Saturday, September 16
HOW IT ALL HAPPENED
I wake up with a huge bee in my bonnet to do some home improvement on my new condo. It has been a hectic month, full of houseguests and stress at work, and I am anxious to get back on track with the painting and other stuff I need to do.
Today I am going to tackle stripping wallpaper in my sunroom. The previous owners have left this heinous peach-colored number. The sunroom is pretty small, about 6 feet by 8 feet, and there's not a lot of room to move around. I spend a good part of the morning soaking the walls with a damp sponge and then scraping away. As each piece dangles off, my anticipation mounts. It's as satisfying as popping an oozing blackhead or scratching an itch.
There is this huge radiator cover in the sunroom, about 4 feet high by 3 feet long. It weighs a ton. I need to remove it to get at the wallpaper behind it. The first thing I do is take off the top, which exposes edges as slick as knives. It takes all my effort to lift the radiator cover and move it to the center of the room. This will prove disastrous in a few seconds.
I take the step ladder and move it as close to the wall as possible, but there's still about a two-foot clearance in between the ladder and the wall that I would need to scale to really get at the pieces. I entertain the idea of moving my computer desk out of the way, but it is a cumbersome motherfucker and I am too lazy. So what do I do? I climb to the top of the ladder. Then I take one foot off and straddle the desk until that foot reaches the edge of the windowsill. There I am, with one foot on the ladder and one foot on the sill. You’d think I would stop while I’m ahead, but I am pretty nimble, so I take my other foot off the ladder and try bringing it to the windowsill as well. At this point, I have to arch my back to balance myself on the windowsill, flush against the wall. This doesn’t go so well. In an instant, I start to wobble and fall backwards. It is a crazy sensation. I’ve lost my balance many times in the past, but have always been able to regain it and recover. Not this time, Chico. I am completely out of control.
The next couple of seconds seem to pass in slow-motion: I twist my body so my torso is facing forward, only to find myself rushing towards the razor-sharp edges of the radiator cover on the floor. I realize that if I fall on the radiator cover, I will probably slice my body open in two. There’s no safe area to catch my fall, except for a little pocket of empty floor space about two square feet wide that lies beyond the radiator cover. My only option to reach that area is to nosedive over the radiator cover at a 90-degree angle. (Later on, my friend Teresa, who is the first person to return to my condo after the accident, will say that she couldn’t believe how I managed to fall on that space at all, what with all the hazardous materials strewn across the floor).
The next thing I remember is the sensation of falling directly on the top of my head. I can feel my neck snapping back as I roll over to complete the fall. The pain comes instantly. It shoots down my neck and through my right shoulder all the way down the length of my arm with alarming intensity. It is a searing, gothic pain. My first thought is, something isn’t right. My second thought is, I can still wiggle my fingers and toes. This gives me some comfort, enough to convince myself that maybe the pain will gradually subside, much as it does after you slam you finger in a car door.
But it doesn’t get better. It gets worse. At this point, I am running on pure adrenaline and manage to drag myself to the sofa on my (good) left side. I hoist myself up to reach the phone, which is lying on the chaise part of the sofa. I dial my sister, Tatiana.
“T, I think I did something,” is all I can say.
She knows instantly the something bad has happened. I explain, and she asks if I feel any numbness. It’s hard to tell with all the pain. She says she is going to call 911. This scares me because it means it’s serious. I beg her to wait. I still totally haven’t accepted the situation yet. We talk on the phone a little more until I can calm down a bit. My breathing is very labored at this point. Finally, I capitulate to her demands. She’s on Lake Shore Drive but is still a way’s away. She is going to hang up and call 911 and call me right back. I ask her to tell the paramedics to try and get a neighbor to let them through the back gate because my back door is open and they’ll be able to get in that way. Otherwise, they’ll have to break in because I don’t think I can get up the answer the door. The pain has intensified. She agrees and hangs up. A minute later, she is back on the phone with me, and about 2 minutes later there is a knock at my front door. Damn, that was fast…but I told them to go around back!
I call out that I can’t get to the door and that they have to go around back. Then I hear the paramedic mumble something unkind, but I can’t make it out (Weeks later I will find out from the neighbor who let them into the building that the male paramedic had said, “Well why the fuck didn’t anyone tell me that in the first place?” Charming). Two minutes later I hear them coming up the back deck steps to my kitchen. As they walk in, I remember that I am only wearing a t-shirt and panties (yes, this is how I like to do housework). I am instantly ashamed and embarrassed. “I’m not really dressed for the occasion,” I blurt out. Still needing to be the funny girl even in a time of crisis, eh?
The female paramedic chuckles at this comment, but the dude appears to be as insensitive and as jaded as can be. He kind of meanders into the room with this tremendous slouch and a look on his face that seems to imply that I am keeping him from attending his daughter’s first birthday party or something. He looks about 50 and has clearly been doing this job for too long. He asks me if I can get up. I say I don’t think so. Boy, does he look put out after I say this. It doesn’t exactly make me feel too hot. Here I am, feeling so vulnerable and scared and in pain and just looking to someone to make me feel like everything is going to be okay. But instead I have to deal with this guy.
