When the McKee family reported to preside over the LDS Tennessee Nashville Mission in July 2011, they felt optimistic toward the work. Five of their 10 children accompanied them to live in the mission home, and they approached their new calling with confidence in the Lord.
Although President Bill and Sister RaNae McKee expected some inevitable challenges while serving, they did not anticipate that within a four-day span Sister McKee would have a heart attack, two strokes and heart and brain surgeries.
“Right after we got into the mission field, Sister McKee was a picture of health,” President McKee said. “She jogged every morning, she eats very well — much better than I do — she’s a very healthy woman.”
Four months into their mission, Sister McKee casually mentioned a sharp pain in her chest to the mission doctor. He advised her to get it checked in the hospital that day, where she discovered that she needed heart surgery to prevent a heart attack.
That very day, Sister McKee went into heart surgery, where she received two stents.
“She felt really good and the surgery was successful and she did really well after that,” President McKee said. “For the whole year, we’ve watched her heart very closely and just kept our normal pace.”
But the following year in late November, Sister McKee’s health took an unexpected downward turn.
“The night before Thanksgiving she showed flu-like symptoms and she kept getting worse and worse and worse and finally into the night, she said, ‘Take me to the hospital,’ ” President McKee said. “She was doing some projectile vomiting and some severe pain and just weak everywhere and so I took her to the emergency room and they couldn’t find anything wrong with her.”
While doctors proceeded to run tests to find a diagnosis, Sister McKee remained in the hospital all Thanksgiving Day because of her weak state and severe pain. During this time, the oxygen level in her bloodstream dropped into a threatening range, which led doctors to investigate her in the intensive care unit. There, they were able to reach a diagnosis.
“(On) Friday the doctor came in and said, ‘You’re not going to believe this, but your wife has had a heart attack.’ I said, 'She’s had a heart-attack?’ ‘Yes, yesterday.’ And I couldn’t believe him,” President McKee said.
Out of necessity, Sister McKee underwent heart surgery that Saturday morning, which appeared to have gone well. During the surgery, doctors discovered a blockage in one of her stents, and they replaced it with a new one.
“As I wheeled her out of the room after heart surgery she gave me a little ‘I love you’ sign and she couldn’t really speak — she had a lot of machines hooked up to her,” President McKee said. (The doctor) looked at me and said, 'She’s going to do great.’ ”
But after the hospital staff set her up in a room after the surgery, Sister McKee went into cardiac arrest.
“She really died on us,” President McKee said. “They brought in lots of help to revive her (they worked) on her about 20-25 minutes and revived her back.”
After Sister McKee’s cardiac arrest, her body was unresponsive. The hospital staff agreed that she needed rest after what she had been through the past couple days, but when she continued in her unresponsive state through Sunday morning, doctors took her in for a CT scan. The scan revealed more alarming news.
“The doctor came in and told me that she had actually had two strokes during the week that no one had known about (and that) they would have to take her into brain surgery to stop that bleeding,” President McKee said. “He told me that she probably wouldn’t make it through the surgery; that’s when we started calling our children — we had four with us there and we called the other six and they all flew in.”
One of the McKees' sons, Scott, flew to Tennessee a few days earlier to take care of his younger sisters who were living without their parents in the mission home since that Thursday.
“I flew out from Boise and that just seemed to be the longest flight ever because I didn’t know what to expect,” Scott McKee said. “I don’t think the kids or anyone knew how serious the situation was. When I first saw her she could speak in a whisper, but you really couldn’t understand her. I just remember going in and giving her a hug and talking to her and it was a scary experience for me. Honestly, I didn’t think she would make it.”
As doctors performed Sister McKee’s brain surgery, the family faced difficult questions as to how and if she would recover. Doctors told President McKee that they stopped most of the bleeding in her brain and also that they had to remove a portion of her brain during the procedure. Sister McKee had also put herself into a self-induced comatose state. The doctor said, “She just may stay this way I can’t promise you anything.”
The family sang hymns for her in the hospital and kept a hopeful outlook.
“We had a spiritual time together as we gathered around Sister McKee’s bed and sang and shared spiritual insights. I am sure that Sister McKee could hear the music,” President McKee wrote on the family blog in November 2012. “For now Sister McKee is resting peaceful. We have seen very minimal movement of arms or legs but are also told that this may take a few days. I am very clear that the Lord is in charge and that He will guide us through this situation.”
But “a few days” in a comatose state turned into three weeks.
“Her brain surgeon said it would usually take 24-48 hours before she would wake from her coma but within 48 hours we didn’t see anything happen. There was just nothing, and that scared us because they just said that if we didn’t see any improvement by then she may never come out of that coma,” Scott McKee said. “Then we had another doctor come in and tell us that her body just went through a heart attack, two strokes, and when your body does that, your body’s just going to shut down and it just needs time to heal. That gave us a new hope, and we just waited.”
During the wait, President McKee set up his computer and other office tools inside his wife’s hospital room. He held mission-related meetings inside her room as well as led them over the phone. When he had to attend zone conferences and other meetings, his children would stay in the hospital to watch Sister McKee.
“I would go and stay up at the hospital and we kept someone with her 24 hours a day,” President McKee said. “We never left her side.”
While Sister McKee was in her comatose state, her family began to notice and celebrate her tiny movements. Scott McKee recalled one night when his father called all of his children from the hospital.
