If I can’t tell this whole story from memory then perhaps I am doomed to relive it over and over until I get it right. Like Groundhog’s Day. It’s always a question: how much can I place in working memory before it spills over? How much can I process before someone questions me and the whiteout of PTSD kicks in? At cocktail parties with a drink in hand, I’ve embellished the story with humor, at the doctor’s office, I’ve reported the simple facts because every doctor I meet wants to hear it rather than read it. I don’t blame them. The medical record from one hospital is 906 pages long… and two CD’s. A doctor’s time is like liquid gold pouring into their back pockets. I get ahead of myself.
Remember ’08? The year of the financial crash, the rise of this unknown entity called the Taliban, the historic inauguration of our first black president? Context is important. Hope was on the highway, in Broadway lights for some but for others, they measured their degrees of desperation. The year began for me with my mother dying. We buried her on an open hillside, the wind slicing across with such a vengeance that after the last prayer we ran to waiting cars. Her casket hadn’t even been lowered into the ground. Just as in life she became an afterthought, put aside by family and friends who wanted warmth. For God’s sake I think, this isn’t Taliban country but couldn’t she get any respect, not even in death?
My anxiety increased over the months watching the halving of investments, the real estate market in death throes, and the endless drone in the media about the mortgage crisis. My husband and I were preparing to sell our house in the Washington area while our beach house was built. In May, after a ten hour day at work, I took out my painting gear—the ladder, a roller and brushes, the drop cloth—anticipating the quiet pleasure of transforming dingy walls and molding. Painting was like play therapy. Night was falling when I set my cell phone on the bathroom sink and climbed the ladder. I needed a release.
By day, I ran the department of special education for a local high school. With a huge student population and even larger range of disabilities, the job was beyond demanding. Each spring, over 300 Individual Educational Program meetings with students, parents, teachers and specialists clicked through the main office conference room hour by hour. Like tax season for an accountant, I only began to breathe again when I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. Turns out the light was the white one on my way to my next life. Again, I get ahead of myself. The next part is hard to tell.
The ladder toppled, my head plunged through the drywall and came to rest on a heating register. Drifting in and out of consciousness, I saw my cell phone on the floor and punched in 911. “Ma’am, stay on the line,” she said. Had I told her enough? It didn’t matter. I let myself indulge the blackness. When the ambulance team broke into the house and raced up the stairs, I told them repeatedly, “No, it’s my back that hurts.”
“Are you sure it’s not your head?” asked the EMT.
And there was the first little miracle. They took me twenty minutes away to a trauma center instead of the neighborhood hospital.
The second miracle occurred five days later after they made the decision to move me to a rehabilitation hospital. That gift, that moment of grace, was passed along when no bed was available and I spent one more night in the trauma center where access to specialty doctors could happen at a moment’s notice... even at 2:30 a.m. when a nurse found me crawling across the floor unable to breathe. They knew what it was: a pulmonary embolism. I succumbed. They summoned the radiologist. 25 minutes of respiratory arrest sent me into cardiac arrest, kidney failure, and then one by one, multiple organ failure. Hospital staff induced coma. Ice packs were placed under my shoulders and knees, a cooling blanket overtop me and a cool saline drip was administered bringing on mild hypothermia that saved my brain from further swelling. Propofol and Fentanyl, the cocktail that killed Michael Jackson, became my best friend over the weeks ahead.
So began my relationship with my blood. Deep in a coma from which I refused to wake…I think I secretly loved its blackness, its freedom from care, and its redemption from stress… I was started on blood thinners. The pulmonary embolism was huge and part was excised through a catheter in the femoral artery. The other part eaten away by Heparin drip, a powerful anticoagulant.
Heparin, commonly known as Coumadin, was originally developed in the 30’s as a rat poison. In a solid form it could be laid on the floor under the kitchen counter for rodents, who are indiscriminate eaters. They would gobble it down and their brains would explode like an opened pomegranate, seeds spewing everywhere. Fortunately (or unfortunately for my veins), Heparin’s use in humans had become a delicate balance of frequent blood testing and adjustment of the IV drip. Finally, the radiologist intervened to save my life for the last time. He implanted an umbrella-like filter below my lungs and above my pelvis in the inferior vena cava to catch any errant clots.
Weeks after the coma was induced the thinners were doing their miracle work but I refused to cooperate. When the nursing staff withheld the propofol/fentanyl cocktail, they let me thrash about in the bed for five minutes, my eyes bugging and rolling backward. I imagine my brain screamed for the comfort of blackness. They put me to rest again and tried to wake me the next day, until the day my time was up.
