By Amy ParrJune 2, 2017
"And they lived happily ever after." Those words are echoed in so many classic childhood fairy tales. While real life stories rarely mirror fairy tales, every once in a while a boy meets a girl, falls in love and a magical story ensues. Such was the case for Lou and Missy Zeisman. Their story, in the real world with real people, is filled with happiness and sadness and the strength and perseverance born from heartache and joy. Their story must be told for it is about the miracle of love...and life.
In 2015, the Zeisman's arrived in Hawaii for their next permanent change of station. Barely on island two weeks and not due to move into their home for another two days, Col. Lou Zeisman, U.S. Army Pacific executive officer, and his wife, Missy, went to the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam gym to work out. "We're gym people," he said noting different ways families spend time together. "It was a family affair and what we did every day, even on weekends."
Zeisman said they followed a particular pattern in their workouts, always ending the same way with multiple sets of abdominal workouts. But that day was different. "Missy got a headache and all of a sudden took a knee and said we had to leave," said Zeisman. "That's when I knew something wasn't right. Missy was competitive. She always finished her workouts and wouldn't stop until she did."
Arriving back at lodging, she just wanted to lay down with a bag of ice. Zeisman said he briefly ran to work and when he returned she was sweating and vomiting. Missy told him she had an aneurism and to call 911. "I didn't want to believe it," he said. "Missy worked out hard. She would sometimes get dehydrated and I wanted her to just be dehydrated."
Zeisman said sometimes bad things happen. There's no warning given or reason evident. A seemingly normal day changes in a split second and what is believed to be true is no longer the case. "I always thought cancer, aneurisms, car crashes, those happen to other families, not ours," said Zeisman, echoing the thoughts of so many, that is, until something does happen. But that fateful August day, Zeisman said, taught him so much about positivity, resiliency, family and the power of love.
Lou and Missy Zeisman were college sweethearts. Both from Fayetteville, North Carolina, he came from a military family and her family of educators. The two met in North Carolina's Pembroke State University gym. Missy, who was cheerleader, said Lou, a wrestler, chased her and fell hard, both literally and figuratively as he "showed off," trying to impress her.
After graduation, Zeisman had to make a decision on his next step. He chose to follow his father into the Army. Zeisman said watching his dad, who served for 34 years, while growing up inspired him. Still dating Missy, Zeisman knew she was the one for him, his forever girl and he wanted to spend his life with her and make a home wherever the Army sent them.
But before the college athlete, turned Army officer, could make that happen, he had one more obstacle. He needed her family's blessing. Zeisman said he holds close memories of the events leading up to their marriage. "I showed up to her house in my mess uniform, with one little ribbon and asked her dad permission to marry his daughter," he said. "I was afraid he might say no because Army life meant she might have to leave Fayetteville."
To his joy, Zeisman was given the blessing and Feb. 1, 1992, he and Missy began their married journey. For the next 23 years, they built a life together. They celebrated the birth of two boys, Hunter, 21, and Hudson, 16.
Then in a flash, on that August day, everything changed. That summer day nearly two years ago, Zeisman, heeding his wife's words, called an ambulance. Missy was rushed to Tripler Army Medical Center. And despite all the pain, as emergency responders were carrying her out, she leaned over to her son Hudson who was dressed in football attire for a school game later that day and said, "Don't worry about your momma. Go play your game."
Upon arrival at the hospital, it was discovered that Missy had two arterial breaks in the cerebral portion of her brain. "How did Missy know she had an aneurism?" said Zeisman. "Did someone tell her to tell me that? A lot of people believe it was her faith in God."
Missy's condition was deteriorating rapidly. At one point she was given potentially an hour left to live. Zeisman was presented with two options - say goodbye to your wife or attempt a risky surgery. "Missy was always so full of energy. She's funny and fun and nonstop. "I don't know how she gets her energy," he said.
Calling his wife the fittest woman he knew, Zeisman refused to give up and do nothing. Missy underwent a seven and a half hour surgery where surgeons clipped the arteries. It was during this time Zeisman said the strength of the Army family was demonstrated time and again.