“(He) said, 'You’re not going to believe this but her right toe moved,’ and we just got so excited for that, I think that was probably the first movement,” Scott McKee said. “Then about a week later you’d be able to kind of communicate with her — 'Mom, if you can hear me, wiggle your toe,’ so she’d start to wiggle her toe or move her finger, but she was still in a comatose state and couldn’t obviously talk or anything, but we would just wait for the next little movement that she would make.”
Sister McKee’s movements became more frequent and she gradually came out of her comatose state. Her family worked to help her regain abilities and skills she had before her strokes.
“She’s quite a musician and played the piano a lot before,” President McKee said. “We’d put her hands on the keyboard so that she could feel the keys and we put our fingers on top of hers and pressed them down so that she was playing the scales and some songs.”
Even amidst the difficulties as Sister McKee slowly came to, her family found joy in serving and seeking out the positive.
“They (the children and grandchildren) were all there for Christmas Eve and she was kind of coming out of the comatose state,” said President McKee. “I was just so sad and we went downstairs and we ate breakfast and I said, 'We’re going to go sing to all the other people here.’ So we just took the kids and sang on every floor in the hospital, and I think there were like six or seven floors. We walked down every corridor and sang, and some of the kids said it was the best Christmas they’d ever had.”
By late December, Sister McKee’s health had improved to the point where she could transfer from the ICU to a regular hospital room. She began walking with people supporting her on each side or with a walker, breathing on her own through a trach tube and speaking in full sentences.
President McKee marveled as her sense of humor began to return.
“The speech therapist came to test her for a baseline of what her mind could do," President McKee said on his family blog. “The therapist was asking her simple questions like groups of words and counting. She raised her pen up and said, 'What is this?’ Sister McKee replied, 'a pen.’ 'What do you do with a pen.’ 'You write with it.’ Then the therapist asked, 'What do you do with a broom?’ Sister McKee boldly responded, 'You hand it to your husband and tell him to sweep the floor.’ We all burst into laughter and the therapist looked up at me and said, 'Well I guess this testing is finished.’ ”
In the following months, Sister McKee experienced great pain and setbacks, but her health also continued to improve. Her recovery impressed family, doctors and nurses. The McKees enjoyed teaching many of their nurses about the message of Jesus Christ.
“One of the nurses would come in there and say, 'I just need a little bit of Jesus today, I just have to come in and sit by you,’ ” President McKee said.
One of President and Sister McKee’s sons, Jared, is a physical therapist, and he worked extensively with his mother after her strokes. The family constantly had someone with her to ensure that her brain developed a mentality to follow through with its desires.
“While in the hospital, if Sister McKee wanted to get out of bed, the medical model did not have the resources so she would not be allowed to get out of bed,” President McKee said on the family blog. “We would stay by her night and day and make sure that if her brain wanted to do something that we assisted her instead of telling her that she could not do that. This allowed us each day to expand her brain and encourage it to follow through with the drive that was behind it.”
After 70 days of hospitalization, including 37 days in the ICU, Sister McKee was allowed to return home. She continued to attend therapy three times a week and began meeting with an eye doctor to help her left eye align.
While many call her recovery miraculous, she is not fully healed yet. She continues to struggle with balance and dizziness, and in June she had another surgery to have a defibrillator inserted for her heart.
President and Sister McKee use this experience to teach their missionaries. At one zone conference, she taught about the importance of companionship unity between missionary companions.
“You can see that my eyes are not synchronized. They do not want to go together in exactly the way that they should go. This caused me many challenges and I cannot begin to accomplish what I need to do as they do not work together,” President McKee recalled his wife saying on the family blog. “This will happen in your companionships if you do not work together and be synchronized in this work. You must be a team and work together like two eyes to accomplish what the Lord has called you to do.”
Sister McKee’s determination to overcome her challenges and commitment to the work motivated the LDS missionaries in Tennessee.
“It brought a focus to the mission,” Scott McKee said. “(The missionaries’) theme is, ‘We can do hard things.’ ”
In working through this “hard thing,” the McKees have learned valuable lessons.
“I’ve learned how good people are,” Sister McKee said. “People — especially the people around here — are so good and so kind and so helpful. My family has been so good. They’ve given up so many things to be able to come out and support me. I’ll just never be able to even let them know how much I appreciate them.”
In November last year, Scott McKee sometimes wondered why this trial would come when his parents were serving a mission.
“I often would ask myself, 'Why would that happen as a mission president’s wife when you’re out there doing what you’re supposed to do?’ Scott McKee said. But 'as I’ve read letters, messages of people literally all around the world, I’ve realized just the influence she’s had on so many people. There was definitely a bigger purpose to what was going on.”
In late May, the McKees received a letter from the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints informing them that they would be released from their missionary service July 1, 2013, a year earlier than they had anticipated. Although they are sad to leave the mission field and especially the missionaries, they are preparing to leave the work in Tennessee and return to their home in Pocatello, Idaho.
“It is difficult to leave the mission because these missionaries are like all your children,” President McKee said. “I suppose there’s never a good time to go home, but in the gospel, in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints there are so many opportunities to learn and to grow and the mission field teaches you so much to remind you that the Lord really is in charge, this is his work, and we are called of God, all of us, to do what he would like us to do.”
The McKee family members are grateful for the time they had to serve their mission. In their two years they saw the mission increase from 140 to 230 missionaries, as well as the creation of a new stake and new branches. They will not forget the miracles they witnessed.
“It’s a great time to be serving a mission,” President McKee said. “Miracles still happen.”