They say a good GoFundMe campaign begins with a great title and a compelling story. I don’t know about that. All I know is this is the hardest story I have ever had to write as it forces me to relive all that I have gone through since October of 2016 and all that I still face and yet I do it because the one thing I have is faith. Faith in a higher power. Faith in the compassion of friends, family and strangers. Faith that my journey is not yet done and faith that by asking humbly for help I can continue to carry on with my journey. I ask you for patience while you read my story and then I ask you for help. It’s that simple.
My name is Cindy Abrahams. On June 15th I will turn 57. I am originally from Northern California, a small town called Pollock Pines, on the Highway 50 corridor between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe. In 1996, I took a leap a faith and came to the Cayman Islands on a blind date where I would meet my husband, one of the most remarkable people I have ever met and who has been by my side every step of my journey. We were married in 1997 and have called the Cayman Islands home for most of that time. But back to my story.
By career I am a Director of Human Resources and Corporate Services. I’m the one that is the compassionate one. The one looking out for people. Helping them, guiding them, mentoring them, and making a difference in their life. My other passion is complementary health and wellness through behavior therapy, hypnotherapy, Reiki, diet, and so many other areas that I have spent years training in. When people who know me hear my story they say it can’t be true because I am the last person these things should have happened to but life has a way of giving you lessons in ways you cannot begin to fathom, you just go through them and you learn from them and you give gratitude for them. That is life. However I have been fighting for that life and continue to do so since October of 2016.
In late October of 2016 I was sitting in my office working on recruiting over 200 people and setting up policies and procedures for a new hotel that would be opening here in the Cayman Islands when it felt like a truck with tires of hot irons rolled through my left abdomen. I was left breathless, in tears and fell out of my chair to my knees from the excruciating pain. Through sheer determination I got myself back into my chair and called a co-worker in and asked them to call an ambulance. Whatever was happening to me was only increasing in pain and I truly just wanted to pass out but my willpower wouldn’t let that happen. Always the control freak, I was issuing directives to team members including helping with my own care while waiting for the ambulance. When the medics arrives they couldn’t get an IV started (I have very small rubber band veins and this would and does prove to be an ongoing problem). So they rolled code three (lights and sirens) to the primary hospital here. Every turn, every bump, every movement sent the pain even higher. By the time I entered the ER room my blood pressure was through the roof (it is normally low) and silent tears were pouring from my eyes as I panted like a dog from the pain. Next came the usual that all are familiar with who have ever been assessed at a hospital.
My situation is a bit more difficult. I cannot have a regular CT scan or any scan involving any type of contrast except one Gastrografin as I go into anaphylactic shock I am that allergic. I am also allergic to most antibiotics and allergic to many pain medications. I carry a sheet of paper in my wallet at all times with all of my allergies. Bearing all this in mind including how difficult it is to start an IV in me I would go through over 9 attempts to finally get an IV started and another 5 jabs to get sufficient blood for blood work. Meanwhile the pain continued until they could finally get the IV started. The pain never went away fully but at least it got to the point where I could speak. They sent me for an ultrasound of my abdomen and asked me if I had experienced any urinary tract infections. I had not had a UTI since my 20’s and rarely experienced anything like that my entire life. After over 9 hours in the ER the team decided I had passed a kidney stone even though they freely admitted there was no evidence in any test or culture that I had any type of kidney infection or UTI infection and no stone could be found nor trace of a stone could be found. Their instructions take the antibiotics I had been given and the pain meds, go home to bed for a couple of days and I would be as good as new. So that’s what I did. Only I wasn’t, as I was soon to find out.
