Watch Heather Bland's amazing story Friday on "20/20" at 10 p.m. ET.
When the Louisville Metro Police patrolman flipped on his blue lights and whipped his cruiser in a U turn from the west to the eastbound lane of Interstate 64 in the pre-dawn darkness of a crisp Sunday morning in September, 2005, he was certain he had a live one. He wouldn't have cut twin tire tracks across the wet grass in the median for just anything -- but he had just watched the driver of a silver Jeep pull to a stop in the emergency lane on the other side of the road, stagger out of the vehicle and begin violently throwing up. The officer called it in.
"Suspected DUI, eastbound I64 one mile west of the Cannon's Lane exit," he told the dispatcher as his patrol car bounced up out of the median onto the pavement. Pulling up behind the Jeep, which wasn't even completely off the road out of the lane of traffic, he flicked his headlights on high beam to better illuminate the license plate, and read off the numbers into his hand-held mike. Then he waited, watching the tall, dark-haired woman heave uncontrollably, holding onto the driver's side door for support.
The response came back in less than a minute.
The 1998 Jeep Cherokee Jefferson County, Kentucky license plate number 871 Adam Charlie Baker, was registered to a 36-year-old white female, the dispatcher told him. No priors, no warrants, no outstanding tickets. The owner's name was Heather Bland.
I had seen him coming. When I spotted the cruiser on the other side of the interstate, I knew he'd be all over me. They always were -- particularly on a Sunday morning.
Please, God, let this one be a nice guy, I pleaded silently.
I gathered as much strength as I could muster and stood up straight as he walked up to me. I think I even managed a smile. It was a shaky smile, but it was the best I could do.
"Closed down the bar at Coyote's, did ya, " the officer said. It was a statement not a question.
"No sir," I replied courteously. "I didn't go to a bar last night. I don't drink. I went …"
He didn't let me finish.
"I need to see your driver's license, registration and proof of insurance, please," he said.
I tried to comply. I was able to get the registration and insurance card out of the glove box, but I was still fumbling in my purse for my wallet when another round of nausea seized me. I had just enough time to sweep my hair back out of my face before the noxious, foul-smelling stream of stomach bile and old blood spewed out of my mouth onto the pavement, setting the ulcers in my throat and on my gums aflame in a dozen points of searing pain -- and splattering on the policeman's shoes.
"I am sooo sorry … !" I began breathlessly when the reflexive gagging finally let up. "I didn't mean to …"
"Ma'am, I need you to step away from the vehicle, please," he said tightly, all business. "And I want you to hold your arms straight out to the sides, shoulder high …"
Oh no, not a sobriety test. Not now!
"… tilt your head back, close your eyes and touch your right index finger to the tip of your nose … can you do that for me, please?" I gathered all the strength I could muster and looked the officer dead in the eye.
"No, I can't do that," I said firmly. "I can't lean my head back and close my eyes. It will just make me more nauseous. I'm not drunk; I'm sick."
I could tell the officer wasn't buying.
"What's wrong with you?" he asked, and the hint of sarcasm in his words hit my spirit like a drip of water in hot grease.
For one brief, wild moment, I ached to tell him exactly what was wrong with me, all of it, to spew the whole story out at him like I'd spewed vomit all over his shoes.
"You want to know what's wrong with me?" I shrieked at him in my head. "Ok, I'll tell you! I fell out of a car and my mother ran over me when I was 4 years old and I've been operated on 187 times in the past 32 years. Sixty-three of those surgeries lasted more than 12 hours, two of them took more than 20, and during one of them I woke up while they were cutting me open. I've died on the operating table … what? half a dozen times, maybe -- I've long since lost count of exactly how many. And of how many documented medical miracles I've racked up -- 12 or 13 at least. I owe more than $1.5 million in medical debt. And right now I'm being eaten alive!"
But I grabbed hold of the angry words before they lunged out my mouth, and let the rage blow through me like a squall across a lake. Then the phrase showed up, as it always did eventually, on the projector screen of my mind. The old phrase, as worn as a tattered house shoe, was comforting somehow just because it was familiar, because it had defined my response to reality every day that I could remember: Just suck it up and go on. I half-smiled at the phrase. My mother must have said those words to me a thousand times. Self pity simply was not an option. Mom never once allowed me to throw a poor-Heather party.
