The surgeon advised Bill McKee that he’d soon have to say goodbye to his wife, explaining the bleeding in her brain was severe and a portion of her cerebellum had turned to mush.
“She’ll never make it. You don’t want her to make it because she’d be a vegetable,” the surgeon explained to Bill, a Pocatello native who was in Tennessee with family on an extended mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Within the span of a few days, RaNae McKee had a massive heart attack, two strokes and brain surgery, before slipping into a coma that persisted for nearly two months.
It’s been eight years since RaNae commenced on an unlikely recovery that her family and physicians can only attribute to divine intervention. It’s a turnaround that began shortly after RaNae received a bedside visit from Elder Russell M. Nelson with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who now serves as church president.
Today, RaNae drives a car and does the books and payroll for the family business, Center Counseling, 265 E. Chubbuck Road. She also teaches piano lessons and played the organ during the groundbreaking of her church’s Pocatello Idaho Temple on March 16, 2019.
“I think every day is a gift. I look at the little things in life a lot differently,” said RaNae, who is now 63.
The picture of health
In 2011, Bill and RaNae McKee and the five youngest of their 10 children left on an LDS Church mission in Nashville, where Bill was assigned to oversee more than 200 missionaries.
RaNae was an avid jogger and seemed to be the picture of health when on the day before Thanksgiving in 2012 she complained of chest pain. She told Bill she felt like she was going to black out. Then she started vomiting. Bill rushed his wife, who was having a stroke, to a Nashville hospital.
While she was getting settled in her hospital room, RaNae went into cardiac arrest. She was placed on life support, and the doctors were losing hope.
“She’s gone! She’s gone! We’ve lost her!” members of her medical team repeated as they continued working to restore her heartbeat.
She had two stents installed and lost the bottom half of her heart. But against the odds, her pulse was restored.
That night, however, RaNae had yet another brush with death — again suffering a hemorrhagic stroke. Once more, doctors prepared Bill for the worst, warning him it was unlikely she would survive another day. His five adult children booked their flights, hoping to arrive in time.
After completing brain surgery on RaNae, a surgeon reported that he’d managed to stop 80% of her bleeding, but part of her cerebellum — the portion of the brain that coordinates muscular activity — had liquified. Bill didn’t know what to hope for.
“She’s a musician. I didn’t want her to live and not be able to play the piano and sing,” he said of his wife, a former Miss America Pageant contestant who won Miss Idaho in 1976. “I didn’t want her to live without joy in her life.”
Though RaNae clung to life, she slipped into a self-induced coma. She was on life support, with a feeding tube in her stomach. She was connected to IVs and had a hole drilled into her skull to drain the excess blood. Children and grandchildren arrived, and the family prayed at her bedside daily.
An important visitor
Bill ran his LDS mission from the hospital, spending every day with his wife.
RaNae remained in intensive care, and her insurance was nearly exhausted as Christmas drew near. The LDS church helped them with their medical bills.
On a daily basis, doctors asked Bill if he was ready to taker her off of life support.
“Every day I would pray, ‘Dear Lord, what do you want me to do?’ Every time I would get the distinct impression, ‘Just wait and see Bill,’” he said.
Just before the holiday, the family received a visitor who helped lift their spirits despite the bleak outlook.
The current president of the LDS Church, who was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles at the time, was in Nashville to attend a church conference. President Nelson is RaNae’s second cousin; Nelson’s wife Wendy has long been close with the McKee family.
While at RaNae’s bedside, Nelson gave her a blessing, placing a hand on her head. The religious leader said softly, “RaNae — sweet, sweet RaNae — how we love you.”
Nelson told Bill that he was releasing him from his commitment as a mission president. Then he looked toward the heavens, as if in thought, and said, “No, I think we need to leave you right here.”
“His visit gave us the hope of trusting in the Lord, no matter if she lived or passed,” Bill said.
The McKees spent a somber Christmas together in Nashville. The musically gifted McKee children sought to brighten the holidays for other patients, caroling from room to room on each floor.
Coming back from the brink
While she remained in a coma, her son, Jared, who is a physical therapist, made sure to give her limbs a full range of motion every day to limit the atrophy.
They kept music playing in her room and sometimes placed a keyboard in her lap, guiding her fingers to perform scales, hoping some connection with her brain would take place.
One day, Bill caught a glimpse of her blinking an eye: The medical staff attributed his observation to wishful thinking. The next day, however, she started moving her little finger.
“She came out of the coma in slow motion after about three and a half weeks,” Bill said.
Bill recalled dreaming about his wife taking two steps in the hospital.
“We stood her up and she took two steps, just like in the dream,” he said.
When RaNae was ultimately taken off of life support, it was so she could begin breathing on her own, and the tears shed were of joy. But she still hadn’t spoken and the family remained uncertain about her mental state — until a nurse announced she was going to “check on Miss McKee’s brain.”
The nurse held up an object and asked RaNae to identify it.
“Pen,” RaNae correctly answered in a raspy voice, through her tracheostomy.
“What do you do with a pen?” the nurse asked again.
“Write,” RaNae replied.
Then the nurse asked, “What do you do with a broom?”
RaNae cracked a joke: “Give it to your husband and tell him to sweep the floor.”
A theme of Bill’s time in Nashville was for his missionaries to expect miracles. He personally witnessed miracles on a daily basis as his wife forged ahead with a recovery none of the experts thought was possible.
After a nearly three-month stay, RaNae left the hospital. Sometimes she would share words of inspiration to the missionaries under her husband’s supervision.
“I don’t have even one memory of being in the hospital,” RaNae said. “I remember going to rehab when I was in Tennessee. I remember being really frustrated because I don’t think I really understood what had happened.”
In July 2013, Nelson released Bill from his mission a full year early. His note to Bill advised, “You need to come home to Pocatello, Idaho, to get the medical attention you need.” Bill found that strange since Nashville is a much larger city with medical professionals who are leaders in their field.
Nelson requested that Bill write him with updates on a weekly basis. The busy spiritual leader replied to every one of Bill’s messages.
Shortly after returning to Pocatello, the Mckee’s believe they discovered the health care issue Nelson foresaw when he ended the mission prematurely. RaNae had cross eyes when she came out of the coma. Her ophthalmologist in Nashville saw no way to surgically correct the problem and had her do regular eye exercises. RaNae, however, was frustrated by her lack of any progress.
Upon returning to Pocatello, she was referred to the Moran Eye Center in Salt Lake City. The doctor corrected the problem with two small surgeries, restoring her 20-20 vision.
RaNae has faced plenty of challenges in her recovery. She’s worked hard on her speech and relearned how to walk. In January, she had a partial mastectomy and radiation treatments for cancer, though she’s doing well now.
“I know there’s a reason that I’m here,” RaNae said. “I get frustrated not being able to do the things I used to do, but I am very grateful for life itself.”
One of the messages Bill has taken from his wife’s ordeal is to appreciate every moment and to recognize the significance in seemingly trivial occurrences in everyday life.
“The Lord’s hand is in everything: beautiful blue sky, green grass, when grandkids give you a hug,” Bill said. “Those are the miracles.”