They end up having to put me on a dolly, not unlike what they do with Hannibal Lechter when he greets the female senator whose daughter is being held captive by Buffalo Bill. Before they do so, they immobilize my neck with a hard collar and lift me onto a straight board to steady my back. I ask the dude if he can at least put some pants or shoes on me before we get into the ambulance.
“Sorry, we can’t do that,” he replies.
So they wrap me in a sheet to cover up my immodesty and I go to the hospital in bare feet. The next few minutes are super painful, as they cart me down three flights of stairs. I try not to howl out in pain but they bump me around pretty badly and it just hurts. Coming out of my building, I see that the cops have arrived and hear my sister pull up and cry out to the paramedics. Then I spot my neighbor, Mick, looking bewildered and scared. I feel like such a freak show. Your brain is screaming, “OMG, I can’t believe it’s ME being put in the ambulance.” The nicer female paramedic gets in the driver’s seat and Mr. Charming rides with me in back. T follows in her car. While we’re driving, it is stimulating conversation, let me tell you. I ask how long he’s been doing this: 25 years he says. I ask him if I am going to be okay. “Yeah, you probably just broke a few ribs or something,” he says, as breezy as can be. That’s about it.
THE ER AT SWEDISH COVENANT
By law, the paramedics have to take you to the closest hospital. So Swedish Covenant it is. I am a little wary about this because I know nothing about this hospital and, you know, everyone goes to Northwestern. Plus, it is a Saturday evening, and everyone says Saturday nights are the worst night to be admitted to the ER. They’re understaffed and filled with chimps that are barely certified to administer a band-aid, let alone treat a fall like mine, I’ve heard. We arrive and I am placed on a gurney and wheeled through a bunch of rooms until we come into a very small room surrounded by windows. This is where I will spend most of my time while I’m here. Tatiana explains what has happened to the nurse—this very pretty 23-year-old named Sarah. She is very gentle and sweet and explains that they can’t give me anything for the pain until they know what is wrong with me. Fantastic.
It’s about 4pm. After waiting an eternity, a doctor enters the room. Now, take a moment to picture the image of your ideal doctor. Got it? OK, my doctor is the exact opposite of that image. She has a maroon gash for a mouth and looks mean as dirt. She doesn’t introduce herself; she just walks in and asks what has happened. I explain. She says nothing. She is a harpy in a white lab coat. She offers the most cursory attempts to feel some of the bones in my back. She barely asks any questions, not even if I feel any numbness or tingling. Hell, even my sister knew to ask that. She has absolutely no bedside manner at all. Horrible. This is not very reassuring. She doesn’t touch my neck.
After barely examining me, she mutters, “It doesn’t look like anything’s broken, but let’s take an x-ray.” And with that she leaves the room. Nurse Sarah has to lift up my right shoulder to get an x-ray plate under there. It hurts like hell to be lifted. But it’s over quickly. That is it. One measly x-ray.
More waiting and then the nurse comes back with the doctor and they tell me the x-ray looks normal.
“What about her neck?” asks my sister. The doctor doesn’t say anything. And then do you know what they do next? They take my neck brace off, so my neck is not supported and just dangling around in the breeze. They explain that they’re going to do more x-rays and then the doctor leaves the room. I hate her.
At this point, I start hyperventilating, not so much because of the pain but because I am dead scared. You just sense when you’re not getting proper care. It’s the most helpless, frustrating feeling in the world. Nurse Sarah gently tells me to try and calm down and breathe or else I will pass out. Tatiana grasps my hand. I want to scream. The doctor is treating me like there is nothing wrong with me, despite the fact that I howl in pain every time they attempt to move me or get me to sit upright. You can tell Tatiana is worried about what’s going on, but she says nothing. Finally the doctor returns. Again, my sister asks, “Are you sure it’s not her neck?” “Yeah, that’s why we’re going to do more x-rays,” the evil scorpion doctor replies nonchalantly.
At this point, another woman comes into my room and explains that she needs to do a series of x-rays of my neck and back. This is perhaps the most painful experience yet. Remember, I no longer have the neck brace on me at this point! She wheels me into another room and proceeds to move me every which way to Sunday in order to take each x-ray. It goes on for an eternity. Tatiana says later that it was unbearable listening to me crying out, asking the woman to stop. But she is relentless, although you can clearly see it pains her to do so. Each time she moves me in a different position, she places a metal plate under me. She gets me to contort in the most uncomfortable positions imaginable and then asks me to hold them for what seems like a double feature. It is excruciating.
To make matters worse, these x-rays don’t reveal anything either, so Dr. Evil orders a CT scan. More waiting. More hyperventilating. T tells me to try to just breathe and listen to the sound of her voice. Sarah tries to calm me down, too, and to reassure me that I’m going to be okay. Then she tells me that she needs to get me into a hospital gown and asks if I can sit up. I know this is going to be painful, but I slowly try. As soon as gravity takes hold of me I am in agonizing pain. I cry out and collapse back down. For some reason, it feels better to turn onto my side, so she tries to get the smock on me that way. But there’s no getting around the fact that I have to raise me arms above my head to get the gown on me, and every time I try to do that the pain sears through me. It brings a cold, desperate sweat to my forehead. Finally, Sarah asks if she can cut me out of my t-shirt. It’s one of my favorites. “Sure,” I whimper. A few snips and we are done.
