Hospital Visits Can Bring True Love

Under bright lights, in a dark hour, they found each other. Dramatic stories of romance kindled on the hospital ward.

A Shared Fate

Denise and Mike Faulkner

hvcbtMIKE FAULKNER AND DENISE VALE MET ON the cancer ward of The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto in 1979. They were both 8 years old. She was a quiet girl with a shy smile whose hair was falling out from the radiation used to treat her leukemia. He was a skinny boy with whitish-blond hair on his second visit to undergo chemotherapy for throat cancer.

Doctors expected that both children. would die. Mike’s parents were told that their son’s chance of recovery was less than 5 percent, and that “you should enjoy him while you can.”

So the Faulkners and Vales spent their days by the children’s bedside, praying for a change. One day, his parents, Ron and Cheri, introduced themselves to hers, Frank and Barb. Bonded by their worry and grief, the couples soon were eating together in the hospital cafeteria and riding the elevator down after lingering as long as the nurses would let them when visiting hours ended. That was when, Ron says, he and his wife would always break down. “We’d cry every night,” he says, his voice straining with the memory. “Every night.”

More than 16 years later, when the Faulkners and Vales met again, they cried almost as hard as they had years before. But this time, the setting was a church, not a hospital, and their tears were prompted by joy.

Denise had recovered after being treated with an experimental drug. Mike endured years of chemotherapy, as well as a host of illnesses that wracked his weakened body, before his cancer finally went into remission.

Over the years, the families kept in touch with holiday cards, and in 1994, Denise sent the Faulkners a card of her own. “I included my number in case Mrs. Faulkner wanted to call me,” she says. But Mrs. Faulkner had another idea. She’d been worried about her son, who had lost his fiancee two years earlier when she suffered a seizure and died. “When I got the letter,” she says, “I nudged him. `Why don’t you give her a call?'”

Mike did, and he invited Denise, who has a job selling insurance, to spend the weekend with his family. “They made a big fuss over me when I got there,” she says, adding that she definitely felt “a spark” at dinner that night, and afterward, when they talked until 4:00 A.M. Mike, who delivers eggs for a living in a truck that bears a GET GRACKIN’ logo, puts it this way: “She got me all right. Hook, line, and sinker.”

Eleven months later, they were engaged. The ceremony was held in an old country church on Scugog Island, north of Toronto: “The best moment,” says Denise, “was seeing Mike at the altar, waiting for me.”

The couple, who both turned 30 in March, say their health is good–though they still travel, together, for checkups with cancer specialists every two years. Currently saving money to start a family, they say their sights are set squarely on the future. “Every day we wake up,” says Mike, “we see as another day of life that we have–together.”

Healing Hearts

Victoria Hall and Carl Brahe

WHEN JOHN ANDREWS, A POPULAR REAL ESTATE DEVELOPER in Denver, fell ill in February 1993, there were dozens of well-wishers at his home every time his buddy Carl Brahe came to visit. “John was such a warm, charming person,” says Brahe, 48, “that when you met him, you were pretty much his friend for life.”

In the months that followed, however, those friends fell away, as Andrews’s condition worsened. He’d been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a fatal neurological disorder that robs its victims of the use of every muscle in their body, while their minds remain intact. By November, Andrews was a quadriplegic; his wife was too emotionally devastated to care for him, and Brahe was one of the few friends still visiting him in the hospital.

There, in March, Brahe met Victoria Hall, 44, an attractive intensive-care nurse who had taken an interest in the friendly patient with the fighting spirit. Eventually, Andrews asked his nurse if she would consider quitting her job and caring for him at his home. “John,” says Brahe, “could charm anyone into anything!”

Soon, the patient, his friend, and his full-time nurse were spending long hours together at Andrews’s home. Brahe, a psychotherapist, spent much of the time counseling the terminally ill man. But after a while, Brahe had to admit that he wasn’t driving 60 miles several times a week just to see his friend. “I noticed,” Brahe says, “that when I didn’t see Victoria, I was miserable.”

