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Months after facing death, Rusty Wagstaff rebuilds life, welcomes grandchild

Rusty Wagstaff cradles his 2-day-old grandson Brody Russell Laurent at Rex Healthcare last Thursday. “When I first got to hold him,” he says, “I just melted.”
Rusty Wagstaff cradles his 2-day-old grandson Brody Russell Laurent at Rex Healthcare last Thursday. “When I first got to hold him,” he says, “I just melted.” clowenst@newsobserver.com

In the same hospital where he struggled for life in December, Rusty Wagstaff held his newborn grandson for the first time last week and was thankful.

Three floors above was the intensive care room at Raleigh’s Rex Healthcare where Wagstaff emerged from a coma in January to learn that both of his legs had been amputated and that his hands would have to be taken too.

“I am a lucky man,” Wagstaff said last week after walking down a hall in the hospital. “I am alive. I am so thankful.”

Wagstaff, 54, a former East Wake High and UNC Wilmington baseball pitcher who nearly died of septic shock almost a year ago, always thought that he celebrated a day of giving thanks each year, but this Thanksgiving Day will be unlike any before.

In less than 12 months, Wagstaff – whose loving family inspired doctors, nurses and other caregivers at Rex – has undergone nine operations, been treated in three states and has gone from hovering near death to participating in a road race and holding his new grandchild, Brody.

“I think of that little baby boy, and I think of my family and friends, and I wonder, ‘Why me, God? Why me? Why have you blessed me so much?’ ” he said as he touched a tear with the stub of what had been his left hand.

Wagstaff remembers little about the sinus infection that led to sepsis and the septic shock that almost claimed his life.

Some of what he does remember is horrible. As Wagstaff regained consciousness after the operation that removed his legs and saved his life, he thought that he was bound to a bed, a massive desk pinning him down, preventing his escape.

In his mind, he called to his daughters Mary Russell and Meghan to lift the weight from his legs, to help him flee. He besought his older brother Brinkley to rescue him.

In the midst of his mental anguish, he sensed a bright light and felt assured that he was going to be all right.

“To me, it was the Lord,” he said.

As he gradually became aware that he was in a hospital and that his legs had been amputated because they had become gangrenous, his first thought was that at least he was alive.

“I didn’t know anything about prosthesis or anything about amputations. I thought I was going to be helpless and hopeless. But at the same time I thought how grateful I was to be alive,” he said. “I’ve heard of people who’ve gotten the news and wished they were dead. But for some reason, my biggest thoughts were that I would return to my family.”

A symbol of hope

His family’s attitude resonated throughout the hospital where he has come to symbolize the hope they carry to work each day.

“Every person who has come into contact with this family is a better person because of the experience,” said Michelle Rosenberg, a nurse on the fourth floor. “We needed this.”

Wagstaff visited the staff after returning from a Chicago rehabilitation center in his wheelchair on June 2.

But on Sept. 5, he walked into the hospital on his new legs as a conquering hero.

He walked slowly, with a waddling motion because his prosthetic legs have no ankles. At 5 feet 9 inches tall, he was about four inches shorter than he was when he was wheeled into Rex on a stretcher Dec. 22 after a sinus infection led him into septic shock, the blood coursing through the 60,000 miles of his blood system infecting everything it touched. Every major organ in his body was shutting down by Christmas Day.

The family’s love for Wagstaff touched the intensive care unit staff as the caregivers prepared themselves to help yet another family make their final farewells.

Yet Wagstaff recovered.

“When you’re young, you think you have this unlimited reserve that you can always call upon when you see the pain and hurt,” said Dr. Samantha Hansen, an anesthesiologist who treated Wagstaff when his lungs, heart, kidneys, liver and his other organs seemed to be irreversibly failing.

“But sometimes the well runs dry. You need something like this to restore it.”

A strong bond

During the September visit, the hospital buzzed as staff informally gathered along the hall as Wagstaff swayed his way toward the elevator to return to his fourth floor room and later to the intensive care room where he waged his battle for life.

“I used to be taller,” Rusty drawled to folks who had only seen him in bed or in a wheelchair. “These new legs are shorter. The doctors say they could shoot me up to about 6-foot-6, but I already have a tendency to sway like a pine tree.”

Allison Caitlin Pope, a nurse, waited for Wagstaff on the fourth floor. She was on vacation, but seeing Wagstaff walk was important.

“I’m getting married tomorrow,” Pope told him. “I came in just to see you.”

“That’s wonderful,” Wagstaff said.

The nurses from physical therapy came down the hall, and Wagstaff said, “I’d better hide. They are merciless.”

“Don’t make me do it no more,” he said as the nurses approached, but a big grin accompanied his hugs of unbridled joy.