They wheel me out to do the CT scan. I am back in the room with T after about 15 minutes. At this point, Sarah is allowed to give me Vicodin, which does absolutely nothing for my pain. Can’t they just give me something stronger? Not yet. Then another cute EMT comes in the room and Sarah explains that he is going to put the neck brace back on me because he is an expert. Thank god. I enjoy watching him as he expertly places the brace around my neck. Then the four of us ruminate on what might be wrong with me. T thinks I might have a pinched nerve, which is what it feels like because my right arm is just burning. The EMT says he had one once, and that the pain is awful. It just takes your breath away when you move a certain way.
Yes! That’s it! That’s how I feel! I am immediately convinced I have a pinched nerve. The desperation of wanting to have some definitive answer for what is wrong with me runs deeper than then desire to end the pain in my body. Sarah explains that a new doctor has just started her shift and that I’ll like her. I say thank god because the other doctor isn’t exactly a comforting soul and Sarah can’t help herself and she agrees, “Ooooh, yeah.” With an expression that says “Don’t I know it, sister.” We exchange knowing glances. This makes me feel better. A little levity goes a long way. At least I know I’m not the only one who wants to hurl that doctor in the river, although I can tell that T is really worried about the care I’m getting. But nobody wants to rock the boat. This will become an even more critical factor two days later when I deal with a second-year resident at Northwestern…
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Finally, the new doctor comes into the room. You can immediately tell she is nothing like the first doctor: She is much sunnier, with a gentle face and an empathic, understanding demeanor. It’s amazing what you can glean about a person’s energy without them uttering one word. She rushes to my side with an appropriate urgency and introduces herself, but before she can say anything more I blurt out, “Hi, doctor. I’m so glad you’re here. I think I have a pinched nerve.” Great. So now the patient is diagnosing herself.
“Hi, Nadine. Where do you think you have one?” she asks patiently, and I point to my right shoulder. She looks like an angel and I want to kiss her. She smiles sympathetically and looks me in the eye very gently and says, “Nadine. I’ve just looked at your CT scan. You have two fractures in your cervical spine. We’re going to transfer you to Northwestern Hospital where they can determine whether or not you’ll need surgery.” Whoa. How did things get so serious all of a sudden? I just kind of stare at her in shock. On one hand, it’s a relief to finally know what is wrong with me. But breaking my neck? That sounds so scary. My next thought is, thank god they put that neck brace back on me. My thought after that is, holy shit that lady moved my neck around a butt load when she was taking x-rays without any support. But what’s done is done. They explain that I won’t have to do a thing but wait for the new paramedics to arrive and transfer me to Northwestern.
Sarah starts me on a morphine drip while we wait. I can feel it seeping through my body. It doesn’t exactly take the pain away per se; it just makes me not mind it anymore. Okay, I am chasing the dragon now….
We wait. Tatiana and I agree not to call mom and my other sister, Sekita, back in D.C. until we know whether or not I’ll need surgery. There is no point in worrying them before we have to. I hate that the burden is all on T but there is nothing I can do about it.
When the new paramedics arrive, I am instantly put at ease. They are nothing like the first paramedics except that they are again a man and woman team. But they are much younger and friendlier. I especially like the woman. They slide me onto a stiff board again, which actually makes the pain a little less intense. I ask if I can stay on the board forever. They laugh. She is a chatty one, while her partner is shyer and more soft-spoken, but her talking distracts me from my situation and I am grateful. She immediately tells me that she also fractured her spine a long time ago in a much more serious car accident. It left her with a broken neck, several broken ribs and her face torn off. But she looks pretty good and spry to me now, so that gives me a lot of hope. She tells me that everything is going to be okay (again, simply getting that reassurance from someone goes such a long way when you’re so scared and vulnerable). Then her partner jokes that her accident clearly has not affected her ability to talk my ear off. They act like a married couple, the way they fight and tease each other. It’s cute. She drives and he gets in the back with me. Tatiana follows us in her car. They tell me that they’re going to take Lake Shore Drive but that she’ll take it nice and slow and try to avoid the bumps.
He holds my hand the whole time.
We arrive at Northwestern and they put me on another gurney and cart me through several rooms. Then they say goodbye to me as they hand me over to the ICU staff. I thank them profusely (I think I start crying a little at this point. They are so nice). Finally, about six people in white coats surround me, including Dr. Dos, who I will quickly start calling “McDreamy” to his face in the immediate future. He takes my hand immediately and tells me who he is (chief resident of neurosurgery) and where I am (Intensive Care Unit) and that everything is going to be okay (I want to marry him). The nurses get me set up in the room in which I will spend the next 24 hours. It’s 9pm now and I haven’t had anything to eat all day and I am still just in my dirty underwear and unshowered and in a neck brace. I am exhausted.
