Written by Tim Worden

Love Found in the Midst of Looming Death

Shay and Monique Layman, 30-something newlyweds from Los Angeles, flew to Cancun for their anniversary. It was late September and their actual eight-month anniversary was on the 12th of the month, but they were fine celebrating a week late.

They did not get to compete in triathlons every day, after all. Besides, it was a nice escape from home.

They ate a fancy lobster and punch dinner the first night, then met their fellow race competitors at a spaghetti social the next night. They woke up refreshed, ready to use their seven-month triathlon training.

Monique sat out the first leg of the triathlon — the 1.2-mile swim. She knew she could not go into the water since she had a PICC line protruding from her arm. The PICC line, an acronym for a peripherally inserted central catheter, is a medical tube connected to a timed IV attached to a travel fanny pack.

And it was keeping her alive. Monique was in a terminal stage of cystic fibrosis (CF) and six years into a lung transplant — a procedure that has a 50 percent patient survival rate after five years.

Shay learned her medication schedule and medical information and came on the trip as her nurse. Her doctors were still wary of letting Monique travel, but they were at least satisfied that Shay got a bit of training.

Monique planned to jump into the bike leg of the race, but the officials disqualified her because she had sat out the first part. Shay swam the first leg, but the officials disqualified him as well. He strained to understand what the judge was yelling at him in Spanish but failed.

They felt sick after the race. It was the unfiltered ice in the fancy punch they drank two nights ago, Shay thought. They waited two hours at the bus stop to get to the hotel. Their health spiraled downward with the food poisoning, and they stumbled into their hotel room, where they spent the next 24 hours.

Shay recovered in a day, but Monique’s body was different — weaker. While her immune system fought the food poisoning, her body ignored the real fight. Her body neglected the mucus buildup in her lungs. Breathing became difficult. On Sept. 24, immediately upon returning from Mexico, Monique checked back into USC Medical Center. She could not breathe in enough air, and the oxygen being pumped into her lungs from the BiPAP machine was not enough.

She was poisoning herself.

Shay lobbied for a double-lung transplant, but since Monique had already had a lung transplant, the odds were stacked. He slept on a dingy fold-up chair beside her bed and routinely zipped off to Cal State Fullerton to teach his dance 101 classes. But his head was hardly in his teaching.

On Oct. 15, Shay returned to Monique’s room on the fourth floor. He walked to the elevator and saw Monique’s doctor. The doctor told Shay he had just finished a meeting.

“We decided Monique is not a candidate for us to do a double-lung transplant,” the doctor said. “But I have a friend at UCLA I could refer you to.” Shay walked to Monique’s room. Tears filled his eyes. This is her death sentence, he thought. USC ignores procedures likely to fail to ensure a high success rate.

They cried, hugged and prayed. Shay ran to grab his video camera. He had an idea.

He filmed himself and Monique discussing their favorite memories for 45 minutes.

He wanted to broadcast their story.

Shay was hooked by their similarities. He collects “Star Wars” toys; her nickname growing up was Princess Leia.

Shay and Monique’s story begins, as that of many couples nowadays, online. Shay, a health nut who styles his graying hair into a silvery fohawk, doesn’t eat after 6 p.m. and collects a pile of Arizona ice tea bottles in his car, had been on eHarmony for more than two years. He began cyber-chatting with Monique. She had been on the site for a week and a half.

He took her to Chili’s on a Monday night. Then they went to a bookstore to talk. Then to a coffee shop. Then to a yogurt shop. Then they watched “Bride Wars.”

Monique was confrontational from the start. “What sin do you have in your life?” she asked. “Do you get along with your family? When’s the last time you’ve viewed pornography?” Then she told him she had CF and could die at any moment. “Are you willing to push me around in a wheelchair for the next five years?” she asked.

Shay was hooked by their similarities. He collects “Star Wars” toys; her nickname growing up was Princess Leia — the leading lady from “Star Wars.” He drinks a one-liter bottle of ice tea every day; she drank more than him at dinner.

Shay prayed for his future wife every day since he was in junior high. As he reached his mid-20s, his early prayers — make her hot, beautiful and athletic — drifted toward asking for a godly woman.

Monique had never even wanted to marry — she could not even have kids. Being born with CF, she had always had health problems, but they weren’t serious until she became a flight attendant for two years. The stale air wrecked her lungs, and in 2004 she had a lung transplant. CF patients don’t live long with a transplant so she expected to die at any moment.

