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Up before dawn, it was our usual race to grab hard hats, safety vests, and for our whole family to jump into the company pickup. We all slumped into our seats, barely awake, while my husband punched the accelerator, merging into the busy pre-dawn line of construction vehicles headed toward a new day in dusty Bakersfield, California.
Turning west off Rosedale Highway, we veered off the main road and stopped before a padlocked gate. While dialing the lock numbers we quickly scanned the petroleum fields for a special breed of foxes, a local endangered species that inhabited the few acres of abandoned dirt hills. If we saw one of these animals we were obliged to cease working, contact the local biologist, and supposedly halt all operations until the security of the animals was assured.
No visible foxes were in sight, so we left the gate wide open for dozens of dump trucks to enter behind us and drove into a restricted hazardous waste materials clean up site.
Our boss had challenged us, “Can you load out 30,000 tons in the next three weeks?” Randy, my newlywed husband of 4-months, replied, “Not a problem.” You see, “No” and “Impossible” were two words that just didn’t exist in his vocabulary! Very quickly the job turned into 15-hour days of adrenaline-charged activities as we pulled together as a family to once again complete an ‘impossible’ job assignment.
Two of our sons, Larry and Jeff, were soon joined by their step-brother, Robbie, and together with our three sons we loaded the first 30,000 yards of inky black petroleum coke. Petroleum coke is normally the consistency of sand or ash… but we were to soon discover what none of the scientists and engineers could have predicted… that under the soft layer of coke was a nearly petrified strata of very heavy, solid pet-coke. With the right machinery we could have drilled and broken up that immovable strata, but all we had were loaders. This should have been a red flag for what was about to happen…
Randy was an expert operator of heavy machinery, but the rest of us were so green we needed to be taught everything from lubrication to building ramps. I was a middle-aged mother who had previously spent more than a dozen years home schooling children and volunteering at church.
I had never before stepped foot on a construction site let alone operated machines that required a ladder just to get into the operator’s seat!
I was challenged with operating a CAT 962 loader and Robotrack screen plant – solo! Larry got the CAT 980 loader, Jeff pulled water truck duty, and Robbie shoveled pet-coke on the rail cars.
Learning to live together as a blended family is normally a hurdle that requires a few years of diligence to master, but for our family we were not only living together but working in a dangerous environmental cleanup project together. Let’s just say we elected for the accelerated course!
Our boss enjoyed the million-dollars-a-month our little family crew was producing for him.
We were working together like a well-oiled machine, loading out as much as 204 large dump trucks in a day. It became necessary to hire more men, so we went out and recruited some more green people… and trained the new guys, who became like family to us. Except for Randy, none of us had gotten our hazwhoper certification yet and we were not outfitted adequatelyfor the job. We hadn’t even received our entrance medical exams! It was a rush-rush job and at a million dollars a month profit we couldn’t afford to slow down for things like that, is what our out-of-state project manager explained to us.
Our boss had thrown down the gauntlet – 30,000 tons of pet-coke to be removed in three weeks!
Randy had just come off of 4 months straight of 24-hour days working in a very stressful hazmat environment with high level toxicity in Chicago. The newborn company wasn’t yet set up for the required medical checkups so despite massive exposure to high level toxins on a ’round the clock basis, Randy was pushed to his physical and mental limits at the Chicago hazmat site without the standard safeguards in place.
It was like he was driven… not really a man, but more like a machine. He gave everything he had to his boss, and there was nothing that could stop him. Randy accomplished everything put in front of him to do, even if it meant staying up all night in a dark, lonely shop putting machinery together so the work could continue at top speed. You would have thought we would recognize the warning signs… every machine breaks down now and then, even the human machines! But we were consumed with keeping our noses above water and just surviving from day-to-day.
We passed the 30,000 ton mark in the first month and we were almost half-way through the pile!
We didn’t have the proper machinery, but the job was flying at such a pace that it had become impossible to slow down. Our bosses were watching those dollar signs flash between computer screens… it was truly amazing what one little family crew could do!
After breaking through to the petrified layer we began deliberately crashing our loaders into the solid pet-coke in order to break off pieces small enough to load. It was back-wrenching and head-ache producing work. We were getting hurt every day, but there was no slowing down. We had daily production quotas to meet.
