Friday, February 21, 2014

Unlikely Friends

Fourteen years after a near-fatal illness, I find myself dealing with the long-term effects of my medical triumph: namely, really crappy joints. This morning, however, it’s not just my joints that ache. My heart aches too because, prohibited from air travel due to another recent surgery, I am unable to attend the memorial services for a man I respect deeply.

John Warner and I were unlikely friends. He, a soft-spoken mechanic and part-time farmer from rural Iowa who married at 24 and never moved from his home state. Me, a loud former corporate exec from New Jersey, who had no less than 22 different addresses in 3 different time zones before marrying at 35. To say we had disparate life experiences is an understatement. But we had common ground in one area, which was also the greatest challenge we both ever faced: the sudden onset of severe preeclampsia and HELLP Syndrome.

For me, it meant my body shutting down following the birth of my first (and only) child: organ failure, blood transfusions, unresponsive. For John, it meant watching as his daughter Shelly’s body shut down following the birth of her first (and only) child: organ failure, blood transfusions, unresponsive. For me, it meant 6 weeks in the ICU. For John, it meant only one week in the ICU because on the seventh day after Shelly delivered her baby girl, she slipped away. In gaining his first grandchild, my friend John had lost his first child.

That experience alone would send most of us into a permanent state of despair, angry at life’s cruelty and unable to ever discuss pregnancy again given its potential for horrific outcomes. But this is where John proved himself to be more than “most of us.” He took all that grief and heartache and channeled it into helping others avoid the fate his daughter encountered.

He hosted his first local fundraiser for the Preeclampsia Foundation the same year Shelly passed away and then presented a check at the foundation’s inaugural gala benefit months later in Minneapolis. That was the night our paths crossed for the first—but not the last—time. That was where we learned one another’s stories and discovered how much in common a quiet Iowa farmer and a loud professional speaker could have by virtue of one insidious and elusive disease.

John and I swapped contact information and it wasn’t long before he was recruiting me to give talks in his home state at educational preeclampsia events he’d organized. There was something about his demeanor—quiet yet determined—that made “yes” seem like the only possible response to his requests. By way of tragedy, this man, whose paid work hadn’t involved interfacing much with others, transformed into a volunteer networker, hell-bent on raising the level of awareness and understanding of the pregnancy-related condition that robbed him of his daughter when she was 25-years-young.

He continued to chair an annual charity walk to support the cause. He joined the board of the Preeclampsia Foundation, hosting their most recent annual gala this past October. And in conjunction with the University of Iowa Hospitals, he and his wife, Brenda, recently launched the Shelly Bridgewater Dreams Foundation, with the hope of continuing their work to save the lives of new moms and their babies.

John allowed nothing to keep him from moving forward, not even lost luggage. In 2008, his suitcase failed to arrive in Washington D.C., so he borrowed clothes from my 6’5” husband and showed up at the gala that evening with shirtsleeves that hung three inches below his finger tips.

Despite the havoc and sorrow attached to our shared cause, John and I managed to share many laughs over the years. He was the epitome of transforming heartbreak into hope. But in the end, it was his heart that gave out. As someone who seeks meaning and interpretation in all of life’s significant turns, I can’t help but wonder if John’s heart didn’t take its biggest hit that day in 2005 when Shelly died. And all the fundraisers and awareness events in the world couldn’t heal his broken heart. But they could—and will continue to—help countless mothers, sisters, wives, and newborns.

Thank you, John. You spent your time here well. Now go celebrate your achievements with Shelly. 

You will be missed, sir.

John with Shelly's Daughter, Hailey, at a Preeclampsia Fundraiser

The Shelly Bridgewater Dreams Foundation was one of John’s proudest accomplishments. If you’d like to support John’s legacy, please donate to the foundation here: