Doctors declared a North Carolina pastor brain dead in August and were ready to harvest his organs.
But a timely wiggle of his toe prompted his wife to step in and demand more tests.
Six months later, Ryan Marlow has returned home and is recovering with his family by his side.
Megan Marlow has no doubts that the fact her husband is alive today is a bona fide miracle from God.
“I worked on his funeral plans,” she told Insider. “I told my children he was gone.”
But Ryan Marlow is not gone; he’s back home with his wife and three young children in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, after six months of treatment in multiple hospitals and medical centers following an extraordinary series of events that included doctors declaring him dead and preparing his body for organ procurement.
A timely wiggle of Ryan’s toes coupled with Megan’s advocacy on behalf of her husband of 16 years ultimately saved his life, she said in an interview with Insider this month.
“I felt desperate and panicked. Who am I against this group of doctors and nurses?” Megan said. “But I knew in my heart I couldn’t go through with it knowing they had made a mistake once already.”
Ryan, a pastor of nearly 17 years, first went to the hospital in August 2022 complaining of vertigo symptoms. Following a series of tests, doctors found lesions on his brain, Megan said.
Over the course of the next two weeks, he increasingly lost mobility in parts of his body until he finally lost the ability to swallow, forcing doctors to intubate him, according to Megan. Ryan was diagnosed with listeria on August 26.
Though a serious bacterial infection, listeria can be treated with antibiotics. Following the diagnosis, Megan went home to catch up on sleep, preparing for what she assumed would be an easy recovery for her husband.
But that night, Ryan suffered a hemorrhagic stroke. When Megan arrived at the hospital the following morning, she was met with devastating news: The doctor said Ryan was non-responsive. After confirming his status via three tests, doctors told Megan her husband had suffered “neurological death” and was “clinically deceased.” A doctor had even marked an official time of death on Ryan’s death certificate, Megan said.
As an organ donor, Ryan would be left on life support until suitable matches could be found. His organ procurement procedure was set for two days later on Monday, August 29.
Megan, meanwhile, returned home to grieve. She began planning her husband’s funeral and had the “hardest” conversation of her life as she tried to explain to her three young children why their father wasn’t coming home.
“He just screamed and cried, begging it not to be true,” Megan said of her now-5-year-old son, Levi. Her twin daughters were only 2 at the time and struggled to understand.
Then, on the Monday that Ryan was scheduled for organ surgery, Megan received a bewildering call from the hospital. Her husband, it turned out, was actually still alive, the doctor told her. Ryan’s case was rare enough that the hospital called in an expert panel to review his status and the medical professionals discovered he was not, in fact, “neurologically deceased.” The doctor warned, however, that Ryan had still suffered a traumatic brain injury from which he was unlikely to recover, Megan said.
The only thing the discovery would change, Megan said the doctor told her, would be the official time of Ryan’s death, which would now be recorded the following day, when he would be extubated following the organ removal.
An astonishing discovery
Megan almost didn’t make it to the hospital on Tuesday, August 27 — the day her husband was to be removed from life support, she said in a Facebook Live video. She simply couldn’t bear to watch him take his last breath.
But she did decide to go, giving into the nagging feeling that she “needed to be there.”
Another shock awaited her arrival: Megan’s niece said Ryan’s feet had begun to move while family members were playing videos of his three children singing and laughing earlier that morning. The monitors to which he was attached marked a slight change in his heartbeat when he would hear the kids’ voices, Megan said.
“So, I went in, I cleared everybody out of the room and I told Ryan all of the things I wanted to tell him,” Megan recounted. “Then I said ‘if you’re in there, it’s time to fight, because I’m gonna demand more tests. I’m gonna fight out there, you have to fight in there.’”
A CT scan showed there was still blood flow in Ryan’s brain, Megan said. Her husband was not brain dead, after all, but in a coma. The organ procedure was called off just minutes before it was set to begin and Ryan’s real recovery work began.
He stayed in the ICU for another month before being transferred to a long-term care facility in Tennessee where he remained in a coma.
“I was convinced he would wake up,” Megan said. “He just needed more time.”
Ryan finally awoke on October 6. Two months later he was transferred to a rehab center in Georgia where he began to learn to use the right side of his body again.
Road to recovery
After six grueling months, Ryan returned home to North Carolina last month and has spent the last two weeks continuing his slow but steady progress with his family by his side.
“Levi is so good with him. When Ryan moves, he’ll say ‘good job, daddy!’” Megan said. “The girls will say ‘daddy, we’re gonna teach you to talk again.’”
For the time being, Ryan uses sign language to communicate. Megan said he’s mastered nodding his head and giving his kids a thumbs up. A cold or UTI can present setbacks, but he always bounces back, Megan said.
“He’s already a miracle, so I anticipate many more,” she told Insider.
The family has been overwhelmed with support from the community. Money raised in a GoFundMe is helping to pay for Ryan’s extensive therapy sessions and a handicap-accessible accommodation to their home.
The road ahead is long and uncertain. Recovery from brain injuries looks different for everyone, but Ryan has already hit milestones that doctors said would be out of reach forever, Megan said.
“After planning his funeral — it doesn’t get any worse than that. So why would I be defeated?” she said. “I went from not having him at all to getting to have him again.”
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