Continuation of Millisecond that changed our trajectory
In February 2007, when I was in a major auto accident in Austin, TX, laying on a backboard with a brace around my neck, I made a pact with “whoever was looking down” that if I could see Rich one last time, I’d be willing to die.
As the story goes, I didn’t die. I fractured my hip in four places, broke several ribs, spent 10 weeks in a wheelchair, and then forged ahead until the accident dissolved into a distance memory.
This time, laying on the ground, with a good Samaritan, trying his best to provide comfort, I didn’t make a pact. I prayed.
In blinding pain, contorted in an uncomfortable position, I initially tried to pry off my helmet and jacket. I could hear Rich moaning, and every whimper ripped at my heart. I wanted to help him but was incapacitated with pain. I could see my leg was at an odd angle and my pants saturated with blood, but knowing shifting my body could exacerbate a possible spinal fracture, I tried to remain still.
Rich continued moaning. Rich, the only person who truly matters in my life, was in horrific pain, groaning, begging for a sip of water, crying for relief.
“Sh’ma Yisra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad. Please save Rich… Sh’ma Yisra’eil…”
“Who’s helping my husband,” I beseeched the good Samaritan. He assured me someone was with him. Off to my side, I could see a second good Samaritan talking on his cell phone to emergency responders.
I closed my eyes, concentrating on the words, “Sh’ma Yisra’eil…” and to avoid dealing with the reality of what had happened. If I couldn’t see the damage, perhaps, it didn’t occur.
Rich’s pleas worsened. “Please help my husband,” I begged. The good Samaritan who was trying his best to keep both Rich and I calm, reassured me help was on its way, adding, “Can you hear the sirens?”
“Yes, I can hear the sirens…”
Most of the time, one’s gaze is straight ahead and looking down. Laying on the ground, your perspective changes. You see your eyeglasses a foot away, broken objects, a man on his cell phone, another crouched down, desperately trying to comfort you, and varying shoes attached to scurrying legs, including giant, chunky, rubber boots worn by a slender woman with short brown hair, and dark glasses.
She was probably a firefighter because she was examining the area rather than providing medical attention. For a few liberating seconds, I was more amused by the size of her boots than the pain and chaos. So, when the boots got close, I grabbed one, giving it a good squeeze, and then asked the woman to pick up my glasses. It felt empowering, if just for a few seconds.
I deduced Rich was in worse shape than me, owing to the immediate attention to his injuries. I was okay with this decision, preferring to close my eyes, pray, and wish I could fall into unconsciousness to escape the pain.
There’s an old nursery rhythm, “If horses were wishes beggars would ride.” No horses arrived to lessen the agony or mercifully allow me to drift into oblivion.
Periodically, I’d open my eyes or let out a yelp as the first responders slid a backboard under me and place a cervical collar around my neck. Mostly, I was impatient, wanting them to ease Rich’s pain, and zip us to a hospital for treatment.
What probably seemed like chaos to bystanders, was an adept collaborative response with EMTs and paramedics working rapidly to strap us onto backboards, quench our bleeding, load us into an ambulance, insert IVs, attach monitors, and provide life-saving care. I heard talk of “two birds” arriving, which I immediately knew was Airlift Northwest, a service we’d subscribed to when we first moved to Whidbey Island.
Throughout the chaos, I was asked my name, age, and other details. While the answers quickly surfaced in my mind, it was taxing to speak. I just wanted to float away to be emancipated from Rich’s anguish and to drift into the warmth of an opiate spreading across my body, transporting me to another place, another world where nothing mattered, but sinking into a deep, relaxing sleep.
Off to the birds
I was the first to be loaded into the ambulance, and once again, pelted with questions, probed, pricked, and placated. For some reason, I felt the best approach to mitigating my discomfort was to swing my arms over my head. As soon as a medical professional pulled down an arm, I flung it up. I absolutely didn’t want my arms by my side, and I didn’t want to hold onto the straps, securing me to the gurney.
Finally, after several minutes, Rich was loaded into the ambulance, still moaning, and begging for a sip of water. I reach over and grabbed his arm, searching for his hand, but was too far up in the ambulance to reach it.
“My beautiful husband, feel my love,” I tried to telepathically convey to him. “Use my strength to dampen your pain.” But he continued groaning. I agonized, wanting desperately to provide him a moment of relief. The only comfort I could render was to hold his arm.
