The Faithful and Unabridged Retelling of an Ordeal
On May 26, 2014 I had what they call ‘a little accident.’ It involved a motor scooter slamming into the back right panel of a car. Unfortunately, I was on said motor scooter. It was not my fault (no, really. The other car pulled in front of me. Honest.) Either way the results were the same. Car: 1, Motor scooter: 0, which is kind of the definition of a moot point. It always seems to go that way. I think it has something to do with mass and inertia and quantum mechanics, with a little bit of buttered-toast-falling-on-carpet dynamics. My memory is a bit fuzzy, having only my family to tell me what happened before I regained consciousness, which turned out to be three weeks later, barring the occasional scrap of memory that somehow clung to my shocked brain stem in the interim.
Also, there were the memories I had which I remembered clearly. The only problem being that they never actually happened. Minor point, I thought. As long as it makes for a good story. Memory is funny that way. I have some scant memories that are brief and sometimes pretty faint. Also there are my own immediate memories of my experiences in UMass Memorial Hospital and Fairlawn Rehabilitation facility. Hopefully, they are accurate.
Either way, in this account I am indebted to the excellent memories of my family members, some of whom recorded events in emails or Facebook posts to family and friends. Also, when I regained consciousness, I posted my experiences to Facebook once I was sane enough to know what a Facebook was and how to use it, as well. Some of these are a part of this account, which I am indenting for clarity. Some of them are also from my family, more about whom you will hear shortly.
These social media postings make an excellent journal of where I was at any given time and what I and others were thinking and feeling. Reading them back later was somewhat eerie, like the ones where I was reported to be completely lucid and engaging, but of which I have retained no memory. I don’t remember a thing and assume I was unconscious, yet there I was, talking, laughing, and eating my meals. Was I conscious at the time but just didn’t commit those experiences to memory? Or was I operating totally unconsciously like a sleep talker, laugher, and eater? It’s impossible to say.
In these pages I will attempt to retrieve what I can, some from my untrustworthy memory and some from the people who spent so much time with me. These include my daughter, Kristin and her husband, Seeth and my brother, Dan and his wife, Patsy. I am indebted to them for the care, concern, and love they showed me during this horrible time. I could not ask for a more loving family.
Some of their observations were also posted to Facebook. Forgive me if the results are a little broken up and incomplete in some places. At the time so was I.
It was Memorial Day and a beautiful day it was. The evening was pleasant, as well. I had just finished a rehearsal for a play at a local theatre company that I belong to. It’s located in a one hundred thirteen year old vaudeville era playhouse that had gone from live theatre to several fires to a movie theatre and then back to live shows again in the form of a not for profit community theatre. Well, we certainly had the ‘not for profit’ part down pat. But we have a good relationship with the community and they give us a lot of support.
Also, it’s the kind of building that attracts ghost stories, as all good theatres do. There’s the Lady in White. She’s timid and only seen as a reflection in glass panels at the back of the theatre; very unnerving when you are on stage. Supposedly there is some little boy and the general, poltergeist trickery of things lost, then found unexpectedly, or the ‘something wicked this way comes’ pricking on the back of the neck. An actor once stood through an entire scene with someone’s hand on his shoulder, even though his reflection on that glass wall showed him as the only actor on that side of the stage. There seems to be a whole community of the dead sharing our theatre and putting on their own shows to their own spirit audiences.
I’m glad I did not become one of them.
We were rehearsing the drama Frost/Nixon about the David Frost interviews with Richard Nixon after he resigned the presidency due to the Watergate scandal, an event I remember. I had a few small roles, namely Swifty Lazar (Richard Nixon’s oily Hollywood agent) and Mike Wallace. I also had a nameless role during the taping of the interviews as the stage manager in the sound studio. It was a good play with a great cast and crew. I had challenging parts, so I was looking forward to being in it.
Rehearsal finished about nine o’clock. I had ridden my motor scooter to the playhouse, since it was a gorgeous Memorial Day. The theatre is about a half hour’s drive from my house along back roads and secondary routes through beautiful eastern Connecticut.
It’s a funny thing, that Human Nature. Not that I believe such a thing exists. Human Nature is one of those non explanation explanations we use when we can’t understand someone’s behavior. We just say, “Oh, that’s just Human Nature,” and brush our hands together as if we were saying something profound.
Human Nature is just a catch all term for ‘Things Humans Do.’ Or more often, ‘Dumb Things Humans Do.’ In my case, the dumb thing was to get my motorcycle license at age 58 and buy a motor scooter. It was a Genuine Scooter Company Buddy 170i. The ‘170’ means it has a 170cc engine, which is a good size for a motor scooter. I don’t know what the ‘i’ means. Internet, maybe? Everything has to have an ‘i’ or an ‘e’ or ‘triple-x’ in front or behind it to make it hip, I guess. I figured a motor scooter would be safe. After all, it has a funny name and they are used everywhere in Europe. It’s not as if it’s a real motor cycle. It’s just a bicycle with a lawn mower engine on it, right? It costs a fraction of the price of a car and gets great gas mileage and still can get me around wherever I want to go, weather permitting. Why not pick one up?
So I did. Not to impress anybody or to be a chick magnet, you see. My chick magnetting days were deeply and sighingly sadly over. Well, I could at least save on gas and wear and tear on my car. I took it everywhere. It was a very versatile machine that I could use for a good fraction of the year. So I took a course in biking safety from a local Community college, took the DMV motor vehicle test for my motor cycle endorsement, had my head examined, well my eyes, anyway, and was off; safe and sound.
I had bought the scooter about a year previously. It was supposed to be 80% practical and 40% recreational. Practical and recreational overlapped quite a bit. On the practical side, I wanted to have a vehicle that had good mileage so I could save some wear and tear on my car. I also wanted to save money on gas, of course. On the recreational side, well, if I have to explain it, you probably wouldn’t get it anyway.
This scooter seemed ideal. I could run small errands with it. Run trips to the store. Go to places like the theatre, live or movie. Check on the honey bee hives I have at various locations around town or run out for ice cream. It had a small trunk and a rack on back that could accommodate bungee cords and limited cargo. It was a utility vehicle as well as a lot of fun.
I didn’t take it on the highway, of course. That’s too dangerous and the scooter is too small. It’s illegal in the State of Connecticut to bring a vehicle classified as a scooter onto a limited access highway, even though it is as powerful as some motor cycles. Motor scooters are among those things forbidden from the interstate; along with horses, bicycles, pedestrians, unregistered space ships, and Trojan horses. It’s more of an around-town thing. Back roads are more interesting, anyway. And safer, too.
Of course, it was still a small machine. For a motorcycle it would be considered small, for a scooter, large. That was fine by me. I did not intend to take it on the highway, even if I could. Oh, it could keep up, though I’d never have to worry about a speeding ticket. I just thought it wasn’t safe. Plus I’d inevitably get behind a tractor trailer with a huge picture of Bob from Bob’s Furniture on it. There’s torture for you.
Instead, I liked to take the back roads. There are several that I could take according to whim: Secondary roads and tertiary roads past cow pastures, ponds, and factories in eastern Connecticut. You’d risk the occasional deer or pothole. And the occasional school bus or manure truck could be, um, whimsical. This day I took one that would require about five miles on a busy Connecticut Route (Route 6, to be precise) before I got back onto quieter roads.
On this evening I should have taken another.
The following entry, edited for clarity, was my first Facebook entry after I got my conscious fingers across the keyboard of a computer.
It was then that I was riding my motor scooter, that I affectionately call my Hardly (Hedy to be precise. Hedy the Hardly,) home from a rehearsal at the Bradley Playhouse. Suddenly all was a miasma.
“Can you see my fingers?”
It was a good rehearsal and a nice night. I came down Kennedy drive past Frito Lay, Alexander Lake, and the airport on Maple Street in Danielson. This is one of several preferred routes I have for traveling between my home and Putnam. It’s quiet and picturesque, wending its way through woods, towns, and dusty factories of eastern Connecticut.
“Good. Can you follow my flashlight with your eyes?”
A penlight flashlight obediently appeared and drew x’s above my face. I tracked them as told. He did the same with his finger going back and forth, up and down.
I turned right onto Route 6 in Brooklyn just across the river from Danielson. For about a mile west of Danielson Route 6 is a multi-lane highway lined with pizza places, gas stations, good will stores, and ending in the inevitable Walmart. After that it’s several miles of corn fields, ubiquitous woods, and the occasional package store or church. I was headed for Route 169 and a pleasant ride south to Canterbury.
“I assume I’ve had an accident?”
“A bad one?”
“Can you remember anything?”
I let my miasma go wherever spent miasma goes to die and thought a bit. No memories. Just fog. Fog and a weird sense that I was just a head on a pillow looking up into an anxious face peering out of the mist.
Wait, a picture formed in my mind, it gradually came together like shards of glass from a breaking window, only in reverse, slamming together and fusing into a preplexity. It resolved into a single photograph of the mind. A picture like a shadow box with little pieces sticking off the back to form a crude 3D image. It was sepia and dimly lit as if it hung in an old curiosity shop of Victorian trifles.
I was driving into the picture. To the left another vehicle was pulling in and across my lane. It was a truck or a jeep and it was brown, from Rustoleum maybe, or maybe just plain rust. Later I realized it was sepia like the rest of the image. That seemed to be the best my brain could manage in the memory department. It was scrambling to assemble a picture from memory and color was optional. In the next memory I was looking down at my hands, both tightly compressing the two break handles on the handlebar of the scooter. I felt the bike swerve and the tires loose traction on the grit of the road. Then the darkness returned.
I told the officer.
The state trooper turned into my brother, Dan. He was in the ambulance looking down and talking to me. Maybe we were in the emergency room by then. Time didn’t matter. He had that smiling with the mouth but troubled with the eyes look nobody ever wants to see in a loved one’s face. Particularly one looking down at you when you don’t know exactly where you are or why.
Jonathan. Jonathan. Can you hear me? How do you feel?
I looked up at my brother.
Now, there are many things a person lying flat on his back in an ambulance could say to a family member in answer to the question, “How do you feel?” I feel dazed or shocked. I feel woozy. Confused and frightened. Angry. How did I get here? Who are you? For that matter, who am I? I might even cry and let myself go. Yes, many things I could have said. What did I say?
Well, Dan. I’ve been better.
Always the wise guy. Well, why not? All those things up above that I might have said were stupid, anyway. And not funny. If you can’t weave humor into whatever you’re going to say, well, shut up.
I didn’t remember anything else for a while. Except that oxy-codon gives you strange hallucinations. After about seven days of drug saturation, waking, dreaming and hallucinating become one.
The miasma returned from its temporary exile.
Now, this is what I remember happening immediately around the accident. Some of it happened and some of it did not. I think the flashlight and EMT waving his fingers in front of my eyes happened. That makes sense and I probably wouldn’t have made that up. And the wise crack to my brother definitely happened because he confirmed it later. But the interaction with the trooper never happened. When I spoke with him after I was out of the hospital months later, he just said that I was, in his words, what you would expect a person to be in my condition. In other words, I was a blithering idiot. Thankfully, he was tactful enough not to say that.
I also learned later that I was following a car a safe distance behind. I knew that already. That is one of the safety tips they teach in the motor cycle safety course I took: if there is a vehicle in front of you going in the same direction and more or less the same speed that you want to go, then line yourself up behind it at a safe distance. That way you can let him run interference for you. Let him encounter the deer, entering traffic, or wild buffalo first.
I was on Route 6, affectionately known as ‘Suicide Six’ to the locals. At this point Route 6 is a strip mall. Two lanes either way. Plenty of light. Slower speed limit. Fairly well trafficked. Plus I had my mine sweeper of a sacrificial vehicle keeping the way ahead safely swept. Nothing could go wrong, right? Well, nothing unless the person driving at me in the other lane decides to make a left hand turn just behind that safety car in front of me and into a McDonald’s parking lot. She never made it to the restaurant. I never made it to Canterbury. Where I did make it to was smack into her rear right panel. My bike suffered significant damage but that’s OK. I can sympathize. At the same time I was catapulted across the trunk of her car, down hard on my back and elbow on the pavement and rolled along the road for who knows how long. I certainly didn’t.
And to add insult to injury, the driver tried to blame the accident on me. “He didn’t have his light on,” she said, and apparently meant it, too. There was also one person allegedly on the sidewalk in front of the McDonald’s who agreed with her. I suspect they knew each other. I was in no condition to put up any opposition.
Still, if you were standing on the sidewalk in front of a brightly lit restaurant, presumably waiting for a friend to arrive, and I came up to you and asked if the motorcycle that just passed had its lights on, do you know what you would say? “What motorcycle?” That’s what you’d say.
The responding trooper had to know this was absurd, too, but he was obliged to do something legalish about it since the accusation came with its own toy witness at the bottom of the box. He gave me a citation for driving with my light off. Dan returned the ticket for me marked ‘contested.’ Our hope was that the officer would not disagree and the judge would throw it out.
At the moment this was the least of my worries.
Early Days at the Hospital
Very early after the accident. I had only been in the hospital a few days. The left elbow hadn’t been operated on yet.
While nothing continued to happen in my memory circuits, things were happening around me. After the accident and triage in the ambulance, I was brought to the local hospital, Day Kimball in Putnam, Connecticut. There they put in a chest tube to drain the rapidly accumulating fluid in my chest, took some x-rays, and drugged me up. They forwarded me to another, better equipped hospital. This was UMass Memorial in Worcester, Massachusetts, which is associated with the University of Massachusetts. It’s a high octane teaching hospital that has it all. A lot of smaller, local hospitals are doing that now, i.e., associating themselves with a larger hospital. Maybe they know something we don’t. Maybe they are preparing for the zombie apocalypse. Maybe they are just larger and better equipped than the local, smaller hospitals. No. I like the zombie thing better. Best to be prepared. During all this time I remained in a state of blessed oblivion. My miasma and me.
So they brought me the extra 30 odd miles to UMass. Of course, I remembered nothing since I had talked to my brother in the ambulance on Suicide Six in Brooklyn. All was dark. What followed was a crocodile fight I would wage with myself for the next few months until I finally regained a steady, albeit shaky, consciousness.
My daughter and her husband, Kristin and Seeth, flew out from Oregon the next day to be with me. At least one of them was with me for most of the next two months. Seeth, along with sitting by my side and functioning as my own personal ombudsman by keeping an eye on the quality of the care I got from the hospital, kept a Facebook journal on my condition. Here is his first entry.
Man Jon is going to be one angry old man. He gets tanked on drugs, can't feel his injuries, and gets confused. Then he gets mad at people for explaining why he can't get out of bed. Then he stays mad because he can't quite work out what is going on, so it must be our fault.
When he is more lucid, it's entertaining. Like when we ask what year it is, and he demands to know why we keep asking him that. Then he answers all the other questions to establish he is oriented, before he is asked. Even though he can't remember the doctor....
Seeth chronicled my early hospital stay very succinctly. I’m not sure how ‘tanked on drugs’ I was, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. I was pretty doped up, after all. I do know from later pictures and recollections that I was attached to many plastic bags of something or other, had a pin cushion of needles in my arm, received several daily shots in my arms and stomach, had tubes in both sides of my chest, experienced nurses and doctors conducting routine checks of oxygen levels; blood pressure; and pulse rate, was attached to a meter of how much stuff they were pulling out of my chest cavity, wore a brace on my left arm, was impaled by a feeding tube, sported a plastic mask over my mouth and nose delivering an abnormal amount of oxygen to my lungs, and endured a series of metal electrodes glued to various locations around my heart which were wired to some Frankenstein apparatus nearby.
As a health spa, this place was terrible.
Seeth also took pictures. I later saw myself eerily eating dinner, apparently by myself; sitting up, glasses on, smiling and waving to the camera; also sitting with a penguin doll on my right shoulder, holding it with my right hand. The penguin was supplied by Kristin. She had bought it years earlier. Since then, she had it wherever she went. Now she was lending it to me for comfort. I made sure to keep it close. Once, it was accidentally wrapped up in the sheets when they changed my bed, but a nurse found it and rescued the little fellow when I noticed he was gone.
As a side note, for a while I was convinced that I had bought the penguin for Kristin when she was a little girl and we were at an aquarium in Mystic, CT. I even constructed a memory of her showing it to me and me buying it for her. Except for the fact that it never happened, it was a good story with great symmetry. She had actually bought the doll herself when she was older. I like my story better.
Later, I gave the penguin a name. Penny. Penny the Penguin. Though I appear awake and aware, nothing could be further from the truth. This was all on auto pilot.
The orienting questions Seeth mentioned are standard things they ask one in a hospital and are intended to make sure you are aware and in the present. These include: What is your name? Date of birth? What is the current year? Who is president? Where are you? Why are you here? I apparently got so unhinged by the questions that I started rattling off the answers whenever they starting asking, all without remembering a single time I did so. Unconscious Jon was a snarky fellow.
Don’t let the Bogart-esque smile fool you. This is all under remote control.
Jon had a long, solid, good night of rest (and morning too, really), contributing to a lot of general happiness in his fans.
Well, me and the nurses.
He isn't quite in reality yet, but eating and sleeping will get the reboot happening faster!
Well, me and the nurses.
He isn't quite in reality yet, but eating and sleeping will get the reboot happening faster!
Sorry, Seeth. During this entire time I was totally oblivious. No memory of any of it, even while I was focusing and smiling at my fans. Even when I was talking coherently with them. Nope. Sorry. The bag’s hooked up but there’s no saline solution inside. In a couple of photographs it even looked as if my eyes were following the photographer like a picture in a haunted house. Eerie. Perhaps they were, but on blind instinct. Two moths to the flame.
See this here? It's the lack of bags hanging off this rack that is excellent.
Jon is not comfortable or anything, but there used to be 4 bags dripping their magic in his veins and now we're seeing a lot less.
Unfortunately, he's still in ICU, and I suspect he is getting impatient to be out. That belief stems from his saying, "I can't wait to get out of here."
Jon is not comfortable or anything, but there used to be 4 bags dripping their magic in his veins and now we're seeing a lot less.
Unfortunately, he's still in ICU, and I suspect he is getting impatient to be out. That belief stems from his saying, "I can't wait to get out of here."
Seeth, photo journaling my stay, posted some pictures on Facebook as indicated by his comment about the state of my veins above. Some were a bit intense, like the one taken almost two weeks after my admission showing a mask over my mouth and nose, EKG tabs glued to my chest, an elbow in a brace and-well, you get the picture: a lot of junk fending off the boatman of Styx. That’s just as well since the one thing I did not have were coins on my eyes. Yet. I wonder if Death takes PayPal? Bitcoin, maybe?
More plastic than man
Yeah, it isn't good right now. We are getting those complications that you never want to hear about.
Though, with all of this, he still cracks wise at the nurses, even right through the oxygen mask.
Back in the 3ICU unit. If you're coming to visit, you should call ahead.
Jon is having a bad time. Last night they found out that his lungs are working hard at becoming swimming pools, so he has a painful chest tube placed back on his right side again (to drain out the ook that is coagulating there). It appears likely that the ICU is coming back into the picture again.
Hospitals are hard.
I want everything to be fixed by waving a shiny light over the offending area and for the doctors to laugh and throw out quips as they always fix everything painlessly.
During my stay at the hospital I, of course, started out in the intensive care unit and was then moved to a recovery floor once I was stabilized. It was expected that I would spend a week or so in the hospital, at most, and then maybe a month in rehab. However, the state of my internal organs had other plans. After the first transfer, I went from the floor to the ICU and back three times and spent a total of one month in the hospital, most of it in the intensive care unit, where they maintain one nurse for every two patients. It’s not called ‘intensive’ for nothing.
My round trip tickets to the ICU were precipitated by several complications. The first was due to an irregular rhythm to my heart. It was fibrillating severely and they thought I might be having a heart attack. Once that was stable and I was back on the floor, my lungs filled up with fluid and they discovered two crushed thoracic vertebrae between my shoulder blades. This time, along with a return to the ICU, I was restricted to lying flat on my back. I could not be raised up more than 30 degrees. The vertebrae would need operating on eventually, but not until everything else was stabilized.
Finally, one of the tests revealed that I had a tear in my aorta. It did not go all the way through, which, had it done so, probably would have required immediate surgery. Or an undertaker. Still, it was a weakness in the wall of my heart. In addition to lying flat, I was given medicine to severely lower my blood pressure. At one point I think it was 80 something over 50 something, with a pulse around negative 15.
At this point I suppose I should provide an inventory of my afflictions.
All but one of my ribs was fractured, cracked, or broken. (It is rumored that the one untouched rib had been holed up, shaking with fear, somewhere beyond the Isles of Langerhans.)
At least one collapsed lung.
Several build ups of fluid in my chest and lungs, requiring four different chest tubes and a vacuum pump to suction it out.
A slight concussion on my left temple.
A burst capillary between the hemispheres of my brain.
My left elbow was shattered and required pins, screws, and metal sheet to put back together.
A three and a half centimeter tear in my aorta.
The T5 and T6 vertebrae were crushed and starting to slide forward into my chest. An x-ray showed the vertebrae completely broken all the way from back to front as if someone had sliced through them with a knife. When I sat up it looked like my upper torso wanted to pitch into my lap. These required 12 screws in six vertebrae attached to two rods connecting the crushed vertebrae with those above and below it, with the rods bowed in slightly so as to gently pull the broken vertebrae back out. If you hit me just right, I’d go ‘Sproing!’
The No. 11 vertebrae was cracked.
Expert surgery done by my neuro surgeon, Doctor Weaver. Though now I think I am a few inches shorter. And oddly magnetic.
Things could have been much, much worse. A few inches either way could have caused major trauma to my neck or spine. I easily could have been killed or paralyzed. As it was I could wiggle my fingers and toes, which I was asked to do frequently, along with giving a brief summary of who, what, when, where, and why I was where I was. I had no numbness or lack of mobility anywhere, just sore bones. My reflexes were subdued, but functioning. I am astounded at the huge back trauma I sustained with no nerve damage or major joint impaired, except for the elbow. Someone up there must like me. Someone who doesn’t know me very well, that is. There must be a patron saint of the reckless, the clueless, and the hard of fearing.
I received a basket of get well cards from family and friends. Facebook friends sent their good wishes and people sent their thoughts, concerns, love, and prayers. This included Pope Francis, amazingly enough. I have a nephew who is a Roman Catholic priest. He was serving in the Vatican at the time of my recovery and asked those around him for their prayers. For these and much, much more, I am deeply indebted.
I can now put together an educated guess at what happened to me as a result of the accident by reverse engineering my bruises, breaks, and batters. The car I hit pulled behind the car I was following, eating up a large chunk of the safe zone I had created, and leaving me with no more than 20 feet of clearance. Reaction time ate up most of that until I clamped down hard onto the break levers on the handlebars of my scooter. Motor scooters, like bicycles, have breaks on the handlebars, instead of motorcycles, which have the rear brake pedal near the right foot.
My scooter slammed into the rear right panel of the car, sending me flying over the trunk. I hit the pavement flat on my back, also slamming my left elbow onto the ground, thereby damaging my thoracic vertebrae and shattering my elbow. Momentum would then have carried me tumbling along the street, pummeling my ribs and slamming my head onto the pavement. The concussion sent a shock wave through my brain; which is the consistency of oatmeal; hit the opposite side of my skull, and rippled back through again like a mini earthquake rumbling through the layers of the earth and ringing the core inside like a great gong. I had my full gear on, of course: Helmet, padded jacket, gloves, jeans, boots. Without them there is no question that I would not be here to write this now.
I have very few memories of the first few weeks of my hospital stay, though they tell me I was responsive and appeared conscious and interactive. This was not the case, as I have said, though that doesn’t mean I was not benefiting from the companionship. I mentioned the question regimen the nurses would give me, which annoyed me after a while thus showing that irritation does not require cogitation.
The brain is a complex machine and the mind unfathomable. They are working all the time and interacting with their environment ceaselessly. The conscious mind may sleep but the brain never does. It is constantly taking in information, making sense of it and forming appropriate responses. One evening, when I was very unresponsive, Dan and Patsy were visiting. Since I apparently wasn’t aware of much of anything, they just sat by my bedside and provided a quiet presence. After a while a nurse came in to check something, so they got up to leave. The nurse said to me, “Jonathan, do you know who these people are?” Without hesitation, I replied, “Sure. That’s my brother Dan and his wife, Patsy.”
At a certain level in my brain, a level that matters, a level that never sleeps, I was aware of my surroundings. My senses were faithfully reporting what they sensed. The machinery on the other end picked up on it and fed it into the Map of Now that it is constantly maintaining. Sense was made of senses. Electricity became lucidity. And I think it made a difference. I am very fortunate to have had people around me most of the time.
For a few weeks early on, Kristin was out of the country on a trip she had planned months in advance. Of course, she was torn on whether to go or stay. Thankfully, everyone saw the stress she was feeling and told her to go. I was stable enough and she needed the break, they said. Had I had a vote I would have said the same. Well, I would have asked to go with her.
Seeth stayed behind to be with me for as long as he could. He came to the hospital every day, all day, once sleeping on a couch. If it was visiting hours, he was there. Often reading or playing a game on his computer, but he was there; an anchor of familiarity and a lifeline to the thing that had been robbed of me: Home. On at least on occasion he smuggled in a pizza so I could have some civilian food. I’m convinced that the presence of people around me, people who I love and who love me, made a difference in my recovery. Just their presence provided a strong measure of comfort and support. Something normal and reassuring to embrace. Nay, to cling to.
Neither conscious nor unconscious. Aware yet oblivious.
I had had the rug pulled from under my feet and replaced with confusing, painful and frightening experiences. I was trying to make sense of them, pushing my surrounding through sixty years of expectations, which never had to deal with experiences like these before.
Many friends visited me from the theatre, brought cookies, lent books, and just were there. If anyone reading this has a friend in the hospital who might be unconscious, don’t just say I’ll wait until they are awake and sitting up. Go now. Sit by their side. Hold their hand. Talk to them. Be there for them. It matters.
There was other bizarre behavior I exhibited during this time. I would move my hands and arms as if I was working on a project, conducting a symphony, or maybe sewing something together. I pantomimed different actions and sometimes smiled broadly while doing it. If the brain is a symbol manipulating engine, and as it developed; in my case over almost sixty years; it has come to expect a certain normal set of experiences coming in. Within certain acceptable boundaries, it’s content generating appropriate responses. Some good. Some bad. Some happy. Some sad. But all expected. Life’s grist, ground to flour, baked into bread, and turned into life again.
Here, suddenly, everything was disrupted, nothing made sense. The signals coming in were all shattered and painful. I was confused, afraid, and defensive. Nothing was familiar. I was desperately trying to restore order. I was paranoid and suspicious, frantically trying to make sense of the horrendous impulses coming through all of my nerves. The things in my immediate body space were intimidating. I resisted. I fought. I struck out. I rebelled. I wouldn’t do what I was told. In a word, I 'thrashed.'
I would fidget and pull out tubes and needles or unravel bandages on my arms. They had to tie my hands down. Not to be outdone, I managed to press my head and neck down while stretching my hand up against the cords and pull out the feeding tube. That’s not easy to do. There was an arterial needle which I almost pulled out, as well. That would have been catastrophic. Eventually, one nurse would regularly sit by me all night on vigil. If I tried to pull something out, she’d give me a distraction, like some old oxygen tubes or a discarded needle to give me something to play with. Sounds like fun. Jon roulette. “I wonder what he’ll do with a sneaker?” they’d say. Or, “Hey, look! He’s chewing on the bed pan!” All good fun.
Once, I turned to my brother and said, “Dan. You’ve got to get me out of here.” When he asked why, I said, “Because this place is a cult,” in a hushed, confidential tone. Well, it would seem cult like to a sick, delusional accident victim such as I was. To be fair, hospitals are strangely cultish in organization. The nurses and doctors all wear special vestments. There are secret chambers, with no windows, that we uninitiated are not allowed into. Gatekeepers stand at special ‘stations’ to dispense mind control medications and instructions. They keep you drugged and propagandized, in other words. And the clincher, they all have to anoint their hands with a special ointment before they can come into our rooms, probably to ward off evil spirits we unwashed are supposed to have bought with us.
Enough with that. I just felt like I wanted to escape. I was a flight risk, as they say.
Another time I looked at my daughter and said, “You’re not the real Kristin. I’m disappointed in you.” I am sad to write this, even though I know it wasn’t really me speaking and they understood this, too. Still it must have been painful to hear. One other time, when Dan, Patsy, and Kristin were standing around the bed, I looked up and said, “What’s wrong with Kristin? Why are you so upset? Can somebody see what’s wrong? Why can’t someone comfort her?” Gradually, I realized she was upset because of me.
Sometimes, some of the things I did or said were funny. I told Patsy that I had just gotten back from Ankh Morpork. This provided a lot of humor as we joked about visiting various landmarks in that fair city, such as the Wizards’ Unseen University or the Patrician’s palace. They say I flirted with all of the nurses and female doctors and asked Seeth to get the phone number of one of them. I’m sure I’ve got it around here somewhere…
It took quite a while to stop looking like a drug addict.
Dear friends, family, people who ‘like’ me on Facebook and those LinkedIn contacts that I don’t know what they do. I have spent the past 22 days in the ICU of UMass Memorial Hospital at the University of Massachusetts in Worcester, MA.
It was then that I was riding my motor scooter, that I affectionately call my Hardly, home from a rehearsal at the Bradley. Suddenly all was a miasma…
I went on to describe my accident on my Facebook page. This was my first posting after I regained consciousness. Well, most of my consciousness, at least. It was quite some time before I was completely reacquainted with my awareness. Conscious existence is not an all or nothing mechanism. There is a continuum of sense and awareness that one surfs along surreptitiously during the course of one’s day and night, at times sharper and at others sitting in a low blood sugar slump of ragged ends, lose connections, and unresolved consequences. And of course, dreaming is its own novelty consciousness. This is normal.
What I had was the flashing-lights-on-the-dashboard-and-screaming-klaxons kind of consciousness. The kind that catches and slips like a car driving over patches of ice on a country road. Kristin could see differences in my behavior, shock and drug induced, no doubt. I was a little flakier. In my case and for quite some time after regaining consciousness, I would suddenly stop, mid-sentence, in an awareness abeyance for several seconds and then resume, as if the pause button on my brain had been temporarily pressed. I’d suddenly stop or slow and pause for a moment, then come back. Or my hands would be shaky and my mind wandering. And of course there were the memory lapses. Not too bad for a man with so many bones broken and a concussion. Apparently my head absorbed the impact so my helmet could be spared. Damn right. That helmet was expensive.
And then there were the hallucinations.
The Hallucinations: Night
I was on various pain meds when I first got to the hospital. Understandable, since I had just had the majority of my ribs broken, cracked, or fractured. Some vertebrae were crushed and an elbow mangled. Pain killers were my friend. Consciousness, not so much.
The pain killer of choice, oxy-codon, is powerful and tends to give me hallucinations. Here is a sample.
I am in my bed being rolled around by some nurses. They stop by some wards to get permission to bring me through, others they just enter. I don’t know where they are taking me, maybe for a test or an x-ray. Round and round we go. They leave me just inside some doors. Lying in the bed I suddenly am confused, it feels like my bed and I are on the wall instead of the floor. I am standing in my bed; my back to the mattress and my feet to the foot board; and looking down into a brightly lit and deep cavity of floors, walkways, and doors extending down several levels into a large atrium. Everything looks square and clean, like the other hospital rooms. Except for the Escher-like arrangement. If I lean forward at all I will fall into the depths.
I am in a dark room lying in my bed and sitting up. I sense something to my right. It feels like there is somebody lying in the bed next to me. I turn. I see a square, boxy head with nine eyes and a slightly slanted oval for a month. The nine eyes are glowing yellow, slightly.
One day I hear that they are bringing me to ‘The Floor’ since I am doing so well in the ICU. They wheel me down to a ward and sign me in. They wheel me onto the floor, which turns out to be a big open space with dozens of beds strewn randomly everywhere. They park me in a cramped place next to a number of other beds. It feels more like a train station than a nurses’ station. I don’t like it.
The Hallucinations: Day
Mostly during the day I think I am talking to someone, but when I look there is nobody there. I begin or end conversations with invisible people. I think I see whole rooms through a door, only to look again and see only a wall. On several occasions I am convinced that Kristin or Seeth has someone standing over their shoulder looking on silently. Sometimes the person over the shoulder is a stranger, sometimes a duplicate Kristin or Seeth. Another look and they are gone.
Once, I asked Seeth about the funny man beside me. I even described him with his boxy, glowing plastic head and nine eyes. I asked him to take a picture of Mr. Nine Eyes. Several times I had the haunting impression that there was someone next to me that I could not see at all, usually on my right side but sometimes on both sides of the bed with me as if there were not enough beds in the hospital and we had to double or triple up. I felt cramped and scared and didn’t understand why there were other hospital patients sharing my bed.
Mr. Nine Eyes, it turned out, was the controller for my bed. The eyes were illuminated buttons to control the placement of my back and knees. The mouth was an angled slot below the buttons/eyes. Hospitals are never dark, but they are often dim, affording a lot of grist for the mill of the confused imagination.
Then there was the cat I saw out of the corner of my eye. And a fish swam by me through the air. Maybe the cat was looking for the fish. I was attempting to make sense out of my surroundings, peppered with paranoia and salted with fear. The results were not the fresh bread of life, but a hideous, mocking parody.
My earliest memory in the hospital was on the floor. I think I had already gone back and forth between the ICU and the recovery floor a couple of times. I don’t remember anything of the first three weeks of my stay at UMass. So I was confused, in a room that I didn’t like, and had people visiting me and then leaving me alone. I liked the visits, but I didn’t understand why they were there or why they had to go and I couldn’t go with them.
And Seeth was there all the time, every day. I came to rely on him as an emotional bedrock, something I could make sense of and count on for stability. Knowing he was there gave me the courage to look further out and start piecing together something we all take for granted: a strategy for encountering and negotiating the world around us minute by minute and day by day that makes sense and gives comfort. Mine had been shattered and strewn around me in fragments, just familiar enough to grieve me and leave me at a loss what to do now. The old rules didn’t work. New ones had to be made, tried out, rejected, and made again. There was no time to waste, either. A strategy, a response, a way to juggle these new experiences was required immediately. And if I was going to overcome my situation and come out on top of it instead of succumbing to it, I had to regain confidence and control. Control, when you are lying in bed and completely dependent on nurses, doctors, and machines for the very air you breathe, is a tall order.
But I was given some things to do which is the beginning of reclaiming one’s bedrock of autonomy. First, there were my lungs. They had been drained of fluid and were breathing again, but there was the little matter of my ribs. Ribs, you should know, are not solid bone. They are more like cartilage and kind of soft. Softer than bone, at least. That doesn’t mean they are flexible, just not as solid as other load bearing bone. Hospitals don’t do anything for broken ribs. No setting, casts, pins, or screws. They just leave them alone and they heal themselves in their own way. There’s the rub
The ribs have to heal but if left alone they will form a rib cage that is smaller than it was originally, meaning that when you breathe, the lungs won’t be able to expand as much as they had before. Since most of my ribs were injured, and I wasn’t breathing very deeply, this could be catastrophic. So I was given my first bit of official rehab. This came in the form of a clever device called an incentive spirometer, which is a breathing apparatus that looks like a plastic bong. It has two cylinders, one large and one small, and a hose on the end of which is a mouthpiece. You suck on it and watch two pistons, one indicating flow rate and the other total volume, move in their respective cylinders. It is calibrated in cubic centimeters, with the maximum being 2500. The flow rate is marked as slow, medium, and high.
The goal is to keep the flow rate as close to slow as you can while completely filling the other chamber with 2500 cc’s of air. This causes the lungs to force the ribs outward so they will heal in an expanded position, thereby affording the lungs plenty of room for breathing. Once the ribs finally heal, the rib cage they create will be sufficient to protect the lungs without suffocating them.
I was supposed to do this exercise for ten minutes out of every hour. Ten minutes of work for broken ribs and lungs still weak and waterlogged. Did I mention that breathing hurt and deep breathing hurt deeply? This is one of the many things I initially resisted but eventually did, somewhat. That’s rehab.
My first attempts reached about half way. But at least it still hurt, so I must have been doing it right, pushing gently on the broken ribs. In addition to using the breathing bong, I also invented some of my own exercises that I could do while lying flat on my back, which I had to do for my torn aorta and crushed vertebrae. I would hold my arms above my head and take deep breaths. I figured this would force my ribs to lift and expand while filling my lungs with air while I was still lying flat on my back. It was something I could do between shots, vitals, and bed pans. And I didn’t need an awkward plastic device. I could just breathe.
My plastic bong and me. Notice the blue arrow pointing to my progress. It’s at about 1200 cc’s, less than half a lung full of air.
A second thing I noticed once I was conscious was that my left arm was in a brace that went from my wrist to my bicep and hinged at the elbow. They operated on my elbow early-around the second week I was in the hospital. The range of motion was about 50 percent of normal. I somehow had it in my mind that rehab would be an excruciating experience, with burly technicians with anchors tattooed on their arms forcing my body through its full range of motion to the tune of cracks and pops and maybe a few whips. The thought of rehab terrified me and I wanted to eliminate as many opportunities for painful manipulation as possible.
An exaggeration, of course, and certainly not what actually happened, but my mind was still in full fear mode, expecting the worse and imagining the worst. So I took it upon myself to exercise the arm, slowly moving it back and forth up to the point where it was stiff and sore then back again like a painful pendulum. Eventually I stretched tendons, muscles, and maybe a few pins until I could touch my nose, then lick my finger so I could turn pages in a book, and then hold my chin in my hand. The brace was set to limit my range of motion, so I was only able to bring it to the point where I could hear the soft ‘thunk’ of the brace hitting the stop. That became a comforting sound.
By this time they had discovered the tear in my aorta and the crushed thoracic vertebrae in my back. They had me on medication to lower my blood pressure to reduce the strain on my aorta. They also had me restricted to lying flat with a maximum of 30 degrees elevation. This for both my aorta and my back. Eating was an adventure as I could just barely look over the top of the tray. Soup required good aim and a generous bib. Coffee was suicidal.
And then, when everything else was stabilized, I had surgery on my back.
I was told this would be a long surgery and that I would be on my stomach the whole time. One of the risks of this operation was that I could go blind. Apparently, lying in that position can potentially damage the optic nerve. They had to harpoon the two broken vertebrae and pull them back into alignment with the rest of the spine. Then, they had to put twelve screws into these two vertebrae and the two above and below them. These were used to anchor rods to all six vertebrae. I literally have a rod up my spine. Two, actually. I asked if this would limit the flexibility of my back, but these six vertebrae are between my shoulder blades and do not flex normally. Once again, I am amazed at how easy I got off. I want to meet that guy upstairs who doesn’t know me very well. We should get acquainted. I’ll buy him an angel beer. Or demon rum. I’m easy.
They wheeled me down to the operating room. Before going in I spoke with the doctor and the anesthesiologist. That was an interesting talk. I remembered other operations I had had where I was put under general anesthesia like I would in this one. The one thing I remembered was that I didn’t ever remember being given the anesthesia. I knew they were going to put me under, of course. I remembered the prep, IV’s, doctor’s drawing cartoons on my body, and nurses bustling about. But I didn’t remember being administered the Propofol.
Being a curious sort, I always wondered about this. I’m obviously conscious when they administer the anesthesia. Is it that my short term memory hasn’t had time to be committed to long term memory? Is it that they include an amnesia drug like Valium in with the mix? I’ve been told that this is the case with a lot of general anesthesia, they make a cocktail of drugs, including drugs to inhibit memory. A date rape drug, of sorts. Does this mean you are feeling the pain of the operation, but you just don’t remember it? I don’t know. It’s a scary thought.
So I asked the anesthesiologist about it. He was nice enough to chat with me and seemed happy to answer my questions. He said, yes, that some of the drug cocktail is there to tinker with memory, but he believed there was no pain. I said I wanted to remember as much as I could before actually going under. I remember speaking with him and maybe a bit when he started the anesthesia drip. I’m not sure about that. I’m sure, though, that the effort of remembering insured that more memories were retained that otherwise would have been lost. More control.
Then I was back in the ICU and I could see the world just fine, my optic nerve in superb working order.
Eventually I was able to sit, but this required a little dance of sorts. I could not twist my spine or put any weight on my left arm. So I had to bring my knees up and roll to my right side, being sure to keep my spine lined up with my pelvis and legs the whole time. This left me on my right side in a fetal position. Next I would push up with my right arm to a seated position while swinging my legs down onto the floor, keeping my body stiff like a plastic doll the whole time.
Then I had to don a back brace, which was an elaborate device that trussed up my spinal column and allowed the bone to fuse to the screws in peace. It consisted of a wide girdle around my stomach made of nylon and held in place with Velcro. Where it joined over my stomach there was a large lozenge of hard plastic attached to several webs of nylon. I thought it should have a super hero emblem on it or something. Back Brace Man, fighting ever against pain in the gothic city of Lumbar.
The back of the brace was in two pieces: a smaller, form fit piece that pressed right against my back and a larger, oval piece giving the first one rigidity. I looked like a turtle. This had to be worn whenever I got up. They encouraged me to sit in a chair for some time during each day. At best it was uncomfortable. At worse. Well, even more so.
Lying down was an agony, too. My back had a scar about a foot long where the vertebrae were all wired together. The dressing had to be changed frequently. I could not lay flat on my back and it hurt to twist, making it hard to lie on my side, though lying on my side was at times mandatory. I was Gumby with a paper clip in his back. The pain extended in a circle around my chest, sides, and across my shoulder blades from broken ribs, chest tube scars, and back incision, respectively. It hurt all the time as a sort of baseline pain. Breathing was difficult, especially when I had to take a deep breath, which my lungs insisted on doing frequently to get air into all of the stagnant alveoli in the pneumonia prone depths. Breathing exercises were a Sisyphean deal with the devil. The breathing bong? Hell.
I called this circle of pain encompassing my upper chest: The Ring of Fire. I had to move. Had to breathe. Had to sit up. Had to eat. Had to drink. Had to take medications. Had to go to the bathroom. Had to breathe again. Had to, had to, had to. Pain surrounded me like an aura. The Ring of Fire.
Changing the sheets on the bed required an ingenious maneuver called ‘rolling.’ They had me roll over on one side, usually my right side due to the arm brace on the left. I clung onto the railing and consoled myself with Mr. Nine Eyes. Then they tucked the sheets as far under me as they could and had me roll the other way. In one swift and painful yank the bed sheets were changed. I did a lot of holding my breath and hugging myself during these exercises. Thankfully, they were quick.
And well medicated. I was allowed as much pain killer as I wanted, the pain killer of choice being oxy-codon. Fifteen milligram tablets, to be precise. I requested them about three times a day. This was in addition to pain meds intravenously. I don’t like narcotics so I brought that dose down as soon as I could, though the doctors and nurses told me I was nowhere near becoming dependent on it and that being in pain does not help healing. I should take it if I need it and take it before the pain gets too bad. Still, I felt I needed to get that down and only use it if I absolutely had to. I looked upon the pain killers as an enemy. An enemy of my enemy, which was the pain. As long as the pain was there, the oxy-codon enemy was my friend, but no longer. Eventually I asked them to prescribe me five milligram tablets so I could ask for one, two, or three pills instead of only having the option of fifteen milligrams. I think that was a good decision.
When they had me off oxygen, IV’s, and stabilized so I could sit up and be somewhat comfortable, it was time to graduate to rehab.
One, Two. Buckle my Shoe
By this time I was a lot more lucid and aware. And quite bored. My Facebook entries were longer and more precise. I like to think that my memory was better at this point. Not that it was ever very good. I’m one of those people who have difficulty remembering peoples’ names, place names, and things like that. I’ll run into someone I know, often from quite recently, and have no idea what their name is. Or I can’t remember an artist’s name or a character in a book or movie. Oh, it comes to me eventually. Street names always escape me. Asking directions of me is more like charades than a human GPS. This has always been a mental trait of mine that I’m not happy with, but there it is. We make do with what we have, not what we want. It was no worse now and, alas, no better.
I just had a chest x-ray of all of the trunk injuries. No elbow but nobody’s concerned about that. They want an ultrasound for my legs to look for clots. I saw the discharge fairy, too. I’m pretty much cleared for takeoff. Fairlawn has to get insurance approval, which shouldn’t be a problem since they are, if not outright affiliated, at least they work close with UMass. They will admit up until 8:00. If all is done and there’s a bed, I’m in.
And I was. Four weeks to the day from when I was admitted to UMass they bundled me up and shipped me across town to Fairlawn Rehabilitation Hospital. Kristin had been back for a few weeks by then and Seeth had gone back to Oregon. I was at a more than bare minimum of awareness, but not by much. My mind was a jig saw puzzle with half the pieces missing and the rest upside down.
First day of rehab.
For a day alleged to include 3 hours of actual rehab, this one was exhausting. The morning wasn’t too bad. They did some talking/communicating exercises, simple math problems, and memory exercises; but mostly it was filling out bio info: family background, how much did I remember of the accident-stuff like that. The afternoon was intense, at least for one who had spent the last month with my torso at no more than 30 degrees. I got up and down several times, then what I was dreading: The Brace. The back brace and my back have come to an agreement based on mutual loathing. You stay on your side of reality, I’ll make up mine. I started with the brace right after the back operation last week. It hurt a lot, which added to the above said breakdown in communication and subsequent loathing betwixt back and brace.
The first softening of the stool between back and brace came with getting it back on and standing and walking. Not just between the bed and wheelchair or wheelchair and chair. This was actual ambulation. The first time I stood up I felt euphoric. It was exhilarating to feel my back completely straighten out and to stand upright and breathe naturally. Then we went on a little trek down to the gym and rehab facilities. The brace quickly resumed sticking rocks in my back, but a back pillow between wound and shoulders lifted it off the quarry. The remainder of the day was spent in a meeting learning about Fairlawn’s policies, what we can expect, etc. Now, about 5:00 O’clock, people are coming in in dribs and drabs to interview me on several matters and stick needles in my arms. Something I can relate to.
It is nice to feel my brutalized back getting better-some parts even stopping hurting, though they are still sore. I feel good about this place, though the new roomie they brought in in the afternoon is one mega whiner. Jeesh. Just do what they tell you, already. We don’t want you here, either.
A Special thanks to Joy Child for visiting. Kristin has been here a lot, too, and plans on being here a lot more.
Rehab came in three forms: Physical therapy (PT), occupational therapy (OT), and speech therapy (SP.) PT focused on getting my muscles strengthened and coordinated after atrophying in a hospital bed for a month. In only takes a few days of inactivity for legs to get wobbly. OT reacquainted me with kitchens, stairs, washer-dryers, and putting my shoes and socks on the right feet and in the right order. SP. Well, more about that later.
On the first day of PT I only had to walk. Just walk. I sat up, got dressed, and put on my back brace. The arm brace never came off. They had me stand and then take baby steps along the hall, a therapist by my side and one with my wheel chair right behind me. Don’t take big steps, they said. Slow and steady with my right hand on the railing. When I tired they would bring me back to my room. And be sure to take some oxy before you go to PT, just to make sure. So that was a start. A promising start.
The next day for PT I had a therapist named Sue. I explained to her what they had said the previous day, how I should take it easy and how I got tired quickly and needed to sit down. She listened respectfully and then informed me that she wasn’t interested in that. “No baby steps here,” she said. “Let’s see you walk.” I started walking down the hall. “You’re walking like an old man!” she said. “You can walk faster than that.” “Come on, Jon. Let’s have at it!”
I did. I picked up the pace. After a while I took my hand off the hand rail and walked all the way to the gym at the end of the hallway, picking up speed as I went along.
I can’t remember if we did much more that day, but Sue left an impression on me. I had never been in rehab before and didn’t know what to expect. I was prepared to do what they told me, to jump when the said jump and rest when they said rest. Sue let me know that I could take charge of my own recovery and decide for myself what I wanted to do. From that moment I decided that I wanted to let nothing stand in the way of my recovery. I would push myself more than anyone else. Sue, who I dubbed ‘Attila the Therapist’, inspired me to test all limits and push all barriers. No drugs, no stairs, no exercises would stand between me and full recovery.
OT was fairly straight forward. They had a mock up kitchen, living room, and laundry room on one side of the gym. I practiced loading and unloading washers and dryers. Getting the milk jug out of the fridge and finding the peanut butter. Piece of cake. Oh, and there was cake, too. I learned how to use what I called ‘the grabby thingey’ to pick things up without bending over too much. It was a wand about two feet long with a trigger on one end and a claw on the other. It was a great way to pick up socks and dropped items and even fish pots out of the cabinets and items from the back of the refrigerator. There was this kind of bizarre saddle shaped thing you could use to get your socks on. It was a nice reintroduction to life as I knew it.
There were several items used in PT. Parallel bars. Exercise bike. Stairs. Balancing exercises. Balance was a big issue. It took me a while to regain it. When I got out of bed or stood up from a chair, I first had to stand still for several seconds to make sure I wouldn’t get dizzy. Take a few deep breaths and then I could walk. More often than not, though, after about ten paces I would get light headed. Not dizzy, exactly. I would just feel like the blood had rushed out of my head and that I was about to fall. It would pass, usually in a few seconds, but it was unnerving, to say the least. This went on for several weeks and probably had something to do with the meds I was taking. I was still taking medication to lower my blood pressure and standing up probably pushed it down even more.
The first time they had me walk across the gym from my wheel chair to another chair was tricky. I had to stand up, walk unassisted, and then sit down. I developed a mental technique that would serve me well in this and several other exercises. I divided whatever task it was that I had to do into smaller, repetitive tasks. So walking ten feet to a chair was not the goal. Taking one step while not falling over was the goal. Pick one foot up here and put it down there. That’s the only thing in the universe that I needed to attend to. Once that was done, I would pick the other foot up here and put it down there. That occupied all of my attention. True, I kept my eyes on the end task, the chair, but I only filled my mind with the one, immediate operation. Flex muscles. Tighten. Raise the knee and foot. Take a breath. Balance. Lean forward and swing the leg from the knee. Gently down. Touch the floor. Relax. Balance. Breathe. Begin again. When done, stop.
This is not the same as baby steps. Baby steps are what we do when we have to learn or relearn a task from scratch. I already knew how to take a step. What I needed to do was make sure I didn’t fall down while taking it. Take one at a time. No more. Don’t get ahead of myself. Don’t do the next step now, wait until it’s the next step’s time. Do Now’s step now. My steps were more deliberate, it is true. My progress slower. But I got there without losing my balance. I felt that, by only thinking of one step at a time, I could maintain control. Otherwise, I would be focusing on the end task and lose my balance rushing toward it and pitch forward onto my head. Think. Act. Stop. Wait. Think. Proceed. Repeat.
Control. Control the mind. Control the muscles. Control the legs. Drive impulses down nerves to a cat’s cradle of muscles, tendons, and bones. And balance. Always balance, between the forces within and the forces without. We take for granted the simple act of standing upright, oblivious to the millions of subtle adjustments to heart, lungs, tendons, and opposing muscles and bones that are required to maintain a single thing: Standing upright. And then to walk? To take a step and then another? Such a thing is a wonder of coordination.
Trial by Brace.
Now that I am in rehab my immediate physical environment is forcing itself center stage. And the incarnation of that ‘immediate physical environment’ is my back brace. Yes, I said ‘my’ because one’s nemesis is also one’s dark shadow.
Mine, at least for a time, is a semi rigid slab of nylon and polyester, hooked to octopus like tentacles ending in plastic snaps. It straps to my back like a plastic washboard. I got this polyester punishment early in my rehab. When I was still in the hospital, actually. They had me wear it and stand up and sit down in a chair for about an hour. It was torture. I decided to name my back brace Satan. It seemed to fit. Sitting back at all resembled lying on a beach of small stones lightly spread over a flat surface. After that, they noticed my aortic tear and sentenced me to lying in bed with my torso raised to no more than 30 degree.
This period, although peaceful and medicated up to the feeding tube, had to end. And so it did. My first day at rehab had me sitting up and strapping myself into Satan, my constant companion.
The pain givers of life are also pain revealers. They show you where you are weak or injured. They do it with pain as the only thing that will get our attention. This is one of the reasons that computers will never become sentient. They can’t feel pain (or pleasure.) They just have console lights saying thing like ‘Diode malfunction’ or ‘Stack Overflow.’ When was the last time you had a stomach ache and wanted to say, “My check engine light is ouchy?” Me, neither. Computers don’t say ouch. We do.
So Satan climbed up my back and hugged me like a lover. I stood up. I took a few steps. I sat upright in the wheel chair and breathed. It wasn’t too bad. I sat back with full pressure against the back of the chair. I almost screamed. I said that pain is a brutally honest indicator of things in need. Well, I had a virtual atlas. I could feel my spine. I could feel ribs, some in pain, some just hand waving for my attention. These were on the left side of my spine, clearly the worst damaged. Other pains littered the right side of my spine. They were less in pain and more sore and numb. What does the roadmap say? I landed on my left side, further confirmed by the shattered left elbow and concussion on my left temple. Pain can be forensic.
I also felt where the pins had been installed in T5 and T6, plus some more above and below. That was just five days ago. Sitting back on those was more like goose egg size stones. Painful, but each time less so. Still, I can’t sit that way for long. I roll sideways onto one of my shoulders, preferably the right side.
So now I lie in my bed just finishing breakfast. Back’s a little sore, but tolerable. Generable I am at peace.
But in that dark corner Satan lurks. And watches.
And then there was ST, Speech Therapy. ST, I found out, was not at all about speech, which I assume was, itself, a test. I say test because ST was more about cognizance skills. My therapist gave me various puzzles I had to solve. Some were number puzzles where there was a circle divided up into wedges, each wedge containing a number, such as 2, 4, 8, 16, 32. The last wedge was empty and I had to decide what number went there. In this case, each number was twice the proceeding number. The missing number is 64. Or 1. It depended on whether the blank wedge was the first or the last in the series. They had increasing levels of complexity.
Some were word puzzles such as: Pete and Suzie are brother and sister. Pete likes Coke. Sam likes Pepsi and hates milk. Family members don’t like the same type of drink. What does Suzie like? Answer: Suzie likes milk. This is a simple example to illustrate the types of word problems. In the real puzzles, there were more conditions and relationships then I give in my example. Some were quite complicated. I devised a method of converting the puzzles to numbers and diagrams to solve them. I had to reverse engineer the pattern then once that was discovered, plug in the available information and see what popped out naturally.
In another one, the therapist would spell a word backwards. I had to tell her what the word was. So she would say E-S-U-O-H, and I would say ‘house.’ I made up a trick for solving this puzzle, as well. I would imagine five blank lines in my mind like this, _ _ _ _ _. I would fill in the letters backwards as she said them, pronouncing the partial words thus formed. She would say, E. I would see _ _ _ _ E. She would say, S. I would see _ _ _ S E and pronounce to myself, ‘se.’ U. I would see _ _U S E and pronounce to ‘use.’ Then ‘ouse.’ By the time I got to H O U S E, I had it and immediately said, ‘House.’
I cheated, in other words. Well, all mental activity is a cheat of some kind, I suppose. Though I think they give them more legitimate sounding names, like heuristics, mental tricks, memory palaces, and rules of thumb. Same thing. ‘Cheating’ is just fine.
She took the first day’s tests with her to score against nationwide averages. I kept getting high scores, in the high 90’s’ith percentile on some. On one test, where I got distracted by ambient activity in my room (my daughter walked in and my roommate was whining again,) I still came up in the 50th percentile. Not too shabby, whatever that actually means.
She said she wanted to do more (and more difficult) puzzles, “To check for subtle things in the brain that might have been damaged,” she said. Sure, whatever. I thought it seemed a bit odd. The puzzles were getting repetitive and conformed to fairly few patterns. Some were mathematical. Some were word puzzles with a mathematical basis. Some were, well they were all mathematical. If you knew the trick, you could do them all. I mentioned this to a couple of other therapists and they chuckled and said, “Yes. If you get too good on those tests, they just keep giving you more puzzles to do.” No good deed. Well, I had been doing them all week and except for the last puzzle, which I doubt anybody else on this ward or planet could solve, I also couldn’t solve. Given time I might have cracked it. "Have I convinced you that my brain is not broken?" I asked. I had.
Gradually, I mastered stairs, rode for miles on the exercise bicycle, walked around the ward, and learned exercises. I took showers with a sprayer head and a plastic chair in the tub. I had to wrap my arm brace in plastic and use only of my right arm. It was still heavenly. One does not value enough the joys of water hot upon the back. And I took less and less oxy-codon.
On one beautiful day I took the elevator down to the lobby, outside, and into the grounds. I walked across the green grass lawn and some landscaping wood chips under the pines. All across uneven ground. All with impeccable balance. Meaning I didn’t fall down or get dizzy and the therapist didn’t have to grab my arm.
The following Monday, I asked one of my therapists if it was too early to talk about going home. I had only been at the facility for six days. “Not at all,” she said. “When do you want to go home?” “Now,” was what I said, but added, “How does by the Fourth of July sound?” Neither ‘now’ nor the forth seemed likely, seeing as the Fourth of July was in four days. To my delight, she said, “That’s doable, but you have to show us that you will be alright on your own.” They wouldn’t release me on the actual fourth, which was a Friday. So either I would be released on Thursday the third or they would keep me for another week. By that time I just wanted to go home. It became a challenge and a gauntlet to get home that week. Satan had nothing on me now.
Kristin had been with me every day. Her boss let her work from home via her computer. Both the hospital and rehab had free Wi-Fi, which also allowed me to keep connected to the world. She was planning on staying with me for at least a couple of weeks once I got home, which I believe influenced my rehab team in letting me go home. I wouldn’t be alone for the first few weeks and they had seen how attentive Kristin had been to me. She was out at the nurses’ station in a flash if anything seemed amiss. But I still had to convince them that I was ready.
The group of doctors and therapists who were responsible for me met each Wednesday to discuss their patients’ progress. So I had two days to make up their minds for them. Two very motivated days. Oh, and there was a ‘test’ as well. No pressure. I walked. I balanced. I exercised. I made a grilled cheese sandwich in the kitchen. I gave halves to two of my therapists (bribery is always accepted,) and believe I impressed them. The way to a girl’s heart… Then the test.
The grilled cheese sandwich fell under Occupational Therapy and came first, meaning that the more strenuous Physical Therapy would come next, when I was more tired. That worried me, but all I could do was use my technique of divide and conquer. A few of my theatre friends were there that day, so I had sympathetic, friendly faces. An audience, in other words. Ah, something I can relate to.
My therapist had me seated on a cot. I had to do several balancing exercises. Stand up. Hold my arms out. Bring them together. Sit down. Stand up. Raise one foot. Bring it out, and then back in. Then down. Sit down. There were several of these. She observed my progress critically, checking boxes on a form on her clipboard. Very professional. I completed all in a timely manner and a vertical aspect. Not bad, considering I was still prone to light headedness.
Then the killer. She put several plastic cups, upside down and staggered, on the floor about two feet apart. I had to step over each one till I got to the end, turn around, and step back. Then she rearranged the cups all in a line. This exercise required me to stand sideways in line with the cups. I then lifted a foot, moved it over a cup, and placed it down again, repeating with the other foot like some kind of slow motion line dance. I did this across the ten cups or so, turned around, and crab walked back.
In all fairness, I was already finished with the test portion of the examination. These last two exercises, using the plastic cups, didn’t count. They seem to like to keep throwing things at you if you do too well. PT humor, I guess. Let’s see what we can make him do now? Rappelling? Sure. Bring him to the tower!
And I saw Sue again. She congratulated me on my quick release. I said it was all because of her. “No. You did it yourself,” she said. “You gave me permission,” I replied.
And I was done. Nine days in rehab after 29 days in the hospital. Oh, there was one more test, of sorts. As long as I didn’t show any sign of an issue for the rest of the day, I would be allowed to go home. I had to be on my toes. And balanced, as well. They were watching. No pressure.
