My Father Was My Hero; He Was Also A Trauma Warrior – Part 2 – 1/19/22

Thank you for continuing to read and “hear” my father’s story.  As most would guess and some have experienced, a major illness within a family typically qualifies as “traumatic.” Traumatic basically means there has been a threat to one’s life and one’s sense of safety and security.  There is a sense of doom and gloom, of the unknown and the yet to be seen, but also the “I can’t believe what I’m seeing” aspect. There is an astonishment of the major changes that occur to the person with the disease.  Thoughts like: “Their functioning is so deteriorated, will they be okay? Will they ever be the same again? Will they suffer a lot?” Within the patient, there is also: “I can’t believe what I’m feeling, this is very different” and “Who am I with this disease? I am not the same.” And for both the patient and the family: “HOW and WHY did this happen and what will happen next?” In terms of trauma, was having Parkinson’s Disease a threat to my father’s life? Yes, there was no cure and it’s a progressively debilititing disease. Was it a threat to his sense of safety and security? Yes. He could no longer rely on himself to protect himself from harm; he was also used to protecting others from harm and that was no longer possible the way it used to be. Try wrapping your head around that reality when your career and livelihood are made up of protection roles, not to mention your sense of self as a protector of your family, which he took very seriously.  Was my father’s illness a threat to me? Yes, not physically, but in the sense of it meaning there was a threat to someone of major significance in my life, someone whose presence and well-being afforded me a sense of safety and security, even as an adult.  My father was forced to look at himself differently, and I was too. And that was just plain sad and depressing for both of us. He told me tearfully one day, he couldn’t believe his “babies” had to help him get out of bed.

But then, about a year into the journey, a glimmer of hope appeared: his neurologist at UC told him about an experimental brain surgery that had gained some traction because Michael J. Fox had had it and it had been successful. Mom and dad researched the information available on it and decided it was worth trying. Mom then had to fight the Insurance company for approval. Thankfully, she won that battle. In August 1999, my dad underwent deep brain stimulation surgery.  The night before, we had a head shaving party for him and my husband, who had been balding since age 17 and sported a shaved head most of the time, did the honors. All of us were there to support dad, and I stayed for the surgery and days following.  My two sisters closest in age to me lived out of state, and the three younger ones were still at home and had school obligations, plus they weren’t adults yet, this was not for them to do. I’ll never forget seeing him in the brain surgery “gear” that looked like a cage around his head with places where it was tightened with screws. To me, it looked like a crown of thorns, and I thought that was a pretty good representation of the suffering endured thus far, and the suffering I sensed would be endured before he got all the way through this chapter of his life. I shook the thought away and kissed him on the cheek and squeezed his hand before he went back.  Something AMAZING happened that day! Surgery itself was successful and the intervention was wildly successful beyond what any of us imagined.  Our dad started “coming back” and he was able to DANCE at my sister Sandi’s wedding in late September! He wanted to buy the shoes he rented with his tux for her wedding, he called them “magical shoes.” He hadn’t danced in 2 years and he was a great dancer, having taken ballroom dancing as a teen/young man. It was a glorious and hopeful time. We celebrated his increase in functioning with all of our family and friends. I celebrated it daily in my head. It went on for a good two years.

A pause here for one of dad’s favorite songs from his favorite movie, “Rocky.” It was his personal anthem and it became our anthem for his journey:  “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor  and what a survivor he was!

The body and brain can do some amazing things, but there’s a bit of a time limit to all things. We are, in fact, only human. The decline started again. He was approved for surgery again, to have the deep brain stimulation done on the other side of his brain, in the hopes of a similar outcome.  It didn’t take. It’s unclear why, but it was for sure a dashing of hope for all of us.  But we moved on and forward. Mom and dad had joined an extremely supportive Parkinson’s Diesase group and were finding their people to talk with and share with.  They could be spokespeople for the surgery, having been through it, and there’s nothing my mom likes more than helping others in any way she can. So there was “new life” there, and of course, we all continued on with our lives, reaching milestones such as graduations from high school, college, grad school, medical school, and the first grandbaby was brought into the family in early 2002: my daughter, Madilyn. We were living in Arizona at the time and came home in late 2002 as things worsened for dad. I didn’t want to raise my children without their grandparents anyway, nor did my husband.  All the sisters who were living away at that time started making their way back home.  My dad was still talking and able to be playful when Madilyn was an infant and into her first couple of years. The joy my dad had holding and interacting with her was priceless. We had made the right decision for sure. My older sister and her husband moved back at the same time we did with their daughter, who is just 6 months younger than mine. And my third sister soon got herself transferred to the closest air force base in Dayton, OH.  No one was more than 2 1/2 hours away and we had family celebrations quite often, for holidays, graduations, weddings, and all the birthdays in our extended, growing family.  Having everyone together was dad’s favorite thing. By 2008, there were six grandchildren (4 girls and 2 boys) and five of the six of us were married. The babies’ presence always brigtened up dad and we brought them around as often as we could. We had all adjusted to the “new normal,” as much as anyone can. Dad was losing more capabilities and he and mom were living alone, empty-nesting for the past few years, as my youngest sister had been away at college more than she was at home. Mom went to work every day and dad called her if he needed anything. She worked less than a mile away and could be home quickly. Then in March 2008, another major milestone in dad’s illness, leading to another major change in his life (and ours) occurred.  He was 60 going on 61…


Until then, May Your Day Be Sprinkled with HOPE,

Melissa Adamchik, Daughter of William Wambaugh: U.S. Army Veteran, Retired IRS Special Agent, & “Pa” to his beloved grandchildren

My Father Was My Hero; He Was Also A Trauma Warrior – Part 1 – 1/16/22

Friends, Colleagues, & Community Members, this is going to be a hard one for me to get through without crying a little, and that’s okay.  No need to worry.  I’m fully accepting of the sorrow and the grief I still feel after 7 years. I want to tell my father’s story and the part of it that is my story. I need to tell it. It’s been inside me for so long, and I’ve shared pieces, but it has evolved. I come to a greater understanding of it all the time, through the people I meet in this work, through hearing their struggles and their stories of hope, by telling pieces of my dad’s story and hearing people’s reactions to it, through learning new things about trauma and about myself.  These things cause more of the tiny little lights strung across the darkness to turn on and help me to see things more clearly.

