Intensive Care
September 1990

“Intensive Care,” Ensign, Sept. 1990, 45

St. Johns, Arizona,
Oasis of Faith

Intensive Care

After the first year of their son’s coma, the Hansens wondered how they could continue to hope.

She couldn’t bring herself to let go of his hand. Sitting in the intensive-care unit beside her unconscious fourteen-year-old son, Marja Hansen gripped his limp hand firmly, as if doing so would keep him in this world.

This was not the first time Jon had slipped into a coma. During the previous seventeen months, he had drifted back and forth through that filmy curtain of consciousness. Yet to Marja, who had hardly left his side throughout the ordeal, this time the coma seemed deeper—somehow final. How many times had she thought back through the traumatic journey? Had they come so far and still progressed so little?

When Jon was in the eighth grade, he complained to his parents of the loss of his peripheral vision. Marja and Tracy, Jon’s dad, took him to Phoenix, Arizona, 220 miles from St. Johns, to see an ophthalmologist, who in turn sent them to a neurologist.

The neurologist told them that Jon had hydrocephalus—commonly referred to as “water on the brain.” Jon’s condition was serious; it required immediate surgery. Apparently, during his teenage growth surge, Jon’s glands had overproduced certain fluids. The fluid had built up and put pressure on Jon’s optic nerve, causing the peripheral blindness.

That was in February 1977. In the operation, a shunt was placed inside Jon’s skull, running to his stomach, to allow the fluid to drain and relieve pressure on the brain. But in the next few months complications followed, and in June a family friend flew Jon to Phoenix for emergency treatment.

Ward members fasted and families prayed, reaching out to express love, concern, and support for the Hansens. Doctors in Phoenix discovered that the shunt had backed up, causing an infection in Jon’s stomach. So severe was the pain and the pressure on his brain that Jon went into a deep coma and was not expected to live.

“My sister’s husband rushed to the hospital and joined Tracy in administering to Jon,” Marja recalls. “I was confused. Our greatest comfort was in that priesthood blessing and the many others that followed.”

Tracy had to return to his work as a teacher at the high school in St. Johns and to care for the Hansens’ two younger children—Dewin, who was four years younger than Jon, and Philis, seven years younger than Dewin. Marja was to remain with Jon, staying nights with her sister’s family in Phoenix. For the next six months, Marja read aloud to Jon and talked about things at home with him, trying to communicate with him. His vacant stare into space didn’t keep her from trying to get through to him in every way possible. And at times it didn’t seem possible. But there were rare moments when his faint squeeze of her hand made the lonely vigil seem worth it.

Then on 7 October, 1977, from out of the gauzy barrier between them, Jon spoke: “Mom?”

It had been the first substantive cause for hope. Tracy arrived the next day to be surprised: Jon could speak again—haltingly—but the words were distinct. The diary Marja kept calls this “a very great day for all of us!” But it was not to last.

The next day Jon plunged back into unconsciousness. The curtain between them now seemed opaque. Marja and Tracy felt their hopes were dashed.

After Tracy returned to work again, the doctors reported to Marja that Jon’s vital signs were perilous and asked if she wanted him on life-support systems. She told them no. “I did not want his life artificially preserved,” recalls Marja. Her brother-in-law gave Jon a blessing and told her that he felt confident Jon was going to be all right. “I had faith in his faith, but to me the little improvement that we saw was not cause for great hope,” she says.

Jon was sent home weeks later—ostensibly because the care he was getting could be done as well there. But Tracy remembers having the thought that Jon had been sent home to die. Jon’s unstable body temperatures would send him in and out of consciousness many times a day.

From January to March 1978, the mysterious curtain opened and closed unpredictably, but the loving care went on. Jon was turned in his bed to prevent bedsores, and the tubes that nourished him were monitored constantly. He was read to, talked to, and cared for in so many ways. Friends came by the house to talk with Jon, expressing feelings, lending support. “Our friends and neighbors were wonderful,” says Tracy. “It went on so long, but it seemed as though each time we got discouraged, someone would be dropping in, bringing encouragement in some form or another.”

Through it all, Marja gave Jon daily physical therapy, lovingly moving his limbs and working his muscles and joints to prevent atrophy.

