Wayland senior battles life-threatening infection to return to school

PLAINVIEW – Heather Dillard’s essay on “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” would not be a volume for the faint of heart. Her plan was to work on campus for three months and save money for her final year at Wayland Baptist University, enjoy church and ministry and take things easy. 

Shortly into the summer, however, she developed an infection that not only changed her summer plans, it also threatened her life. Now just three months later, she is back on campus in her routine of class and work. But life as she knew it will never be the same.

Dillard, a religion and psychology major from Lubbock, has dealt with ulcerative colitis since her teen years, a genetic malady that is aggravated by stress and typically means patients have their colon removed before they are 30.

She’s been able to keep the condition in check nutritionally for many years, and she knows her body well enough to predict when trouble is coming. But the stresses of busy spring term began to take their toll and Dillard said she just kept quiet. She emailed her nutritionist for advice, but it was too late for any natural treatments.

She developed a series of sores that she thought were bug bites. They were diagnosed as staph infection but later found to be the colitis infecting her from the inside out. Dillard was run down, hurting badly and letting the stress of that and her semester cause a vicious cycle.

She went home for Memorial Day weekend intending just to rest, recuperate and return to Plainview. That didn’t happen. Her parents kept her in Lubbock to rest up, not knowing the full extent of her illness. Then on the morning of June 14, she woke up with pain in her rib cage, troubled breathing and difficulty getting out of the chair. A trip to the emergency room uncovered serious health issues, and Dillard underwent emergency surgery the next day to remove the infected colon.

But her long journey was just beginning. Complications due to bleeding and swelling in the small intestine meant a series of surgeries ahead, and fluid retention was causing problems too. In addition, the loss of blood meant regular transfusions and other complications.

The medical staff at University Medical Center had to intentionally paralyze Dillard during the procedures to keep her body still, and she gained 60 pounds in two days due to the fluid retention. Due to her weakened lungs, she was on a ventilator for eight days, the same amount of time she spent in surgical ICU.

“After my second surgery, one of the doctors gave me a 50-50 chance of surviving. My body was just shutting down,” she said. “They said the next few hours and the next surgery was critical. So everyone just started praying for me.”

Dillard said the ICU waiting room was constantly full of family, friends and church members both from her home church and her Plainview church, Harvest Christian Fellowship, and many of her Wayland friends from the area. Since visiting hours were limited to certain times, the group would often sing praise music and pray in the waiting room between opportunities to see Dillard, though she was unconscious during most of her stay in SICU. Friends even brought a CD player and praise music to put in her room, hoping the music would subconsciously encourage the young woman who loves to sing praise. A few of the songs were Heather herself singing and playing guitar on her own compositions.

After eight days in ICU, Dillard was moved to a regular room to rehab and gain her strength back in order to go home. That lasted 17 days, and every day, she’d work with physical and occupational therapists in the hospital.

“I had to relearn to walk again. Since I was in a hospital bed for more than three weeks, I hadn’t used those muscles and had to retrain them,” she said, noting that doctors wanted her in a rehab hospital but her parents worked with her in order to strengthen her enough to skip that step.

“When I got home, I still had to hold onto things for a while. My balance was still off, and I’d get dizzy. But I was doing so much better than they thought I would be doing.”

Once back at home, Dillard’s walking practice continued, starting to the mailbox and back and eventually strengthening to the point where she could make it the two miles around her neighborhood.

Through the entire ordeal, Dillard said she never doubted she’d be back to Wayland in the fall, though her family was cautious about her pushing herself before she was physically able. She remembers the grueling nature of her rehabilitation but said she kept the goal in front of her of a return to somewhat normal routine – and that included school.

“I wanted to go back to school so badly all along, even when I was in the hospital. Mom kept telling me I might have to take a semester off, but I didn’t want to. We really didn’t make a final decision until two weeks before school started,” she said. “The surgeon felt that I would be OK, so that and missing my church family really motivated me to walk and do my exercises every day so I could be strong enough to come back. I wanted to so badly.”

Dillard returned in the fall with her twin sister, Hannah, both of whom are part of the President’s Ambassadors team. Though being back in her second home was great, she admits she still struggled with feeling like she had lost a part of her life during that week she was unconscious and struggling to survive. But she is relying on her faith in God to provide peace and comfort from her experience.

“God just sort of revealed to me that I didn’t need to understand (what happened), just be thankful that I’m here. Part of what I’ve struggled with is pride, I guess, at trying to prove that I’m not an invalid and can do things. I got some resolution recently that it’s OK to rest and be still,” she said.

“One major thing I learned was in the hospital, when all I could do was listen to the praise music and look at the flowers on the window. That was my form of worship all that time; I didn’t have the energy to open my Bible or write in my journal. God just showed me that it was OK for me to like those things and be who I am.”

Though life resembles much of what it did previously, Dillard says she is learning a whole new routine physically and coming to terms with her limitations. She now wears an ileostomy bag that must be changed three times a day, and her energy level is lower.

“When I got back, I realized it was going to be harder than I thought. I get tired faster now and easier, so I have to work in naps before my night classes and make myself rest more,” she said. “It’s hard for me to say no to things, and I need to be around people, but I’ve had to learn to adjust to this. It’s a season of rest for me, just learning to relax.”

Dillard plans to graduate in May 2009 and pursue the master’s degree in counseling at Wayland. She would like to work as a counselor, ministering to teen girls or other medical patients who have endured trauma as she has.