My father, William Wambaugh, lived a life of service to others. When some were dodging and protesting the Vietnam War draft, he happily answered the call.  His father had gone before him and it’s what you do when you’re an able-bodied citizen needed by the country for protection. So he spent some time in the de-militarized zone of Korea as his Vietnam War service. He didn’t mean to go to Korea, but his baggage was lost and he was sent out later than the rest of his army unit, which meant a different flight and assignment, and that’s where he found himself living at age 22-23.  I don’t have to tell you that war is awful, but I do have to tell you that although he wasn’t in the worst area of combat, he did see some things that haunted him; and that he worked as a medic without any sort of formal training prior to his military service.  And finally, I have to tell you that Agent Orange, the infamous chemical warfare that had been created to harm enemies, was being aerated throughout his environment. Eventually, my father was released of his duties to return home.  Young 23 year-old Bill was reunited with his family when my oldest sister was 1, and went back to a job he’d secured at the IRS prior to the war. He and my mom continued creating their own family, and I came along, way ahead of schedule, after one failed attempt in-between.  They went on to bring a total of six girls into the world over a 14-year span.  As a child, I didn’t fully grasp the significance of this, or even my own significance, but I did enjoy all the babies being born into the family and the joy to my parents that came with each one. We were all deeply loved, wanted, and celebrated, and continue to be.

My father worked his way up in the IRS, became a Special Agent, was sent from Cleveland to Cincinnati to work and eventually headed up the Criminal Investigation division of the IRS in Cincinnati.  He did SWAT team duty and Secret Service detail when Presidents came to town.  So here he is battling white collar, organized crime (yes, local mafia) and I swear to you, we as children did not know the level of risk he took and the danger he was in. We thought he was processing and reviewing people’s tax returns, looking out for dishonest folks, and making sure they followed the law; and we knew that that was a very important government job and were proud of our father’s work. It allowed mom to stay home with us for my and most of my sisters’ entire childhoods. Here’s what I noticed as a child: Dad left home in the morning and came home in the evening in a suit and tie, “dressed for success,” with a briefcase in his hand and a smile on his face. Sometimes he came home in different cars, but that was because they belonged to the government and they let him.  And sometimes he traveled, but never very far, and never for very long. He was home to tuck us into bed most nights and we felt very, very safe.  What went on in his job from 9 to 5 or 8 to 6 was no concern of ours.  Our father was of great stature (6′ 6″) and strength; he boxed and exercised daily, he ate well, liked to do home improvement projects, read alot, played a lot with us, was funny and silly, laughed until he cried sometimes, told the best stories, and kept his mind sharp; he was our very own super hero, built a lot like The Incredible Hulk, but looked more like Clark Kent minus the glasses.  No one was getting past him. We slept well at night and he made sure of that. This went on for quite some time, just like this.

A couple of years ago, we hosted a Trauma Storytelling workshop at TTN.  It was then that I learned the framework for storytelling around trauma, the typical trauma story progression. It follows a distinct pattern. First, you have: I was going about life and this is what my life was like, these were the day-to-day things of significance: “I was working at a middle school in Louisville in their Family Resource Center. I was going to graduate school full-time at Spalding University, working towards my Master’s degree. I had met my fiance a year and half earlier and we were planning a big wedding.”  This leads to the second part of the story, which starts with, “And then one day…” (insert major traumatic life event). So for me it was, “And then one day, my father fell off his bicycle while we were on a family vacation and it struck me as odd.”

His world and our world changed dramatically in mid-1997. The strongest man we knew personally was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. It was a blow bigger than any punch he could have taken from an opponent, and there was nothing that could be done to cure it, just some things to help with the symptoms: tremors, unsteady gait, freezing muscles, atrophied muscles, speech difficulty, lack of control over movement (the brain would know what he wanted to do, but the body couldn’t carry it out). And for whatever reason, he declined very rapidly in the first two years. Shocking both to him and us, and likely to them after 30 years of high-level work performance, he had to stop working at age 51 (he hung on for as long as he could) and he formally retired soon after from his position with the IRS. He had built up 9 months of sick leave never used. I have zero memories of my dad being ill for any noticeable perioid of time until he was ill with Parkinson’s Disease, for 17 and a half years. He lost weight, he was stuck in bed, he was distraught, he lost his sparkle, he lost who he was for a while, and that was easy to understand.  I was 24 when he was diagnosed in the late summer of 1997. I was starting my last semester of grad school for Clinical Psychology and knew some things about psychology, and maybe a small amount about life and death, joy and pain.  I was about to get married.  My parents chose not to tell us until after my wedding and after Christmas, my dad’s favorite holiday. My youngest sister was 12 at the time, the next sister was 14, and the third one, also still at home going to college, was 19.  My other sisters were 23 and 27. One was living in D.C. practicing as a physician at Andrews Air Force Base; the other was a young attorney. Mom and dad were both 50. It was devastating for all of us…


In the meantime…May Your Day Be Sprinkled With HOPE,

Melissa Adamchik, Daughter of William Wambaugh & Executive Director of the Tristate Trauma Network