Fresno rallies in support of mom-to-be, now in coma

The Fresno BeeApril 3, 2014 

Melissa Carleton would be embarrassed by the attention she's gotten in the past month.

But the quiet, unassuming Fresno therapist's family and friends knew that once word spread that she was fighting for her life -- and that of her unborn son -- people would rally.

And they have, sending prayers and food -- and raising more than $62,000 to help the family with expenses that are mounting as Melissa lays in a coma in a San Francisco hospital.

Carleton, a 1993 Edison High School graduate, had chosen social work to help others. "When people build their lives around goodness, good returns to them," said Carleton's father, John Farrell, a lecturer in the Fresno State history department.

How to help

• Support Melissa Carleton page on Facebook


• Concert fundraiser: Sunday, 1-6:30 p.m., 1335 E. 24th St., Oakland

Six months ago, Carleton -- whose 39th birthday is Tuesday -- would have told you she had all the good from life anyone could want or need: She was married to a wonderful husband and pregnant with her first child. She had private therapy practices specializing in children and families in Fresno and Berkeley and ran the breast cancer support group at Saint Agnes Medical Center.

Most of all, she was thrilled to be pregnant. Four months ago when she started having headaches, she shrugged them off as part of the pregnancy.

But when the pain became overwhelming and she ended up in an emergency room in March, a test showed a brain tumor the size of a fist.

Carleton was referred to specialists at the University of California at San Francisco. The neurosurgeon said she had to have an operation and the surgery was scheduled.

That night, Carleton's husband, Brian Lande, slept on the floor next to her. When he awoke, he knew something was wrong. She was having a seizure.

Doctors had to perform emergency brain surgery. They successfully removed the noncancerous tumor, but Carleton was in a coma. The seizure had damaged her brain.

"We hadn't even had any time to take in what was happening," Lande, 32, said.

The couple, who family and friends say radiate happiness, met in a Berkeley coffee shop in 2010. They talked for more than three hours, and Lande wanted to ask her out, but he was moving to Washington, D.C., to work for a U.S. Defense Department agency; and a year later, he would be in Afghanistan.

They said good-bye, but agreed to be Facebook friends. The week that Osama Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan in 2011, Carleton posted a message to Lande. She asked how he was doing. Lande was preparing to return to California for a visit and the two agreed to meet for coffee again that spring.

"We've been together since," Lande said.

For the past month, Lande, a Santa Cruz County sheriff's deputy, has been at Carleton's bedside at the UCSF-San Francisco medical center. The couple have a home in Fresno -- he commutes to his job.

He's counting the days of her pregnancy with the son-to-be named "Baby Boy" -- for now. The baby appears to be developing normally.

"Our big benchmark was to get her to 28 weeks when the odds will be much more in Baby Boy's favor," he said on March 25 -- 28 weeks and five days into the pregnancy.

Carleton is not on life support, said her mother, Lawanna Farrell, a Fresno nurse. Her daughter has opened her eyes, but it's not known if she can see, and she's aware of her surroundings, but unable to communicate.

Her hospitalization has had none of the controversy that surrounded the case of a pregnant Texas woman who was removed from life support in January.

The Texas woman, Marlise Munoz, was brain dead and the hospital had refused the family's request to remove the machines, citing Texas law that said the life-sustaining treatment could not be removed from a pregnant patient. The family's attorneys had said the fetus Munoz was carrying was not viable.

Carleton's case is different, said Marcia Glass, a UCSF-San Francisco professor of internal medicine and palliative care doctor, who has been overseeing her care.

"She is not brain dead," Glass said.

She "has been very slowly improving," and "we're all in agreement -- all the doctors in the hospital and Brian and her friends -- all on the same page and working together. There's no conflict over what should happen," Glass said. "There's hope for her and good hope for the baby."

Lande said his wife's situation has rallied the nurses and a large team of doctors in part because she is a challenging case, but primarily because the staff has been so concerned that Carleton "be able to be awake for our baby and be a mom."

Glass said she didn't know Carleton before her hospitalization, but from family and friends who have shown support, "I can just see the kind of person she was."

Members of the Saint Agnes breast cancer support group were shocked when they heard Carleton was in the hospital, said LuAnn Malanca, a nine-year cancer survivor and support group member.

Carleton is a "very gentle, sweet person," Malanca said. "She's touched a lot of people's lives -- she's a wonderful therapist."

Lawanna Farrell said her daughter always remembers birthdays and calls in advance to ask what people want. "And we always had a cupcake from her on our birthdays," she said.

Carrie Bell, who lives in Encino, has been a close friend of Carleton's since middle school and they've maintained the strong connection. "She went to my college graduation. I went to her master's degree graduation. "We're there for the big moments."

Carleton is quiet and a listener, Bell said. She never wants to be the center of attention and she wouldn't want that now. "If she saw all the stuff that was happening -- she'd probably be mortified."

Bell's amazed by who has responded to help her friend. The first boy to kiss Carleton donated money, she said. And an old boyfriend of Bell's contributed -- and so did her boss.

Carleton's family can barely find words for the outpouring of support: "The goodwill and generosity has been almost overwhelming," said John Farrell. Despite the tragedy, he said, "Brian and Melissa have had goodness heaped on them."

Lande said the Santa Cruz sheriff's department paid for him to be in a hotel near the hospital; soon after, the San Francisco Police Department found an apartment where he could stay rent free.

"Just the moral support for all of us is enormous," Lande said. "It makes suffering through this a lot more doable, a lot more easy to bear."

Doctors have given him no guarantee that Carleton will awake from the coma and no guarantee "that I'm going to get my Melissa back if she wakes up," Lande said. For now, he's grateful for each sign of improvement, and this week he had several: Carleton moved her left arm up to her face and scratched her right cheek -- a sign that the two sides of her brain are communicating.

She smiled -- "a big full, smile when one of the nurses asked how we met," Lande said. "Melissa just made a big, ear-to-ear, big toothy smile."

He hadn't seen his wife's wide grin in weeks.

And Lande said Carleton did something even greater than that on Wednesday. During a physical therapy session, he leaned over and asked her to pucker her lips -- and she gave him a kiss.

"She might not come back to me, and she might not come back to me as the old Melissa -- but a little kiss -- that's good enough for me right now."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6310, or @beehealthwriter on Twitter.

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