Tricia Steele: The Unchosen Path

Joey and Tricia Steele and their boys

"Remember we are not promised tomorrow, so live today to the fullest and LOVE BIG!"

We usually bring you stories of people who have chosen to do something new and different, but sometimes a fresh path is not of your choosing. This is the case with Tricia Steele and her two boys. Married since 2001, Tricia and her husband, Joey, had a happy and fun marriage with two young sons until September, 2017, when Joey was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre disease, a rare autoimmune disorder. It was at this point that Tricia's life changed drastically and continued to change as Joey's health deteriorated over the coming months culminating with his death on Christmas Day 2017. Read this story of a young woman who, along with her boys, have faced catastrophic heartache but have been able to move forward in life.

Tricia Steele is from Loxley, Alabama, but moved to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, after marrying her high school sweetheart, Joey Steele, in 2001.  The couple had known each other since they were in diapers, attended the same church growing up, and started dating their junior year of high school.  In fact, their first date was their Junior Prom.  After six years of dating, the couple married and moved to Hattiesburg for Joey's job with Howard Industries. While there, Tricia has pursued her passion for teaching in two different school districts over the last 17 years. "Joey and I were married for 16 years before he passed.  We had a very loving, committed, and fun marriage.  One of the things I loved most about our marriage, is that we never fought,"  Tricia says. "I know that seems like that cannot be true, but it was.  We had a way of talking through anything with love and affection for one another.  We were perfect for each other in so many ways." 

The couple was married for four and a half years before their oldest son, JP, arrived.  

"We were absolutely thrilled to be parents.  It wasn't easy at first, but I believe we were made to be parents.  Joey loved being a daddy and he was phenomenal at it," Tricia explains

Five and a half years later, their second son, Tucker, came along.  

"Once again Joey stood out as the best dad," she says.  "He loved being a dad to our boys.  He loved the outdoors and taught our boys to love it as well.  From camping, to fishing, to canoeing, to Frisbee golf, to hiking, we were always outside.   Our boys still love the outdoors because of their daddy."

Shortly after the couple's 16th wedding anniversary in July of 2017, Joey began to have extreme acid reflux and went to see a specialist.  He was treated for gastritis and was diagnosed with celiac disease, which causes its victims to be unable to absorb nutrients from food.  Shortly after this diagnosis, Joey began to suffer from terrible pain in his legs and feet.  He saw many doctors, but he got no answers and no relief.

"He was suffering from so much pain, that he couldn't walk and, by the end of August, was in a wheel chair."

Tricia goes on to say that in September 2017, a doctor diagnosed him with Guillain-Barre Syndrome.  Because of this disease, his immune system began to attack the healthy nerve cells in his peripheral nervous system.  After seeing the doctor in September, and being put on the right medications, Joey began to feel somewhat better; however, he was never quite healed, and his health began to deteriorate.  

In November, Tricia and their boys began noticing that Joey's eyes had a yellow tinge, and he had tests run.  He was called the next day and told to go directly to Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans.  There, he was diagnosed with acute liver failure and given two to three months to live without a transplant.  

Tricia says, "This was December 6, 2017.  I remember sitting in the hospital room, hearing that diagnosis, and thinking, 'This isn't real! This doesn't happen to a healthy 38-year-old man.'"   Joey stayed in the hospital until December 19, when he was released to come home for Christmas and await a liver transplant.  

On December 21, Joey called Tricia to come home from work due to his having extreme trouble breathing. At the ER, he was found to have pneumonia. He was administered breathing treatments and was admitted to the ICU around noon.  By that evening, Joey was placed in a medically-induced coma for fluid to be pumped from his lungs.

In the coming days, Joey's condition continued to deteriorate as his organs began to fail.  

On Christmas Eve, Tricia left the hospital to set up Christmas for the boys knowing that she would soon lose her husband. As gifts that year, Joey and Tricia had letters for the boys. With each letter, there was a gift or something promised to do to spend time together as a family.  

"As I laid all of this out, all I could do was cry, knowing that I was most likely going to be fulfilling all these alone over the next year.  I went to bed on Christmas Eve with my phone in my hand, crying my eyes out.  I finally fell asleep around 2:00."

At three in the morning, the doctors called to tell Tricia that Joey was bleeding internally, and things did not look good.  Tricia missed the call due to exhaustion, but upon receiving the call, she immediately prepared to go to the hospital.

"I got the kids up around 5:45 and did a quick Christmas morning with them.  I left the house by six to go to the hospital, screaming at God the whole way.