In March 1978, Jon began to show signs of recovery. This time, his consciousness was steady for nearly six months. He was able to speak, and the tubes that fed him were removed so he could eat regular food. By June he was in a wheelchair, and by August, though his vision was still very limited, he was walking short distances around the house.

When school started in September, Jon attended a few classes with his classmates, though he had missed an entire year. Everyone was encouraged; the Hansens were elated. Jon’s teachers were working hard with him to help him make up the loss. His near-blindness made that even more difficult, but everyone was pulling for him. It seemed prayers had been answered, and hopes were high.

Then, in November 1978, Jon had a sudden setback. Doctors decided that under the circumstances, the only hope of saving Jon’s life would be to move the shunt to the right side of his skull, even though that side is not usually as effective.

Dangerously high fevers and a risky surgery put Jon back in the intensive-care unit. His parents were left to express their faith more intensely than ever. “After all we’d been through,” Tracy remembers feeling, “we didn’t know if there was anything else we could do except turn ourselves and our son over to the Lord and plead once more for Jon’s life, ready to accept His will, whatever it would be.”

Marja adds, “We had somehow endured that far and felt that if the Lord required more of us for our son’s welfare, we would continue.”

And so they continued. The day Marja gripped her son’s limp hand as if to keep him in this world, she didn’t know that within the next several weeks Jon would be home, the infection finally subsiding, his fever gone, and his full recovery begun.

By Christmas, Jon was speaking. By March he was walking and back in school—a recovery that doctors say would not have been so rapid or complete without the physical therapy his mother had unstintingly given to his unused limbs.

It had been two years, and though his health was now stabilized, it would take two more years of Jon’s concentrated efforts, combined with the efforts of dedicated teachers and friends, for him to achieve a full recovery. The long nightmare for Jon’s parents was over. “And the unusual thing to me,” adds Marja, “is that Jon hardly remembers a single thing about those two years.”

Surrounded by caring people, Jon regained confidence quickly. As his bishop interviewed him to be ordained a priest, Jon enjoyed a humorous moment when asked if he was worthy to advance in the priesthood. He replied, “Bishop I’ve been perfect for the last two years; I don’t remember committing a single sin.” With his eyesight still poor and his short-term memory weak, Jon learned to read the sacrament prayers from cards with extra-large print that his mother had prepared for him.

To give some idea of the kind of people Jon Hansen had around him, consider a highlight or two from his years at St. Johns High School. He struggled hard to cram three years of study into two, sang in the choir, and played drum in the concert and marching bands. “Those were great places to feel like I was among my friends again,” Jon says, “and everyone was terrific to me.” They apparently were: they elected Jon student-body president during his senior year, and as he walked across the stage at his graduation in 1981, he received a thunderous standing ovation. But one of the Hansen family’s most singular moments for Jon was still six months away, at the same time he received his mission call.

A summer job and a semester at Eastern Arizona College in Thatcher preceded Jon’s nineteenth birthday and a mission call to the Texas Dallas Mission. It was during his pre-mission physical examination that the revelation came: the shunt was no longer needed and had stopped draining before he entered the mission field in January.

“What a moment that was for us,” Tracy says. “With that wonderful news we felt the Lord’s love for us so distinctly, felt a confirmation that His will had been done in Jon’s and our behalf and that now Jon could go and do His will by serving a mission unencumbered.”

Jon’s father still teaches at the high school, where Philis is now a junior. Jon’s mother teaches music at the middle school and coaches and referees girls’ athletics. And Dewin is married and lives in Chandler, near Phoenix. Jon, now the father of three boys, teaches second grade in Sanders, where he has served in the branch presidency and where his wife, Denise, has served as Primary president. Jon commutes from St. Johns, and he teaches fifteen-year-olds in Sunday School some rather personal faith-promoting stories about a boy who was “not all that concerned with spiritual things, until one day something happened to change his life, and the Lord revealed to that boy just how much He loved him.”

Photography by Craig Dimond

Marja and Jon Hansen, as close as ever following their ordeal.

Tracy and Marja Hansen (foreground) and Denise and Jon with their children and Jon’s sister, Philis.