The wheels on Elmer and Ramona Ignell's brand-new 2002 Toyota Corolla wouldn't straighten out. They were locked. There was no avoiding it, the couple was headed straight for a ditch and right into a "miracle."
The Ignells didn't know at the time of the accident that they were suffering from Legionnaires' disease (Legionellosis), a rare, serious and sometimes fatal form of pneumonia.
The disease acquired its name in 1976 after an outbreak of pneumonia at an American Legion convention in Philadelphia.
The Juneau couple didn't know they had contracted it sometime during their Labor Day vacation to visit relatives in the Lower 48. The disease was discovered after the couple in mid-September ran off that back road in northern Wisconsin while taking a tight curve, landing them in the hospital.
"If we hadn't had that accident, or if it had been a day later, the doctors said, we would have lost her (Ramona)," Elmer said. "She had only days. ... Most Americans believe in angels. You can't see them, but once in a while - maybe people will laugh at me for thinking this - but an angel came and turned that car over. I believe that."
Upside down and dazed after the crash, each spouse asked if the other was all right, Elmer said. The car had gone into a ditch, rolled and landed on its top. There wasn't a scratch on the Ignells, but the car was totaled. A motorist saw the crash and told them help was on the way. This puzzled the Ignells, who, aside from being a bit shook up, felt fine, they said.
The ambulance took them to a hospital, just as a precaution. By the time a doctor had taken Ramona's X-ray she was disoriented and fading fast, Elmer said. The inky film taken of her lungs showed white.
"Her lungs were almost completely filled with fluid, so they put her in the hospital," said Elmer.
But Elmer didn't think he had a reason to be overly concerned, he said, until the next day, when he was disoriented and showing the same mysterious symptoms. Doctors X-rayed him and, sure enough, he said, his left lung was filled.
"No one could figure out what was wrong with us," Elmer said. "But there was one nurse, who, just on a hunch, insisted they test for Legionnaires'. She said she had just read an article on it. The doctors didn't want to do it, but she was so emphatic, they did. She was going on vacation the next day, too. If it had been a day later, no one would have tested us or even known to test us."
By the time the results showed positive for Legionnaires', Ramona was in and out of consciousness and in intensive care, Elmer said. He wasn't doing much better.
Doctors told Ramona she would need a blood transfusion. She was in no condition to make a decision. It sounded risky and she could only vaguely make out what doctors were telling her, she said. She told them to ask Elmer. Ramona had no idea her husband was in a nearby hospital bed fighting his own battle with the disease, she said.
At one point, doctors felt they were going to lose one or both the Ignells, and called the couple's sons, the Ignells said. In the middle of the night, Dave Ignell from San Diego, Calif., and Steve Ignell from Juneau made flight arrangements and were at their parents' sides by the next afternoon.
Doctors had been able to get Elmer on medication soon after he started showing symptoms, Elmer said, so he was getting better and able to move about the hospital. He spent much of his time at his wife's side. He read to her. He and his sons sang to her. All the time, Elmer thought of the adventures he'd shared with Ramona over their 52 years of married life together.
"I would sit there and hold her hand," Elmer said. "It was so cold. My son said, 'Dad, that was the scariest thing. Her hand was ice cold.'
"I knew she wasn't going to die. God wouldn't have made us go through the accident in order to get the diagnosis if it was her time to go. There were some times I started to doubt, but I just kept praying."
He wasn't alone. Word of the Ignells illness spread across Juneau, Elmer said. Prayer chains started in nearly every church of nearly every denomination, Ramona said. Pastors and local doctors called daily, Elmer said, to get updates on the prognosis and to keep the positive thoughts flowing.
"I didn't know this at the time, but I was told later that my sons were reading Psalms to me," Ramona Ignell said. "My vital signs were very low, but every time they'd read a passage the machine above my bed that showed my vital signs would start coming back up."
Eventually, Ramona came back to her family all the way - a little weak, and unable to talk because of damage done by a ventilator tube - but they had her back. And after a month in the hospital, Ramona was well enough to go home.
"We were just so glad to be home," Elmer said. "You know, life is probably the least thing people think about every day - just the act of being alive. We take it for granted, when there's no assurances that there's any tomorrow. We don't take anything for granted anymore."
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