“Thank y’all so much,” he said to the clustering nurses and aides. “I really can’t thank you enough.

“But y’all better behave. I’ve got my eye on you now.”

Hansen, the anesthesiologist, stood in the hall when Wagstaff walked into the ICU and moved toward Room 14, where nurse Paulette Langley had stroked his head and sang Christmas carols in her Jamaican lilt to the unconscious and apparently dying Wagstaff months before.

The bond between nurse and family became so strong that the Wagstaff clan calls her “Paulette Wagstaff.”

Hansen watched from near the door, stepped away, but came back to drink from the well again.

“To see him up, walking, living his life,” she said, her cheek streaked with a tear.

Pictures were taken, including one with Langley stroking Wagstaff’s head. Hansen moved from the edges and asked if she could have her picture taken with him too.

Dr. Vincent Hoellerich and Dr. Sean Tehrani, an anesthesiologist and a hospitalist, respectively, who treated Wagstaff in intensive care, came and sat with Wagstaff in a conference room where they had spent hours talking to Wagstaff’s family, literally making life or death decisions. In this room, Tehrani once put Wagstaff’s odds of surviving at 5 percent and even then there would have been the possibility of neurological damage.

But this time the room, so often used to deliver bad news, contained a celebration complete with bottled water. Wagstaff couldn’t open his with his hook.

A new life

The birth of Brody Russell Laurent (8 pounds, 11 ounces, 22 inches long) on Nov. 18 brought Wagstaff back to the hospital.

“He is perfect,” Wagstaff said as Mary Russell nursed her son nearby. “People told me how wonderful being a grandfather is, but they didn’t tell me the half of it.

“I’m so glad I’m alive. So glad that I could experience this. What a blessing.”

Wagstaff has begun the process of putting his life back together with his new legs, a hook instead of a right hand and part of his left palm.

He is learning to use a mechanical left hand. There is a steep learning process. To hold something, he thinks let go. To open his hand, he thinks close it. The index, middle and ring fingers grasp when he thinks of moving his pinkie.

“My up is down,” he said.

He cuts his own grass and recently started driving his car. He rarely, if ever, parks in a handicap spot. “I don’t have a handicap. I’m normal. This is who I am now,” he said.

Wagstaff often thinks about why he survived and others in similar situations did not.

“When people ask, I usually joke around and say that God caught me and threw me back because I wasn’t a keeper,” he said.

He paused.

“But seriously, there is no answer. I think about it a lot. The good Lord saw fit to leave me here a while longer. I guess there is something else I’m supposed to do, but I don’t know what it is yet,” he said.

He said he has no anger, no depression, but that he is living a life that he never imagined.

“It is no fun to have to wake up every morning and strap on your legs,” he said. “And sometimes at night when it is just Bonnie (his wife) and me, we’ll talk about why did this happen to me. There has to be a good reason.

“Every morning when I get up, I pray I won’t become a disillusioned guy who feels sorry for himself. I have been blessed, and I know it.”

He was a manager at Empire Distributors and the company would like to have him back in some capacity, but Wagstaff still is recovering from surgeries, adjusting to his prosthesis and regaining his strength.

He recently walked a mile in the Bull City Race Fest in Durham while daughter Meghan ran a half marathon. He finished his mile in about 23 minutes.

“I never saw anybody behind me who was doing the mile, but when they posted the results, I wasn’t last. I’ve been bragging on that,” he said.

A golf tournament and fundraiser provided more than $140,000, which enabled him to purchase his hand.

“I’ve gotten letters and checks from people I’ve never met, probably never will meet,” he said. “There are so many people that I don’t know how to thank.”

New goals

Wagstaff has an inkling about what he’d like to do eventually.

“One thing I’d like to do somehow, and I don’t know how, is to help folks at Rex Hospital,” he said. “Those people were so good to me. I’d like to be able to help them and help the people staying there. I’d like to talk to them.”

Months ago, lying in a hospital bed with no hands and no legs, Wagstaff listed goals.

He needed to work on his golf game.

He planned to walk into a baseball spring training game to watch Meghan’s husband, pitcher Tommy Layne of the Boston Red Sox.

He wanted to one day pull his grandchildren around in a little red wagon.

He has worked on his golf game in the backyard. He said it is like trying to hit a golf ball with a cooked noodle. “I don’t know where it’s going,” he said.

He didn’t get out of rehab in time to go to Florida for spring training, but he did walk into Boston’s Fenway Park and Baltimore’s Camden Yards to watch Layne pitch in the big leagues.

And he lived to see the birth of his first grandchild.

Mary Russell received a little red wagon as a shower gift.

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