MODESTO — The January 2003 day began like any other, but when it was over, Ella Velthoen of Modesto was fighting for her life.
Christmas vacation was finished and Ella had returned to work as a teacher at Stockton's Harrison Elementary School. When she began to feel lousy and started vomiting, she went home. She became so sick that her husband, Allen, who restores player pianos and carousel organs, insisted on driving her to an emergency room.
By the time she finally saw a doctor, Ella said, "My belly button had come right out of my body. My husband said it was the size of an orange."
A trauma surgeon said it was a hernia and they needed to operate right away. Because it was supposed to be a quick fix, Allen said, the surgical team didn't put a respiratory tube down Ella's throat. So when she threw up during surgery, the stomach acid burned her lungs and Ella was put into a medically induced coma.
The coma lasted for nearly five months. Three times, the family and their Greek Orthodox priests were called in as Ella's body began to shut down.
The first crisis occurred a couple of days after she arrived at the hospital. In the initial surgery, said Ella, 63, doctors found several tumors in her intestinal and uterine area, but only removed the ones near a twisted part of her intestine. Two days later, when they told Allen she was failing, they told him she also had a large tumor that they hadn't removed because they feared she wouldn't survive.
"He said, 'We're going to lose her anyway, so open her up and take care of it.' They took me back into surgery and removed the tumor," Ella said. "They said the reason all my organs were failing is because it was on a major artery in my body."
Allen said his calm disposition helped when dealing with his wife's medical issues.
"A lot of times the doctors need that little push from the patient or the patient's family," he said. "It helps to have common sense and say, OK, if she's going downhill and a surgery may make something better, you should give the patient a chance."
Ella rebounded, but a couple of weeks later, she became infected with sepsis and nearly died again. Meanwhile, she said, she was having dreams or visions.
"I told my husband later that I saw a fluttering light in front of me, and I knew it was the Virgin Mary," Ella said. "I told him I prayed not just with my mouth, but with my whole body. All of a sudden, Allen said, my heart started to work again. Everything started working again."
Once more, in February, Ella's daughter, Kristina, got a call at about 3 a.m. The hospital said Ella was failing again. "She said, 'Are you sure? You keep calling us and telling us this.' They said, 'You need to come in again.' They called the priests in again," Ella said.
Dad shuts door to heaven
"I was dreaming I knocked on a door and I knew my father, who had died about nine years before this, was on the other side. He said, 'What are you doing here?' I said, 'I left the hospital and I want to come in.' He slammed the door and said, 'You go back now.' I said, 'No, I love you Daddy.' My father was so Greek. He was so affectionate. He told me he loved me and I was beautiful and I was the apple of his eye. But he wouldn't say any of those things this time. It hurt me."
She "returned" to the hospital and began making positive strides. She came out of the coma in May and was released to a rehabilitation unit in June. Spiritual lessons came to her mind while she was in the coma, she said.
"I told Father Jon (Magoulias) that I kept hearing his homilies, about Job and all the bad things that happened to him, but he still kept his faith," Ella said. "My baptismal name is Elené, after the mother of St. Constantine. She came to me, and I realized there are people who watch over us. Here was my saint, right there. I've always told the children (in Sunday school) about the saints, and those came alive in my comatose state. I told Father (Jon), I'm not that religious, but here I am getting all of these messages."
"When Ella came out of her coma, she told me about the Bible lessons and homilies and it was obvious that everyone's prayers were being answered," said Magoulias, priest of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation in Modesto. "It was a remarkable story of how one's faith in Jesus Christ had penetrated the depth of her soul."
Ella also heard people in the room, she said, which is why she cautions people about talking around comatose patients.
One doctor, she said, talked to a nurse as he stood over her comatose body. He asked how long Ella had been on a certain medicine and if the nurse had ever seen anyone come out of a coma after that length of time.
"She said, 'No, but there could be exceptions,' " Ella said. "The doctor said, 'She'll never walk again.' It made me mad, hearing him. I wanted to show him."
