‘The first year is the hardest’

Published 10:40 am Monday, June 6, 2016

Newlyweds overcome medical issues

This story nearly turned into One Wedding, a Hospital Honeymoon, and a Funeral.

Thankfully, its conclusion more closely resembles Facing the Giants.

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On Dec. 13, 2014, a date that missed being Friday the 13th by one day — and might have explained everything to the superstitious — Ironton native Brent Sierer married Kentucky resident Vanessa Mathieu at St. Lawrence Church in Ironton. The couple met in the line of duty. Brent is a respiratory therapist at King’s Daughters Medical Center in Ashland. Vanessa is a nurse practitioner in Huntington.

The reception, held at the Knights of Columbus, lasted deep into the night. Brent was having a beer with friends at the bar while Vanessa was on the dance floor in the ballroom grooving to “Love Shack,” the final song of the evening. At some point during the song, she stepped on her wedding dress, lost balance, and tumbled to the floor. Brent saw her fall, rushed to his bride and noticed a large amount of swelling around her right ankle.

“He took my garter off while I was lying on the ground,” Vanessa laughed.

The couple, along with Brent’s mother, Judy Sierer, rushed to the emergency room at KDMC.

“Brent was in his tux. I was in my wedding dress,” Vanessa remembered. “The ER doctor told me I was his first bride.”

Vanessa’s leg was broken above the ankle, drastically altering the honeymoon plans.

“Instead of being in Jamaica, we had surgery,” Brent deadpanned.

But that incident wasn’t even close to being the worst thing to happen to the Sierer’s last year. On July 4, less than seven months into their marriage, a much more devastating blow occurred.

“We woke up and I said, ‘Did you beat me up while we were sleeping?’” Brent recalled, noting his body ached and he felt abnormal. Later, at a picnic in Johnson County, Kentucky, he started feeling worse. “It wasn’t hot, but I was pouring sweat. Then I started vomiting.”

Fearing Brent, 39 at the time, had food poisoning, the couple headed back to Louisa, Kentucky, where they presently reside.

“Between Johnson County and Paintsville, we pulled over eight times,” Brent recalled, adding he never before felt so ill. Vanessa drove them to the emergency room at Three Rivers Medical Center in Louisa, where a CAT scan was performed. Brent had pancreatitis.

“The next day, they said he’s in kidney failure,” Vanessa recalled. Brent was transported to KDMC by ambulance and placed on dialysis due to kidney failure. Problems continued to mount. He struggled to breathe due to high levels of gas in his blood. “It was like drowning,” he said.

Brent kept asking Vanessa if he was going to die. She attempted to comfort him, but couldn’t comfort herself.

“I really believed he was going to die,” she remembered.

On Monday, July, 6, 2015, Brent awoke late at night to a room full of family and friends.

“I thought, ‘If all these people are here in the middle of the night to see me, this is the end.’”

Ultimately, the decision was made to put him on a ventilator. A respiratory therapist at KDMC for 15 years, and admittedly a bit cantankerous and stubborn at times, Brent refused to permit anyone but lifelong friend and coworker Mike Garland to insert the ventilator.

“That’s the last thing I remember for three weeks,” he said.

The next day, he was flown to Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. Vanessa rode to the hospital with Judy and Brent’s dad, Greg.

“I wondered if he was going to be alive when we made it,” Vanessa said. He was alive, but remained on a ventilator for 12 days and endured dialysis for a month.

Despite being told to prepare for a lifetime of dialysis, his kidneys miraculously rebounded.

“I tell everyone, ‘It was lots of prayers and a good woman by my side or I wouldn’t have made it.’”

In late July, Brent was discharged from OSU and, due to becoming so weak, taken back to KDMC for a week of physical rehabilitation. A thin man prior to July 4 at 170 pounds, Brent had no appetite and dropped down to 125 pounds. “I was frail,” he recalled, noting when he looked in the mirror he couldn’t believe he was looking at his own body.

For the next few months, he traveled to Columbus every two weeks to have his pancreas removed bit by bit via a tube inserted into his throat. In January, the grueling six-month ordeal finally ended. He went back to work and life returned to normal. Almost.

“I can’t drink alcohol ever again,” he said, noting alcohol consumption is the root cause of pancreatitis. “But I’m fine with that. You don’t realize how much you want to live until you’re at death’s door.”

When asked about how his perspectives have changed, Brent said, “This made me appreciate what a good family I have. I’ve never been a big prayer person, but now I pray and thank God for each day. Whether it’s a good day or a bad day, it’s a day alive.”

While discussing the importance of prayer, he added, “People were praying for me all over the country — People I didn’t even know.”

He noted he checked his Facebook page months after the incident and was humbled by the throngs of well wishes from concerned friends.

“It’s amazing the number of people who cared,” he said.

Today, thanks to the faith of the many people who prayed on his behalf, Brent’s weight has returned, he’s healthy, and his sense of humor is back in full force.

“So, that was our first year of marriage,” he laughed. “They say the first year is the hardest.”