Sometimes, a sign is just that.
Not that Carol Sikler was looking for one to provide guidance back in December of 2000. She already had plenty of other things on her mind. Her husband, Chuck, was lying in a hospital bed in Indianapolis. His diseased colon had been removed, leaving only a scar that ran from his groin to his sternum.
And now there were complications. The incision wasn’t healing properly.
Cammie, their 5-year-old daughter, was back with family friends in Logansport. For three months, Carol, a communication specialist in Purdue’s Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, had pinballed between home and daughter, hospital and husband, and work. She put up a facade of strength that told everyone that everything was going to be just fine.
And she believed it with all her heart.
Carol would leave work at 4 p.m. and drive to Indianapolis to spend time with Chuck, who was pastor of the Baptist Temple in Logansport, Ind.
Carol knew exactly when she had to leave her husband’s bedside to get home and spend a few minutes of mom time with Cammie before putting her to bed. Still, Carol felt this commuter craziness was cheating both her husband and her daughter. Time she spent behind the wheel was not time she could spend with either Chuck or Cammie.
Chuck’s recovery was sustained by countless blood transfusions but slowed by infections that heavy doses of modern medicine and time-tested prayers were unable to overcome.
And then there was the sign.
It was almost 7 p.m. as Carol headed home up a darkening Meridian Street when she passed the Central Indiana Regional Blood Center. There was a small, metal sign on the sidewalk in front of the building. There were only two words on the sign that was about as big as a real estate yard sign.
She stopped in just as they were closing for the day. A woman told Carol there were a lot of people who were creating a big draw on the supply right now.
“Yeah,” said Carol, thinking of her hospitalized husband. “I know one of them.”
Carol had participated in a blood drive back in high school in Tennessee and had given sporadically in the years since. But the very next day, she began to work off a debt she is still paying 12 years later, although, by all accounts, the ledger should read “paid in full.”
Carol Sikler displays a handful of the pins commemorating each gallon of blood she has donated during the past 12 years.
(Purdue Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell)
Carol recently donated her 148th unit of blood. That’s more than 18 gallons of life. “The whole thing about giving blood is to be able to say ‘I helped.’ I’m not saving anybody’s life, but I’m helping. It’s a very simple thing.”
Chuck left the hospital that December in 2000, but he was far from recovered.
Twice each day, Carol would remove the bandages on Chuck’s abdomen, clean the wound and re-bandage her husband again so he could live as normal a life as his surgery would allow.
The staph infection that kept Chuck in the hospital for three months never went away. It made him susceptible to infections, both giving and getting, which made it tough to be a pastor. He couldn’t visit church members in hospitals or senior centers where there were people whose own immune systems might be compromised.
“It really limited what he could do in his ministry,” Carol said. This was no way to live.
So on Jan. 29, 2003, Chuck went back into a hospital for a surgical procedure that was expected to last about 90 minutes.
Doctors told the Siklers they thought they could clean out all of the infection, put a barrier on the abdominal wall and reconstruct the small intestines.
But they had underestimated the amount of scar tissue left from the first surgery in 2000. It took a team of eight more than seven hours to examine every inch of his small intestines.
The infections that had at least been held in check since 2000 now ran rampant in his system. Even the medications that were helping keep him alive were doing damage.
“He lost most of his hearing from the first round of surgeries because high-level antibiotics carry that risk,” Carol said. She sensed it was the beginning of Chuck’s ending.
“The swelling started immediately,” Carol said, “almost as soon as they closed him back up.”
His back was covered with pressure sores. His pain levels were off the charts. His kidneys started to shut down, requiring daily dialysis sessions to reduce toxins in his blood. A ventilator inflated and deflated his lungs to keep them functioning. Prayers and blood transfusions, it seemed, were all that kept everything else in working order.
“Over the course of six weeks, I had seen the handwriting on the wall,” Carol said. “He wasn’t getting a whole lot worse, but he wasn’t getting any better, either.”
