The Story

I Was One Breath From Death – Look What God Can Do!

Please note the story is available in book form with many pictures. See the link below.

“I can’t breathe!” “I can’t breathe!” I called out to my nurse in I.C.U. at University Hospital in Denver, Colorado on April 6, 2005. My lung had collapsed and was releasing air into my body, pushing air against my windpipe from inside my chest and choking me to death.

“I can’t breathe!”

My ICU nurse came into the room while he called for the doctors. Meanwhile, the air that was being released and choking me was also spreading throughout my body, causing the skin of my body to expand at a very rapid rate.

“I can’t breathe!” I was beginning to panic as a team of doctors assembled outside my room, trying to decide what to do.

“I can’t breathe!” Finally one doctor took control in the room and said, “I’ll prep him for a new chest tube. We have to release that pressure from his airway.”

“I can’t breathe!” It seemed like the last breath I had and then I heard, “Brace yourself” as Dr. Derek Linderman jammed a chest tube between my ribs that released the pressure inside and brought enough relief to my airway. Thankfully, what appeared to be my last breath was actually the beginning of new journey. I was not out of the woods because the air that was released was, I was told by the doctors, causing my body to expand five times. The nursing staff called me “Michelin Man” because I was swollen so much that I looked like the cartoon character used on the Michelin commercials.

What began as a procedure to find a reason for my severe respiratory problem was now a major event of recovery before we could move forward in the diagnosis and treatment of whatever was killing me. I was no stranger to facing struggles in life. I had completed fourteen Ironman Triathlon competitions, including the Ironman Triathlon World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, but this was going to be the toughest race of all.

My journey began a number of months earlier when I became very sick with an infection in my bronchial system. I went from completing the 140.6 miles of an Ironman triathlon in November to barely being able to walk across the room without being out of breath in December. Thankfully, my doctor Richard Feibelman had the boldness and humility to get me into National Jewish Medical Center in Denver, Colorado. By the time we left for Denver, I was very sick.  As I was about to find out when arriving in Denver, the race to the finish would include some major struggles, but God would see us through.

“We have to make you very sick before we can make you better.”

LEFT: Bob three days after his "near death" experience (April 6, 2005). RIGHT: Bob with Dr. Scott Worthen in Denver July, 2005 for his three-month checkup.

LEFT: Bob three days after his “near death” experience (April 6, 2005). RIGHT: Bob with Dr. Scott Worthen in Denver July, 2005 for his three-month checkup.

Healing sometimes requires pain of hitting the bottom before an answer can be found. Dr. Gwen Huitt and her team at NJMC implemented a very detailed plan of testing to find the cause while working at bringing the infection in my lungs under control. Originally, we were scheduled for two weeks at NJMC, but Dr. Huitt told us after just a few days to count on being there much longer because as she said, “we are going to have to make you very sick before we can make you better.”

We never anticipated such a struggle but as we and people throughout the world were praying, God was taking us to His solution to my problem. Several weeks of testing, procedures, surgeries, along with a drop in medications, allowed my body to hit what the doctors called the lowest point, at which time I was taken to University Hospital for a lung biopsy. They were hoping a piece of my lung would provide answers.

God answered prayer in the fact the lung biopsy surgery went according to plan and I was recovering on schedule the following day, looking forward to a step down room from I.C.U. before returning to National Jewish Medical Center. We were confident the biopsy would provide the answers that would allow Dr. Huitt to diagnose the problem, and soon I would begin treatment and head home to Florida. God had a different plan, however, and our confidence in Him meant we were ready for the next big event on the journey to being healed.

The day after surgery, the chest tube that used to keep my lung inflated was removed. I must have coughed which released the staple in my lung causing it to collapse. At first it felt like I had a muscle spasm in my back, but within an hour I was calling for my nurse because my lung was releasing air at such a rapid rate that it was pushing upward on my windpipe and I was struggling to breathe.