MEET DR MCDREAMY
Dr. McDreamy carefully scans my whole body with his hands, feeling around for any broken bones. Then he starts pricking me all over with an instrument, asking if I can feel a sharp or dull pain with each prick. I can pretty much feel everything sharply. Then he asks me to push down on his hands as hard as I can with my hands. Then he checks all of my reflexes. This will become a tiresome routine that every new doctor or nurse who enters my room for the first time will perform. But it’s crucial. They need to know if there’s any spinal cord damage or indication of paralysis. After Dr. Dos is sufficiently satisfied, he turns to me and takes my hand. Very gravely but gently he looks into my eyes and says: “I have good news and I have bad news: The good news is that—based on what I can see from examining you—I can’t see any obvious damage to your spinal chord. Of course we’ll need to do more tests, but this is very reassuring.
And the bad news?
“The bad news is, I hear wallpaper is actually coming back into style.” Someone had told him I was stripping wallpaper!
OMG, the fact that he can joke like this with me makes me love him forever. We all burst out laughing in a fit of relief, even Tatiana and the nurses. Does Dr. Dos have a girlfriend?
This joke seems to set the mood for the rest of the night. The two nurses, Tiffany and Constance, start joking with me instantly. They ask me more details about how the accident happened. I ask them if they are like the doctors on Grey’s Anatomy and if they are all sleeping with each other. This makes them howl, and they say, no sorry we don’t have time to do that because we’re too exhausted. But they do admit that they refer to Dr. Dos as “Dr. McDreamy” (yes!) and that half the staff nurses (including them) are in love with him. I can see why. He definitely has a dreamy quality about him, with his dark skin and gentle eyes. It’s his bedside manner, though, that is most attractive. He just takes command and makes you feel so safe. I tell them that I actually had a date with a doctor a few weeks ago. Really? Where does he work? Weiss Hospital, I say. What does he do? Internal Medicine. They blanch at this.
“Oh, too bad,” says Tiffany. ”Internists are boring. They’re not like neurosurgeons. They’re charismatic and funny.”
Tatiana finally arrives at my room. The front desk has been giving her a hard time because visiting hours are over, but she persists and gets through. It is so good to see her. She says she has talked to mom and Sekita and that they are waiting to hear from us again about the surgery part. I’m relieved they know but sad that they must be worrying so much.
Nurse Constance will become my everything for the next 8 hours. She is from Jamaica and she has the most beautiful accent and a very soothing voice. She is with me during her entire shift, and never leaves my side for more than a few minutes. It’s strange, during such extreme times, you get to know someone very fast. You feel a little closer to death, or at least outside the banality of everyday living, so you want to confess everything you’re feeling to make some kind of human connection, or perhaps to make life feel important. I learn the most intimate things about Constance over the next few hours: about the death of both her parents, how she had to go back home to Jamaica all by herself and deal with her mother’s funeral on her own. I learn that she is lonely but not alone, that she is a very strong, very regal woman. I feel a very strong bond with her.
She takes me down to radiology where they perform a CT scan on me. We wait. Then Dr. Dos comes and explains to me that my fracture is “quite impressive.” It’s gone vertically through the entire length of the C5 vertebrae and into the ligaments/nerves that separate it from the C6 (which explains why the doctor at Swedish Covenant told me I had 2 fractures). But the C5 fracture is really the only one of serious consequence. Because of the severity of the fracture, they need to do another CT scan to determine whether any of the ligaments have suffered damage. This will also determine whether or not they need to perform surgery that night. My heart sinks and I feel queasy and unreal. We do another scan. After that, they tell me they need to do an MRI. They ask me if I am claustrophobic. Yes. So they give me something to relax me during it. The MRI is very loud and noisy but I get through it okay. You have to try not to move at all—not even swallow—while it makes its very inelegant, noisy motions in 3 to 6 minute intervals. Then we are done and I’m taken back up to my room. It’s about 1:30am by now. Tatiana is waiting for me there. My poor, poor sister. She looks broken and traumatized. I think this day has been harder for her than it has been for me in a lot of ways.
Soon Dr. Dos comes into my room. He doesn’t say anything. I fear the worst. He waits for Constance to walk away from the bed and then approaches and takes my hand. He proceeds to explain that I don’t need surgery.
I look at him and say, “OMG I kind of want to make out with you right now.” This makes him blush but he continues on.
“The not so fun part is that you’ll need to wear a halo brace for about two months, and halo braces are no fun, but at least it’s not summertime because they can get pretty hot, so thank goodness for small favors.” Good ol’ Dr. Dos. Always looking on the bright side.
I don’t even care about the halo. I’m just so glad I don’t need surgery. He tells me that tomorrow I’ll get the halo put on and that Dr. Gutierrez, who is the attending doctor, will be taking over as my neurosurgeon in the morning. He assures me that Dr. Gutierrez is one of the best doctors they have and that I’ll feel very safe and comfortable with him. And although I may not always understand him because he has a very thick accent, I will be in very good hands. God, Dr. Dos knows all the right things to say.
