As a girl, I was home with viral pneumonia, feeling yucky. My mom, after rubbing my feet (still a sucker for that indulgence), said, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.” The saying cheered me then as it does now.
The proverb surely applies to Denise Alter Tobin. About 30 years ago, unable to become pregnant, she began seeing an infertility specialist at Detroit’s Hutzel Hospital. She went through monthly visits, daily meds, tests and temperature monitoring. “My hormones were out of synch,” she says. She and husband John Alter kept trying.
After about 4 years, she recalls, “I needed a break.” She decided to work on her master’s degree at Wayne State U. and told her doc she’d take some time off. He warned she’d “never” get pregnant without medical intervention.
That fall, the day daylight savings time went into effect, she took the notion of “Fall forward” too literally. She had previously made teriyaki sauce and stored it in a glass jar in the ‘frig. She took it out to marinate Cornish hens for dinner. The lid stuck. Since her stepson was home in the lower level, she decided to ask him for help.
Denise was carrying the jar downstairs when her foot dragged on the carpet. She’d recently read an article about the proper way to fall, curling up instead of thrusting out an arm and risking a broken wrist. Remembering that, she hugged her arms to her chest. As she pitched forward, the jar broke against her throat.
No one heard her yell for help. She felt air blow through her neck. She climbed back up the stairs, grabbed a roll of paper towel to stanch the wound, then found her husband who’d just finished showering.
She showed him the injury to her neck and face, covered in blood and teriyaki sauce. “Oh my God,” he said. “Don’t look.”
She started to panic, saw black dots, feared she was dying.
As luck would have it, John Alter was a D.O. and head of ENT and facial cosmetic surgery at North Oakland Hospital in Pontiac. He helped his wife to the car and sped her to the hospital and into an operating room. Denise had 7 lacerations requiring about 250 stitches. She couldn’t swallow properly or eat solid foods for several weeks. She lost considerable weight.
While Denise was recovering in the hospital, a couple of consoling Godsigns occurred. Rabbi Monty Syme of Temple Israel visited. He said, “Things happen for a reason.”
Her 17 year old stepson Geoff also visited. Denise was sobbing at the time, thinking about how disfiguring her scars would be. Geoff said, “Denise, you’re beautiful. Scars won’t change who you are.”
After the shock to her body, Denise’s monthly cycle normalized. The next spring, she became pregnant. In December, 1990, Carolyn Clare Alter was born. “I think I held her through every nap for the first 3 months,” Denise says. “I never wanted to let her go. The next Mother’s Day, I lay in a hammock crying tears of joy, thinking: I’m a Mom!”
Carolyn’s younger sister, Leslie Nicole, was born 4 and ½ years later. Now 25, Carolyn is studying for her Psy. D. at Adler University in Chicago. Leslie’s a senior at the U of M.
“Life throws you curves,” Denise says. “For a while after my accident, I kept thinking about how close I came to death. Another ¼ of an inch and I could have severed my jugular vein or destroyed my voice box. The experience made me scared of everything. I was afraid to drive or go to school. I realized I needed to change my perspective. I decided to look at myself as a cat with 9 lives.”
About ten years later, Denise returned the favor for her husband. She was his caretaker for three years. John was born in a d.p. camp in Austria and had inherited a rare spinal muscular disease (similar to Kennedy’s Disease) that affected his pulmonary function. Ultimately he underwent a permanent tracheotomy. He died in 2004 at age 58.
Denise has remarried. She and husband Michael Tobin live in the same house she and John shared on Pine Lake in West Bloomfield, MI. She looks back on her survival with awe and gratitude. She thinks about how proud her late husband would be of his daughters. She says, “I’d go through the whole accident again if it meant giving birth to an amazing daughter.”
But she hasn’t made teriyaki sauce since.
Thanks, Denise, for giving hope to Godsigns readers. Thanks for reminding us that although we often don’t understand it at the time, things do happen for a reason.
(And thanks to my dear friend, Brenda Rosenberg, for sharing Denise’s story with me.)