Sean Stanelun was feeling sick. The owner of Manito Video Productions was at work shooting a wedding video, but wasn’t sure he could make it through the cutting of the cake. He did. At home, his wife, Dawn Picken, put him to bed in a cloud of disinfectant spray, admonishing the couple’s two young children to stay away from dad because he had the flu and was contagious.
That was on Sept. 9. Five days later, Stanelun was admitted to Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center with kidney failure and practically no blood pressure. At 4 a.m., someone woke Picken to ask permission to put her husband on a ventilator.
“They said, ‘It’s not an emergency yet,’ ” said Picken. “I’d slept maybe an hour in the waiting room. Suddenly my husband was on life support.”
Later that day she heard the diagnosis: necrotizing fasciitis – also known as flesh-eating bacteria – and Stanelun has been in the hospital ever since, spending three weeks in the intensive care unit, two weeks completely sedated.
On Nov. 6, friends and colleagues from the Inland Northwest Party Resources Organization are having a fundraising party at the Spokane Masonic Center to help Stanelun and his family.
Now out of the ICU, Stanelun struggles to remember what happened.
“I do remember one of the nurses saying I looked like a train wreck, I looked that bad,” Stanelun said.
Stanelun recently had a skin graft to cover up the so-called “shark bite” the violent bacterial infection ate out of his right thigh, and he’s missing skin on large parts of his legs. His kidneys are not yet working well, and even sitting up in bed is almost impossible.
“I have had to go through some very painful and horrific procedures,” Stanelun said, motioning toward the pump that drains fluid from some of his sores. “But the people here at the hospital are just angels.”
Getting this far has been a struggle that Picken has shouldered the brunt of as Stanelun’s main advocate.
“It’s overwhelming sometimes,” said Picken. “They found a mass on his pancreas in the middle of everything else, and something on his lung and on his liver – they don’t think it is cancer, but it’s just one hurdle after the other.”
She leaves the room when nurses come to change wound dressings.
“There are just some things I shouldn’t see,” she said, trailing off.
Since the beginning of Stanelun’s hospital stay, Picken has used the social networking site Facebook to update friends and family on her husband’s condition.
A few weeks ago Picken asked her Facebook friends: “When it’s too much what do you do?” She got replies from people sending prayers and good thoughts, encouraging her to write a journal. Twenty-five little messages of support trickled in.
“I kid you not, there are days where it saves my life,” Picken said.
Neighbors, friends and colleagues have formed a circle of support around the Stanelun-Picken family, making dinners, providing child care, arranging a yard-cleaning party, doing laundry and simply being there when needed.
“If anything good has come of this, it’s that we have reconnected with people we’d lost touch with,” said Picken. “People have circled back around from a long time ago. We will never be able to thank them enough.”
Stanelun has health insurance, but his lifetime cap is $2 million.
“We’ve already spent half a million this first month,” said Picken. “Suddenly it seems like we have very little coverage left.”
Stanelun is facing months of physical therapy and rehabilitation.
“Pain alters your personality as well. It’s been a rough road so far,” Picken said.
When doctors tried to ease him off pain medication, Stanelun would wake up confused and sometimes anxious.
“I just couldn’t remember where I was,” he said, looking at Picken, holding her hand. “I mean, you are working one second and then the next second you drop everything.”
Stanelun’s sister taped pictures to the ceiling over his bed and among them she placed a note.
“It said, ‘You are in the hospital, you are safe,’ ” said Picken.
Stanelun is eager to talk but tires easily. Picken holds his hand tightly on top of the hospital blanket.
“This is the first time this has happened to me, that I’ve needed help and people have just shown up and helped me,” Stanelun said. “Other photographers have done my jobs for me and not charged me. I just can’t believe what people have done for me.”
No one knows how Stanelun contracted the bacterial infection in the first place.
“All I know is that it could have killed me,” Stanelun said.
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