Sunday, September 17
Tatiana leaves to go home and get some sleep around 2:30am. She promises to return the next morning. The rest of the night, I don’t sleep a wink. I just lie there and contemplate the ceiling. My lower back starts to hurt like a bitch because I am lying flat as a board on the hospital bed and cannot get up at all. Constance puts a catheter in my bladder, which doesn’t hurt too much as long as I don’t move or urinate. But when I do that, there’s a burning sensation accompanied by extreme pressure. It’s not pleasant. I can’t tell if any pee is coming out. But Constance tells me that I’m peeing a river. It just keeps coming out. I’ve been holding it in since I was admitted to the ER at Swedish Covenant, so there’s a lot of catching up to do. To make matters worse, Constance puts these really long knee-high socks on me and then hooks up two tubes with blood pressures-type wraps around each of my calves. Hot air blows in and out of each device to pump the blood in my legs. This is to make sure I don’t get any blood clots since I’m in such a sedentary position. They are hot as shit and add to my overall misery. Plus, I am hooked up to more machines than I care for. The IV in my right arm drips away, but if I bend that arm more than a little an alarm will go off, so I have to be careful not to move too much. Another machine is hooked up to my vitals. I just lie there frozen in place until morning.
Every few hours Constance comes in to check my blood pressure. This will be a constant thing throughout my entire hospital stay. At around 4am, Dr. Gutierrez comes in. He is just as Dr. Dos described him: benevolent face, kind eyes, and such a thick Hispanic accent that I can barely understand what he is saying. He tells me that I am a lucky girl and reassures me that everything is going to be okay. He’s looked at my charts and agrees with Dr. Dos that I will need a halo. I feel a lot better.
Around 8am, Constance comes into my room and tells me that her shift is almost over and that she’ll be leaving me soon. I ask her if she usually goes straight home after the night shift and sleeps. She tells me that it’s Sunday, so she will be going to church now. I ask her if she’ll say a little prayer for me. She immediately replies, “I might say a little prayer right now” and walks over to my bed, leans over and holds my hand. Then she prays with me. I am so overcome by this kind, gentle act that it brings tears to my eyes. The kindness of people is all the more poignant to me right now, all the more precious. I give her a fond farewell and thank her for everything and assure her that we will meet again under better circumstances. I am so sad to see her go.
The nurse for the next shift arrives. Her name is Helen, and she is also very nice, although she is more aloof and less of a motherly figure than Constance. She pricks me all over again for signs of numbness. Then she explains that the people from Bremer, the company that manufactures the halo, will probably be arriving in the afternoon to fit me for the contraption that I will come to spend the next eight weeks of my life loathing. They’re not actually doctors but scientists; they know exactly how the halo needs to be fitted on patients.
GETTING FITTED FOR THE HALO
Tatiana returns around 9am. Poor thing. She couldn’t have gotten much sleep. She stays with me all morning and then goes out for a little at lunchtime. The Bremer Halo people end up coming early, right after Tatiana leaves. They are two men, both extremely kind. One of them has the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen. They take charge immediately. I feel like I’m in good hands. Three young residents accompany them. They all go through a million reflex tests on various points of my body. Everybody crowds around me and I am a very big deal for several minutes. One of the halo guys, the one with the kind eyes, measures around my head and then my upper torso just below my boobs, kind of like he’s fitting me for a bra. He comments on how my torso is so small and that they barely have the smallest size halo vest to fit me. That’s weird.
The halo weighs about seven lbs. It has four titanium metal bars that extend vertically down from my skull (two in front, two in back) and attach to a hard plastic vest that is squeezed so tightly around my torso I can barely breathe. It’s lined in synthetic sheep’s wool. I will not be allowed to get it wet in the next two months, so no showers. Just sponge baths.
Soon, the Frankenstein-ing begins. First, they put the halo crown on my head first to approximate how it will fit. It feels cold and metallic against my warm forehead. Then they give me four shots of Lydicane (two on each side of my forehead and two behind each ear) to numb the insertion points for the halo screws. It hurts but is nothing I cannot handle. What’s worse is the thought that this thing is actually going to be screwed into my skull in a moment! Then they shave the areas behind both of my ears, preparing the insertion points for the screws. Finally, each man takes command of one screw. They count to three together and then they begin simultaneously screwing into my forehead. I can feel it pretty damn well, but I keep quiet. Until I realize they haven’t cleared away the shaven hair so well because I can feel it getting caught in the screws as they rotate, especially the hair behind my left ear. I ask them to stop and clear some of the hair out of the way, because it is starting to grab pretty hard. I can feel the hair twisting into my skull, tighter and tighter. It is not pleasant. But it’s nothing compared to how the screws feel drilling into my head. Not only is it painful, but it is a truly bizarre sensation. I don’t make a sound, but tears roll silently down my cheeks. They tell me I’m doing great and that it will be over in just a few more minutes. Each guy is in charge of a screw, and they all rotate on the count of three each time to make sure each screw is getting the same rotation. You feel like you’re in some medieval torture contraption. The whole thing takes about ten minutes and they’re done. They tell me I was a “total trooper” through the whole thing.
The reality of being in the halo doesn’t fully sink in for hours, but the sensation of having your head suspended from screws is horrible. It feels like it’s floating, and I will come to learn how maddening it will be to never be able to rest my weary head for nine weeks. At least I’m finally able to sit upright in my bed now to relieve the pressure on my lower back from having been flat for that past 24 hours. Tatiana returns and is so mad she missed the whole thing and didn’t get a chance to talk to the doctors. Helen assures me that Tatiana will be able to talk to my doctor later and that I’ll have physical and occupational therapists to ask questions. They start giving me pain meds for the pain that I will feel from my neck and the insertion points. Plus, my right side is pretty bad. Lots of shooting and numbness in my right arm, especially my thumb. My right thumb is completely numb. Good thing I’m a lefty.