One day Randy picked up something off the ground and white dust flew everywhere. The screen plant is a giant roaring, bellowing red monster that blows air like a land whale. If you get near the controls it’s like a sand-blaster in your face.
We never knew what we would find in the pile – it had lain there for decades, accumulating garbage of every kind possible. There were times when I was loading into the dump trucks and I would see things like brown bottles you would find in chemistry set or in a pharmacy. It’s just one of the risks you run in hazmat… but our job was so fast-paced that none of us had yet gone to hazwhoper school!
We were not even certified to work on a hazmat field!
By early July 2003 the Bakersfield desert was immersed in a broiling heat wave. Daily temperatures were rocketing into the triple digits, so we began working as early as possible in the pre-dawn hours before the heat became unbearable. Working as fast as possible, already exhausted from months of stressful unrelenting work loads, Randy was operating his CAT 980 at full-throttle. Loading the dump trucks was his primary task, as it was a delicate operation and none of us “greenies” were capable of filling the loads as quickly as was needed.
Then it happened. Going in full-throttle for the inevitable shaking, grinding bite into the petrified coke, Randy’s machine broke – the bolts sheared right off. Randy’s body hit the steering column and pain exploded through his chest and back. Pain was normal for him and he thought he could shrug it off. “Impossible” was not in his vocabulary, so he continued working.
Randy was usually very patient and gentle with all of us “greenies” but from that day onward he became edgy with a slow fuse that often resulted in verbal explosions.
After a very grouchy weekend, my husband told me, “You might want to take me to the emergency room – I think I’m having a heart attack.”
We arrived at the Bakersfield Heart Hospital early Sunday morning. Randy collapsed and the emergency team quickly took him in and ran a battery of tests. When I was called in the doctor was finishing writing his report and didn’t look up at me. While continuing to write he told me that he was prescribing an antibiotic for acute bronchitis.
Intuitively I knew something was wrong with that report, so I attempted to get the doctor’s attention. I wanted to look him in the eye, but he was in a hurry. This patient’s heart was perfectly healthy and he was ready to move onto a real emergency, seemed to be his perspective. Why bother to interrupt a busy emergency room with such a dramatic entrance when his heart was perfectly fine?!?
I interrupted his hasty departure by saying, “Doctor, do you want to know what he was doing when this pain happened?” The doctor, barely giving me a glance, replied, “Just have him take that antibiotic for 10-days and he should be fine.”
I knew something was wrong but I couldn’t figure it out!
On Monday, we returned to the job site, but Randy just wasn’t right. Our project manager had just visited our site a few days prior and had already returned to Indiana. We stayed in close contact via phone and email so I let him know what had happened and he advised me to take Randy back into ER. Tuesday morning we left the job site for a couple of hours to visit a different emergency room.
Running the same battery of tests, the doctor was pleased to tell us that Randy’s heart was perfectly fine. This man looked me in the eye when I asked him what he thought it was, and then he commenced a long speech… about the perils of working on a hazmat site without a face mask. He told us that he sees refinery workers come in all the time with lung problems as a result of working without respiratory protection. He diagnosed Randy’s pain as “chemical pneumonitus” and told us to see a pulmonologist.
No one seemed to think this was an emergency case, and being out of state we had no medical resources who knew us personally. We arrived at the medical building and saw the pulmonologist who sounded amazingly confident (after x-rays and CATscans) as she explained that Randy was suffering from Valley Fever, a common but serious malady affecting the Bakersfield area and causing similar complaints. She advised us to go to Scripp’s Clinic in LaJolla for further testing and diagnosis.
Nothing felt right to me. It seemed like every doctor was looking through a certain pair of eyeglasses – called by the name of their particular branch of knowledge, or specialty combined with their personal experience. So I thought to myself that we needed a primary care physician, an internist or general practitioner who could help us put the pieces together. Our pastor referred us to a very capable, mature doctor who examined Randy from head to toe, leaving no body part unturned. She assured us that it was simply a matter of eliminating all the possibilities and getting to the root cause. We felt relieved that someone was going to bat for us, even if it did mean sitting in her waiting room for hours on end (she was that thorough for all her patients!)
By then our company was alarmed. They purchased two airline tickets (one-way) to bring Randy and me to Chicago so that their own doctors could treat Randy. By then we had been to so many doctors and we didn’t think Randy’s body could tolerate the trip so our project manager was able to convince the corporate executives to allow us to stay and continue to receive treatment in California.