With their older son at college in Alabama and much of their family in North Carolina, the Army community surrounded Zeisman. "Family and friends are so important," he said. "You can't do this by yourself." Never alone for a second with "the entire community there," Zeisman is grateful for the support of his boss, Gen. Vincent Brooks, who was the USARPAC commander then, for providing a positive outlook. "General Brooks never thought once she wouldn't make it."
Missy made it through the surgery. Zeisman credits her love for her children and her fitness. Working out two hours every day, "she was that mom pushing the boys in a double jogger running 5ks. That gym time saved her life," he said. "During surgery they weren't concerned about her blood pressure or heart because she was so healthy, they could just focus on the surgery." But it was her children he said that made her fight. "A mother's love for her children is amazing." Even to this day Zeisman said he's amazed every time he stops to remember how her concern wasn't for herself, but for Hudson and that he not worry about her.
With the surgery complete, Missy entered the next phase. Zeisman said they weren't out of the water just because she survived surgery. For the next three days doctors worried about swelling and the arteries damaging the brain stem. They said, "Call your family." Hunter, Zeisman's father, Paul Zeisman, and Liz Edwards, Missy's mom, all dropped everything and flew to Missy's bedside.
Two days later, the Zeisman's house was available and neighborhood wives supervised the delivery of their household goods. Meanwhile, "I was in ICU and Missy's alarm monitors kept going off," he said. "We sat there as a family not knowing what would happen." Missy was not coherent. The family still questioned, would she survive?
As this period passed, Missy began having cerebral vasospasms, and was moved to Queens Medical Center for a specialist, Dr. Sung Lee. "Her arteries wanted to collapse causing additional strokes," Zeisman said. Within 30 minutes of Dr. Lee opening up her artery, she never had another stroke."
As the family rotated back and forth from their home to Tripler, Zeisman said he is so grateful for the continued community support. "People brought food every night for weeks. People we knew and people we didn't know. Sometimes food was just there and we don't even know who provided it because people are that good."
After a month in neuro ICU, Sept. 22, Missy, to the delight of her family, regained consciousness. "They sat her up and she opened her eyes," Zeisman said. "She was still on the ventilator. She could see and squeeze our hands, but then she'd fall right back asleep."
Sept. 26 was to provide the moment of truth. Missy underwent testing to determine if there was any damage to her brainstem. "I was really scared, thinking, 'Did I make the right decision?'" Zeisman said. "I went to get coffee, praying out loud at the coffee shop, I said, 'Lord, I need help. They say you don't give more than people can handle. I'm at the top. I need help right now. Can I get a little help? Amen.' Then my phone rang at that exact second. The doctor said to come get the results. I felt good. I went up there and knew it was going to be good. I knew he was going to tell me there was no damage and he did.
"I believe God was showing me something. Negativity will kill you. You've got to be positive. From that day on, we had to be positive because Missy is positive and bubbly and happy," he said.
Missy went through eight surgeries, including three lumbar drains. Zeisman said doctors hoped they wouldn't need a shunt. Showing progression, she soon started physical therapy. Three days into it, her mother noticed fluid draining and she was rushed back to Tripler. She underwent surgery in October 2015 receiving a ventriculoperitoneal shunt to relieve her brain of cerebrospinal fluid.
In January, Missy went to San Francisco to a rehabilitative center, again with family by her side. "Missy's not one day been left alone," said Zeisman. "I'm very fortunate my chain of command allowed me to be with my wife during critical periods. In my 28 years in the Army and five year-long combat deployments, Missy's always taken care of me. It was my duty and choice to take care of my wife."
In times he couldn't be present, Zeisman credits his mother-in-law, Edwards. From the moment she flew to Hawaii with that initial call, "she hasn't left Missy's side for a second and Missy doesn't take any of that for granted." Zeisman said he still remembers having to make that first call to her. It was her birthday and she thought he was calling to wish her well, never expecting the news she received. Just as Zeisman credits a mother's love for Missy's determination, he also credits her own mother's love for her as a testament to the dedication she's shown her own child and family.
