Tom and Laurie Kleespies are go-getters.
Even before their retirements – she, a military nurse and Tom, a published rocket scientist who once worked at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – they were living and traveling worldwide.
The couple set roots in northern Colorado. Their home is an oasis for their hobbies – Tom’s cooking and Laurie’s woodworking – and they share a passion for birding and traveling. They’ve been to all seven continents and seen thousands of species.
All those years of hard work to finally enjoy retirement almost ended in 2020 when all at once, Tom’s organs started to malfunction, and his heart began working overtime.
Tom would spend more than 90 days fighting for his life in the hospital at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, though he did not have coronavirus.
But Tom’s nurses and doctors persevered, and so did Tom. As a result, Tom is alive, enjoying all that this world has to offer alongside Laurie.
Excruciating stomach pain
In August 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic was in its sixth month of wreaking havoc in the United States. Travel restrictions and mask mandates were in place. Staff at UCHealth Medical Center of the Rockies were recovering from their first COVID-19 patient surge.
The Kleespies were making the most of their enforced pause in travel. The year prior, they’d cruised in South Africa and spent a month birding in Australia. For 2020, they had planned about 20 U.S. timeshare reservations and also trips to the Galapagos and Peru. Instead, they found joy in local birding.
By summer’s end, Tom began feeling unwell and Laurie insisted she take him to the emergency room at Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland, Colorado.
“I’m a bit of a macho man, so I resisted, but I relented,” Tom said.
When they arrived, Tom’s pain was almost unbearable, and emergency room physicians and nurses immediately began running tests. Tom had acute pancreatitis.
The pancreas gland is tucked behind the stomach in the upper abdomen and aids in digestion and glucose regulation. Tom’s pancreas was inflamed. Doctors gave him morphine for his pain, but there was another concerning issue. Tom also was experiencing AFib.
Atrial fibrillation, or AFib, is an irregular, often rapid, heart rhythm that can lead to blood clots. Tom had never had heart issues, so the presence of AFib was puzzling to physicians. Tom’s cardiologist later suggested that AFib resulted from the organ failures.
Tom was admitted to the cardiac intensive care unit so medical experts could monitor his heart. Meanwhile, medication and the passage of time helped with the pancreatitis. Doctors prescribed blood thinners to decrease the risk of stroke, and painkillers to address pain caused by inflammation of the pancreas.
During Tom’s first night in the hospital, an artery in his pancreas ruptured, causing massive internal bleeding. Doctors performed an emergency procedure, removing more than five liters of fluid from Tom’s abdomen, repairing the vessel and pumping 14 units of blood products into him to keep him alive.
Laurie arrived each morning during COVID-restricted visiting hours and sat nervously in a waiting room when she heard “Code Blue, 1st floor, radiology” over the hospital’s intercom system. A former nurse, Laurie knew what that meant: someone was in cardiac arrest.
It was Tom.
UCHealth surgeon Dr. Christian Dennis had just arrived on his shift to become part of Tom’s care team. He relayed the news to Laurie: when Tom’s breathing tube was removed after surgery, Tom suffered cardiac arrest. Doctors did CPR for 15 minutes, resuscitated him and then placed him on a ventilator.
“It was a very difficult week to follow,” Laurie said. “There were many ups and downs. It was really touch and go. There were IVs and special feeding tubes everywhere. Then he finally turned the corner.”
Two weeks after he arrived at MCR, he was sent to a rehabilitation hospital to work on regaining his strength. A week later, Tom went home.
A short-lived homecoming
Excited to be out of the hospital, Tom and Laurie hosted a few friends at their home just a few days later. Tom made pizzas in a stone oven that Laurie had refurbished in their backyard. A few hours into the gathering, Tom’s stomach pain returned.
“I told my friends, ‘I have to cut this short. Laurie needs to take me to the ER.’ The machoness was gone,” Tom said.
It’s a good thing he went to the ER. Again, his organs were shutting down. Tom’s kidneys and liver were failing, and his heart was working overtime, again going into A-fib. Doctors admitted him to the ICU, where he would spend the next several weeks.
“Our kids came to visit in mid-September,” Laurie said. “We didn’t know if (Tom) would even survive.”
UCHealth palliative care stepped in, helping the family emotionally and advocating for Tom’s pain management. The palliative care team was a blessing,” Laurie said.
A caring and responsive health care team
With the pandemic straining hospital capacity and health care workers, Laurie knew she needed to advocate for her husband.
“We were all on the same team,” she said. “But I had to put on my big hat and be bold where normally, I’m a shy person.”
Laurie was always there when doctors came to examine Tom so she could get the details of his condition and care and relay the information to her husband. Since his organ failure and heart condition was medically complex, doctors often had different ideas regarding treatment plans.
Laurie said she was grateful to his care team for always involving her in their decision-making process.
As Tom lay in his hospital bed, Laurie never doubted once that her husband would survive. She knew it was only a matter of time.
Tom had always been outgoing and athletic, enjoying backpacking and both downhill and water skiing. He ran up to 25 miles a week and taught skydiving.
“But then I stopped taking care of myself,” Tom said.
And it caught up to him.
When illness takes over physical and mental health
Tom stayed in the hospital through October 2020. Nurses continued to drain fluid built up from pancreatitis and replenished him with blood products. He was bedridden and heavier than he’d ever been.
Through the ordeal, Tom said he could feel the essence of who he was began to disappear. He couldn’t focus, read or recall facts. He lost his sense of humor and his intellectual desires. Worst of all, he didn’t care.
“The mental aspects of this were extremely difficult for me,” he said. “I’m a smart person and very proud. I just didn’t care, and I didn’t know to care. I’d just sit there and look at the wall.”
Laurie nor his care team gave up on him.
Tom returned home Nov. 8, 2020, but after a few weeks at home, Laurie was concerned she might have to take him back to the hospital. She wasn’t sure she could provide the care he needed.
“It got worse before it got better,” Laurie said. “Tom was extremely weak. He had no appetite, but finally, he turned the corner.”
Tom regained his mental strength, and that made the difference.
“That is when I got it in my mind that I wanted to go to Antarctica,” he said.
Tom knew that in a little over a year, Antarctica would be the prime spot to watch a total solar eclipse. He didn’t want to miss it.
“That gave me something to look forward to.”
It was spring 2021. Tom began to fill out his once-favorite New York Times crossword puzzle; he read his first book since being hospitalized and, best of all, began to laugh again.
Tom and Laurie scheduled their trip to Antarctica.
“Laurie wasn’t sure if I’d be strong enough,” Tom said. “When she said that, I thought, ‘she’s right.’ That will be my incentive. I’ve got to get myself in shape to do that.”
He began hiking local trails in the foothills to build endurance and by the time he boarded a ship that took them to Franklin Island, Antarctica, in December, 2021, he conquered each step.
Getting a second chance at life
Since the trip to Antarctica, Tom and Laurie have visited family in the Pacific Northwest, gone whale watching near Baja and birding in Costa Rica.
In the midst of his second chance at life, in August 2022, Tom wrote a letter to his UCHealth care team.
He wrote: “The purpose of my writing is to thank you for saving my life. There is still a lot of the world for us to see. I look forward to watching my grandson grow up. You have given me a second chance at life.’’
This past January, Tom went to a convention in Denver to meet with old colleagues, and he sat in on a few technical sessions.
“I was able to keep up with it and asked pointed questions. I didn’t know I still had that in me,” he said.
“The essence of me is back.”