 "When I got to the hospital, it wasn't good.  Once our families arrived, I had to make the worst, most terrifying decision of my entire life.  I had to decide to take Joey off life support.  At 8:01 AM, Joey was taken off life support; however, I believe he had already gone to be with his Lord and Savior.   As the life support systems stopped, Tricia collapsed on the floor outside of the door but went into the room as soon as allowed.

"Seeing the love of my life's body laying there, still and lifeless, is an image that I will never forget.  I reached for his hand, a hand that I had held onto for 21 years, and it couldn't hold me back this time.  That is a feeling that was extremely hard to deal with.  I remember feeling the pain that was felt by all of us in that room.  It was so thick that it made it hard to breathe.  Shortly afterwards, they allowed my boys to come in and see their daddy.  I remember JP promising to be the man of the house now, and to take care of his mom and his brother (he was 11).  This made me so mad.  No child should have to lose their daddy. especially on Christmas morning." The next few weeks were a blur for the family.

Afterward, Tricia knows many people came by the house, brought food, prayed, called, and wrote letters, but she doesn't remember very much. Just many, many tears. Tricia explains her emotions in the coming months, "I was never really angry at God, but I didn't and still don't understand why my husband died.  I have asked this simple question so many times.  I also remember yelling at God a few times when asking it.  Not out of anger, but out of frustration for the situation that I now found myself in.  I also remember that I had to ask others to pray on my behalf cause I didn't have the energy to do it, or the words to express what I needed at the time." 

For Tricia, grief hasn't been a process. "A process has steps and grieving doesn't have steps.  It's like a circle is drawn around your heart.  Then grief draws a scribbled mass over the circle.  This mass takes over your heart, mind, and body.  Sometimes things happen that cause the grief to dull like a happy moment or a joyous occasion, or time.  But grief never goes away."  In the 13 months since Joey died, there have days where the grief is duller than others.  "Some days, if I'm honest, I don't feel sad at all.  I'm thankful for these days because there are still some days where I feel so caught up in the emotions of it all, that I once again find it hard to breathe.  What I've learned the most from all of this, is that I have to lean on God.  If I didn't have God to carry me through most days, then I'm not sure how I would have made it this far.  He also gave me physical friends and family to be there for me, lift me up, and love me when I needed them the most.  God's hands and feet truly were used to help me in my time of need."   Tricia has found great solace in trusting that God has a plan.  "I sure wish His plan was that Joey was still with us, but I have to trust that we will be ok.  Also, what has helped is being open and honest about my feelings.  I share regularly on social media and to family and friends how I'm feeling and what I need prayers for.  Being open about my feelings has helped tremendously."  Though these things have helped, there are other things that have been hard.  "In the beginning, it was hard seeing everyone else go back to their normal lives, when I felt as if I was stuck in this continuous loop of sorrow.  It's also been hard for friendships that we had for as a couple to change, but it's inevitable."  The boys have good and bad days, like their mother.  They have both gone to counseling and the family has always been close, and they talk about everything.  

"Talking with them and always talking about the good times with their dad helps keep him alive in our minds and hearts. We all have our good days, and our bad days. I like to believe Joey can see us on our good days.  The boys and I have done so much together over the past year.  I've tried to make it special as much as I could.  We miss Joey so much. I still look at pictures of him and can't believe he is gone."  

Tricia has chosen to continue to move forward by using her grief to help others. "I decided during the fall of 2018 to lead a small group at church on overcoming grief.  This was so powerful for me.  I met some outstanding people and we all grew together.  It also made me further believe that I need to use my experience to help others." As the months have gone by, she's learned some things that can help others going through loss. "First, turn to God.  He understands loss.  He also knows you better than anyone else.  You don't even have to talk because he knows your heart.  There were times when I would just say, 'Jesus!' and just sit there knowing He knew what I needed to say but couldn't."

Tricia also says that people who are going through grief shouldn't bottle up their feelings. "Once you are ready to talk, and maybe even before you think you are, talk about your loss with someone.  I recommend someone that isn't close to you.  Maybe a counselor.  For me, talking about my feelings makes them have less power over me."

Finally, she recommends that you should remember the person you lost.  "Talk about them, hang up pictures of them. Keep them alive in your thoughts and heart."  Above all else, Tricia believes that everyone should make the most of every day with their loved ones. "LOVE HARD EVERYDAY! You know there are days when you are tired, you have had a long day, or you are frustrated about something.  Love anyway!!!! I'm not saying that love will conquer all things.  Of course, there will be times where you have to walk away, take a deep breathe, but always come back to love.  Also, put God first in your relationships.  No matter what they are.  Spouse, kids, family, friends.  Each relationship will be better if you do.  

"Remember we are not promised tomorrow, so live today to the fullest and LOVE BIG!"

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