"I haven't been to a bar," I said politely, trying to sound calm, reasonable and rational as I struggled fiercely to keep the nausea at bay. "I've been at the hospital all night."
I considered pulling up my sleeve to show him the recent IV punctures, but thought better of it. One look at the needle tracks on my arms and I'd never be able to convince him I wasn't a junkie. Instead, I felt around in the pocket of my sweat pants.
"Here's the stub from the parking garage," I said, handing it to him. "I take treatments that make me very, very sick. You can call the garage and the parking attendant will tell you I just left there. You have to talk kind of loud. He's an old guy and he's a little hard of hearing. He'll remember me, though. I'm there every night. Just tell him you want to know about the sassy lady who always teases him about his Yankee accent."
The policeman looked at the ticket for a moment, then turned and strode back to his cruiser. As soon as he was out of splatter range, I let fly again, retching until tears from the violent heaving spilled down my cheeks. I was no longer just throwing up old blood. Most of what came streaming out my mouth was light, not dark, red. When I finished gagging, I leaned back against the Jeep weak and breathless.
The officer would check out my story and find out it was true. Maybe he'd offer to escort me home. Twice, other policemen had done that when they found me sick on the side of the road. In fact, a team of officers found me on the other side of the I64 tunnel and one of them actually got in my Jeep and drove me home while his partner followed. Nice guys. Those cops were really nice guys. I got sick once more -- vomiting nothing but fresh, bright red blood. At that rate, I knew I'd soon need another transfusion, and I'd already gone through 12 pints of blood and two of platelets -- just in the past two weeks. Then I raised my head to find the policeman standing beside me. He held out something to me and I took it, thinking it was the parking stub. It wasn't. It was a traffic ticket.
"Your vehicle isn't pulled properly off the road into the emergency lane," the officer said. "Your court date is October 9, in traffic court. That's in the courthouse downtown. Or you can mail in the ticket with a check to the Jefferson County Circuit Clerk's office. Just make sure they get your payment before your court date. The fine's on the citation."
I looked down at the ticket, dumfounded. It took me a moment to locate the amount. Two hundred and fifty dollars!
"You need to move your car, Ma'am," the officer told me, and before I could say a word, he turned on his heel and marched back to his patrol car. He called out something to me as he got into the cruiser, but the whooshing roar of a passing truck blew his words away. All I caught was " … and turn on your flashers."
I stumbled into the driver's seat, turned the key and pulled the Jeep forward about 10 feet -- all the way into the emergency lane. I flicked the switch that set the twin red lights on the back blinking furiously. The officer turned off his blue lights, pulled around me and drove away, leaving me there alone in the darkness on the side of the road.
I opened the Jeep door and dry-heaved, then pulled the door closed and put my head down on the steering wheel in utter exhaustion. Two hundred fifty dollars! Where on earth could I come up with that kind of money? And for what? Because my back tire was six inches over the white line? What kind of heartless robot gives out tickets to sick people? I guess if I'd been dead, he'd have arrested me. I was furious! And tired, so very, very tired. Suddenly, I felt myself teetering on the edge of collapsing in a sobbing heap. But I refused to give in to the wave of emotion. I sat there for a time -- five minutes? half an hour? -- nausea making my head swim. Then slowly, deliberately, I shook off the trembling and steadied myself, summoning strength from some deep reservoir of faith -- as I had done so often over the years.
"My life should come with a warning label," I whispered grimly. "Don't try this at home!"
Hey, that was pretty good, I thought, and in spite of myself the tiny bud of a smile popped into bloom on my face. Joy. That's right, find the joy! Focus on the joy.
The words worked their magic and I began to relax, settling back into the worn, leather seat. Every day of my life, God had given me a treasure beyond price -- a joy so sweet and tender that it soothed my soul like warm breath on cold fingers.
