Spending summer in the hospital has family counting Thanksgiving blessings
Troy and Tricia Bartels stand with their children, (left to right) Callum, Hollis, Josie and Aspyn. Among the six of them the family spent 56 days in the hospital this past summer.

When settling on things to be thankful for, people often put family and health at the top of their list. These are blessings many take for granted. That is not the case for Troy and Tricia Bartels.

As they sit down for Thanksgiving dinner this year, a prayer of thanks for health and family will come with the heartfelt realization of knowing how easily those things can vanish.

This past summer the family battled against E. coli, a bacteria that can affect the digestive tract. At the end of the battle the family had grown by one, and between four children and a birth they had logged 56 days in the hospital.


First came one child’s stomach cramps

The summer started with T-ball and softball games and Tricia’s growing belly.

The day after Callum, their middle child, turned 5 he started having stomach cramps.

Tricia remembers him “screaming for days with cramps and pain.”

On June 14 he was admitted to the hospital. Once diagnosed with E. coli there was little doctors could do other than keep him hydrated through IV fluids.

During this time, fluid built up in his body. Troy said he gained a quarter of his body weight in fluid.

“He slept a lot and didn’t leave his bed  or eat for the whole first week.”

As his E. coli symptoms (nausea, vomiting, severe stomach cramping, diarrhea and dehydration) faded, the medical staff monitored his labs looking for signs of Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS).

HUS afflicts 6 to 9 percent of children who are recovering from E. coli, resulting in levels of hemoglobin, hematocrit, platelets and kidney function decreasing in the blood to critical or life-threatening levels.

Unfortunately, Callum was one of the unlucky ones; his labs were not improving. This led to what Tricia calls “a long waiting game.”

Callum received several blood transfusions during that time but was beginning to look and act like himself again.

During the 11 days he was forced to stay in his hospital room, he played cars, enjoyed seeing the many cards and gifts sent from friends and family, and he developed a love for hospital spaghetti.

Callum was home for a week when his big sister Josie, age 10, started showing symptoms. After a couple of days, on July 3, they brought her to the hospital.

Although they reacted quickly, Josie still suffered from severe nausea and vomiting and ultimately developed HUS and needed blood transfusions.

It was just four days into her 12-day stay that Tricia received a call from Troy saying Aspyn, their youngest, was “looking sick” and had thrown up.

They immediately brought her to the emergency room and started giving her fluids. Because Aspyn was only 2 1/2, the doctors were concerned.

Of the three children Aspyn became the most dehydrated and went the longest time without oral intake. She needed blood transfusions and TPN (nutrition through her IV).

Doctors were concerned that because of her size and still developing system, the fluids would overwhelm her.

Ventilation was a possibility if the fluids began to overtake her lungs. Dialysis was a threat for all three children, but Aspyn came the closest to needing it.

Every ounce of fluid was monitored by the physicians and nursing staff.

“Any extra fluid could have sent her into dialysis and or ventilation – even later in the hospital stay when she expressed interest in eating, she was not allowed per that delicate balance,” Troy said.

After not voiding for 24 hours Aspyn was rushed to the PEDS ICU. Initially the nephrologist had wanted to begin the process of dialysis but decided to follow “his gut” and wait to see what things looked like in the morning.

Tricia feels this was just one of the many ways God had his hand in keeping her kids safe.

“His ‘gut’ was God guiding him — buying us another day, another day and another day and eventually helping us avoid dialysis and ventilation altogether,” she said.

“Each day that passed was something to be very grateful and thankful for, even when she was still so critically ill, because it meant we could at least delay dialysis and ventilation for that day and eventually one just prayed and hoped that her tiny system would take hold and do what it needed to on its own.”

The doctors warned Troy and Tricia to take turns sleeping so that one of them would be awake with “a clear mind and the energy to carry through whatever it was they might encounter.”

Aspyn stayed in the PEDS ICU for five of her 18 days.

Because Josie’s and Aspyn’s hospital stays overlapped, the girls were able to share a room and have plenty of time to bond. They also did some bonding with their parents, who had practically moved into the hospital while Callum stayed with Troy’s parents.

Tricia felt they were key to the family surviving the summer.

“They were lifesavers to us and we could never, ever repay them!”


