An Update on Pastor Neal's Mom

written by Neal Thornton, Senior Pastor (March 24, 2023)

Our world is full of sick people. The fall of man in the Garden of Genesis 3 introduced suffering as part of the human experience. Not only does our Lord know the depths of your pain, but in his providence he has given me a front row seat to watch my own loved one suffer well: my mom.

Many of you know the medical and physical struggles my mother, Vicki Thornton (67), has endured over her life. Recently, she has been in and out of the hospital for over 100 days since Thanksgiving. Many of you have loved ones with chronic illnesses. Some have passed away through much pain and struggle, still even some of you have first-person experience yourselves with a life of suffering. As I’m sure you have of your own, our family is quick to remind each other that her suffering is not in vain, that there awaits for her a new body. She daily serves us all by suffering well. What an example so many like her set for so many.

I’m a blessed son, and pastor. Not a Sunday goes by where someone does not approach me to ask “How’s your mom?” Through my time serving Coats Baptist as pastor, I have grown to know you as a very kind, tender and caring congregation. You are concerned about the needs of one another, of which I am a numbered beneficiary of your love. Thank you for asking and for praying, not just for my mother, but for my family at large. My wife, Ashley for example, has lost both of her grandfathers since our time with you. Again, your care for us, and for one another is exemplary and appreciated.


A Short Answer to a Hard Question

While I appreciate the thoughts, concerns and prayers, that question has been difficult for me and my family to answer over the years. What is more, on Sunday my mind and emotions are uniquely charged with the responsibilities of ministry, and therefore I all but dread (and struggle that I do) the well-intentioned question of so many, knowing that I have neither the time nor the bandwidth to supply a sufficient answer past, “I don’t know, but I think, ok. Thank you for your prayers.”

I want to supply a better answer, one that you and my mom deserve, but that I cannot give quickly, nor have the emotional capacity to give more than once a day in public. In short, my mother has been sick for many years. However, since November she’s been in a cycle of serious infections. As of last week, she is in hospitalized palliative care. In the space below I’ve attempted to give an adequate, yet concise summary of her condition for those who may desire to know her story in a more complete manner.

Thank you church family for your thoughts, prayers and ever present concern for my mom and our family. I know the Thorntons are only in the first steps of a road that many of you have walked. You too are precious to us.


History of Struggle

From her earliest struggles with IBS and rheumatoid arthritis, I’ve never known my mom to not suffer from some chronic illness. Early in my childhood my mom suffered a stroke, leaving her deaf in one ear and sparking multiple minor complications that would continue until present day.

She was diagnosed with Mixed Connective Muscle Tissue Disease (MCTD) in 2003 leaving her with chronic pain, more complications (from her Lupus, such as Shogrins) and a daily dependency of 30mg doctor-prescribed OxyContin. Still my mom walked our golf tournaments, worked a full time job (until 2019), and masked her pain until the day was done. She’s more than tough.

In January 2018, my mom had a bad bout of double bacterial pneumonia. She ended up with sepsis, was unconscious for two days, and was administered some of the strongest antibiotics made. That week-long hospital stay took a toll on her already weak kidneys. Fast forward three years, including one surgery to remove a tennis ball-sized thymoma and another to remove three-fourths of her parathyroid, and she found herself in stage 4 kidney failure.


A New Kidney

My mom began the difficult journey of dialysis three times a week in January 2021. Dialysis is hard on the body for any patient. But my mom’s veins are very brittle. She can almost never be stuck without using an ultrasound. Thus, she’s had a port in her chest for over ten years, and at the dawn of dialysis she was given a surgically installed synthetic manifold in her upper left arm. Recently she’s had a Groshong line, an IJ line and two PICC lines during her hospital stays.

Doctors placed her name on a kidney transplant list, hoping first to be accepted by a hospital, and second for a donor. In May of 2022 my mom got both. She received a kidney transplant at Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville, TN. A short timer on the list, for sure. The Lord was kind.

The new kidney added 17 daily medications to her current daily number. As any transplant patient knows, you become a walking pharmacy, of which my mom is the epitome. Medications, though necessary, have their own host of complications.

Complication. That seems to be the word that sums up my mom’s health. One of those complications is that since her kidney transplant, she has struggled with infections. She first suffered an infection while still hospitalized at Vanderbilt post-surgery. Though doctors could not identify its source, they were able to identify the infection and treat it effectively. (They were not sure if it was a “rider CMV” on the kidney that simply got out of control, or something else.) This whole time, doctors have not been able to locate where the infection is originating. They even removed and replaced her port to alleviate a possible source. However, their unfruitful search has been frustrating to the family, and discouraging to my mom. The suspicion is that her infection begins as a UTI or in the bladder and quickly spreads given her weak immune system.


A Cycle of Infections

To make a long story short, my mom has been on a repeated cycle of infection, hospital stays, antibiotic treatments, and multi-week visits to physical rehabilitation centers for over three months. With each cycle comes more complications including pulmonary, cardiac, circulatory, and cognitive issues.