I thought of DeWayne. With the image of his face, I let out a slow sigh and a genuine, though trembling, smile blossomed beneath the streaks of tears. DeWayne, my rock of support. The man who loved me unconditionally, not in spite of the scars and bags but because "they give you your heart, Baby." If I concentrated, I could almost feel the warmth of his long arms, cuddling me close. He always slept better if he was touching me. I'd had to ease myself carefully out of his grasp that morning, sliding a pillow into his arms in my place to keep from waking him.
My routine was the same every morning, had been the same for almost six months.
The insistent beep-beep-beep of the alarm clock jarred me from a shallow, uneasy sleep at 2:30 a.m. My first waking thought was always the same. A simple prayer: please let them get the needle in today -- first try. Please, no digging … no digging!
In the semi-darkness of our bedroom, I turned the oscillating fan full force on my sleeping husband and staggered bleary-eyed to the bathroom. Though the pain was there almost every day of my life, it was still jarring to wake up to it. It seemed worse, somehow, in the vulnerability of sleepiness, before I could summon the will to relegate it to the special place in my mind I created for it years before, where its presence simply was not acknowledged.
But in the early morning, I experienced my pain. I hurt. The usual suspects always showed up the moment I opened my eyes. Abdominal pain in the mother of all incisions -- an 18-inch zipper of rubberized scar tissue from the back of my pelvis to my sternum -- aching in the tangled labyrinth of old adhesions and in the half dozen hernias in the wire mesh that served as my abdominal wall and muscles.
Oh, I could do something about the pain if I wanted to. There were drugs that would make it all go away. But I wouldn't take daily doses of heavy duty pain meds! Period. No discussion. For one thing, it would require a dosage big enough to fell an elephant to put a dent in my discomfort. My body's resistance to pain medication -- and to anesthesia -- was legendary among the army of medical professionals who had cared for me in the three decades since an accident in 1973 "exploded" most of my internal organs. Percoset. Delaudid. Morphine. Darvocet. Vicadin. Two milligrams of any of them would launch the average person into La La Land. I required 15 to 18 milligrams just to take the edge off, more than that for any real relief. What I needed would kill most people.
And it wasn't just that they'd have to funnel pain meds into me through a fire hose. There was a more important reason why I refused drugs, a reality I held to with ferocious determination. I had a life! I had a daughter to raise, a husband to care for, meals to cook, a house to clean. I went to church, coached cheerleading and tutored special students. I couldn't do any of those things as a drugged-out zombie. I'd rather hurt.
But this new pain …
A cold fear snaked into my belly, curled up and began to gnaw at my insides like a lazy rat. I was not yet awake enough to banish it, and my fever must have risen during the night -- probably to 103, maybe higher -- leaving me weak and vulnerable.
I've always been healthy! I cried out in silent defiance. Injured, but healthy. I was hurt, not sick.
And God brought be through it, beat the odds, proved them wrong -- every time! If I had a nickel for every time a doctor has told me I wouldn't make it, I'd have enough money to … I stopped short in mid-rant, then completed the thought--sans defiance. …enough money to pay for medicine to keep me alive.
Standing on the cold tile of the bathroom floor, I unwillingly catalogued the new pain. My lungs hurt. My stomach hurt. My head hurt -- from lack of sleep and fever. My kidneys hurt. My bowels hurt.
And the sores…
I slipped the oversized t-shirt I slept in over my head and turned on the tap to run a bath. As warm water filled the tub, I faced the full-length mirror on the back of the bathroom door and surveyed the open ulcers on my body.
My buttocks were covered with oozing lesions -- from infection expelled during violent bouts of diarrhea. New sores had formed under my arms during the night -- from infection in my perspiration. There were ulcers in every orifice of my body -- my mouth, nose, ears, rectum and vagina, and all around the port for the urostomy bag that collected my urine.
I stepped into the tub and sat down gingerly, the warm water stinging like wasp bites in dozens of places. And in the stillness, a single word began to ring in my head like some idiotic Chinese gong, keeping rhythm with the thudding pain of my headache, louder and louder until I wondered why the sound didn't awaken my husband.
Finally, I expelled the word from my mind into the room, speaking it in a hushed, almost quizzical whisper.
"Staph," I said softly, with a degree of incredulity still, even after all these months. "I have a Staph infection that's eating me alive."
