband is deployed.
"I just backed out of my parking space and my cell phone rang," said Kathreyn Harris, wife of now retired Staff Sgt. Shilo Harris.
On the other end of the phone was the unit's rear-detachment commander.
"I knew immediately that something had happened to Shilo," Kathreyn said, remembering that fateful day. "So, I just pulled back into my parking space and asked him, 'how bad is Shilo?'"
Shilo had been burned over one-third of his body. Four days later, Kathreyn was on a flight to Landstuhl, Germany.
"I didn't know what to do with the children. We hadn't planned for that," she said.
"As a military spouse, it's stressful to know that your husband could be killed," Kathreyn said. "They don't stress the need to make a family plan for an incident like what we have been through.
"I made that flight [to Germany] wondering if my husband would come back," Kathreyn said, tearfully.
There was some confusion when she arrived in Germany; no one was at the airport to meet her. She ended up waiting at the USO for a couple of hours before she was taken to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.
Once she arrived, a liaison officer described what she would see when she went into Shilo's room.
"There are no words that can ever describe or paint a picture for you to be ready to see what you're going to see walking into a room like that," she said.
Because Shilo was not responding to light stimulus, the doctors thought he might have brain damage. At that point, they decided to stop the pain medication and the medication keeping him in an induced coma to see how his body would react.
It took about four hours for all the medication to leave his system.
"I remember being nose-to-nose with him and we made eye contact," she said. "I honestly think that if you could ever picture what hell looks like, that's what was in Shilo's eyes."
Shilo said that when he listens to Kathreyn describe the timeline of events he relates it to his dreams.
"It was like I could hear her voice but I could never touch her … I could see her in my coma but I could never reach her, she was always just out of my reach," Shilo said, "It was really frustrating.
"There were days when I was in such extreme pain it felt like I was in a room full of fiberglass," he said.
Once Shilo arrived at Brooke Army Medical Center, he was in the intensive care unit for about 45 days.
During that time, he went through four major graft surgeries, had an arterial bleed and went into acute renal failure twice.
From the ICU, Shilo was moved to Four East, which is a step-down ward.
"While he was in that ward I shadowed the nurses to learn how to take care of his wounds," Kathreyn said. "When he got out of the hospital it took me an average of four to six hours a day to do his wound care."
The wound care consisted of putting Shilo in the bath tub and soaking the bandages off, cleaning him and reapplying the bandages.
"That was usually a very painful process for [Shilo] so we would give him as much pain medication as we could," Kathreyn said.
"That was pretty hard. I had to be able to separate myself from his pain and not let it get to me."
Kathreyn says it's still hard for her to show sympathy or affection to their children if they get hurt because she had to detach herself from Shilo's pain.
Their then-3-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, stayed with family while Kathreyn continued to care for Shilo.
"They would bring her to visit, but she couldn't stay because of the wound care and everything. I couldn't take care of a 3 year old and Shilo," Kathreyn said.
Kathreyn said the first time Elizabeth saw Shilo, she hid behind her. "She was scared to go up to him. She didn't want to hurt him."
Elizabeth realized she could hold Shilo's drink for him and that became her job.
"When she was around, nobody touched a drink. It was Lizzy's job," Kathreyn said. "That made her feel very important. It gave her a purpose in his recovery."
The recovery process was tough on the couple.
Kathreyn remembers one particular day before Shilo learned to feed himself.
"We were sitting at the table," she said. "He was just cranky and hateful and I was done with cranky and hateful."
"I was lashing out at her, because that's all I could do -- just talk," Shilo said. "She just looked at me and said 'I don't deserve to be treated that way,' and she took her plate and left the room."
"I left his plate on the table with his glass where he couldn't reach the straw. I grabbed my stuff, got up and walked out of the room," she said.
"It was probably one of the hardest things I ever did, because I knew he was hungry and I knew he needed to eat, but I couldn't take it. I needed him to stop taking it out on me.
"That was a turning point for us as a couple, because he realized he had been taking so much out on me," she explained. After that, the couple started talking more.
"Before that he didn't talk a lot about what was going on. He didn't talk about his feelings or his thoughts or his fear."
Shilo said he had to deal with his depression over being injured and his feelings of guilt over the loss of his Soldiers.
"There were just so many things to contend with. I started seeing counselors at Brooke Army Medical Center and that helped a bunch," Shilo said.
Talking with the chaplains also helped.
"Not only could I talk to the chaplains, I could tell my story and help the chaplains address family members and service members," he said.
"Talking about what we have been through has helped us tremendously to be where we are today," Kathreyn said.
Today, the couple lives near San Antonio. The Harris family was recently featured on "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." To watch the full episode, go to http://abc.go.com/shows/extreme-
Kathreyn is in the process of getting her master's degree and she hopes to start an organization to help support other caregivers and spouses.
"It's not just me [who was injured], my wife was injured also. She took care of me for almost three years. I still struggle with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). There are things I still have to overcome," Shilo said.
Shilo and Kathreyn share their experiences with other wounded warriors and families in the hope of helping others cope with their injuries.