At some point the hospital staff has an obligation to speak with the family. It appeared that even though there was success with my blood, the anticoagulants eating away at the clots like some Tasmanian devil, my brain was filled with whirling dervishes, spinning and spinning, only here and there catching a word, a phrase. Your eyesight is the first sense to go, hearing the last. And so it would be my hearing was the first to return. I heard my daughter’s voice, “Mom, I probably shouldn’t tell you this but Teddy Kennedy has been diagnosed with a brain tumor….” Silence. Another day, our adopted son, Michael’s voice sliced through sternly, “Barbara, you must wake up. Now.” I never heard my youngest son’s voice. Or my husband’s. I discovered later, that they were too freighted with sadness to whisper in my ear and they could merely hold my hand, the only part of my body that was free and unattached.
Weeks had passed and so had hope. The doctor had “the conversation” with my husband, Tom. She explained that the next day they would remove oxygen, let me seizure, and if I lived, send me to a rehabilitation hospital where I would likely shrivel up to a fetal position unless Tom decided to compassionately remove the feeding tube. He ran from the doctor, from the hospital, and drove like a teenager madly into the night.
I can’t say I heard that conversation or maybe I felt it. Whatever. It was the third miracle. I didn’t see any light at that moment either. I did however dream and whether this was the end move or the beginning of a new life, I was unaware. The first dream found me drowning like Ophelia in a shallow pool but people were digging away with sticks at my lungs and heart, poking at me to see if I would respond. Michael stood on the bank staring angrily, wearing pajamas and a Sampan hat. He exhorted me to rise but thankfully I was swept away by the current. Then I sped across continents to an unknown tenement in India where the night burned gold and a woman with long dark hair knelt on a high balcony before a man in a white Nehru jacket. Smoke rose from below yet I couldn’t smell its acridness, I could only taste its metal. Quietly she bowed her head and asked, “But I’ll have another, won’t I? This wasn’t my last.”
In my dream I jumped up to speak to him and he cut me off, barking at me. “It’s not your turn!” he shouted and I fell back into the air just able to hear him say to her, “Yes my daughter, you will have another child.”
And then, I felt a hot breeze and I winged my way to a 1940’s bungalow on a Pacific beach that morphed into an old fashioned hospital room. Outside I saw giant Royal Palms that beckoned me and I left my body, flying out of the bed over the sand, past the palms and into the blue, blue sky. It whitened and a lovely peace enveloped me. Soon I sped down this bright tunnel toward an intense glow that grew larger and larger like a cool, white sun, pulling me along and I yearned so badly to reach it. But time slowed and faces appeared alongside me, none I knew, but the friendliest, most encouraging smiles that welcomed me. I felt their undivided love, their euphoria wrapped me in a heavenly blanket and I was one with them. I didn’t want to leave their safety, their warmth, their souls.
I woke to a gruff voice saying, “That’s working. Keep talking to her.”
Another voice, Sharon’s, my office secretary, bellowed, “Jesus, Shamp. You picked a high time to bug out on us. We have IEP’s piling up all over your desk.” The guilt overwhelmed me and I thought, have I been on a vacation? Work. Responsibility. Immediately, I was pinioned to the bed.
It was slow going. Nine months of rehabilitation, learning to stand without having a seizure, a wheelchair, a walker, a cane. Speech and language therapy and then learning to have a verbal filter again, to not divulge too much. My hair fell out from PTSD but eventually grew back. My husband loves me. My children, I think are a bit incredulous still, my friends grin and slap my back sometimes as if I won the ballgame singlehandedly.
But the real story is that a few weeks after I woke, they sent me to radiology because the Quinton catheter in my femoral artery had failed. They wheeled me across the white linoleum and down a long hallway of green walls passing a large American flag pinned at shoulder height. Two techs smiled at me and I watched as they raised their arms in the air, slapping their palms together and shouting, “Booyah!” like two marines on the battlefield. What had they won? Then it became clear. Under the Hollywood can lights overhead, the radiologist stood, his head covered in a white cap and a mask hung from his chin. I couldn’t see past the reflection of his glasses.
“Boomerang Shamp! Do you remember me? I’m Dr. Dick, Bradley Dick, and I saved your life a few weeks ago. The Grim Reaper stood right here,” he said. “I pointed to that corner over there and told him to take a seat.”
I didn’t remember him. As I matter of fact, I remember nothing from the moment weeks ago when the ambulance crossed the threshold of the parking lot entrance and pain shot up my back. It’s all a blank, a method your brain has to save you from painful memories. I looked up and had to admit the man behind the mask was a miracle worker. But something must have read on my face because one of the tech-marine types, stroked my arm and said, “Are you scared? Don’t be. We’re here to take care of you.”
And there the story of my comeback began. But not before an overheard conversation in the background. Two nurses, unseen, spoke in quiet voices of my miracle. “Yeah, you know she’s the lucky one. There was an Indian woman in ICU the week before her. Nine months pregnant with a PE. Flew in in from Mumbai and blew the embolism on landing at Dulles. They medevac’d her in. We couldn’t save her and the next day, the baby died too.”
I guess it wasn’t my turn.