Will Lautzenheiser is a filmmaker and professor of screenwriting and film production. He has taught at Boston University, Mass College of Art, and Montana State University.
September 20, 2011
On the morning of Friday, September 2, Will walked into the Deaconess Hospital in Bozeman, Montana, having experienced increasingly severe pain in his upper right leg through the week. He was admitted to the hospital with suspected appendicitis. Within hours, appendicitis was ruled out, and Will’s condition rapidly deteriorated. By evening, due to critically low blood pressure, Will’s kidney and lung function had essentially failed, and other major organs were faring little better. Will was placed on life support before nightfall. Dr. Robert Schoene, critical care physician at Deaconess, recognized Will’s condition as sepsis, with an unknown root cause. Dr. Schoene knew that Will would require dialysis to have any chance of survival, and arranged to have Will moved to the St. Vincent Hospital in Billings, Montana; the move was accomplished on Saturday. The medical team at St. Vincent supported Will’s core functions while the root cause of his condition remained a mystery. Diligent care through the critical first days allowed Will’s body to gain slight ground, and over the course of a few days, Will’s heart, lung, and liver function slowly improved.
On Tuesday afternoon, a breakthrough occurred when Group A Strep bacteria were cultured from a sample taken from Will’s leg in Bozeman. With this information, Will’s condition was provisionally diagnosed as a Group A Strep Toxic Shock Syndrome, enabling a targeted treatment regime. However, a terrible component of Will’s infection was a condition known as necrotizing fasciitis, which had visibly caused extensive tissue damage, especially in Will’s arms and legs. The team in Billings saw that a larger medical facility would be necessary to deal with this situation, and so in the wee morning hours of Wednesday, September 7, Will was transported to the University Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah. Under the care of Dr. Jeffrey Saffle and his team at the Burn Trauma ICU, Will’s general organ functions continued to improve, to the degree that he was able to breathe on his own on Monday, September 12. By this time, Will was groggy but conscious, and he was able to communicate and understand his condition.
The improvement in Will’s alertness and core functions, on the positive side, was matched by increasing concern about the viability of his limbs as time went by. Over the first days in Salt Lake City, Will’s wounds to his extremities essentially declared themselves to be unrecoverable. On Tuesday, September 13, Will underwent surgery to amputate his left and right legs below the knees. And, yesterday, Monday, September 19, following several days of superb consciousness and more-or-less steady core function progress, Will underwent surgery to amputate his left arm just above the elbow, and his right arm at mid-forearm. Will is now recuperating from this surgery, and I am hopeful that his condition will continue to generally improve. Next steps include multiple skin grafts to heal areas of dead skin–likely to occur within 10 days or so–and beyond that, physical therapy, perhaps starting in 2 to 3 weeks. Also, Will’s kidney function remains basically zero, and he continues to require dialysis to survive. We are not yet out of the woods, though we are much closer to their edge than we were two weeks ago. Will’s continued physical improvement is a testament to his fundamental fitness, strength, and youth (in concert with the wisdom and outstanding practice of western medical science).
The insult that Will’s body has endured over the course of this infection and its aftermath has been extraordinary. More extraordinary, though, has been Will’s own emotional and intellectual response. Will is facing his situation with courage and passion. He is gathering strength from outside of himself, to be sure, from the world-class care he is receiving from the team here, from the presence of friends and family, and from the expressions of love and support from people who cannot be here in person. However, Will is also gathering strength from his superlatively rich and deep knowledge of art, music, poetry, film, and literature. Will’s skills of recall, textual analysis, and synthesis are helping to save his life, in that they are supporting his positive attitude in the face of indescribable horror. From Shakespeare’s 18th Sonnet, to Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, to RoboCop and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Will is triangulating his position against many cultural benchmarks of tragedy and redemption, and is finding that he wants to live, to teach, to be, to love. I am in awe of Will’s profound grace as he faces his life’s supreme test.
Will’s reaction is creating a positive feedback. His attitude has endeared him to the care team, so they in turn are not just caring for him as a patient, but as a person. Knowing that Will remains strong in spirit gives me energy to also remain strong, so that I can continue to support him. Yet Will’s condition remains fragile, and he needs rest as surely as he needs support from friends and family. The work that Will’s body is doing to heal is grueling; the physical and psychological hurdles he has to clear constantly are formidable; the routine of the ICU is punishing. Please continue to send Will your best wishes, as they are helping him to persevere.
I feel that there is more to write, but I must return to Will’s bedside. Know that your good energy is supporting him, and me, so keep that energy flowing.
– Tom L.