Because Randy remembered breathing in the white dust near the screen plant, it was suspected that a contaminant had affected his lungs (he had a lot of trouble breathing, along with severe chest pain extending to his back). So everything suddenly changed at the job site. Yellow and black striped tape was posted all around the “contamination zone” and everyone, including truck drivers, were required to wear face masks at all times on the site.
All of us “greenies” were directed to hurry up and register for hazwhoper classes at the local college so that we would be legally certified to be working at a hazmat site. The company didn’t want to get caught with their pants down. Also, it’s the law that all hazmat workers must receive a physical checkup upon entering and exiting a job. We all got our checkups except Randy – and his ‘illness’ was to be kept secret. Our partnering company could not see Randy in his condition or know how seriously hurt he was. By the time the tape was put up and the face mask rule was put into effect it was impossible not to tell them the truth.
As a caregiver, I felt hopelessly inadequate!
Throughout the course of 10 monthsfollowing the accident, Randy was sent to every possible type of medical practitioner in Bakersfield. One osteopath had attempted to examine Randy but in palpitating his upper abdomen Randy screamed and bolted up off the table. He continued screaming and the doctor quickly finished his exam, said that it was probably his pancreas, and then left the room with a referral to a stomach specialist! A few minutes later a nurse returned saying that we could leave now.
Leave? This was a man who could endure anything – he was a machine! He could lift 300-pounds without breathing hard. Impossible and no were not in his vocabulary. But Randy was screaming, “No!” Something terrible had happened when the doctor palpitated his upper abdomen. In the parking lot Randy refused to get in the truck until I returned to the office and asked for something strong to kill the pain. It was closing hours and they told me I would have to wait and make another appointment to discuss pain medication. I became very bold at that moment and told them I was not leaving their office unless they prescribed something to help. How do you send a screaming man home? Especially when you don’t know his background… how he was taught as a Montana logging man to keep working, even if your arm was half sawed off by a chainsaw! If only they had known Randy was not just being dramatic – he was dying of pain at that moment!
As a caregiver, I felt hopelessly inadequate. I felt responsible for Randy 24-hours a day. The worst part was not knowing what it was. At home, listening to him scream in pain I often wondered if he was going to die. If you can face your enemy head on it’s so much easier! But we were getting hit from all directions at once. Sometimes people forget that caregivers need as much help and support as the severely injured person. When a severe injury happens it traumatizes the whole family!
A few weeks later we went to the stomach doctor… who allowed me in the room to watch a computer screen showing him pinch the inside of Randy’s stomach, taking a biopsy. He told me Randy’s stomach was just fine and prescribed two kinds of medicine which he assured us would help Randy’s nausea. At least they had ruled out pancreatic cancer.
There are people today who are relieved that our nation will finally have national health care and that everyone will have access to medical resources. I’m not opposed to everyone having medical resources… but is that where we can place our trust? Randy and I were to learn that trusting in any THING or any PERSON or any PLAN apart from God will fail.
God was intruding into our world to teach us something about Him – that His Love never fails and that He is the only with the real solution to pain, to disease, to financial losses… to everything!
He wants to be our all in all! When all systems fail and everything and everyone we trusted in fails, God really is there to support and sustain us!
In the fall of 2003 our physician told us that she had run out of medical resources and that we should consider Los Angeles. We were referred to a Los Angeles-based neurosurgeon who also had an office one-day a week in Bakersfield.
Within the first 5-minutes of our first appointment, Dr. A__ said he suspected T-8 or T-9 in the thoracic spine as the culprit. Telling us we would need to schedule a diskogram with at a Los Angeles clinic he left us feeling very hopeful for the first time since that black day when the pain began.
Because no one knew what was wrong, Randy had no release to stop working. A new supervisor had been flown in to replace Randy, but no one was allowed to know what had happened… so Randy was still “on duty”. The new supervisor claimed he had back problems, so he refused to help us lowly workers on the job – we had to figure everything out ourselves. Randy came and went. While his pain tolerance was very high there were a lot of days when he just had to go home and go to bed. His back felt like it was bleeding and he would often lift his shirt and ask me to examine his back – did I see anything that would indicate bleeding? It all looked normal to me, except for a big swelling in the middle.