Thursday afternoon, Kristin picked me up and drove me home.
Home Again Home Again, Jiggedy-Jig
I was sore. I still had two braces holding my bones together. I had exercises, instructions, apparatuses, and medications. Mentally I was fragile and physically tentative, but I was out of the sanitary and bright environment of the hospitals. And no more complaining roommates. But there were also no more nurses to flirt with.
Home had been prepared for me. A broken railing on my kitchen steps had been magically repaired, there was a rail in the bathroom by the toilet, and a sprayer hose in the tub. I had a regimen of pills I had to take according to an exact schedule, three times a day. I was down to five milligrams of oxy-codon once in a while. Within a week I had eliminated it entirely. Good riddance. I was still taking Gabapentin for nerve pain and Trazadone for sleep. I cut these out as soon as I could, too. Kristin set my meds out for me and we set an alarm clock by my bed. It was nice having her around the house again, since she had the cheek to grow up, get married, and move away.
There was a mound of correspondences from hospitals and insurance companies. I kept a journal of all letters, statements, and phone calls I received and made. It was the only way I could keep track of the volume of bureaucracy, rattled brain or no. I had already spoken with my insurance adjusters and had an idea of what the costs of my treatment would be. I figured it would be north of a quarter of a million dollars. Well north. Robert Peary north.
I had four doctors I was seeing regularly; two cardiologists (one for my heart and one for my aorta,) an orthopedic doctor for my elbow, and a neuro surgeon for my back. Within a month my neuro surgeon exorcised Satan from my spine. A few weeks later my orthopedic doctor said I could finally get rid of the arm brace. I tentatively started driving after that, short trips around town at first, then longer trips until I could venture all the way to Worcester for my appointments. One of the cardiologists heard something unusual in my heart and had me wear a heart monitor for a month. It consisted of a monitor clipped to my belt connected to three electrodes glued to my chest and a cell phone that would upload the information to the mother ship every few minutes. I also had to monitor my blood pressure. A visiting nurse came by once a week to check on me, along with therapists for PT and OT. I could flirt with her.
My total healing time would be somewhere around six months. My ribs continued to be sore and my back hurt easily and in general I tired easily. I’ve got to go back in six months to have my aorta checked.
In the six weeks that I had been absent time had not stood still. Family members had looked after my home and my cats. But they stayed clear of my honeybees. As luck would have it, the bees were in a period of low maintenance between early spring chores and post nectar flow harvest. At the beginning of the season around March they need feeding and treatment for diseases and parasites. By May they are up to a full complement of bees and are happily engaged in bringing in pollen and making honey. Now, during the mid-summer dearth when there are few flowers available, the spring honey must be harvested and the bees put on a supplemental diet of sugar water and artificial pollen. Honey bees can no longer survive in the wild in New England. Their environment has been too badly damaged. The only ones left are those belonging to beekeepers.
The last thing I could do was lift 40 pound boxes full of finished honey and irate bees. Fortunately, I had friends who helped me with the lifting. We placed the unprocessed boxes of honey in plastic trash bags and stored them until I was strong enough to separate and bottle the honey about one month later. Finally, with Dan’s help, we spun out all of the honey and bottled it. I harvested 100 pounds of local, delicious, natural honey. A nice haul.
A strange thing I noticed once I was back in my own home and in control of my surrounds, after a fashion, was how my diet changed. I found myself with certain cravings. In particular, milk products. I ate yoghurt with homemade jam for breakfast, and often other meals, as well. I drank a lot of milk and ate English muffins with natural peanut butter and more jam. Or bowls of cereal with milk and fruit. Cheese was my friend. I was craving things with calcium for bone growth, I imagine. And sugar for energy. I had lost 25 pounds in the hospital and was at a weight last seen in high school. If only I can maintain it. Maybe I can market it. The Jon Loux calamity and oxy-codon diet.
It took me a while to get around. The living space in my house is all on one floor, with the exception of the washer and dryer, which are in the cellar. It took me a while to feel safe going up and down stairs. It took me a while to feel safe going outside. It took me a while-well, everything took me a while. During this time Kristin was my faithful washer-woman, cook, therapist, nurse, and friend: what the word daughter means.
She went home a few weeks after I left rehab, insisting that I visit her and Seeth as soon as I felt well enough to travel. That turned out to be about two months later. Since I had screws in my bones and rods up my spine, I expected to set off every alarm they have at Bradley Airport, my gateway to the west. Nothing of the sort happened. Terror, as well as beauty, appears to be only skin deep.
Have I ridden a motorcycle again? Yes. Of course. Who’s in charge here, anyway? Some people urged me to get back in the saddle right away. “You’ve had an accident,” they said, “so you should be ok for the rest of your life.” Random events don’t work like that. Especially when there are people involved. The occurrence of a chance event does not weaken or strengthen the chance of that event ever happening again. However slim or great the chances were before the accident, they are exactly as slim or great after.
That was not my concern. Of course, some of my family and friends wished I had never bought the scooter to begin with. Some said this just goes to show how dangerous and stupid motorcycles are and I hope you’ve learned your lesson, young man. Some said it has to be my decision, to ride or not to ride. Don’t do it out of fear, do it because it’s what you want to do, one way or the other. I’ve ridden Kristin’s scooter in Oregon, which is pretty much like mine was. Small, functional, and vulnerable. Like me. Well I’m not that small. Or that functional.
Riding around the back roads surrounding Portland, Oregon was fun and exhilarating like my little bike was when I first got it. I rode around town, to the grocery store and Five Guys Burgers and Fries for lunch, up in the hills over Portland where Seeth grew up and, while lost, almost all the way into Portland, which is the best way to ride. It was fun, fun, fun.
Sadly, many other drivers on the road don’t know how to drive with motorcycles. They don’t look. They don’t pay attention to the road or observe street signs. They use electronic gadgets. It only takes one. A motorcyclist has to be constantly scanning the road ahead and the side roads while keeping an eye in the mirror. Cars stopped at side roads or parking lot exits are lurking dangers. Oncoming traffic a potential asteroid strike. One trick is to watch their wheels. You can usually see a wheel start to turn before you see the car moving. Life is full of little tricks of survival, and not just to solve cognizance puzzles.
The first time I went back to the theatre was exhilarating. Contrary to popular belief, community theatre people are not all touchy feely emotional types. There are doctors, lawyers, ministers, and math teachers; butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers. Just like everywhere else. Having said that, I certainly got a lot of hugs and good wishes. I spoke to people who had visited me but whose visits I still don’t remember. I shared my experiences and many of theirs as well. There’s a kind of unwanted comradery among people with a shared experience like this. A club we could all have done without.
I finally saw my scooter about four months after the accident. It had been stored in a local garage the whole time, awaiting the insurance company’s disposition. Seeing it was frightening. Terrifying, even. I had seen some pictures taken by the insurance adjuster already, but the real thing was, well, more real. In the picture it looked like the right handle bar had been ripped off. In actuality, it was bent straight down at a 90 degree angle. I found this more disturbing, somehow, than if it had been broken off. What kind of force would it take to do something like that? Considerable force, that’s what kind. The bike itself weighs 200 pounds. If it had hit the car it would have dented the body but not done much damage to the handle bar. I surmise that the bike must have flown into the air and then come down onto the pavement, handlebar first, with the full load of momentum behind it.
The fiberglass body was shattered, the cowling around the head light gone, the seat hanging loose. Everywhere I looked, I saw crumple. I felt like I was at a wake. It was clearly unfixable. I won’t get another scooter, I think. Though I won’t avoid them, either. Maybe it was too soon, but looking at the wrecked scooter in the shop and getting a sense of the forces that had pulsed through it, and by extension, through me, I just didn’t know how to feel.
I like to think I am wiser from this experience. Or at least less stupid. I was able to see how much my family and friends love me. As such I feel intimately wealthy. I feel more inclined to reach out to others who are in the same boat and less inclined to let the minor nuisances of life distract me.
Life, they say, is a bird flying from darkness to darkness. Along the way she flies over a sumptuous feast, pausing and nibbling as she goes, then disappears back into the night. Mine almost ended in mid-course.
I’ve been given another seat at the banquet.
My sister-in-law, Patsy, and Kristin with me at Abbot’s sea food in Stonington, CT. My seat at the banquet. This was a scant seven weeks after the accident. I’m not sure whose party the seagull’s with.
 For those of you who don’t know, Bob’s Furniture is a chain of stores throughout New England that sells discount furniture. The tractor trailers carrying his goods sport enormous pictures of Bob’s face, usually on the back, smiling in an Alfred E. Neuman-esque manner. This, if nothing else, makes one want to avoid the Interstate system here.
 He didn’t. He did.