From the May 11, 2017 print edition
By Ken McCanless
After an amazing medical odyssey through various hospitals in the Bay Area and Humboldt County that left him struggling to recall two to three months of his life, and stationed in multiple facilities for a total of 19 months and ten days, 33-year Ferndale resident Tom Eastman, 73, has returned home.
Most recently, in the sixth facility that he visited — Jerold Phelps Hospital in Garberville — Eastman walked out seven months to the day after he arrived, and as he told The Enterprise through tears, he was glad to be back in Ferndale.
Self-sufficient now, walking with the aid of a cane at his home with his wife Maura and daughter Amy, Eastman said to “put down that in a month or two I’ll be out there driving around and going down for breakfast to Poppa Joe’s.”
Eastman told The Enterprise, in recounting his multiple brushes with death and the months of arduous rehabilitation that followed, that “my emotions are shot; it’s similar to PTSD with what I’ve been through—almost like coming back from a war.”
Eastman’s medical journey began one night in September of 2015 when he lost all strength while sitting in his chair and the Ferndale Fire Department had an ambulance take him to the emergency room at Redwood Memorial Hospital with a diagnosis of sepsis, blood poisoning, with cause unknown. He was then sent to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Eureka where they had a bed for him, and he stayed there approximately a month and a half. He endured a tracheotomy, which he called horrible, and which caused him to be flown down to Kentfield SNF, where he nearly died of a twisted bowel. Unsatisfied with his care there, Eastman’s wife checked around and found California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, which is part of the Sutter health group. Eastman was transferred there to intensive care and stabilized temporarily, but again nearly met his end, with the hospital telling his wife and daughter that he may not make it. Eastman said that he remembered nothing of the several-month experience from admission to Redwood Memorial to California Pacific.
Finally on the road to recovery and conscious again, Eastman was sent to the smaller facility of St. Luke’s in the Mission District of San Francisco, where he spent a total of ten months and had five operations, completely losing all strength in his muscles and spending much of his time in what he calls a state of near solitary confinement, only seeing nurses and their aides.
Next, the family faced the challenge of finding a place that would take Eastman in his weakened condition, during the time period when Humboldt County was facing the attempted shutdown of many skilled nursing facilities. Finally, an emotional Eastman said, his wife called down to Garberville, “and that’s how she got a hold of Judy Gallagher (director of patient services), on her fifth day on the job. If she hadn’t have got a hold of her, I wouldn’t have gotten in there either. It took about two to three weeks to get all the approvals and everything, and then I was sent up there.” Eastman spoke glowingly of the physical therapy program at Jerold Phelps, where he did physical therapy five days a week, twice a day, saying they got him up and walking when he was told he would never walk again.
“They have a great group,” said Eastman. “Judy’s the one that pulled the strings that got me in there. If it hadn’t been for her, I wouldn’t have been there. I would’ve been in a rest home in Oakland… nobody thought I’d ever walk again; they thought I’d be a vegetable. Well, I showed them. The physical therapy program down in Garberville was great.”
Eastman speaks of one day soon driving, and even potentially finding a part-time job.
“I’m too young to retire,” he says. “I was still working when I got sick.” Eastman, who after owning and operating Fortuna Nursery from 1983 to 1995, worked in industrial sales for tools and supplies for the timber industry, says he was forced to retire once his job found out about his illness.
Gallagher, for her part, was especially impressed with Eastman, saying, “He really progressed when he got to us.” She said that after his wife had found all the skilled nursing facilities in Eureka full, one of the last calls she made was to Jerold Phelps, which had a bed for him.
“When he first came here, he was very weak. He had no strength in his legs whatsoever, and he couldn’t bear weight at all,” said Gallagher, who related that within a month, with vigilant effort from the physical therapy department and Eastman performing his exercises, he was bearing weight. “It’s like a little family here; you don’t get left out of anything because we’re so small, and we have the opportunity to give patients that one-on-one care that they might not get at a bigger place . . . he really blossomed with the care and attention that he got from our pt department plus all the nursing staff and nursing assistants that cared for him on a daily basis. And he himself is a very determined man. He is very stubborn, and he wanted to walk.”
Gallagher said she used to tease Eastman, calling him “the guy with nine lives,” and saying that his particular determination made all the difference.
Amy Eastman, Tom’s daughter, said that her father making his way home “was definitely something that we did not necessarily know would happen throughout this journey because things were pretty interesting for quite awhile, and so we weren’t sure that that was going to be the end product. We’re just really excited to have him back, and we know how important that is to him.
“It’s incredible the things you learn to deal with,” said Amy Eastman, “and just how many caring people there are in the health profession, and what a priceless gift they provide to so many people, and the number of people who have helped him throughout this 19-month excursion is pretty mind-blowing.”
“I could have given up many times,” said Tom Eastman. He didn’t, and Ferndale is the richer for it.