From hospice to home
Abdullah Jubran, 66, retired from a long career as a civil engineer and was enjoying life. He took karate, watched his friends play soccer and traveled abroad with his wife, Doris.
“We weren’t people that just sat around and did nothing,” Abdullah said. “We were always on the go.”
In October 2019, Abdullah was shocked to learn he had lung cancer. Following exploratory surgery to remove a lung tumor and grapefruit-sized thyroid, which was not cancerous, scans revealed the cancer had spread to the liver and spine. He began radiation therapy. One evening, while dining out with Doris, a painful ache spread through his upper left arm.
Doris drove Abdullah to the emergency room, where testing revealed he had a complete heart block, an abnormal rhythm where the heart beats too slowly and electrical signals between the upper and lower chambers are disrupted.
Surgeons placed a pacemaker, but Abdullah continued to experience complications, including his heart stopping twice. He was placed on a ventilator, had a feeding tube inserted and underwent a tracheostomy for airway support. He entered into hospice care.
In mid-March, Abdullah moved to Knoxville to be closer to family. He also sought a second opinion. When a cancer specialist offered to help Abdullah, he came out of hospice care and decided to fight his complex medical condition head-on.
By May, he was admitted to the University of Tennessee Medical Center with acute, chronic respiratory failure and a bacterial infection.
Over several weeks, Abdullah gradually improved, and the medical team began liberating him from the ventilator.
In early June, he was admitted to Select Specialty Hospital – Knoxville with a primary goal of fully liberating from the ventilator. This was a critical step in Abdullah’s cancer treatment, as the oncologist would not start chemotherapy otherwise.
“Hearing those words really set a fire in me to put my entire heart and soul into making sure I did all that I could to get off the vent,” Abdullah said.
A physician-led team of nurses, therapists and dietitians created a plan to get Abdullah well enough to continue his cancer fight.
Respiratory therapists began monitored bursts of time off the machine. They led him through coughing, deep breathing and chest exercises to improve his stamina. Within days, Abdullah was off the vent and needed less than half of the supplemental oxygen he’d been using prior to getting sick.
Therapists stepped in to rebuild Abdullah’s upper and lower body strength. Physical therapists started with resistance exercises and basic mobility activities, such as sitting up in bed and transferring to a chair, to increase core stability. Occupational therapists focused on daily living activities, including grooming, bathing and dressing, as well as using a rolling walker to go short distances.
Speech-language pathologists worked with Abdullah on mouth, tongue and jaw exercises to prepare for a return to a normal diet. Dietitians created meal plans of appropriate thickness and nutritional value.
“Eating has been my most hard-earned achievement to date,” Abdullah said. “I had to retrain myself on things I took for granted. For example, swallowing meat or anything with a dry or fibrous texture is very challenging. I have to avoid those foods and opt for something softer. Swallowing has gone from being very reflexive to requiring much attention, thought and focus.”
After a month at Select Specialty Hospital, Abdullah was strong enough to return home and start chemotherapy. He plans to continue building his strength, in hopes of no longer needing the rolling walker.
In addition to Doris, his “live-in nurse” and the “love of his life,” he credits the staff at Select Specialty Hospital – Knoxville with giving him a second chance at life.
“Great people helped make this happen. That’s how I would sum up my time here. At other facilities, they did not believe in me. They said I could never do it,” he said. “They gave up on me. But not you. Here, people rooted for me … therapy kept pushing me and they celebrated each little victory. I am so thankful. Because of you, I get to go home with my family.”