A second doctor repeated the prognosis about a month before Ella was released from the hospital. Allen asked how long it would be before his wife could return to teaching. The doctor looked at him and bluntly said, "This woman will never go back to work again. She will never walk again."
When Ella first went to rehab, she said, the doctors were right; her legs were "flopping all over the place" and she couldn't walk. But she was determined to succeed. One of her first outings was to her church, where she took Communion in a wheelchair. A few Sundays later, she said, with the strong support of her husband and another friend on either side of her, she walked to the front of the sanctuary to receive Communion.
"I was the last one up there because it took me forever to get there, but Father stood waiting. Nobody talked; you could hear a pin drop. He wife told me later, 'We wanted to clap; we were so excited to see you up there.' "
"Ella's story is amazing and inspirational to all," Magoulias said. "It is a lesson to not let despair take over one's life but hope in the blessings of God who is showering us with his love and great kindness."
'Ready for the mortuary'
Another day, Ella said, she and her husband were eating at Lyon's restaurant. He told her one of her doctors was at a table around the corner.
"I went over and said hello," Ella said. "When he spoke, I recognized his voice. It was the one who was talking above me. I said, 'You said I would never walk again.' He said, 'I don't know who you are.' Then my husband walked around the corner and he said, 'My Lord, I never thought I'd see you again. I thought you were ready for (the mortuary).' I told him, 'Not only do I walk, but I danced at a wedding recently. You shouldn't say things to people in a coma. They can hear you.' "
Three months after being released from the hospital, Ella was back teaching her fourth-graders.
"The kids were following me around with my rolling desk chair in case I needed to sit down," she laughed. "They were so sweet. This is a Title I school. These kids don't have too many people who are role models, so they were just wonderful."
Ella still limps a little, and her right hand sometimes locks up and her legs sometimes swell.
"But when I woke up (from the coma), I was bald and with a mustache because I'm Greek, so this is all good."
It's not the only heart-stopping period in Ella's life.
In 1999, her 22-year-old eldest daughter, Katherine, was driving a friend home on Highway 99 near Taylor Road in Turlock when someone drove up and fired a fatal shot at her in an apparently random murder. The crime has never been solved, despite radio programs and a billboard seeking information, plus an $80,000 reward.
"I thank the Lord I had the church community, who took care of us and helped us get through it," Ella said. "I was never angry at God; I was angry at whoever did this. The evil in the world is not because of God. We have free choice. I'm sure there was no reason at all (for my daughter's murder), just somebody evil."
Then, in 2008, Ella was diagnosed with cancerous tumors.
"It's actually miraculous," she said. "I went into the doctor to get off of some pills they had given me after my coma. He said I had to be checked first, and they found a lump in my throat." An MRI also revealed some cancerous tumors in her brain.
She was referred to a surgeon in San Francisco for the brain tumors; he assured her it would be easy to remove them. But before she could have the surgery, she received radiation treatment for the thyroid tumor.
"It killed all the cancer in my body," Ella said. "The tumors in my brain are dead. Am I lucky, or what?"
No longer fears death
She said all of these experiences have taught her to look for miracles in life.
"Every day there are miracles, but we're too busy to see them," she said. "I think we need to open our eyes and pay attention. Believe it or not, God watches over us. He truly does."
She said she also appreciates ordinary things the color of a flower, the shape of a leaf.
"Because I was in that bed so long, I was in awe of how beautiful the flowers were. How beautiful the pool water was. I'm still finding beauty in these things. I still see them as wonderful and amazing, how perfect so many things are and how a creator could do all that."
And, she said, she no longer wonders about the reality of heaven.
"I have no fear of death anymore because I know there's so much more," she said. "I've always gone to church, but you still have that question in your mind, what if there is no divine being? What if it's all wishful thinking? I have no fear now. I saw too many things when I was asleep."
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2012.