4 days after my initial bout of abdominal pain only on my left side I returned to work, put in a 12 hour day as per usual and drove home to spend time with my husband and my two dogs. Just a few months earlier, my favorite dog who had been in our lives for 10 years would suddenly have to cross the rainbow bridge. It happened on my birthday and it was a huge blow to us but we still had two fur babies to help comfort us and keep us laughing. I sat down and took one bite of dinner (our usual steam vegetables with some steamed fish) and took my plate back to the kitchen. I just couldn’t eat, I felt off so I thought some vegetable broth would help. But no that didn’t and then it happened again. The excruciating pain in my left abdomen all over to where I dropped to my knees and asked my husband to dial 911. It was like a bad comedy tape. I got the same medics as previously. The same medical team as previously and yes the same diagnosis, eventually as previously, I had probably a kidney infection and had passed another stone even though there was no evidence of anything related to a kidney infection. I should have been suspicious when the first ultrasound was performed and the technician asked me was I aware I did not have any “female” organs. I said, yes, obviously I was aware since I had needed a radical hysterectomy in 1998!
Neither I nor my husband were impressed by the results of two trips to the ER and no resolution just ongoing pain so I learned there was a visiting urologist on island for a few days and I made an immediate appointment. After 15 minutes with me and a quick inspection he told us he had no idea how the hospital had made its diagnosis but clearly I had no kidney issues. He suggested I get a second opinion from a GI specialist.
As it happens, a couple of years ago a groundbreaking medical facility was established here in the Cayman Islands, Health City Cayman Islands and while its initial focus for the region and the US audience was for life saving heart procedures and orthopedics, it had recently added GI services and had a top GI specialist on staff. I did not bother to make an appointment but instead, my husband drove me out there and we saw this amazing doctor on an emergency basis. After a quick ultrasound of my abdomen he said there was a mass on the right side of my abdomen and he would need to do exploratory surgery the next day. I was shocked but relieved that we were making progress. I think in my mind I thought it was an inflamed gallbladder or something that could be simply remedied during the surgery. I could not be more wrong if I tried. But I head off to the operating room after telling my husband that I loved him feeling optimistic that in about a week’s time I would be up and about back at my job (I was the primary breadwinner in our household) and my life. It would turn out I would be lucky to have any life.
Over the next two weeks three surgeries would be performed in an attempt to save my life. I honestly don’t know, nor really want to know all of the details that occurred during that time. My husband lived it, I experienced it but I have been spared the memories of most of it except the pain. The head of my pancreas had gone necrotic after a fistula at my duodenum had burst and blood and necrotic tissue filled at least 22 feet of my intestines. I needed to be kept on a ventilator and a tracheotomy was put in place. Holes were placed in my abdomen to drain fluids, bile, and an emergency stoma was placed in as well. I had tubes running everywhere draining outside of my body but I don’t remember these in my few weeks at the hospital. My husband tells me I had several blood transfusions, and that I would speak to him during these transfusions but don’t remember them. Then the next thing happened. The main artery running through the abdomen burst (I had a fairly open belly by this time) and the top heart surgeon at the hospital along with the rest of the medical team went in to try and repair it. They told my husband if the bleeding did not slow within two hours I would either be able to be airlifted to Florida for more surgery or I would die (again). My husband said give it two hours, he had faith in the skills of the surgeons and the hand that guided them. And it worked the bleeding slowed down, more transfusions and I stabilized for a brief time and then I began to take another turn for the worse.
Once again my husband was called in and told at this point they simply did not have the facilities or skills to continue any more work on my abdomen and I needed more surgery to save my life again. They were recommending a life flight to Florida to a trauma surgeon specialist at Broward General Hospital in Fort Lauderdale Florida.
I have very strong memories of the life flight and hazy memories of waiting for it. It seemed to have taken hours to arrange it but in fact my husband was given only two hours to pack, get our house and dogs covered for being cared for, not knowing how long we would be gone, let our employers know and get back in time to ride in the ambulance that would take me to the airport to the air ambulance.
