Monday, April 26, 2010

The Accident...Part IV: Oh My Goodness, That's YOU!

I will admit that I was reeling after I wrote yesterday's post. A few of you have sent me private messages to let me know you felt the same, and I appreciate that. I really do. In fact, let me take a moment to say how much I appreciate all of the messages of support and encouragement that I have received from everyone. You have been amazing...particularly since I really didn't think anyone would find my blabbering the least bit interesting.

But let's get back to the story.

When we last left our hero (I am not a hero, I know, but it just sounds so cool to write it like that...), I was being life-flighted to a trauma center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Turns out that I had crashed in Santa Rosa. To this day, I am still a bit unsure where that is, though I can tell you from memory that I had passed a sign on the freeway not long before the crash happened which said, "Tucumcari 80-something miles". So apparently its roughly an hour outside of Tucumcari. The only reason I happened to know Tucumcari, apart from its peculiar and rather fun-to-say name, is that I had stayed there in the truck stop overnight on my first trip across country. Small world.

I slipped in and out of consciousness in the Emergency Room once they got me to St. Vincent's Regional Medical Center. I don't remember arriving, but I can recall being X-rayed everywhere, CAT-scanned, and I think I even had an MRI...though I can't be sure of it. I remember authorizing the police officer, a very polite and gentle man, to take my blood so they could rule out any alcohol or drug influences as a cause of the crash (and for you who are wondering: I was clean on both counts). I hazily remember the nice man who gave me my stitches on my face...several of them, in fact.

I don't remember, however, a picture that I took while I was in the ER. I think I might have done it accidentally, but then again, it's hard to do such a thing with an iPhone camera. Either way, I am glad I have it because no one ever took another picture of my face until I was back to normal...and it's a good reminder of what someone looks like after an airbag punches you in the face.

My injuries, as you probably have guessed, were very substantial. Funny enough, I had not broken my left arm, as I had thought while I was trapped in the van. Instead, I had separated my left shoulder, bruised that arm right to the bone, and had a nice clean laceration that was just as deep.

I had severed the tendons in 3 of my fingers on my left hand, which is why I couldn't feel or move them while I was trapped. I suffered a closed-head injury, but no bleeding was found (thankfully). Instead, I was just monitored for signs of damage...which showed up a few weeks later...when talking was easier. As a side note, brain injuries are many times silent and difficult to find, particularly in high-level communicators like myself. I have learned a lot about them since my accident, and the biggest thing I have learned is to accept it. I realize that I may never be the same person I was mentally, and if that's the case...well, I'll be alright.

Finishing off the list...I severely injured both groins, and last but not least, crushed my L4 and L5 vertebrae, along with significantly dislocating the next 6. I could breathe on my own, but I was unable to move from the chest down.

My mother was notified by my girlfriend, the one who's husband was in the crash with me. I cannot imagine the feeling she must have felt. Something along the lines of having all of the wind knocked out of her sounds like it's on the right track. But my mother is an insane force of rational thinking. It has been the one thing that has saved her through all of the horrible experiences she has gone through in her life. So when the news came, she called my brother and got on a plane as soon as she could. The only image I can give you (which is actually insanely accurate) is a scene from the movie Steel Magnolias: the scene where Sally Field is walking into the hospital because her daughter has just slipped into a coma. The scene shows her walking alone, her footsteps very deliberate and quick, and her face frozen in a look of readiness and panic simultaneously.

My brother was in Thailand at the time, and did not get my mother's call until the next day or so. My memory is that he jumped on the next flight to come be with my mother and I. Once my brother arrived, my mother could finally express herself...letting out her sadness, worry, anger, and helplessness...every emotion that seems to overwhelm you during a crisis. And my brother, bless his heart, was able to stand and be strong for her. That is something I can never thank him enough for because even though I didn't mean to cause anyone...particularly my mother...this worry and suffering, I couldn't be the one to give her even an ounce of comfort. But he did...he did that among other noteworthy things.

My mother arrived on the day of my back surgery. I don't really remember the first week of my hospital stay. I was really drugged and moreover I was in such pain that I was either being given something to knock me out, or I was screaming and sobbing. Before and after the surgery, I couldn't move my legs on my own. I could wiggle my toes on my right foot, but my left was completely unresponsive (it remained so for an entire month before it started to show signs of movement).

The day after my back surgery, I had my left-hand fingers (tendons) repaired. This left me in a large cast which was to stay on for a month so that the tendons could heal. After that I was in a splint for another 2-weeks while I underwent intense occupational therapy on my hand. I can tell you, amidst all of these tales of pain and suffering, that the pain I endured while they stretched my tendons that had healed in the cast rivaled everything I felt with my back. Yes...everything. It was indescribable.

My fourth day in the hospital (I think), which was the first day that I had no surgeries scheduled, I can remember a bit. I remember loads of flowers in my room. I remember my mother telling me that I was not to talk on the phone anymore because I was not making sense most of the time. I remember the pain...not because I can remember what the hurt felt like...but because I remember it being so severe and unbearable that I needed (and had) one of those self-dosing IVs where I just needed to push a button, and it would give me the juice (up to every 16-minutes). I also remember screaming for my mother and brother to help move my legs every 5-10 minutes because they would start to hurt and I couldn't do it myself. It was a bad scene.

I have a memory of one night after my surgeries when I was having horrible nightmares and was in an incredible amount of pain. I remember that I was half out of it and was screaming and sobbing, calling for my mother. This CNA came in, one whom I liked in general up until this point, and he told me (verbatim), "Honey, you're making too much noise, so I am going to have to shut your door. You need to quiet down".