At some point I start getting so hot because I’m connected to a million tubes and I have those crazy things on my calves and the halo vest is a sauna and the nurses have pooled all the sheets on top of me in a pile in between my legs and I’m so tangled up in tubes, what with the catheter tube and the two tubes connected to each anti-clot leg sock. I start moaning for Helen to come and free me from everything. She comes in and removes the sheets. She comments on how warm it is in my room and tries to bring the temperature down. It never does go down.
I leave ICU in the afternoon and they transfer me to a regular hospital room in the Feinberg Pavilion. It is a corner room with a beautiful east view of the Chicago skyline. Teresa comes to visit in the afternoon. They bring me lunch. It’s the first meal I’ve eaten in 36 hours. I still haven’t pooped. The pain meds constipate me. Plus, I hate the idea of having to go in a bedpan. I’m still not able to get up out of bed. The first thing I do is have Janice, my new nurse, turn the thermostat down to a cool sixty-five degrees. It’s a perfect frost, but poor Teresa and T nearly freeze their asses off. I try to sleep a little, since I haven’t slept since Friday night. Dinner arrives. The hospital food is actually pretty good. T and Teresa stay with me and then leave around seven pm or so. I watch a little TV and then am able to go to sleep. It’s not a great night’s sleep because they wake you every couple hours to check your blood pressure, and I’ve got all the tubes and IVs in me and the beeping of my vitals is pretty loud. And I’ve got the halo.
Monday, September 18
Tatiana shows up in the morning, ever faithful. It’s now Monday. The residents come by on their morning rounds to check on me. They all look about 20 years old. They tell me how lucky I am, that the kind of injury I’ve experienced is really frequently associated with paralysis. I thank them and they leave.
My physical therapist, Jenn, arrives around noon. I try to get up out of bed wearing the halo for the first time. It feels like a lead planet is on my head. Seven new insta-pounds on your head is kind of a lot, especially when you cannot use your neck our shoulders to support it. It’s all in your abs. You’ve got to get up and move around and pretty much do everything with your abs. Jenn shows me how I need to get out of bed. I can’t just sit up like normal people do because that will put tremendous pressure on the front screws in my forehead. I have to roll over to the side and slowly prop my torso up with my hands. It feels pretty damn hard. But I slowly do it. Once I am sitting upright, my right shoulder grabs severely and the pain shoots up my shoulder to my neck. I want to talk to the doctors about readjusting the halo on this side. Perhaps it’s hitting a nerve and the right screw needs to be loosened a little. My head is clamped down so tight onto my neck. It’s insane. I have Football Neck.
Putting my feet on the ground for the first time is such a strange sensation. Jenn instructs me to tighten my stomach muscles as I stand up. I can’t use my hands to push myself off the bed. I do a clumsy squat and am surprised that I’m able to stand up. I feel so top-heavy, Your balance is all off. At any point you feel like you could topple over. I take my first awkward step. I’m okay. I take another. The therapist remarks on how good my balance is. The catheter tube is still connected to me so I only go a few steps. I sit back down. Great job. That’s enough for now. My shoulder is gripping too much for me to continue. I need to lie back down.
One of the residents comes in to see me and adjust my screws. He keeps looking at me to see if the halo is on straight. Every time they adjust my screws, they’re going to need to take another x-ray, so it’s kind of a pain in the ass. I want to see Dr. Gutierrez about it because after the resident leaves I still have gripping. Before the resident leaves, I ask him if I can remove the catheter and he says okay.
The resident on the floor, Dr. Harri, comes in and checks on me. I tell him about the pain. He explains that it’s normal, that the nerves have been aggravated and that they take a few days to calm down, but he says that he’ll have Dr. Gutierrez come and look at me.
In the afternoon, the physical therapist comes back and I ask if I can go to the bathroom for the first time. She says okay. This is the first time I get to look at myself in the mirror with my halo on. It’s quite a shock, but I can’t stop staring. There are screws in my head, dude! I am surprised and delighted that I can manage to go to the bathroom by myself. But it’s no small feat. You realize very quickly how we arch and bend and turn our necks for EVERYTHING we do. When you can’t move your head an inch, it’s challenging to do just about anything. I emerge from the bathroom triumphant and the physical therapist passes me with flying colors. She tells me that the occupational therapist will come by the next day.
FIRST SPONGE BATH!
Then Tatiana “bathes” me for the first time. There’s a hand-held shower and we get at my bottom bits okay. I am so thankful for soap I could cry. Then she kind of gingerly sponges off my torso as best she can without getting the halo vest wet. I’m so grateful to be clean(er). And just to be standing up. And not to have the catheter in me anymore. And not to be paralyzed.
