Faces of Wildwood is a new storytelling series in which we introduce you to the people who make up our church family.
Mary Lee Rouse
by Autumn Maxwell
Mary Lee is a cheerful, normal woman. You would never guess that a pig is keeping her alive. A few peeks into her home hints at this, as there are pig statuettes and memorabilia around her kitchen and the office we sit in, and she excitedly shows me a glass-encased pig valve.
A little valve just like that one repaired her heart after she had an ascending aorta aneurysm in 1981. She has had three open-heart surgeries in the last 36 years, and this was only the first. The night before the surgery was to take place, she was told that she had a 20% chance of living, but she was unconcerned.
“I knew that whatever happened, I would be fine. It never occurred to me, ‘oh my gosh, what if I die?’” She says with a shrug. She was more distressed that her pig valve would only last her seven years after all the work it took to put it in. After a 10-12 hour surgery, her valve went on to last her thirteen years- “which is why I love pigs so much!”
When those thirteen years passed, she had a husband, two daughters, the addition of two grandchildren, and after her second surgery, a mechanical heart valve. The mechanical valve was audible; if it was quiet enough, little metallic clicks could be heard emitting from her, and sadly, she wasn’t able to sneak up on her grandchildren anymore. These weren’t major adjustments; she never worried about her surgeries, and she always trusted God to either carry her through them or carry her to Heaven.
In July of 2014, Mary Lee went to a baseball game between the Toronto Blue Jays and Tampa Bay Rays with her husband in St. Petersburg. As fans of both baseball and free drink refills, they were having an excellent day.
“I went down for a refill, and as I climbed back up to our seats, I felt something right here.” She touches her sternum. “I climbed over some ladies and I felt it more, so once I got to my seat, I took a few deep breaths and it stopped. Whenever something like that happened, deep breaths usually stopped it. But I went down for another refill, and as I walked back up, the exact same thing happened. And I mean exact; I felt something here, and I climbed over the ladies again and felt it more, so when I sat back down, I took my pulse.”
She explained what happened to her husband and they returned to their hotel, where Mary Lee called Patients First and spoke to a nurse who knew her history to tell her about the situation and ask for her advice.
“I don’t know if I should be concerned or not.”
“Mary Lee, I’m not there and I’m concerned. You should go to the emergency room.”
The doctor she saw studied at Emory, where her other surgeries had taken place under the care of Dr. Jones. When Dr. Jones passed away, a man named Dr. Chen took over, and this was who Mary Lee’s doctor called when she arrived. Chen immediately had her flown to Emory on a medical plane, and upon her arrival, a room was ready for her.
In the days before the surgery, Dr. Chen explained the surgery to Mary Lee and her family. It was expected to be very complicated, because the mesh that was used to repair the aneurysm sprung a leak and a large portion of her heart now needed replacing with a pig’s. There was a high chance that she wouldn’t make it.
“I told them it was fine. I knew where I’d be going, and maybe they’d learn something from my situation.”
The surgery ended up lasting almost fifteen hours. As Mrs. Rouse explains the medical details of the process to me, I learn that a bypass machine is like a substitute heart that someone is hooked up to during open heart surgery. Most people undergoing serious heart surgeries are only put on it once or twice, but she was on it three times. Blood kept coming through the stitches, and it reached the point that Dr. Chen went downstairs to where the family was waiting to tell them that it didn’t look like she would make it.
She did, in fact, die momentarily. Mary Lee Rouse’s heart stopped beating. But this isn’t the part of the story she focuses on.
She finds other parts more important. Like the fact that her daughter, Debra, met a man on the hospital elevator and started friendly conversation, and no less than five minutes later, the same man came with Dr. Chen when he came to tell them that Mary Lee looked like she wouldn’t make it. He was a chaplain, and had been called to that floor to specifically come with Chen and be with her family.
“He noticed Debra and made a face kind of like, ‘Oh, I know you!’” Mary Lee laughs.
She focuses on her husband, Ken: “If ever I opened my eyes, he was right there; bless his heart. He didn’t budge after the surgery.” He told a nurse friend later that she was hooked up to every machine possible; you couldn’t walk around the ICU room for all the wires and tubes in the way. After the surgery was complete, they hadn’t closed her up yet because of how many unexpected issues had arisen, so they just covered her up with plastic. It sounds sentimental to say that a husband has seen his wife’s heart, but in Ken Rouse’s case, this is quite true.
She likes to think about the words people said to her weeks later. Such as when Dr. Chen came to visit the family and said, “She’s such a miracle. Never before have I told a family that someone was going to make it after I told them the person wasn’t going to.”
Or the man with dreadlocks at her first visit for dialysis, wearing scrubs and a huge smile: “You look so beautiful. If anyone read those doctor’s notes, there is no way they couldn’t believe in Jesus Christ.”
Or how during her respiratory therapy, Mary Lee shared her story with an older woman who had a teenage boy accompanying her. Afterwards, the woman remarked, “Boy, you really have a testimony!”
Mary Lee was puzzled. “But I thought your testimony is when you first discover Christ is real?”
“No, it can be anywhere you see God.”
The exchange was small, but as the woman left, the boy, who had been silent the whole time, turned to Mary Lee and simply said, “Thank you.”
As she ponders her life as a whole, she says, “I thank God, actually every day, sometimes a couple times a day for the doctors and medical staff and my family. I just talk to God all the time! I always thank [Him] for things, but I’ve only ever asked [Him] for something twice. He answered my prayers, but not in the way I expected. The bottom line for me is always, ‘Your will be done.’…I had a silent stroke that took my peripheral vision, but I don’t mind not being able to drive! I don’t mind my scars! I don’t look at them and think they’re ugly; I thank God for bringing me through so much.”
Mary Lee gives all the credit to God. She even called me after our meeting to make sure she had mentioned that her situation was all by the grace of God, not any strength or deservingness on her part. Before we said goodbye, she added, “I don’t know what my mission in life is, but I’m glad to be a comfort maybe to people who are going through open heart surgery.”
She may not realize what her mission is, but I think God has found ways to work through her anyway. He has taught her that “everyone you talk to is going to be a miracle, in some way or another. You never know who you’re surrounded by; there might be a situation around you that’s miraculous, but everyone is in some way or another.”
What I learned from Mary Lee is this: God has created all things miraculously and beautifully, and He works in and through everything, even the little, unassuming moments, things, and people.