Once my “one breath from death” scenario played out and the second chest tube was inserted, the team of doctors began a process to stabilize me and prepare me for a long journey of dealing with the large amount of air that spread throughout my body. The doctors marveled that I made it through the “blow up” experience, attributing it to my Ironman background, physically and mentally. Jan, my beloved wife of 31 years who stood with me just as the marriage vows state in sickness and in health, and I knew it was an answer to prayer that made the difference.

For the next ten days, my time in the I.C.U. of University Hospital was more than recovery from the collapsed lung and the swelling from air under my skin. It was a time that God proved Himself to be faithful, as we both found His strength in our weakness and helplessness, and the power of prayer and gratitude. Once I was able to open my eyes, I began to update my on-line journal. It was three days before I realized how much I had swollen. I had written my first update since the “blow-up” and wanted to include a picture so I asked Jan to snap a couple of digital photos. When I loaded them into the computer, I couldn’t believe what I saw. “You looked much worse than that,” Jan assured me. I was almost afraid to put it on-line without a warning to avoid the pictures if you have a weak stomach. Daily updates with pictures, however, became encouraging for regular readers, of which the number grew daily, as well as for me in the therapy of writing the update with gratitude in mind for God’s faithfulness. In fact, the power of gratitude for God’s faithfulness as well as for the little things He was providing via the many people He placed in our lives (healthcare workers, friends, family, and a multitude of people who called and emailed) encouraged us.

Looking back, I could see how God actually prepared me for this journey. I had learned the value of an attitude of gratitude in my Ironman competitions. Many times when the going got tough on the course, I found I was able to overcome by focusing on things for which I was thankful. I had read that gratitude is the most powerful emotion and found being thankful not only encourages yourself and others, but also gives a new sense of power and strength. Somehow, God helped me apply the power of gratitude throughout this journey, even when I was sedated. Expressions of gratitude for the least little thing did more than show appreciation and attract extra consideration from people throughout my journey of recovery, it also opened a floodgate of God’s power and strength in my life.

The ten days in I.C.U. proved to be more than recovery and lessons learned, it gave the pathologists time to study my lung tissue. However, when we returned to National Jewish Medical Center, we were greeted by Dr. Gwen Huitt who said she and a team of doctors who studied my tissue were not able to come up with anything definite that was wrong with me. She said, however, she was turning my case over to Dr. Scott Worthen who is not only a good doctor but a noted scientist. The next morning, Dr. Worthen came to our room to tell us he had come to the conclusion that I had rare disease called Diffuse Pan Bronchialitis. He described the condition and a treatment plan that turned the entire journey through the valley to a journey of hope.

After a week of treatment, we finally were able to return to Florida. It was quite a shock to return home with supplemental oxygen, a PICC line in my arm for IV antibiotics, and a multitude of medications, but I was grateful to be going home. God had answered prayer, seeing me through the darkest valley when I was “one breath from death” but He was not through answering prayer. I made such good progress in the next three months that when I returned to Denver for a follow-up visit, Dr. Worthen and Dr. Huitt used words like “amazing” and “remarkable” to describe my progress. Another trip to see Dr. Worthen in December brought more words from him and others about the progress I was showing.

It’s been nine years now and I have completed five more Ironman triathlons and continue to ride my bicycle and exercise regularly since as the doctors say it keeps my airways open.  Considering the rare lung disease I have normally takes the life of the individual with the disease in their early 50’s, I am a living testimony to the grace of God, having turned 60 in March of 2013. Despite the fact that my lung function is only 80 percent, my current pulmonologist is quite astounded because it should be much lower and on the decrease, but God is in control and I am grateful that my lung function has held steady for several years

As a person who has seen God work in my life and answer prayer, I face each day on ready to tell my story to anyone who will listen. I like to share my story of hope with everyone because if I was “one breath from death”, and you can see what God can do for me – just think of what He can do for you!

– Bob Brubaker

Please note the story is available in book form with many pictures. Click on the image for details.book-one breath