I remember I was placed in a room where a nurse had a chair at the foot of what must have been my bed. She stayed there never leaving. I remember the pain being so great I truly thought it was my time to check out. I remember that apparently someone let friends know I was being flown off to try and save my life and I remember their tears. It seems I spent hours comforting those that came to see me off. Trying to make them not feel bad, to send me off with smiles, but all of them seemed to look at me as if they were saying goodbye to me for the last time and why not I had already defied the odds three times and survived when I shouldn’t have according to my medical team (something I would be told months later).
I remember being transferred to the air ambulance (they are very tight and there was just enough room for my husband in the tail section, me on the gurney the flight nurse with all her gear pretty much sitting on top of me and the pilots. The flight seemed to take forever but in reality was about 55 minutes. The landing was rough, funny I remember that. My next memory is entering the ER room of yet another hospital and a bear of a man literally bundling me into his arms and suddenly I felt safe, he kept telling me exactly what he was doing and through the pain as I drifted in and out the two constant faces was that of my husband and that of that bear of a man the ER triage nurse.
My husband says it took over 12 hours to stabilize me, get me into the ICU unit and then I don’t know when the multiple hour surgery took place but it would be a couple of weeks before I would become coherent enough to begin to understand all that was going on with me. I had a fully opened abdomen with tubes coming out of me everywhere, the stoma, although not active was still there, apparently I had been on ventilation for a while and would get belligerent when they tried to take it away, I was on medications that were causing me major hallucinations and so it was a daily adjustment with the pain medication team to get the pain under control and begin to control the hallucinations.
In the 11 weeks that I spent in intensive care I would undergo 5 more procedures in my abdominal cavity. Each procedure brought new issues, problems and pain but through faith, my husband and stubbornness I would take each moment at a time. The tubes running through my abdomen caused unspeakable torture and I was draining bile by the bucketful. Because the hospital is a teaching hospital I was the favorite patient to visit by the residents and students, everyone wanted to see the woman with the open belly. The belly was open so the fistula could pour its output out. The surgeon who was a fantastic surgeon with a really bad bedside manner would cuss and swear and while giving me hope told me I was looking at time in years not months.
To learn that was devastating from a financial perspective. Even though I had two insurance companies, they were in a battle to see who would pay my medical expenses, neither wanted to. None of the plans covered my husband’s stay in the extend stay hotel (during high season in Florida) or his expenses such as shuttles and food, but I knew without him by my side I would not survive this and he could not leave, even if he did leave we would still have no source of income.
Our Employers paid us through November 2016. Since then we have had no income coming in. We cashed in my pensions and that brought the mortgage current for a little while. Our credit cards were maxed out and remain that way. We started a small GoFundMe campaign and that helped pay the utilities and other bills for a little while. All savings were used up. Friends donated clothing to me and one friend donated money to us to pay another month’s mortgage. Off and on friends have donated the odd grocery gift card but I’m getting ahead of myself in this story.
In January I was moved to a “step-down” unit. Prior to that I had not had anything by mouth since the end of October 2016. I had to learn how to swallow. I had to learn how to function without a tracheotomy again. I had to learn how to talk, write and walk again. The walking was a real challenge but I did it, all the while with my husband as my cheerleader. I had to learn how to do everything I thought I knew again and I still have gaps in my memory, thankfully. I got my nutrition through a product called TPN through a port in my chest where my medications were delivered and the blood draws were taken.
However after being moved to the step-down unit I was still being administered TPN but the hospital team wanted me to begin to take oral nutrition. This was such a frustrating exercise as no matter what I took orally it just came pouring out from the hole just above where I used to have a belly button and into a bag drain system. Literally everything I took orally came out through that bag and often the bag would leak and I would be left sitting in my own bile with my abdominal skin burning for hours. Because I was now taking in food the stoma began to work, again during these days the stoma wafer would often breach and again as there was only one wound care nurse and stoma nurse for the entire floor I was on I would wait hours leaking and sitting in my own feces. This time was a different type of nightmare, the burning of my skin from leaking fistula bags and stoma bags, waiting for hours for nurses, trying to take oral medication and stepping down medication that I had been on for months and another battle brewing.