Thankfully, she had an army of friends to help keep her family together.
“I was driving from Logansport to work at Purdue, then on to Carmel to see Chuck. I would have friends meet me halfway between the hospital and Logansport to hand off Cammie to me when Chuck was having a good enough day to see her. We put a lot of miles on a lot of cars,” Carol said.
On April 16, Carol had a conference with family members and hospital staff. The prognosis was not good.
“It almost felt like I was sitting in front of a parole board, trying to convince them that Chuck was worth making an investment in, even when I knew there was not much left in him,” Carol remembered.
She could not and would not make the ultimate decision on another human’s life.
She cleared the room and asked her husband, “What do you want me to do?”
“I want you to let me go,” came his reply. “I know it is not going to be easy, but what I’m doing is not living. I am existing only in space and time. This is no life. What I’m heading for is so much better than this. I just can’t bring myself to stay.”
With that, Carol brought the medical team back into the room, and Chuck made two requests.
“I want you to turn off the medication that is holding my blood pressure up,” he told the doctors. Then turning to his wife of 17 years, he said, “and I want a Diet Coke.”
Chuck hadn’t had anything in his mouth since January 28, prepping for his surgery.
“The way he drank it, you would have thought Diet Coke was the best thing ever made,” said Carol.
“It was his decision. He was tired. He was not living. He was staying alive for me and for Cammie. And I could not keep making him do that. It just wasn’t fair. So I let him go.”
Chuck’s fight ended less than a day after he was taken off the medications that had kept him alive. But Carol’s work was only halfway through. She continued to pay back Chuck’s debt that she had begun working off after seeing that sign in Indianapolis in 2000.
“I’ve kept score,” she said. “I knew Chuck had taken a little more than 70 units of blood after his surgery in 2000 and a little less than 70 units in 2003.
Carol contributed her 140th unit of blood — the break-even point — on Nov. 26, 2011.
“It’s always been about paying back Chuck’s debt, paying back all of the people who gave our family time together that we wouldn’t have had. I’ve done that. Now the goal is, Can I get to 150 units or 200 units?”
Like most donors, Carol has never met any recipients of her blood. But she enjoys being an anonymous hero.
“You can’t buy that feeling,” she said. “It is a small thing I do, but it makes a huge difference to the people who need it. Believe me, I know. It makes me appreciate that much more — the people who sat in those chairs with a needle in their arms for Chuck.”
Now Cammie and Carol each have their own signs that help guide their lives.
Last summer, Cammie got a small tattoo on the inside of her forearm. The small heart contains the initials “CTS,” the initials she shares with her father.
And Carol’s sign? It’s the callouslike bump of scar tissue over the artery in her left arm where she has been stuck 148 times to give blood during the past 12 years. It’s a constant reminder of Chuck and the debt she pays back as often as the blood center will allow. It’s a scar she hopes will never go away.
A unique way to get Super Bowl tickets
The Indiana Blood Center in Lafayette is a frequent caller to the Sikler residence. If it’s not a call to thank Carol for her most recent donation, it’s a call to remind her to schedule her next one.
So Carol didn’t think it was unusual for the center’s president and chief executive, Byron Buhner, to call her.
She figured it was just another employee calling to check on one of its most valuable clients.
Indiana Blood Center offices across the state had been participating in a promotion. Each blood donation given during a certain period earned the donor a chance to win tickets to Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis.
Carol, Buhner informed her, was the winner.
“My first thought, since the Colts weren’t playing, was to sell the tickets,” she said. Even end zone seats were going for $1,000 each. That’s money a single mom like Carol could make go a long way.
“But the more I thought about it, I figured this was an opportunity to give Cammie an experience I would never be able to give her in any other way.”
The shared experience, Sikler said, was exciting.
“This wasn’t just a football game, it was a cultural phenomenon.”
Last December, the blood center received blood from someone following in Carol’s footsteps. Cammie overcame her aversion to needles and gave her first unit of blood while her mom was giving her 141st unit in the chair right next to her.