But it would be a year and a half before Brahe, while comforting an exhausted Hall, blurted out that he loved her. Hall was shocked: Though her patient had warned her that his friend was falling for her, she hadn’t taken him seriously. But as the months passed, Brahe’s “heartfulness,” she says, made her want to give the man a chance. “I realized I’d never met anyone like Carl,” she says. “I mean, what other man would do what he did for a friend?”

As Brahe and Hall’s relationship deepened over the next few years, so did their commitment to Andrews, who by 1995 had lost the ability to talk or even breathe on his own. In 1996, after Andrews’s wife had moved out and his financial resources were nearly depicted, the couple bought a home in Bailey, Colorado, outside Denver. Brahe renovated the ground floor so that Andrews could live with them. Before closing on the house, Hall loaded her patient into a wheelchair and took him to the two-story home that overlooked the mountains. “He couldn’t open his eyes anymore,” says Hall. “But I wanted him to feel the presence of the place before we bought it.”

It was there, surrounded by the majestic beauty of snow-crested mountains, that Andrews died three days before Thanksgiving Day, 1999. By his side were his two closest friends, as well as his mother and sister, who arrived from West Virginia and North Carolina just in time to say good-bye.

Brahe and Hall, who worked during the final years of Andrews’s life to find ways for him to communicate, are now trying to bring a high-tech communication device to others with paralyzing diseases. But their thoughts are still very much with their friend. “I believe the best part of him lives on,” says Hall.

“John taught us a lot about living as he died,” Brahe adds. “We took care of him. But in some ways … he took care of us.”

Heroic Measures

Barbara Becht and Gabe Steinbach

BARBARA BECHT AND GABE STEINBACH became friends at the Elvis Room, a coffeehouse that Becht, 34, owned in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. But it would take a near-fatal stabbing and several days in intensive care for them to fall in love. “The hospital,” says Steinbach, 26, “is where it really happened for us.”

On the morning of March 22, 1998, Becht was tidying up from a concert held at the coffeehouse the night before. Steinbach, a graphic artist who worked there part-time booking bands, sat sipping coffee at the counter.

By 10:00 A.M., only two customers had sauntered in; it was looking like a slow day in the sleepy New England town. Until, that is, Christopher Sakey, then 31, on conditional release from a state mental institution, walked through the door. A frequent customer at the Elvis Room with a reputation for erratic, if harmless, behavior, Sakey headed to the back room where Becht was stacking chairs. He met her glance, then–without warning–plunged a three-inch knife into her side.

“I thought he’d punched me,” says Becht, who ran to the front and dove behind the counter. Sakey followed, stabbing Becht repeatedly. Without taking time to think, a stunned Steinbach joined the melee, wrestling Sakey for the knife, and yelling at Becht to get away. Eight stab wounds later, Becht managed to wriggle out from under the men and drag herself toward the entrance, where a group of surprised teenagers helped her onto the couch. While Steinbach struggled with the attacker, Becht, bleeding profusely, told a frantic waitress–who had been outside and missed the incident–to call 911.

The police arrived and cuffed Sakey. Steinbach, who’d been stabbed in the arm, ran to Becht’s side and pleaded with her, loudly, to stay awake as the ambulance pulled up. At the hospital, Becht was rushed into surgery to repair a ruptured colon. She wouldn’t remember the next two days spent in the intensive care unit while doctors and nurses monitored her around the clock.

Steinbach, meanwhile, maintained an ardent hospital vigil. Anxiously pacing the waiting room, he greeted Becht’s family as they began to arrive from Saint Louis and pressured the staff to let him visit Becht in the ICU. “They wouldn’t at first,” says Steinbach. “And I was pretty much a nervous wreck. I felt like I needed to be there–if not for her, then for me.”

Over the next two weeks, the only break Steinbach took from the Portsmouth Regional Hospital and Pavilion was to organize a benefit concert at the Elvis Room to help pay Becht’s bills. “The local newspaper took a photo of him outside the club wearing a sandwich board that read: WE LOVE YOU, BARB,” Becht recalls. “His arm was bandaged up, because he got cut taking the knife away. That won me over.”