My mother was so pissed off when I told her this the next day, I swear I saw fire come out of her ears. My mother is an administrator in a healthcare system, so she is fully aware of what is acceptable care and what isn't (which is nice because I wasn't really able to advocate for myself at that time). The short of it is that we never saw that CNA again...ever. Apparently I wasn't the first person he had treated like that. [sigh] So atrocious.

Anyway, soon after that we started to notice that I was losing the slight mobility I had gained from my initial back surgery. I don't think I need to tell you how scared that made all of us. My doctors whipped me down for a CAT-scan and spinal tap to figure out what was up. Now, I do remember the pain of that day. For starters, they had to roll me over, which hurt like hell with my broken back and the after-effects of its surgical repair. And then there was the spinal tap itself, which anyone who has had one can tell you, is pain that you would wish on no one. And because my luck is nonexistent at times, the first round wasn't successful, so I had to go through it again. Flipping back and forth, another spinal tap, etc. Only this time, the liquid which they shot into my back broke through a blocked area and went down and to the right...towards my hip. I won't ever forget that. I howled like there was no tomorrow.

Before I go on, let me tell you something good about that experience. There was a very kind nurse (actually, there were several very kind nurses who cared for me during my stay) who took me down to the CAT-scan room. She introduced me to the woman who was administering the CAT-scan, who was also incredibly sweet. And when she (the nurse who came with me) asked if I needed anything, I remember asking her if she would stay with me because I was afraid. I am positive she had other things to do, but she took my hand and said, "of course". She stayed with me the entire time. It was people like her that got me through days like that.

After I howled and they found that there was a blockage (I do not know the medical terms well enough to relate them here), I was zipped back to my room and then almost immediately prepped for emergency surgery. The surgeons were going to gently loosen the rod that was placed in my back to realign all of the dislocated vertebrae, as this was the assumed cause for my growing paralysis. 

It worked. I had no other surgeries after that.

Once I was out of the woods, probably the fifth or sixth day or so, my brother went to find my U-Haul and figure out where things stood with my belongings. Another long story short, he took some pictures of the original U-Haul as he found it, and some pictures of the stuff as he unloaded it. I lost almost everything--all my furniture, my computers, dishes, my grill--a tremendous amount of stuff, gone. Then my brother, generously and without request, rented another U-Haul, loaded up everything that he could salvage, and made a plan to drive back to Maine with my things. It was an unbelievable gift considering the amount of money he had already spent because of this accident (hey, flights from Thailand to Santa Fe, NM are not cheap on a day's notice). And though my mother was still frail and feared him leaving her, he assured her it would be OK and left the next day...making the trip in 4 days. The remnants of all of my belongings, whatever he was able to load up into the new U-Haul (i.e. if the box was still intact or if he could chuck it into one of the bins he bought at the local Target), are in my mother's basement. To top it all off, when it was time for me to leave the hospital, he paid for my first-class ticket, along with my mother's, so that I could sit in a more comfortable seat. I figure I have used up all of my Christmas gift money from him until at least 2032.

My mother stayed with me until the 10th day, and then she had to return to work. It was more than emotional for both of us when she left. I had arranged for a dear friend of mine to come and stay with me beginning the day that she left, so that I would not be alone. And interestingly enough, though I was miles and miles away from anyone I knew, and although I spent a total of 6-weeks in the hospital, I was alone for 1 week at the very end. It is still very surreal to me that I was so lucky in that regard.

A day or so before my mother left, one of my favorite CNAs came into the room to help me bathe. She had done this several times, and I was very comfortable with her. As she walked to the bathroom, she abruptly stopped and looked at a picture collage I had received from a friend and hung on the bathroom door. She was doing double takes, looking at me then the picture then at me again. Suddenly she burst out, "Oh my goodness! That's YOU!".

I was totally shocked and my mother just laughed. I couldn't put the pieces together until suddenly I said, "Ohhhh! The swelling in my face has gone down, right?". It all made sense. Of course they wouldn't know what I truly looked like. Boy, was I glad I had taken (accidental or not) that horrible picture of my face in the ER. Just having something to compare my face to as a before and after allowed me to feel better.

I was in the hospital for 2-weeks in total, and then I was transferred to the inpatient rehab...also part of the hospital...just a different section more focused on physical therapy and recovery. I spent 4-weeks there, one of the longest inpatient patients the rehab had housed. I watched many of my fellow "inmates" come and go, and that was hard for me on many levels. But I had great staff to help me through everything, and in the end, I was ready to go after 4 hard weeks of work.

There is so much more that I could tell you all about my recovery in the hospital. I could talk about my friendships that are still strong today with my physical therapists, or I could talk about learning to walk again, or learning to go to the bathroom on my own ( was part of my journey). But in the end, I think I have hit the high points.

I will say this much though. I was not prepared to leave the hospital. You see, when I was in my accident, I was in the process of moving. So to go home for me was to return to LA and my bed and my room...none of which existed any more. And even though I had thought about that many times and had said to myself, "I'm ready"; I was not. It was very difficult to acclimate myself to a new house while trying to acclimate myself to my new self...a person who moves primarily via wheelchair. That process took a few weeks, in all honesty, and I can't say that I didn't yearn for the familiarity of the hospital more than once during that time. I had entered their doors a broken mess, but in my mind, able to walk and do all of the things I (frankly) took for granted. When I left, I left in a wheelchair, and I couldn't even stand for a long period of time.

One day, I stopped in front of the floor-length mirror in my mother's room. I was recalling the incident with the CNA who did the double take and realized it was me in the picture. I realized that I was doing the same thing. I was looking at this image, this person in the mirror, and I was suddenly saying out loud, "Oh my goodness. That's you".