The infection that was cleared at Vanderbilt in May returned on November 19, this time leaving her in the hospital until December 8. Her time there was also marked with acute pancreatitis, a blocked bowel, and a slightly inflamed new kidney, all while fighting the infection of an unknown source, leaving her with intense pain. Doctors prescribed everything from her standard OxyContin, to Morphine, Dilaudid and a Ketamine drip, while again on some of the strongest antibiotics on the market to treat the infection. Meanwhile she had two overdose scares where she had to be shot with Narcan (and then on a drip) to reverse the effects of the necessary narcotics. Shortly thereafter, she developed Chinooks breathing and spent time in the ICU on a BiPap machine along with necessary instrumentation for bodily waste, and continued antibiotics. She was eventually discharged to a local rehabilitation hospital on Dec. 8 and was home by Dec. 22. Our family was very glad to have her home for Christmas.

Down twenty pounds and very weak, she was trending positively until January 3 when the infection returned. She would spend the next 10 days in the hospital and return home on a ten day treatment of intravenous antibiotics.


Recent Hospitalizations

Mom had a fairly calm three weeks after her at home antibiotic treatment. I was able to see her just before her birthday on February 9. But then the following weekend, on Super Bowl Sunday afternoon (Feb. 12), severe chest pain set in prompting my dad to take her to the ER. (Mom suffers from Angina, and takes extended-released nitroglycerins on a fairly regular basis.) It was a cardiac false alarm, but doctors discovered that the infection was back and in her blood. She was nearly septic and didn’t know it (flashbacks from 2018 all over again). Doctors immediately began treating her with the same antibiotics (this was round three; four if you count Vanderbilt.) A long story shorter, after a few blood transfusions and her routine shots of Procrit, she was able to return to the same rehab facility where she was before.

But then, on March 5 there was suspicion of a fistula in her lower bowel, and she was back in the ER. What was thought to be was not, but the infection was back and again in her blood. Antibiotics again. (A footnote here: one cannot live on antibiotics. There is only so long before antibiotics have a negative return, and cause more issues than they seek to prevent. At the same time, my mom is now suffering from bedsores and is essentially bedridden.) On March 14 my mom’s heart became an issue. Her blood pressure and heart rate have always been a peripheral concern but all the more now. Doctors moved her to ICU once hypotension became the norm. On the early morning of March 15, mom had a severe, near fatal, bout with Afib. Her heart rate reached 185 for nearly 10 minutes while doctors shot her with three rounds of a fast acting drug to stabilize her heart, and then placed her on an Amiodarone drip. That’s when my dad called me and said “You need to come to Knoxville.” (My sister, Erika, lives in Starkville, MS where she works for Mississippi State University. She and I try to provide coverage as we can. She was there when I arrived. My dad, Sam (69), like my mom, is also tough.)

This past Friday morning we were given conflicting information. The Medical Critical Care team (in charge of the ICU) told us that my mom’s infection remained, and we needed to make decisions regarding palliative care. We’ve seen this day coming for a long time, surprised each Christmas that my mom is still with us. However, as of late with her cycles of infection, such a day has been all the more expected.

But then, at our request, mom’s infectious disease doctor came by with an update. Mom’s infection was gone. (The MCC team was looking at last week’s cultures as we expected.) In terms of infection, mom had completed her third cycle with her fourth hospital visit. The plan was to stabilize her Afib and move her to a general floor, which they did as of Sunday, March 19, and then back to rehab later this week.

Another cycle completed, but mom is weaker than ever. While in the early stages of palliative care at the hospital, our hope is for her to return to rehab.

Will she battle infection again? It is likely. She is a sick lady, with her condition becoming a little more dire with each setback. If mom turns south, will I be needed in Knoxville during the week to help my dad and cover with Erika? It’s likely, but time will tell. Lots of questions. The Lord knows.


Concluding Thoughts

So, you ask, “How’s your mom doing, Neal?” Now that you know more of her story, please understand my difficulty in answering your questions. While, dear reader, please trust I accept your questions and concerns with the utmost appreciation. For those who know me well, you know that I give anyone the liberty to ask me anything they want at any time. My life is an open book. However, there are times when certain questions weigh on me in a particularly unique fashion. Please ask, please pray. My sister, my dad and I do our best to keep my mom’s perspective in mind, that she’s the one in the hospital. The least we can do is be her advocate.

As many of you know, the caregiving road is hard. My dad, her husband, Sam Thornton, is the chief among advocates for my mom. He is a “Superman” of a caregiver. He has walked this long, multi-decade road with such faithfulness, strength and encouragement towards my mom. He is my standard for illustrating Ephesians 5:25, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” In sickness and in health. Yes dad, you have.

Many of you have sent cards to my parents over the years. Coats Baptist is their church away from home. (They are members of First Baptist Church Concord, in Knoxville.) If you would like to write, you may do so freely. I am sure they would love to know you are praying for them. Please contact me if you would like their contact information.

I will do my best to keep you updated as much as I can. For now, please pray for the Lord’s grace in whatever he has in store for the rest of my mom’s days. We know her times are in his hands (Psalm 31:15).