After their first date, Shay felt God inspiring his heart with a Bible verse from 1 Corinthians 2:12, The things of the Spirit are reely given to those who can receive it. Shay asked around for its interpretation, paraphrasing the verse in an ever-so-slight Texas drawl. His dad, a Baptist pastor, stuck to the literal meaning of the passage; his sister saw another verse from the chapter: No eye has seen, no ear has heard what God has prepared for those who love him. His sister thought God had prepared Monique for Shay.

On their second date, the Friday of the same week, Shay gave Monique a saltshaker, some fancy salt and a bunch of McDonald’s salt packets. She smothered her food in salt, Shay noticed, since her body needed it.

Monique knew this was more than a friendly gift and kept asking him what was on his mind. Shay didn’t want to say what was on his mind: Hey, God just told me you’re the woman for me.

However, he couldn’t lie, so hespilled out the Bible chapter on his mind. She paused. “A verse from that chapter is my email address,” she said. Her email, 1cor2v2@... , refers to a verse from 1 Corinthians 2:2, I have determined to know nothing of Christ crucified. Since the Bible says God gives confirmation from the mouth of two or three witnesses, Shay never doubted his love for Monique from that moment on.

They reminisced the first time she invited him to the hospital. Shay changed her diapers and learned her medication schedule. They cuddled at her house until 2 a.m., when it became illegal for non-residents to park on her neighborhood streets.

They laughed remembering a day they had returned from church: Monique slammed Shay’s car door and stormed into her house in the middle of an argument. Shay waited a few minutes to see if she would come back, but she didn’t. He began driving home. Then she texted him: “I can’t believe you left me. You know that the thing that hurts me the most is someone who would leave me in the middle of a fight.”

Shay drove back, knocked and called her from her porch. He sat on a toddler sitting chair. “Look, I’ll be here all night if that’s what it takes,” he said. She finally answered: “OK, we can work this out tomorrow.”

They met at a Carl’s Jr., at The Outlets, in Orange, the next day. They apologized to each other, forgave one another and cried. Then they walked across the street to look for engagement rings.

They both smiled as they recollected the memory of their wedding ceremony and many anniversaries. They were married in Jan. 2010 on Catalina Island. “Star Wars” characters, Han Solo and Princess Leia topped their wedding cake, and Shay passed out shirts that read, “Shay and Monique: I’ve got a good feeling about this,” to the guests.

Technically, they had three honeymoons, but really their honeymoon lasted until their first anniversary. They decided, anticipating Monique to have five years left, that they would celebrate monthly anniversaries.

January was spent on their Catalina cruise, visiting Disney World and house-sitting at a beach cottage. By this time it was already their first monthly anniversary, and they went back to Catalina Island. They spent the night at a hotel that overlooked their wedding chapel.

Their monthly anniversaries followed: Las Vegas and a private violin concert by Shay’s student for their second; the beach for their third; Hearst Castle for their fourth; See’s Candies and a bubblegum walk at a mall for their fifth; Las Vegas for their sixth; and visiting Shay’s parents in Arizona for their seventh.

And even though their Cancun triathlon was not exactly on their exact anniversary like the others, they counted it as their eighth.

Monique’s condition declined through October. She was hooked up to a BiPAP machine, several IVs and three or four other machines. The doctors inserted an oxygen wire to pump air into her nose and then switched it for a forced air splint. The stint, hooked up to a BiPAP machine, pumped constant airflow into her lungs so her airways could stay open.

Shay watched the oxygen-carbon dioxide monitor — the most important monitor in the intensive care unit. He tracked the mountain-shaped graph. The carbon dioxide was decreasing. She was not breathing enough so carbon dioxide remained trapped in her body.

A week after the doctors declined her double-lung transplant, Monique underwent a weeklong period where she had a PICC line inserted into her bicep. Because of this, the doctors unplugged her from her IV fluids at night, which enabled her to move around. One night, at around 2 a.m., Shay stirred to something poking him. Monique was lying on top of him, cuddling. She just wanted to be next to him. They snuggled for three hours, not wanting it to end.

Shay slept every night at the hospital, perched in some weird position where his feet hugged a fold-up chair and his back dangled off Monique’s bed. Sometimes, he would switch and rest his head on the chair, leaving just his feet resting on the bed. Either way, he would lay out a hand or foot for Monique to grasp. Shay ignored the hospital rule of wearing masks and gloves in Monique’s room. Monique would rather catch a cold from Shay and die than lose his touch for an instant.

“I can’t take the pain anymore. I’m ready to go be with Jesus.”

On Nov. 4, USC gave the couple the biggest suite in the hospital — a room with a bed, a chair bed, two couches, and two TVs. The suite was like a dream, but the nights were agonizing. The doctors inclined half of Monique’s mattress 90 degrees so Monique could sit up in her bed. She could not bear the pain of breathing lying down. Shay massaged her back to ease the pain. He hoped God would heal her any moment.

Her condition became unbearable on Nov. 10. She told Shay that night, “I can’t take the pain anymore. I’m ready to go be with Jesus.” She gave him her final instructions: one more kiss, one more hug. “I want to die tonight. I’m praying that I die in my sleep,” she said. Every breath was excruciating so she couldn’t sleep. Shay sat next to her, giving her sips from his water bottle all night.

Monique improved the next morning. She managed curt business conversations: “Can I take more pain medication, Shay? Do you think it’s OK?”

The doctors increased her pain medication, but she still couldn’t take the pain. The doctors had one final effort that was probably not going to work. The doctors asked Monique if they could do the procedure and Monique gave her consent. Shay knew Monique only relented because of the pain. He opposed it, but told the doctors to honor her wishes.

The doctors induced Monique into a medical coma the morning of Nov. 12.

One of the doctors tested out a larger, stronger lung stint — a shiny new toy he had obtained from a conference in Canada. The stick clamped onto the lungs and forced airflow in. Soon after the doctor tried this new stint, both sides of her lungs collapsed.

Her body rejected all the medication and her blood clotted. A coma did not even stop her strong will of desiring death over an extreme medical procedure. Shay gave these latch-ditch efforts a chance, but knew this experiment would not save her. She needed a miracle from God.

Once, Shay leaned in toward Monique in the ICU room, the machines buzzing. “I love you,” he said. She turned her head to face him. She was zoned out on a ridiculous amount of drugs and painkillers, but Shay knows she heard him in that moment.

As the days wore on, Shay knew keeping Monique suspended in a coma was useless. Her mother and brother waited for a miracle, but Shay realized they were hoping against Monique’s hope.

Every day, Shay played worship music from Monique’s phone as visitors and nurses said their goodbyes. He played her favorite song, “Fearfully and Wonderfully Made,”by Matt Redman.

The doctors called a family meeting for that Friday, eight days into her coma. “We can pull the plug Monday,” the doctors said. Monique’s family was against it, but this was Shay’s decision.

“No,” Shay said. “She turns 34 on Monday. Make it Tuesday.”

About 15 people — bridesmaids, family members and pastors — crowded the ICU Tuesday at noon to watch the doctors pull the plug as Monique’s favorite song played on repeat.

“Pulling the plug” is inaccurate; the doctors were actually increasing her dosage of pain medication to shut down her body. She was already off all the machines except for one. A doctor loaded the pain medication and pushed it through her remaining tube.

The doctors counted down.

Shay sat in silence as Monique’s song played:

You gave me this breath,

And You gave me this strength,

And every day I´ll live to obey You.

With all of my heart,

With all of my soul;

Let every breath I´m breathing display You God.

He watched. For five minutes, her breathing grew fainter and fainter. Earlier, a doctor had told him Monique would actually be dead before the lungs stopped. He said that the lungs have such a strong muscle memory that they will keep on contracting for a while.

Her breathing stopped and her body began turning pale. You don’t just lose her; you lose everything that goes along with her, Shay thought. He tried to balance his suffering with being thankful. He filled out some paperwork and went to Monique’s family’s house to celebrate her memory.

You don’t just lose her; you lose everything that goes along with her.

Shay, 39 now, still carves out the 12th of every month to celebrate his anniversary. He wears Monique’s wedding ring on a necklace every day for several hours and keeps her ashes in a box in the back seat of his car.

He rolls a TV into the dance studio at Cal State Fullerton on the last day of his dance classes. He dismisses the class, but invites those who want to learn about his wife to stay and watch a documentary. It’s just a documentary with clips from that one day Shay and Monique filmed their favorite memories, but an independent film deal is in the works. “If you’re interested in what my wife was like, here’s your chance,” he tells his students.