Randy became nauseated and had headaches, in addition to all the chest and back pain. His sweet nature continued to sour as more and more pain encroached on his life. The doctors prescribed as a high of dose of narcotic pain medication as they dared give him, but it was neverenough to do more than take the edge off of the increasing pain. No one thought he might need a rest. No one mentioned taking time off of work. And for Randy, it was not an option.
We finished the job in Bakersfield, going above and beyond what the company expected… earning millions of dollars in profit for this brand new, untested environmental company. It was time for a rest, finally! It should have been time to move us on to the next hazmat site, but everyone knew Randy was not up for it… so they quietly kept us on the Bakersfield site for six more months, even though we had no work to do.
Randy was quickly sliding downhill and by the time we arrived in Los Angeles for the diskogram we were desperate for anything to work. Putting Randy on the surgery table, the surgeon placed needles inside his spine as a test to see if/where the problematic area was. There was absolutely no doubt about which disk was the problem, as Randy shot up off the table and it took the whole surgery team to put him back on the table and to hold him down. The doctor quickly prescribed Demerol and then more and more and more. The nurses cautioned him that he had already had the full amount but the doctor took one look at Randy and said to give him more. They would not allow me into the recovery room for over four hours due to the problems they were having controlling Randy.
A patient next door to Randy said, “I thought I was in pain, but clearly I don’t know what the word is compared to what’s happening to that guy!”
Finally, as the clinic was closing its doors, they pushed Randy into the passenger door of our pickup and waved us off. Every bump on the 401 sent excruciating pain down Randy’s spine. The 2-hour drive through Los Angeles rush hour traffic is still memorable to me, at this moment!
A week later we returned to Dr. A__’s office and he offered us the assurance that help was on the way. He told us he had just returned from a conference in which “nucleoplasty” was the topic of discussion. It was a new procedure back then and the doctor described it as heating up the disk material until it resembles the consistency of a marshmallow. This simulates a broken back to the body, which will then go into action to “fix the break”. Dr. A___ rated this procedure as 50/50 in its chances of being effective. We were so desperate at that point we would have tried anything that offered a possibility of relief from the unrelenting pain. Little did we realize that the treatment itself was about to sever any chances of Randy living a normal life. They were operating under an assumption that there was damage and deterioration to the disk, because by that time none of the specialists were asking what had happened at the time the pain began!
It was to be eight months after the injury that Dr. S__, with the aid of fluoroscopy, discovered the cause of the pain – a broken rib that had penetrated the disk, crushing a nerve in the T-8 and T-9 area. That part of the thoracic spine regulates function of the chest muscles, heart, lungs, etc… thus, the reason for the heart attack symptoms in those areas!
Following the nucleoplasty, Randy was sent home the same day… another bumpy drive down the 401 in Los Angeles. A short one-week job had opened up in a town 2-hours from Bakersfield, so Randy and I went to work that job just one-day following his nucleoplasty. None of the doctors had given Randy any restrictions at that point and no one thought he needed time off of work. We missed that red flag entirely!
Randy had a very hard time traveling. The motion of the vehicle, even just standing up was incredibly difficult. It was like his back was bent in the middle and he was struggling to hold himself erect. We got the job done and returned to Bakersfield for a follow up appointment with Dr. A__.
Dr. A__ then instructed Randy that if the procedure was to work (it would take approximately a half year to know if it was effective or not) he would need to cease driving any type of vehicle, not lift anything more than 5 pounds, and not travel more than 1 hours at one time. It was Thanksgiving time and we were still on the job site, really hoping to go home. Dr. A__ advised us to remain in California and not to travel under any circumstances.
I was dismayed to think we were only just learning about these restrictions over a week after the surgery! We didn’t know how dangerous it was to be physically active following that type of surgery. The reality of Randy’s situation progressively grew worse, seemingly day by day. By then the holidays were upon us and all of the physicians were heavily booked or unavailable. The swelling in the center of Randy’s back had increased to such an extent that one of the young children at the RV park asked Randy if he was a hunchback!
To keep the pain at bay, Randy would walk in circles for hours on end at the RV park, but after the nucleoplasty it was like he ran out of juice and many times we could find him laying down in the sand just outside the RV park, in an empty field. He had carved out in the sand the only place he could find that would allow a measure of relief.