I picked up a big sponge, squirted sweet-smelling liquid soap onto it from a bottle on the edge of the tub, and began to lather my arms and chest, determined not to allow my mind to download images of the other people with Staph who had begun taking the experimental German drug the same time I did that spring. People who had learned each other's life stories during the hours we spent together as the drug dripped slowly through IV tubes into our arms. There had been eight of us … but that was seven funerals ago.
And I struggled not to hear the doctors' voices. But I was just too tired. The tapes of their dire predictions turned on in my head and began to play whether I liked it or not.
Heather, you and DeWayne need to liquidate everything you have, travel around the country with Mackenzie and enjoy yourselves this summer. You won't be here in September.
Heather, we're denying your request to become a part of our drug study because it is the belief of the doctors here at Johns Hopkins that we wouldn't have a good result with you. You're just too far gone.
Heather, I don't have any idea what it will do to you to double the dose of this medication. It's an experimental drug, all bets are off. Nobody else in the world has ever taken doses this high. But then nobody else on earth is up walking around with Staph in every major organ of their body, either. I'll sign off on the medicine because I don't see what we have to lose. The drug may kill you. But if you stop taking it, the Staph most certainly will.
Double the dosage. The words sent a chill down my spine. Oh, not because I feared the physical consequences. That I could handle. I could take it. Bring it on. I'd seen worse. I was not afraid of the toll the strange concoction would take on my body. On the contrary, I welcomed the additional medication -- because I believed it would work. I believed I was about to log yet another medical miracle, to add to the list of more than a dozen I had racked up over the years.
The trouble was, double the dosage meant double the expense. A month's supply of medicine, mailed to me from Germany, cost $4,200. Where were DeWayne and I going to get $8,400 to pay for twice as much every month? And that was in addition to normal monthly medical expenses--$2,200 for medication and $250 for urostomy supplies. The grand total was so staggering I couldn't fit it into my head without pieces of it hanging out my ears. So I stopped trying.
Instead, I softly recited the words that had become a mantra in the past six months, words that calmed me and granted me peace, words I believed as confidently as I believed in sunrise on Easter Sunday morning: God didn't get me this far to let me die from a Staph infection! I stood up, stepped out of the tub and dried off carefully, gently patting my skin dry around the oozing sores. Then I took stock of my urostomy. Doctors had built a stoma in my side when I was 26, surgically implanting a permanent tube that drained urine into a bag taped to my stomach.
What a battle that had been!
I had fought so hard against it. More than anything else in the world, I had wanted to be normal, "regular." As a kid, I underwent one surgical procedure after another -- not just to repair the damage done to my body when my mother ran over me, but to rebuild my internal organs. Surgeon after surgeon tried to reconstruct the bladder and ureters that had exploded when the tire of the Dodge Charger crushed my belly. The surgeons honestly believed they could fix me; I had to give them that. And I had egged them on. More than half of the 187 surgeries I had undergone were attempts to rebuild organs that no longer existed. Failed attempts.
I remember the disappointment and the outrage I felt when I was finally forced to face the undeniable truth. There was no way to recreate the organs that had been destroyed. It just wasn't possible. I'd have to have a permanent urostomy and wear a bag for the rest of my life. It was perhaps the hardest adjustment I ever had to make -- in a lifetime full of extraordinary adjustments.
It took time, lots of tears, lots of anger, lots of prayer, before I came to accept the bag as a simple fact of life, not the end-all evil of existence I thought it was when I was young.
But that morning I had other issues with the urostomy, issues plainly visible in the mirror on the back of the bathroom door. The urostomy had collapsed into my abdomen. I wasn't surprised. I'd seen it coming. For months, I had been postponing surgery to repair the stomas -- holes -- in the wire mesh surgeons used to replace the abdominal wall and muscle structure of my belly. Without a solid base to hold to, the urostomy was bound to cave in eventually. Bad as the collapse was, I couldn't have surgery to fix it. I couldn't have surgery period, for any reason. If doctors cut into my abdomen, the Staph infection would get into my bloodstream and I'd be dead in minutes. And this time when I died on the table, they wouldn't be able to shock me back.