Finally, Dr. Gutierrez shows up around 6 pm. I tell him about the grabbing. He starts adjusting my head again, crunching it around with his large hands and tightening the screws like a mechanic. But there’s not a lot of change. I’m just going to have to live with the gripping. At least it’s only on one side. He tells me if all goes well with occupational therapy I’ll be released the next afternoon.
MEANWHILE, IN THE FIFTH CIRCLE OF HELL...
I settle in for the night. It’s been a great day and everyone is feeling good about my progress. We’re all in a great mood. Nurse Sheila and T get me all cozy under the covers. Then Sheila remarks that I’m lying too low on the bed. I’d be more comfortable if they bring me up a bit. I agree enthusiastically. This proves to be a bad move…
They gather on each side of me and slip their hands underneath my vest. They slide me closer to the top of the bed in one felled motion. It happens pretty fast. But something goes horribly wrong. As they move me, the halo screw behind my left ear accidentally gets caught on the bed sheet and comes out of my skull. I cry out in pain, but T and Sheila look even more pained at what they feel they have just done. I feel almost worse for them. It’s all happened so fast and all three of us are really scared. Sheila immediately pages the resident on call to come and see me. His name is Dr. Slimy.
From the moment Dr. Slimy enters my room, I have a bad feeling about him. Naturally, I am extremely frightened and vulnerable because of what has just happened. I am also in a great deal of pain. But Dr. Slimy's arrogant and insecure behavior does everything to intensify that fear.
Instead of walking in and reassuring me that everything is going to be okay, he saunters in and gives me a suspicious look, as if I deliberately caused this to happen. There is great fear in his eyes, though. In fact, he looks absolutely terrified. He starts by asking me and Tatiana all sorts of weird questions, like did Dr. Gutierrez discuss any other treatment options with me in addition to the halo? I want to scream, “Dude, are you going to do anything about the screw dislodged from my head!” but I answer his questions patiently for a few minutes. But I get pretty frustrated with him soon enough, as he shows no signs of doing anything about my current situation. It’s funny. He stutters over his words, but what’s coming out of his mouth is so arrogant and condescending. I realize he's using arrogance to cover up complete insecurity.
This is not the most reassuring behavior to receive from a doctor when you’re the patient.
I start asking him if he can do something about the halo, but he persists with his confrontational approach. It all seems so surreal. It slowly dawns on me: he has no idea what he’s doing and he’s trying to stall for time by putting me on the defensive and asking inappropriate questions that have nothing to do with what’s going on. I take one look at Tatiana and can tell she is thinking exactly the same thing as I am. He’s not going to help me. At this point, I think I have never felt such cold desperation in all of my life. I will never forget this feeling. I have to do something. T looks too freaked out, and she’s not saying anything. Nobody is going to speak for me. I have to speak up.
At this point, Dr. Slimy is blathering on to the nurse, insisting that she give me something to calm me down—-as if I’m too hysterical to deal with, himself, anymore. He knows I’m not comfortable with him and his arrogance and condescension enrage me even more. If he weren’t being such a complete and total douche bag I might feel sorry for him. I completely understand that residents frequently find themselves in situations where they are unsure of what to do. They are still learning. This, I get. Hell, I’m sure they’re terrified on a daily basis! But it’s all about how you handle yourself in the face of that fear. In my opinion, Dr. Slimy failed horribly on this score. And I wasn’t about to pay for his issues. This was my skull we were dealing with.
I ask him again what he plans to do. He says that he is going to page the Bremer people to come out and that they’re going to have to take a look at the halo. He doesn’t really say this in a very convincing way, so my sister says, “Well, does that mean they’re going to come out soon, like, within the hour?”
“I can’t tell you it will be within the hour, but they’ll come,” he says. He says nothing more, not even an “I’m sorry. I know you’re in pain. Just hang tight.” That’s it. Again, his bedside manner leaves something to be desired. But then he leaves the room and I spring into action.
I grab Tatiana’s arm and beg her to page Nurse Sheila, who has since left the room. I tell her I DO NOT want Slimy coming near me again. I don’t care what has to happen, just get me another doctor! I am extremely terrified at the point, but I am surprised by how calm and in control my voice sounds. Tatiana leaves and returns with Sheila. They both look scared as puppies.
T very calmly tells Sheila that I’m not comfortable with Slimy and is there any way we can page Dr. Gutierrez to come. Sheila looks crestfallen. She explains that Dr. Gutierrez has left for the day and that she’s not allowed to page him. There's a pecking order here. But you can tell she feels so bad and knows that Slimy is a jackass. She offers to give us Dr. Gutierrez’s number to page him ourselves, but asks us not to tell anyone that she gave the number to us. This doesn’t seem right. We ask if there is anything else we can do. She has to follow protocol. She offers up paging the chief resident on duty at the time. Great. Anyone but Slimy. Sheila leaves to go page the new resident and we have hope again.
A few minutes pass. Then what happens next absolutely floors me.
Dr. Slimy comes back into the room and appears noticeably angry with me. He announces, “I hear you have a problem with me.” I cannot believe this is happening. He’s a doctor and he’s getting super personal. It is unbelievably unprofessional. The chief resident must have gotten mad that Sheila called him, so he had probably called Dr. Slimy and been, like, “What the hell, guy? Can’t you take care of it?” This probably made Slimy look bad, and he was taking it out on me.
