Medical odyssey started with a shortness of breath several years ago
By Robert Jordan
Dunn Daily Record
DUNN – When calamity befalls someone, it is pleasing human nature to ask them, “What can I do to help?” or “Let me know if you need anything.” The Friends of Donald Smith have done much more than ask their friend and his family that question. Smith’s friends are stepping up.
Due to diabetes, kidney failure, coronary artery blockages, pneumonia and other chronic issues, Smith has been in and out of hospitals. His current situation is what brings the friends to his aid.
Several years ago, Smith was an officer at the Harnett County Detention Center. He began to have some situations where he wasn’t feeling well, so he went to see his physician. That visit began a medical odyssey with which many people are all too familiar.
Smith was experiencing shortness of breath, thus he feared heart problems. His physician agreed, pulled some blood for testing, and sent Smith to visit a cardiologist in Lillington.
After a review of his blood work, the Lillington physician informed Smith that he might have some heart-related issues, but more importantly, he was in total renal failure and it was imperative that he be admitted to the hospital as soon as possible.
After admission to Rex Hospital in Raleigh, more testing revealed that Smith’s blood pressure was dangerously high. He was admitted to intensive care in an effort to get that under control, and that’s where he remained for a week.
Once his vital signs improved, the Smith family contacted the professionals at Duke University Medical Center to begin the process of evaluating Donald Smith for a possible kidney transplant.
One of the tests during that evaluation was a stress test. During the stress test, the team found several issues and performed an immediate heart catheterization. Once the cath team did its job, the physician told Smith that he was in need of a triple coronary artery bypass. In five days’ time, Smith went into bypass surgery. After recuperating, Smith returned to the transplant evaluation team at Duke, but by that time, the damage to his kidneys was so severe, he was sent home to undergo dialysis there.
Two years later, the port in his abdomen failed and a temporary port had to be placed in his neck. A more longterm solution emerged when a port was placed in his arm. Dialysis was then changed from home procedures to dialysis at the center in Dunn.
During all of this time, Smith remained employed with the Harnett County Sheriff’s Office in the detention center.
Sheriff Wayne Coats helped Smith with his work schedule so he could go to dialysis and use as little leave time as necessary. Eventually, Smith exhausted all of his leave time and retired on disability from Harnett County.
Things stabilized for a while and became routine until this past December when Smith went for his regular dialysis appointment. He was found to have a fever at check-in. The nurse at the dialysis center asked Smith to go to Betsy Johnson Hospital to be tested for COVID-19. Hospital staff noticed his shortness of breath and took him to a treatment room to be evaluated. A chest x-ray revealed he had developed pneumonia in one lung. His fever increased. He developed nausea. The attending staff decided admitting him to the hospital would be prudent.
Smith’s wife, Suzette, got him settled for the evening and went home about 9:30 p.m. Two hours later, his nurse called and told her Donald Smith’s oxygen levels had declined and he was being placed on a bi-pap machine to assist with his breathing. At 12:15 a.m., the nurse called again telling Suzette Smith she needed to come to the hospital as soon as possible.
When the family arrived, they learned that Smith had aspirated fluid into his lungs and had gone into cardiac arrest. He was resuscitated, but remained in critical condition. This occurred on Dec. 22.
The family and Smith’s physicians realized that he desperately needed to be at Rex Hospital where all of his regular medical team practiced, but this was in the midst of the pandemic and the holiday week of Christmas. There were no beds available.
Meanwhile, Smith had developed a large amount of fluid in his chest, so a chest tube was put into place in an attempt to drain the area.
At last, a bed at Rex became available on Dec. 27. Smith was taken off of the ventilator and transferred to Raleigh. Upon his arrival at Rex Hospital, he was put back on the ventilator. For the next three weeks, he suffered several setbacks, but he continued to rally back. His family then faced another decision. Longterm ventilator therapy requires a tracheotomy. The family’s choice for Smith became tracheotomy versus comfort care. His wife and daughters decided they were seeing enough fight in his will to survive that a tracheotomy was the best decision to give him a chance to improve.
After the tracheotomy, Smith’s condition began to improve.
Doctors next decided Smith was a good candidate for longterm acute care (LTAC). He was transferred to the LTAC unit at Durham Regional Hospital which is where he remained for the next 10 weeks. His progress was slow, and he suffered several setbacks.
Once health care workers in LTAC decided they had provided all of the support possible, it was evident Smith’s recovery was going to be slow. He needed to be moved to a rehabilitation facility that specialized in his diabetic and renal needs. The closest facility available was in Norfolk, Virginia. Smith has been at that location for a few weeks now.
Since his admission to the rehab in Norfolk, he has improved to the point that the tracheotomy could be removed and his diet could include soft foods.
Still, he requires more rehabilitation. He has been bed ridden for a long time and will need to battle back. Plans are to find a suitable rehab facility for him that is closer to home.
Being three hours or more from home takes its emotional toll. Smith gets to see his wife and daughters each weekend as they make the journey to be by his side. In the meantime, video phone calls must suffice. Suzette Smith said her husband gets emotionally sad much more easily as he deals with his present day-to-day situation.
Now that the tracheotomy has been removed, he is able to make telephone calls to his friends and associates. He also has “a little more pep.”
As one would imagine, Smith’s illness has taken a major effort on his family’s part to work their vocations and make certain his wellbeing is maintained. Suzette Smith says this entire ordeal can be mentally, emotionally and physically draining, but as a wife and mother, she must journey forward.
Donald Smith’s oldest daughter, Parrish, married before these major health emergencies began. She credits her new husband and his support with her ability to cope. She is also employed at Plain View Elementary School and shares were it not for her wonderful coworkers helping out with her responsibilities at work, she would not have been able to be by her father’s and her family’s side.
Smith’s youngest, Hayden, is a student at East Carolina University. When her family’s situation became so demanding, she chose to be at home. Hayden contacted her advisor and moved all her classes to online attendance. She was also able to return to her former employer at Little Ivy League in Dunn where she enjoys caring for her young charges.
Now comes the Friends of Donald Smith.
On Friday, May 13, these friends are going to host a barbecue pork plate sale. The friends have acquired use of The Dunn Shrine Center at 211 N. Clinton Ave. in Dunn for the event. Plates will be served for lunch from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. Dinner plates will be served from 4 p.m. until 7 p.m. The event will be eat-in or take-out. Tickets are $10 each.
“People that love us and think a lot of Donald have opened up their hearts as well as their pocket books and it means a lot. There are people out there in worse shape than we are and may need the money more than we do, but the thought behind it whether we make $10 or $100 means more than people will ever know,” said Suzette Smith as she choked back her tears. “We feel blessed and lucky. Everyone has stood by us and behind us the whole way through. Your calls, text messages and cards mean so much. We have shared each one of them with Donald.”
When asked why she thinks so many people have stepped up to make this happen, Suzette Smith says, “Donald has always wanted to help people. As a teen, he joined Dunn Rescue Squad. Later, as an adult, he joined the Masonic Lodge and the Shriners. He loves making a difference for others.”
Donald Smith’s friends are now wanting to make a difference for his family.
Organizers say it is important to note that this is an event independent from any organization. Though it is being held at the Dunn Shrine Center, it is not a Shriner event.
Tickets can be purchased from Archie’s Appliance, First Baptist Church of Dunn, Ken Page at 919-820-2860 and from other people and businesses in Dunn. Page, one of the event organizers says to call him should you need a large number of tickets or should you be interested in helping sell tickets for the event.
Should anyone be interested in volunteering to help with this event, please contact Page.