You see I hold dual citizenship. I am a US Citizen by birth and a Caymanian citizen by grant. In the Cayman Islands there is really no such thing as disability or any form of disability insurance. There are societies like the Cancer Society and the Heart Fund that help out families for those conditions but nothing for a situation like mine. And as a US Citizen I file tax returns every year and have to file even more forms than a citizen living on US soil but I am not allowed to collect any form of disability. In order to do so I must be resident for one year in the US but I have no way to live in the US for a year, no place to stay, no way to pay rent, utilities, groceries in other words I get the privilege of paying for everyone else to have disability entitlements but I am not able to receive such benefits myself so again more closed doors on how to make it through this nightmare.
Meanwhile, while I was in the step-down unit and the surgeon proposed an experimental procedure where they would attempt to go in through my esophagus and put a mesh stent in the fistula at my duodenum to try and bypass this hole and that would keep nutrition in my body and help the fistula and abdomen to heal. I was terrified, this procedure is what is known off the paper, and in other words it had never been tried. I was utterly petrified but I could not keep my husband going through what he was going through, months of getting up, eating the same breakfast in a cold sterile hotel, getting to the hospital to spend 12 hours with me, going back to his hotel, eating the same dinner and then trying to sleep before repeating the process. He had to bear all of my emotional upheaval, while hiding his and watch as we slipped further and further into financial failing. So I agreed to the surgery.
As they put me under I remember thinking okay this is the game changer this will change things around to a more positive healing process and the healing can move forward much more quickly. Unfortunately this was not the case. The surgeon got in and could not find the fistula!!! I came to only to learn nothing had been achieved just more pain and disappointment.
But still I kept looking for the positive in each moment I was and have been given. My prayers were directed outward to others in need and pain and for my husband and yes inward for not health necessarily but for guidance on what I needed to do moment by moment.
The next move was to a different hospital where I was supposed to be rehabilitated. This didn’t work very well since I still had this overflowing fistula that everything I took orally flowed out of. And the next hurdle was tossed at me. The hospital had regulations that TPN could be delivered by home nursing care unfortunately a slight hitch in this concept. I had no home in the US to go to. I had an open fistula draining, a stoma that breached multiple times a day and I had got down to about 108 pounds and needed to bring my weight back up to 123 lbs. and hold it in preparation to when the fistula healed I would be able to have a surgery that would put all of my insides back together. When told about my situation the hospital said their hands were tied however they agreed that I needed to travel back to my home in the Cayman Islands via air ambulance that to travel would endanger my health and this would be the safest but yes you got it the insurance companies refused. So we wound up maxing out the last credit card to pay for a medical airfare seat on a regular aircraft with a traveling nurse to accompany me to drain my bags and everything while we flew.
We contacted Health City Cayman and they said they would definitely take me in and help me to adjust off of the TPN and continue my recovery. And so the flight was made. I don’t know how I survived it, we had to drain my bags multiple times, and the drive alone to Miami airport is just a black nightmare and then going through security checkpoints where they almost pulled my bags off in their zealousness to keep everyone safe. Because I had been pulled off of IV fluid and TPN quite early in the day, by the time the plane set down in Grand Cayman, I was extremely dehydrated and in great pain. Even though I have insurance that pays for a trip in a medical fare seat my claims have been denied as not being medically necessary, bearing in mind that all of the medical doctors felt an air ambulance was the most appropriate method to get me back to Cayman it is baffling that most of the claims submitted have been denied on the grounds of not being medically necessary. I will have to go through a long arduous appeals process on all of these meanwhile my credit is being destroyed as the hospitals in Florida attempt to collect on legitimate claims and as I try and cover at least the co-pay for the medical treatment here in the Cayman Islands.
I was settled in at Health City Cayman on February 7th, it would take me over a month to come off of the TPN and to get my port removed, to get the flow from the fistula to where I only needed to do wound dressings two or three times a day and not wear a draining bag and then I was sent home to come back for weekly visits.