Despite Missy's improvements, after a few months Zeisman said she started losing traction. "It's hard to tell why with head injuries. Every day it was something. You don't get a lot of good news with head injuries but we had to stay the course."
Missy was then moved to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. "It was in her best interest. Due to war and lots of head traumas, we knew that would be the best place for my Army wife," he said.
Zeisman said he owes so much to the dedication of Army members - from his command to the doctors at Tripler, people who helped in any way, and the doctors at Walter Reed. One especially touching moment for him was when three neurosurgeons at Walter Reed, who had studied her records, were waiting for Missy as she arrived. "They just wanted to give her a hug. It was unbelievable."
Zeisman is also very grateful for the Fisher House. "As an outpatient, Missy and her mother stayed there for 11 months," he said adding that in addition to providing a home, it also allowed "Missy to show others there how to be positive no matter what you're going through."
Her positivity comes through in her physical therapy as well. While some people have to be coaxed, Missy is ready to go when she arrives. "She tries to get the most out of every minute. She is there for a purpose," he said.
Zeisman said he's always amazed by his wife's resiliency and tenacity. "She doesn't complain," he said. "A lot of people are sad, depressed, but in almost two years she's never asked 'Why me?' She just wants to try and get better. It would be easy to be lazy, to feel sorry for yourself, to be mean. But that's not my Missy. We can show people that we can go through this and still be ok and know that anything bad that happens is an opportunity to say it's going to be alright.
"I've been told that Missy is one of eight women in the world to survive this very serious arterial break and how we were very fortunate," he said. "People want to know where you get the strength from. You just do. She's taken care of me my entire career. You just try to live as normal as possible in an abnormal situation."
In order to do that, Zeisman said he's had to learn things outside his comfort zone. "I'm a gym guy and everyone knows I'm pretty much the last guy that knows anything about hair and make-up and outfits." But, showing his dedication to his wife who he's now been married to for 25 years, Zeisman went to a department store make-up counter and learned how to apply eyeliner and eye shadow and nail polish and even learned to blow dry Missy's hair. He studied family photos and matched up clothing items in her closet down to the earrings because it's what he said Missy would want and he needed that sense of normalcy for her.
Missy is home in North Carolina now. Her husband and sons will soon join her as they prepare for their next Army move to Fort Bragg. "Our future is together and to continue to recover and always move forward," Zeisman said. "It's ok to know where you've been, but you have to look forward."
Missy wrote a song during her physical therapy at Walter Reed. She sang it for her family and they use it for their inspiration. In it, she said she'll snap back, take baby steps and "every day in every way I'm getting stronger and better ... you've got to be positive ... progression not perfection."
For nearly two years, Zeisman said his family has shown him what it means to be resilient. "I thought I knew what resiliency was, but they changed all that. I also thought I knew my children until this happened ... how resilient they are! Children each react differently, but their differences balance each other."
He will be eternally grateful to Missy's mother for being there each step of the way with Missy and to his own parents, who've been married more than 50 years. "My dad stopped everything and has been here ever since." With Hudson too young to be home alone, his father's presence allowed Zeisman the ability to fly back and forth to Missy when he could.
Hunter said he admires the strength he sees between his parents, despite the circumstances. Hudson said they've also shown him how strong they are and that they can get through anything. They've also learned to always try to do something positive for others and to find joy in simple things like listening to their mother break out in song. They said it's something she never would have done before but now doesn't care who can hear her sing.
Zeisman said everyone goes through a rough something. It's important to know that anything bad that happens is an opportunity to say it's going to be alright. Realize that priorities change. What you think is important, big houses, fast cars, boats, they're not important. Family is what's important. And like Missy, sometimes just break out in song and remember, progression not perfection.
The Zeismans are still living out their story. And while it started in a typical way, with a wrestler chasing after a cheerleader and falling hard, it's become so much more. It's a real story about love, filled with happiness and sadness and the miracle of love... and life.
Editor's Note: Stories that inspire is the first in a series of patient interviews that speak to the resiliency of the Army family. These stories touch Regional Health Command-Pacific professionals and serve as inspiration as they carry out the medical mission.