With no difficulty breathing and the only pain being my left leg (and the wretched cervical collar), I knew I would eventually be okay. Unable to see Rich, besides his arm and part of his chest, I didn’t know the extent of his injuries.
When we arrived at Whidbey General Hospital less than 10 minutes away, Rich was immediately wheeled out of the ambulance and scooted into a helicopter, waiting on the heliport. When the ambulance doors closed, I asked, “Where are we going?”
A second helicopter had evidently landed across the street, perhaps in a parking lot or field.
Immediately, upon being rolled out of the ambulance, the air nurse and paramedic took over, getting my vitals and personal details, and hooking me up to the monitors in the helicopter. It was disturbing when they rolled me into the helicopter, because the ceiling seemed just inches from my face. However, once I was finally skootched in, it was considerably less claustrophobic.
It suddenly occurred to me why they kept referring to “head in” versus “feet in.” They determine the direction based on your injuries and the aide they can administer while in the ambulance and helicopter. The top of my head faced the cockpit with the nurse and paramedic also facing forward.
Nevertheless, it was disorienting because I was flat on my back with no reference to what was occurring in the helicopter, with instrumentation above my head, and sandwiched between the nurse and paramedic who were talking on their headsets, and occasionally flashing me an “okay” sign.
Along with “flight suits,” helmets, and dark glasses, they wear personal floatation devices (PFDs). In retrospect, there’s quite a bit of water between Whidbey Island and Harborview Medical Center, including the Puget Sound, Lake Union, and Lake Washington… just a bit of water.
While they said the flight to Harborview was just 15 minutes, it seemed longer. Then again, I kept my eyes squeezed shut for most of the flight with the false hope I was simply dreaming, and when I woke up, I’d be safe-and-sound in my bed. In addition, the sound and motion of the helicopter was calming so it’s hard to know how long we’d been in the air.
I suspect, we hovered for quite a few minutes until the helicopter carrying Rich took-off, and the one carrying me could land.
Within seconds of landing, the back “door” of the helicopter, was flung open, and I was rolled out. Expecting to be immediately wheeled into the emergency room, I was instead loaded into an ambulance for a short jaunt from the helipad to a waiting throng of medical professionals who started prodding, poking, exchanging information, and further cutting off my clothes.
Zen in the chaos
I opened my eyes periodically, and tried my best to answer their questions, but usually only a whisper escaped my lips. Knowing I was in the absolute best hands at Harborview, there was no point doing anything other than laying still, letting out a whimper when they did something that hurt, and pretending the accident didn’t happen.
After the emergency room staff did their preliminary assessment, and removed my nose ring and necklace, they wheeled me away to have a CT scan. I was a bit upset they removed my nose ring – a white pearl – because I can’t put it in by myself. Rich is my official “nose ring technician.”
Nevertheless, it was a welcome respite to be rolled into the dark, quiet, featureless room where the CT scanner was located, and to be gently rolled in-and-out of the machine. I didn’t even feel the radiocontrast dye being injected into my vein. I just closed my eyes and tried to relax, gritting my teeth when they repositioned me. Even so, the darkness – the Zen – of the room was more comforting than the pandemonium of the emergency room.
The peacefulness of the CT scan didn’t last long.
As soon as I was rolled back to the chaos, a physician confronted me, saying I was going to be intubated because I needed surgery to repair my left leg. Terrified of anesthesia – having read stories of people waking up and feeling pain, but unable to move – I struggled to get up. Simultaneously, I tilted my head back and saw piles of bloody sheets on the floor in the next trauma bay.
I completely freaked out, convinced the carnage was Rich’s.
I screamed, “Operate on my husband first!”
The physician sternly told me that wasn’t going to happen since Rich’s leg couldn’t be saved, and mine could. His comment brought a renewed wave of panic and determination, along with a pressing need to pee.
“I gotta’ pee,” I repeated numerous times as the physician more urgently said I needed to be intubated.
“No! My husband, my husband,” I shouted.
“He’s already been intubated so we could give him pain killers.”
The battle to remain conscious was drawing to a close. With renewed determination to calm me down, they placed a mask over my face. However, the gas didn’t start flowing as expected because the last thing I remember is their repositioning the mask and urgently shouting, “The gas isn’t coming out.”
To be continued…
Thanks to Iker Urteaga for his photo on Unsplash