In truth, says Becht, she’d already fallen for Steinbach–the moment she regained consciousness and found him sitting at her side. “I woke up and thought, This is the man. It was like getting hit on the head with a two-by-four.” But it would be a good “forty-five or fifty days,” by Steinbach’s account, until Becht recovered enough for him to hazard a first kiss. “She had a tube stuck in her back that oozed,” he jokes. “She had no idea how nasty it was … but I still couldn’t keep away from her.”

The couple, who have been inseparable since their hospital days, moved from New Hampshire to Saint Louis in September to start a new life together. Becht has resumed her career as an architect, the profession she left to open the Elvis Room. Steinbach has found work as a graphic designer and otherwise devotes himself to the “funny, tough” lady whose life he’s profoundly happy to have saved. For her part, Becht says she’s come to view the incident as “fate” and Steinbach as her soul mate. But that’s not the story she normally tells. “Usually,” she dead-pans, “I tell people he got me when my defenses were down.”

A Difficult Patient

Garnet and Steven Honaker

STEVEN HONAKER WAS GARNET COCHRAN’S LAST PATIENT ON what had been a particularly busy Thursday. He was also her least favorite. Ever. For starters, when she met him in the exam room and asked him a routine question about his medical history, he grumbled that nurses who ask the same questions should “learn to make copies.”

“For some reason,” says Cochran, 51, an orthopedic surgical nurse with a honeyed voice, “he just really irritated me on a personal level. Usually, with patients, I just ignore it, but with him …”

It was different. Honaker, 50, then a heavy-machinery service technician, had gotten his arm mangled while working on a conveyer belt in a steam generating plant in Manchester, Ohio. By the time a friend drove him to an orthopedic surgeon’s office in his hometown of Marion, he’d suffered through a restless night on her couch.

Cochran, meanwhile, had spent a stressful morning assisting in surgery, and a busy afternoon scheduling patients who would have to be operated on that Saturday. When she slapped Honaker’s X rays onto the view screen and saw the fracture in his arm, any remaining hope of a weekend dissolved. But when she told him they’d fit him in on Saturday, she got a surprising response.

“No,” said Honaker. “I’m not doing this on Saturday. I’m not going to miss the Ohio State football game. What about Sunday?”

“I’m not devoting my Sunday to you,” Cochran replied. A debate ensued. Tempers flared. And Cochran ultimately told her stubborn patient that he had three choices: “We can do it on Saturday. You can find another surgeon’s office. Or you can leave as is and be crippled for the rest of your life.”

Then she left to fetch the doctor. “I told him, `He’s all yours.'”

Honaker and the physician reached a compromise: Surgery would take place on Saturday, but a local anesthetic would allow Honaker to be awake for the procedure and the subsequent game. Two days, one seven-inch metal plate, and six screws later, Honaker’s arm was put back together. But the promised local anesthetic had apparently been a ruse: Honaker slept like a baby through the four-hour procedure–and the football game.

When Cochran noticed one Steven Honaker listed on the appointment schedule two weeks later, she coached herself to stay calm: “I told myself to put my professional mask on.” But Honaker, it turned out, was a new man. “He walked into the room ahead of me, turned around, and said, `Before you say anything I’d like to apologize for my rudeness when we met.'” By the time she’d taken out the sutures, all, it seemed, was forgiven. But when it was time for him to go, her patient lingered in the doorway. “I wanted to ask her out,” Honaker explains. Before he could, the doctor suddenly appeared, recognized his testy patient, and asked, “Is there a problem?”

Honaker left. But when he got home, he called the office to try again. After a pause, Cochran agreed to a date, “and it’s been downhill from there,” jokes the twice-widowed Honaker, who lost his second wife in 1992.

Their first date “was a terrible meal, but a great time,” says Cochran, who is divorced. A week later, Honaker invited his nurse to his home for dinner, meeting her at the door with a dozen yellow roses. “Maybe I was still trying to make up for something,” he says coyly. It worked. After two years of keeping company and a bit of wrangling over the wedding date (“I told him we’d never be able to find a hall or a band on New Year’s Eve”), they were married on December 31, 1999, surrounded by friends and their six grown children. Both report smooth sailing so far. “We just get along so well,” says Cochran.

Of course, it helps, Honaker adds, that his wife is so patient–“and forgiving!”

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