I would just have to live with the stomas, the doctors had said. But I couldn't live with the collapsed urostomy. When it caved into my belly, the opening squeezed partially shut, and it was crimping the tubing that drained urine out of my kidneys—like standing on a garden hose. That would have to be fixed … somehow.
Meanwhile, I had a compound dilemma. Not only did I have a collapsed urostomy, I was out of urostomy supplies. I had none of the special tape that held the cohesive ring around the opening in place and kept it from leaking. I'd used the last I had the day before—but I hadn't told DeWayne about it. We needed groceries. And the cost of urostomy supplies, which used to run $250 a month, had almost doubled because the Staph kept my urostomy site constantly infected.
No tape. I sighed. There was nothing to do but use duct tape again. It wouldn't be the first time. I couldn't help smiling at the thought of adding mine to the ever-growing list of duct tape uses. Every good ole boy in Kentucky knew you could fix just about anything with duct tape -- from patching a flat tire to mending a broken putter. One of my nurses at Boston Children's Hospital when I was 16 told me her fiancé's friends had gotten him drunk at his bachelor's party and duct-taped him naked to a freeway exit sign.
I wondered if anybody ever thought of using duct tape on a urostomy. Maybe somebody would see humor in that, but I didn't. And I certainly wouldn't think it was funny when I had to peel the tape off to change the bag. Its super-stickiness would most likely take a layer of my skin with it, leaving behind a raw spot -- a perfect human petrie dish in which to grow Staph.
But there was nothing else to do, so I wrapped a bath towel around me and went downstairs to retrieve the roll of tape from the tool box in the storage closet under the stairs. Back in the bathroom, I taped my bag securely in place and then reached for my makeup. The face that stared back at me when I looked into the mirror above the sink was pale and wan. And tired. So very, very tired. I had trained myself to make do with four or five hours of sleep a night. Any idiot knew that wasn't enough, but it was all I had.
A little eyeliner, dark base makeup and blush so I wouldn't look so pale, and a swipe of lipstick later, I pulled on sweatpants and a sweatshirt and tiptoed into Mackenzie's bedroom, where I just stood for a few minutes, smiling down at her. What was it that made a sleeping kid so adorable?
With her flaxen blonde hair fanned out in a halo around her head on the pillow, Mackenzie bore no physical resemblance to me. Our resemblance ran below what you could see on the surface.
She's been through a lot for a 10-year-old, I thought.
Like me, Mackenzie had been a "hospital child." She had spent the first eight and a half months of her life in a children's ward, where doctor after doctor tried to figure out what was wrong with the baby whose birth almost killed me. Mackenzie wouldn't eat. She couldn't eat. She didn't know how to suck. She was fed through a feeding tube directly into her stomach until she was 3 years old. When Mackenzie was 7 -- tall, thin, all arms and legs, just like I had been at that age -- I learned that my only daughter had epilepsy.
Just last month, allergy doctors discovered that Mackenzie was also allergic to a boatload of everyday substances -- mold, dust, mildew. Her body's reaction to them was what caused the bouts of wheezing that so terrified her, and me. The inhalant steroids and bronchial dilators to control the symptoms would cost $400 a month once the samples the doctor had given her ran out. Where we'd find the money to pay for them was anybody's guess.
Mackenzie deserves a life where she's not afraid every day that her mommy's going to die, I thought, and the thought galvanized me. I quietly turned off the multicolored nightlight DeWayne had given her for her 10th birthday, pulled up the covers she had kicked off in her sleep, and kissed her tenderly on the forehead, silently mouthing: I love you.
When I pulled the front door quietly shut behind me and stepped out into the cool, crisp darkness I was in my zone -- the emotional, psychological and to some extent physical space from which I could accept and cope with whatever medical procedure I had to endure. It was a profoundly spiritual space, too, where I turned every element of my life over to God, and rested safe in his sovereignty. I climbed into my silver Jeep. It had logged 160,000 miles before the odometer broke, and its exhaust system was held together with my every versatile friend -- duct tape! The Jeep had carried me downtown for my Staph infection treatments every morning for so long it could just about find the hospital all by itself. As its tired engine rattled to life, I allowed myself only one thought. The usual thought. A simple prayer: Please let them get the needle in today -- first try! Please, no digging … no digging.