In April of 2017 I began to feel pain in my left abdomen and upon examination it was discovered that a fistula had formed under the skin and after “bursting” it and having to endure first daily trips to the hospital for treatment for it, then three times a week and then finally weekly until I could manage it on my own we went through this process. Meanwhile a secondary fistula formed at the surface of my left abdomen and between it and the original fistula I still deal with daily dressing changes for these “wounds” which are not covered under insurance as I am doing them myself.
I worked on putting on some weight and building my strength. I learned to deal with helping with my stoma change and the draining of my ostomy bag. Because it is in an unusual location, I am unable to do any of this on my own. As my strength began to return I began taking short walks around my house and also short car rides. Each day brought new challenges but hope that I was healing as the fistulas were reducing their output significantly and then on two Sundays ago as I was getting ready to go to sleep in my makeshift bed I was slammed again in my left abdomen with the same excruciating pain as I had experienced back in October 2016!
I couldn’t believe this was happening to me again, I was on the mend, yes we had no resources but at least my health was improving so that I could look for the next major surgery I need to “put me all back together again” at the end of the year. I had hope and it got knocked completely out of me as the pain wracked through my body again and I had my husband call the ambulance to take me to Health City.
In an ironic twist of fate this time I did have a severe infection in my left kidney along with infection in my blood and spots of infection on my liver. After probing the two healing fistulas we found it was a false healing and that they were actually much deeper and needed far more draining than originally thought so once again another miracle, this saved my pancreas from being impacted this time. I would be released from the hospital on June 8th with a device in my left kidney to help it drain, a great deal of antibiotics, and blood transfusions and drainage bags on me for the one fistula and heavy wound dressings for the other fistula. However, even though I will need to return to keep probing the fistulas so that they heal and drain properly and there is a positive in that we may be able to push up the surgery by a couple of months that will be needed to put me back together again.
This impending surgery has a high mortality rate and there is no guarantee given how much intestine had to be removed and the location and the amount of scar tissue in my abdomen if this will be successful. If not the stoma will be resighted and I will adapt my life once again.
However, now we come to the reason for this campaign, we need to be able to stay in our home, buy food, pay utilities, buy medical supplies that the insurance company does not cover, pay for insurance and save towards the co-pay of the surgery and other costs and expenses involved with being a person who is fighting for their life.
When I met with my medical team they said that really they didn’t know how to deal with me because quite simply no one has really ever survived what I have survived so each day is an experiment in continuing to stay alive and defy the odds so I am asking you to help me to continue to be a medical miracle and get through the stages I face as I go along.
Even if you can only afford $5 or $10 every bit helps. I never thought I would be on the end of charity. My husband and I have always quietly provided charity not only to organizations but on individual basis, paying for surgeries for people without insurance, paying for college and other courses for friends who had no chance for education, purchasing vehicles to help people get to work, providing vacations for people who have undergone very traumatic experiences, buying groceries for people who found themselves in the same situation we now find ourselves. We have always done this quietly because it is about helping not getting recognition, it is enough to make a difference in a person’s life no matter how small.
If you cannot help, you can still help by helping us to make this GoFundMe reach as many people as possible. Many people are uncomfortable passing such things on to their networks but it is the only way we will be able to raise funds so we ask you if you cannot help, please share this with as many people that you know as possible.
We thank you for taking the time to read this and for any help you can provide,
Cindy and Derek Abrahams
PS - you will see a photo and a name of a beneficiary who receives these funds on my behalf her name is Gina. Gina is an amazing woman who I have had the privilege to help mentor and watch her grow into who she has become today an ever evolving compassionate, caring human being who also owns and operates a wellness center in Northern California. I cannot express my gratitude for her helping us with this campaign as I cannot receive funds directly in the Cayman Islands (once again a US Citizen living abroad has many difficulties). We wanted to share this for complete transparency.