Finally, by mid-January, we were able to see Dr. A___ again and he officially released Randy from work on the 23rd. He stressed that for the next several months Randy not drive, not pick up more than five pounds, and limit his travels to no more than 1 hours. He sent Randy to a Dr. A___n, a specialist who helps people recover from spinal cord injuries and also to Dr. S__, a pain management specialist.
The two specialists argued about treatment back and forth between each other, and each time we went to see one of them, they would complain about the other doctor and say they refused to comply with the other’s prescription. Dr. A__n refused to treat Randy at all, saying that the swelling on his back would first have to come down. When I asked if there was something we could do to help Randy walk and to support his back which was bent in the middle, he prescribed a wheelchair and a back brace, along with a new form of morphine.
In March of 2004 Dr. S__, after a series of failed attempts to relieve the pressure of the swelling on Randy’s spine, discovered the real culprit – and said that Randy’s injury was due to a hole in his spinal cord. Well, something finally made sense! And we felt in our spirits that this was the breakthrough that was needed. To not know, to not understand, is to walk in the dark – and when you walk in the dark you stumble around. To finally understand what happened provided so much relief!
We asked Dr. S__ what do you do about a spinal tear? His reply shocked Randy and me. He said to rest for one or two years. I looked at Randy and he looked at me… “Rest, what is that?” was the silent communication we had between each other. And for how long???
Our lives were about to shift once again in ways that would forever change us. A brochure for a healing conference arrived in the mail and we signed up for it that very day! A few weeks later were traveling to British Columbia with one goal in mind: the complete healing of Randy’s spine. It was our only hope!
Randy had made a vow and he sealed it by not bringing enough pain medication to last the weekend. He told me, “If God doesn’t heal me then you can just put me in the ground!” The first day was really great but no healing. The second day was wonderful but just as Randy got in front of the speaker to receive prayer, they had to close down the service and empty the building! The third day was discouraging and Randy began to lose hope. It took about a half dozen of us to push him to the front to receive prayer. John Arnott was the speaker and he didn’t care about speaking so much as he wanted those in chronic pain – specifically those who had been in chronic pain for many years – to come to the front.
We finally pushed and tugged Randy forward. Later he confided that he wasn’t certain which fear was the greatest… that he would be healed or that he wouldn’t be healed! After all, a lot of people go to healing conferences and they don’t get healed. And really, when you see people fall down and claim to be healed, are they really healed or is it a bunch of emotionalism and hype, or worse? We were about to find out.
The actual moment of healing was recorded on tape and then produced into a DVD called “Miracles, the Randy McKenzie Story”. I was there watching but my husband was so short I couldn’t see anything with all the people in front of me. Then suddenly John Arnott was asking if anyone had come with Randy and for that someone to please come up front. Randy was stretching and bending, doing things that would normally have sliced the muscles and tissues in his back, with all the wires. My husband was crying and then suddenly he picked me up in his arms and began twirling me around! He always told me that when God healed him, the first thing he would do is pick me up in his arms, and he kept his promise!
From somewhere to my right a voice was saying, “Honey, you’ve got your husband back!”
The whole world fell away as Randy and I just held each other, until the voice spoke again and said, “Well, I think we’ll just let them have their own private moment here!” I peeked out from having buried my head in Randy’s shoulder and John Arnott was handing me a microphone. Oh dear! I just said the first thing that came to my head, because it was the sum total of all Randy and I had been praying about over the years.
And that’s when our lives changed, irreversibly, once again. Not only had God removed my husband’s pain but when we put hands on his back he could feel our hands, whereas before they had cauterized so many nerves that his back had become numb. As if that weren’t enough, Randy had run out of pain meds and could not have taken any if he had wanted to… this was literally his last chance. He slept for the first time that night – all night long! And never once suffered a symptom of withdrawal. His doctor, during follow up after the conference, told him he should have died simply from going cold turkey off those prescriptions!
I don’t know what shocked us more: the injury or the healing. I think the healing. And that’s when the conference leaders sent a film crew to our house and began filming a drama/documentary in our living room and local area. We really didn’t want to be part of the movie and had no idea why anyone would want to film an ordinary family who lived in the wilderness and had made pretty much every mistake known to man. But a little ways up the mountain, in a sacred space, where the host of Heaven had been witness, some prayers echoed down to me, “We’ll go wherever you want us to go. We just want to touch the lives of the most hurt, the most broken, the most needy….” So we said yes and just trusted God.
Miracles do happen today!Write by spiderman hoodie