Posted in (All Posts), Family

My Bandit Brother Justin ♥ Gone Too Soon

safe_imageEvery family has that one special, magnetic, irreplaceable person… a person who lights up a room and always brings joy into every situation, a person adored by so many, one who never had an unkind word and who just loved being in the heart of the family that loves him so very much.

Our family lost this special person on May 11, 2016. At 22 years of age, Justin was just entering adulthood, and he was taken from us too soon.

Justin, how can we go on without you? With your energy, your life force and your joie de vivre, you inspired us all to come together and to have fun. I’ll never forget your big laugh and your goofy grin.

Rest in peace, little brother. I can’t wait to see you again and to play some ‘Cards Against Humanity’ on the other side. Love you.

Your big sis

It has been nearly impossible for me to write this post. My baby brother died two months ago, and I’m just now putting pen to paper.

Justin was a fresh-faced and boistrous kid of just barely 22 years when he decided to enter a popular half-marathon race in our city, Vancouver, Canada. It was a beautiful, warm spring day: Sunday, May 1st. Justin, his aunt and two sisters all entered the race together. The only problem was, Justin wasn’t registered for the race, a practice known as “banditing.” He ran without a number alongside others who did.

IMG_3540Justin was the sweetest guy. He was also someone who enjoyed being spontaneous and pushing himself. He relished crazy, challenging things like jumping into ice-cold Canadian lakes year-round. I believe in my heart that Justin did not avail himself of the free water, snacks and Gatorade along the run circuit because he knew he had not paid to join. Justin was a good person. Ultimately, this act may have been the one that killed him. We’ll never know for sure.

IMG_6130He ran all but the final kilometre of the course before having an unexpected cardiac “event.” I’ve heard it called both cardiac arrest and sudden cardiac death. Justin’s heart stopped beating for no known reason. He was healthy and so strong, and there was no history of heart trouble in our family. Running alongside Justin on Georgia Street was a cardiac nurse. Let me repeat that, a CARDIAC nurse. She went to him immediately and started CPR. However, Justin was a big, strong boy just shy of two metres. His body was too big and she was too weak from hours of running to be able to give his heart sufficient CPR. (He was also found to be quite dehydrated.) The nurse tried her best, and for that I am grateful. I hope she never learns that he did not make it.

My sister Danika is a paramedic. She drove five hours to be by my side when she heard what had happened. I am so grateful to her for her love and support. One interesting thing that she did while at the hospital all those hours was to sneak a look at the ambulance report from the day Justin collapsed in the street. This is what was in it:

9:05 am – ambulance dispatched

9:09 am – ambulance on scene, PEA (pulseless electrical activity)

9:15 am – intubated

9:16 am – shock vtach/vfib – pulse

9:19 am – transported

1 mg epi

I did not learn about Justin’s accident for 24 hours. They thought he’d be just fine and they’d let us know once he was awake and feeling up to having visitors. Little did we know at the time, that day would never come.

That Monday morning, as soon as I heard, I arranged for someone to take over my class and immediately went to the hospital. He looked terrifying with all of the tubes and machines. They even had cooling packs all over his body to induce a kind of hypothermia. I learned that it helps the brain to recover more successfully after a cardiac “event.” I was told that Justin was in an induced coma. He was expected to wake up after a day or two when they stopped giving him sedatives. The doctors encouraged us to speak to him, because he likely could hear everything. I shyly told him I loved him, something I had neglected to ever say before. I also sent text messages to everyone I could think of and asked them to come be with Justin when he woke up.

IMG_2809I started a group chat message to keep everyone informed as we all rotated our visits. “Who’s there now?” and “How is he?” became popular questions. I stayed 5 hours that first day (Monday) waiting for him to wake up. Tuesday, I went to work. I thought he’d be just opening his eyes when I went to the hospital after my shift. I read a message from someone who was at the hospital and they said his eyes were starting to open. My heart soared and I cried happy tears with my class. I arrived at about 4 pm. I turned the corner at the top of the stairs and saw my father at the end of a long hallway. He was walking in long, heavy strides toward me while looking at the ground. I could see his pain from the other end of the wing. I ran and called out to him, but he disappeared into the elevator just as I rounded the corner. It was then that I realized I didn’t have his correct cell phone number in my phone. I didn’t see him again for three or four hours.

Screen Shot 2016-07-16 at 9.19.51 PM
Littlest sister Ocea and her heart-breaking artwork

I disinfected my hands and walked into the ICU. The nurses looked at me with long faces, unlike the day before when their movements were quick and light. One nurse told me that they were beginning to worry. They had taken him off the sedatives again that morning fully expecting him to wake later in the afternoon. Instead, we witnessed Justin’s big body seizing and his eyes rolling back. His muscles tensed and he slowly twisted and arched his back over and over. I was alone with him in the room for maybe an hour like this when suddenly a team of people arrived carrying a cup of ice water and boxes of tissues, walking toward me with great purpose and grave looks. They introduced themselves: Justin’s lead doctor, a social worker and a couple of his nurses. They made me sit, arranged themselves all around me and started to give me the news. One nurse squatted next to me and rubbed my knee. She looked up at me with incredibly sad eyes.