And then there were six

Juggling and entertaining two kids in the hospital while trying to reassure and comfort another one at home became a bit more complicated when Tricia, while hanging out with the girls in their room, went into labor on July 10.

Troy, who was home at the time, managed to get back to the hospital in time to witness the birth of his second son.

Baby Hollis was born healthy at 5 pounds, 11 ounces, and 19 inches long. He was 32 days early, which following hospital guidelines meant a stay in the NICU. 

He was there for 12 days, heading home on July 21. During his time there he was fed through a feeding tube while his system continued to develop.

Tricia considered it a blessing to have him in the hospital at the same time as the girls.

“Since he was born, we could all be together. I didn’t have to balance home and hospital for a couple days.”

However because of the potential harm their illness could cause and because of NICU policy, the siblings were not allowed to physically be with Hollis.

Instead, they used a webcam to see and talk with their new baby brother.

It was also hard for Tricia and Troy to leave their new baby, but they understood that because of their age and the seriousness of their illness they needed to be with their girls.

Tricia and Troy would make sure to return to the NICU every two to three hours for feeding and bonding with the young baby.

Aspyn was discharged from the hospital on July 25. She was the last of the Bartels  to return home.

Now the family could begin settling into their new life as a family of six. They would still need to continue to submit samples to the nephrologist through puberty.

Thus far Callum and Josie have continued to improve, but Aspyn is still being watched closely. It is possible she will need medication to help her system recover.

For now Tricia said she is just thankful they are all home and healthy and she knows that they can fight their way through whatever test results come in the future.


Forever a mystery

Although diagnosing E. coli is easy, finding the cause of it is nearly impossible. The team of doctors offered theories, but explained that they typically are not able to pinpoint a cause unless it results in a large group of people becoming ill.

During their stay it was reported that South Dakota had seen a rise in cases but those were not related to one another.

E. coli can often affect people without them noticing, especially adults and older children. The symptoms are short and quickly dismissed as a stomachache.

Common places the bacteria can be found include improperly washed fruits, water sources, meat preparation and animals.

Troy and Tricia will never know where their children picked up the bacteria or when it was spread between them. 

After the girls were admitted the family learned more about how the patients, although they feel better, can harbor the illness for weeks to months, making it easy for them to spread the bacteria.

Hand-washing was stressed as the best way to fight the spread of bacteria.

They met with the adult and pediatric infectious disease physicians to discuss the process of flagging and educating those diagnosed with E. coli.

They felt it would be beneficial for nurses and doctors to educate others about these harms, especially those with siblings at home.


God’s hand, technology, and community support

“This was an eye-opening and heart-warming experience for Troy and me. We felt so loved and prayed for, that it just blew us away.”

Tricia said their family,  church family and Pastor Dan provided endless support, and the power of prayer could be felt during and after the hospital stays.

They said that their family was on prayer lists not only in Minnesota but in South Dakota, North Dakota and Iowa as well.

The night Aspyn was rushed to PEDS ICU was their scariest but Tricia said it was also the calmest.

“We could feel the power of prayer, we were surrounded with love and grace and his faithfulness and could feel his arms wrapped around us.”

Prayer was just one of the many blessings the family felt. They could see God’s hand at work throughout the process and feel there were blessings in disguise.

The support of their family, friends, church, employers and each other helped them survive.

“Seeing Troy’s involvement and attentiveness — a father’s love to his children — it really helped me know and feel our Father’s love from above.”

The Bartels family is also grateful for those who provided “sit time” with their children.

This gave the couple a chance to share a meal, take a walk and balance the many demands of each of their children.

Technology also offered relief to the family. In addition to being a form of the communication for the siblings, Facebook, emails and texts provided Tricia and Troy with a lifeline to the outside world.

“Facebook became a healing device for Troy and me,” Tricia said. “It was a way to send updates but also receive messages, thoughts and prayers from others.

“The power of networking was amazing as many would forward our updates on their page to their network of friends — the responses we received were just amazing.”

Checking these messages was often the only break the two would take during the day.

“We are thankful for our gracious, faithful and loving Father above and for all of those in the community and abroad that showed us love and support and became the hands and feet of Jesus right here on Earth ... You all have forever touched our lives,” Troy said.

Above all, they are thankful for having each other and for having their normal healthy kids back home and happy.

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