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"I Do" in the ICU

June 01, 2018

Colleen and Mick as husband and wife moments after saying “I Do” in the ICU.

Colleen Lyons and Mick Popowcer had been engaged so long, at least eight years, that he’d bought her two engagement rings.

“You think you have all the time in the world,” she said.

But then her lungs got worse. Much worse. So they went to get a marriage license.

“I thought the walk around City Hall would kill me,” said Colleen, 58.

The license only was good for 60 days, and she wasn’t going back to get another. They figured they better use it.

But not like this.

Colleen suffers from pulmonary hypertension, brought on by another disease, scleroderma. That autoimmune disease is often triggered by stress. She got it in Kuwait, in 2010, when she spent five months there on deployment as a civilian with the Department of Defense.

Colleen, who lives with Mick in Mayfair, had been seeing doctors at another hospital, but nobody seemed to take ownership of her declining condition or have any remedy. “I couldn’t breathe,” she said. “They gave me steroids and sent me home. Told me to follow up with a cardiologist and pulmonologist, but I couldn’t get an appointment for two months.”

The arteries in her lungs were closing, the blood pressure soaring, and her heart failing.

Finally, her primary care doctor suggested she see Dr. Gerard Criner, who runs the Temple Lung Center.

He admitted her to the hospital.

“I was thrilled,” she said. “They had a plan, and they were so proactive here.”

The doctors explained the gravity of her situation. They were going to try one medication, Remodulin, to keep the arteries in her lungs from closing.

But there were so many risks, and she was so sick she was moved into the ICU.

“I really thought this was it,” she said.

Colleen had already introduced Mick to everyone in the hospital as her husband, because she knew he’d have to step up and make decisions about her health.

But she wanted to make it official. She loved him. He loved her. “And I didn’t want to leave him in a legal mess,” she said. There were insurance policies, home ownership, other property to think about.

“Why not just call the reverend now?” she said to Mick.

It was Mothers Day. The reverend came to the ICU, pulled the curtain shut.

No friends or family. No flowers. The only music was the beeping of machines.

The service was short.

They both said, “I do.”

The minister, Harry Armstrong, took a photo of husband and wife. Colleen held up the marriage license to cover the tubes running into her neck, and to hide the blood on the pillow.

“I was feeling not so good,” she said. “It was a happy day. It made me rest a little easier.”

The medicine started working, and she began to feel better. She moved after a couple days to the sixth floor, and went home May 23. She needs permanently to wear a microinfusion pump, about the size of a cell phone, and always carry a backup pump. The medicine continually is pumped into her body through a tube in her stomach.

Colleen and Mick are going to have another wedding ceremony in a friend’s back yard, with flowers and family, in early June.

She has two short-term goals.

The first is to walk her granddaughter down the Sea Isle City boardwalk. It is a summer ritual. Her doctors believe she can do it.

The second, if not by summer, perhaps by fall: Take her 600 pound Harley Davidson motorcycle out of the garage and see the world.

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Michael Vitez, winner of the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism at The Philadelphia Inquirer, is the director of narrative medicine at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University.