Slowly and methodicaly, the doctor told me that they had just reviewed the CT scan and wanted to share the results with me. The scan was “very worrying.” They did not think that Justin would ever wake up or recover from this. They were caring and compassionate. As they spoke, I felt the room spin. I saw little bursts of light in my eyes and I could hardly breathe or focus on what they were saying to me. I tried so hard to hold it together and to commit to memory what she was saying. In the end, I just couldn’t do both, so I got out a pen and paper and asked her to kindly repeat what she had just said. I wanted to get it right when I told my father that his son was never going home. This is what I wrote with a shaky hand:

May 3, 2016

  • The scan shows diffused brain swelling.
  • This indicates that his brain was deprived of oxygen. (He’s a big man. He was dehydrated. CPR may not have been effective.)
  • CT scan is very worrying.
  • Neurologist/EEG tomorrow.
  • Team will come together and decide if they have enough info to make a prognosis.
  • Decision – If it doesn’t look like he’ll do well, we will see if it looks like we need to take him off life support.
  • Sit down tomorrow for a family meeting at 2 pm.

I sat alone with this news for a time. “We will see if it looks like we need to take him off life support.” I had to let it sink in. I noticed that someone had fixed his toenails. When Justin arrived at the hospital, his toes were painted crazy colours, but were also chipping and badly overgrown. Justin had a huge heart, and he had let his little sisters paint his toes. As it turns out, another older sister, Bonnie, had taken it upon herself to give him a more respectable-looking pedicure in hospital. I now looked at his freshly-pedicured size 15 feet. I thought about how they would never touch the ground again. The pain welled up inside and choked me. I have never felt such grief. I hope to God I never do again.

IMG_2868Justin and I were not exactly close. We were 19 years apart in age and had different mothers. That didn’t stop me from feeling extremely protective and nurturing towards him and all of my dad’s kids (of whom there are now five.) I babysat Justin and his twin, Austin. I changed their diapers and fed them. I watched them grow. I tried to explain to them that I was their sister, even though I was closer in age to their mom. I was just starting to relate to Justin as an equal. He was a responsible working man coming into his own. He had unique opinions and a fabulous sense of humour. We were only just beginning to scratch the surface of our relationship together. He had recently reached out to me and asked to spend some time with my daughter, his niece. He was making the effort to bridge the gap. It was tentative and sweet. There was so much potential for us to grow closer over the years. If only I had realized how little time we had…

IMG_2850I look back with envy at how close Justin was with his other siblings. They grew up in the same house. They ate their meals together and took trips together and saw each other much more often than five times a year. On the one hand, I think that their grief must completely eclipse mine bacause they lost more than I did. They lost a person who was a fixture in their daily lives. But then I think, no! I lost the promise of a newly blossoming closeness. I, too, am hurting. I am filled with regret over lost opportunities and I kick myself for the things I should have, but never did. My pain is also real. Grief takes many forms, and there’s no use trying to compare. What has happened is so unfair. I will never, ever fully recover from this. Telling my father that Justin was brain-dead that day was the most gut-wrenching thing I’ve ever had to do in my life. I’ll never forget the sound that escaped him when I relayed what the doctor had said earlier.

Justin’s family and many, many friends spent the next eight days holding a vigil at Justin’s bedside. Many slept at the hospital, leaving only to shower and get something to eat. We spoke to him, prayed for him, sang to him, told stories, read inspiring passages from books and chatted together. Justin brought everyone together. I have never seen anything like it. There we all were, joined by our love for Justin. He was being kept going by machines, nurses constantly checking on him, putting drops in his eyes, cleaning his respirator, making sure his heart rate didn’t drop too much or shoot up too quickly. He was alive, but not alive. He was gone but still here and we had a week to say our goodbyes. He was scheduled to be taken off life support on May 10th in the evening.

livelife-1024x700On the plus side, SEVEN lucky people received the gift of life from my brother! Losing Justin was the most deeply painful experience of my life, but I take so much comfort in knowing that he will live on in others, and he is changing lives! The doctor told us that the man who received his lungs is also very tall (Justin was 6’5″ / 196cm) And, as they must match the lung size to the body, he had been waiting a long time for a donor. He hadn’t been able to even take a shower because he couldn’t breathe. He will now have quality of life again thanks to my brother. Justin was a strong, healthy, clean-living guy. I couldn’t be more proud of my family for making this horrible sacrifice to help others. My heart breaks, but simultaneously, it bursts with pride.

RIP, bandit brother. 😘 You might have stolen your place in that race, and maybe some people might disagree with that, but that’s not all you did. You also stole so many hearts in your short life, including mine. I learned so much from you. You’ve taught me to live in the moment, to jump in cold lakes and to set my heart free, but most importantly, you’ve taught me that life is so short. I’ll endeavour to never leave anything unsaid. I will follow my whims, listen to my heart, be positive and live with love.

That being said, I would give anything for the chance to tell you what you meant to me.

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