I pause for a few moments and take a deep breath. Then I reply very slowly and quietly, “It’s nothing personal. But based on how you’ve handled me so far as a patient, I don’t feel comfortable or safe in your care. I’m sorry but I’d like a different doctor to attend to me.”
“But nobody else will be able to do anything!” he screams. “You don’t understand. This has never happened before! The Bremer people are coming and they will take care of everything.”
Then I just look at him very carefully and say, “What you just said to me right now, you could have said to me five minutes ago, and it would have made me feel better. It doesn’t take much to reassure a patient or let them know what’s going on or to put them at ease.” Whoa! Where did I get these balls?
This makes him even angrier. I wasn’t trying to embarrass him. But I wasn’t going to let him treat me poorly anymore. Yet he wasn’t finished with me. Perhaps to try to show me that he did, in fact, know what he was doing, he starts unscrewing the screw on the left side of my forehead! I didn’t want him to touch me again, and I should have stopped him, but I felt helpless and just exhausted and still very, very scared at this point.
As he loosens the screw, there is a sudden clicking noise: the other screws immediately tighten on my head like a vice, leading to more pain and more hysteria. I cannot believe this is happening. I yelp in pain. My sister, who clearly heard and saw this happen, cries out to Dr. Slimy to stop, but he looks genuinely bewildered by what he has just done. This isn't happening. This isn't happening. I feel like a plumber is working on me instead a doctor. (Remember back to yesterday? How each doctor was assigned a screw and how each had to count to three to make sure each screw was getting the same rotation? Well, it seems that there was a very good reason for this. In order to unscrew one, you have to unscrew them all at the same time. Dr. Slimy was painfully unaware of this) I start moaning, but I don’t even care about the pain anymore. I just want this nightmare to end. Slimy leaves the room looking like he wants to just run to him mommy. It’s a fucking free-for-all.
Finally, the chief resident shows up, and he swaggers in with Slimy looking just as arrogant and fearful as his predecessor. My heart sinks. They walk in together as if they are members of the same fraternity. This isn't real. He tries to get Tatiana to go out to the waiting room, but she insists on staying put. There’s no way she’s going to leave me alone with these two goons.
All I can do at this point is pray that the Bremer people show up soon. I hope they are the same guys from the day before. I become eerily calm and do not say another word.
Turns out they are! I am so relieved when I see their faces I want to cry. They recognize me and smile, greeting me by name. Then they crowd around me and are aghast at the state of the halo on my head.
“What the hell happened here?” one of them can’t help but ask.
They look at Slimy, but he says nothing. Both men look absolutely pissed. We explain the situation, and then they go out into the hallway. Tatiana grabs them and tells them how I’ve been treated. They nod knowingly and reassure her that everything is going to be okay. They walk back in and say everything is going to be fine. They’re going to completely remove the halo and re-insert it again back into the same holes in my head. It’s not going to be pleasant, but they’re going to try to make it as painless as possible. Again, none of this shit is coming out of Slimy's mouth. He just stands there, cowering in the background. I loathe him at this point.
We go through the whole song and dance again. They load me up with Lydicane shots and then each guy takes a screw and they count and screw carefully ensemble. I can feel the whole thing. I don’t mind it at all. I’m just so happy to feel like I’m in capable hands again.
They medicate me pretty heavily that night. You can tell all the nurses and everyone who comes through the room after that feel so bad about what has happened. I sleep through the night for the first time. I am completely spent by this experience.
Tuesday, September 19
The next morning, the usual round of residents shows up to check on me. You can tell they have all heard what had happened the night before. They look at me with such pity, but nobody says a word. They assure me that a Bremer rep will be coming by later in the day to do a final adjustment of my screws and that I will probably be released that day.
Then T comes in. She looks so ruined. I know she feels partially responsible for what has happened and it is more than I can bear. I grab her hand and tell her not to feel bad for an instant. It’s not her fault. It’s nobody’s fault. Everything is going to be okay. She still looks terrible. I feel helpless to comfort her.
My occupational therapist, Paulette, pops in around noon and I get to walk around the length of the hospital floor for the first time, getting ever more confident with each step. Then we go into a room where I can practice walking up and down stairs and getting in and out of a fake car. Paulette is amazed at how well I am doing and pronounces that she sees no reason why I can’t be discharged today. We go back to my room. The Bremer rep arrives. He is a dead ringer for JFK Jr and hot as hell. I stare at his big brown eyes intently as he tightens my screws. It hurts like a bitch and tears well up in my eyes. As he tightens the screws, he takes one hand to catch one of the hot tears falling down my face. This does a lot to restore my faith in humanity. ☺
After John John leaves the room, all we can do is wait to be released. Finally, I am given my papers and am put into a wheelchair. The nurse sits me down and shows me how to clean my pin sites every night with soap and water and an antibacterial ointment. Then she reminds me of a few other things: I can’t take showers. I can’t lift anything heavier than five pounds. I’m not allowed to raise my hands over my head. Sleeping will probably be pretty sucky. I won’t be able to do much of anything for the first few weeks. I’ll need someone to take care of me, at least for a while.
The adventure is just beginning...