After the epic “battle” in the Harborview Medical Center emergency room (ER) to evade getting intubated and sedated, I spent several hours in a holding pattern – somewhere unconscious in the hospital — before being operated on to place a rod in my femur (broken in two places), and two plates and dozens of screws to repair my tibial (numerous breaks) and tibial plateau. I later learned the surgery took nearly 5 hours and concluded around 3 a.m.
When I woke up in the intensive care unit, I was fully aware of the accident and that I was at Harborview. If I’d suffered a concussion, it hadn’t impacted my memory or reasoning. But the bravery, I’d displayed the evening before was replaced with non-stop tears and emotional outbursts.
There was no fuzziness. I knew the accident had shattered the quality of our lives.
The day before, riding on the back of Gatsby, after a lovely day touring Whidbey Island, I mapped out what I would do when I got home. The day before, I’d made a seafood chowder, which I’d heat for dinner and serve with spinach and radishes from our garden.
After dinner, I was going to review some work I’d done over the weekend so I could send it the next morning. In addition, I had a letter ready to address and send to my cousin. After Rich went to bed, I’d spend an hour or so playing Township or read a book on my iPad.
Rich was excited that he’d received a bid and for the next three months would have a regular schedule, driving a bus for Island Transit, instead of having to call in every day. His bid started the next morning, so he planned to go to bed early.
Our calendar was full for the next few months, from enjoying events on the island to cheering on the Whidbey Island Roller Girls, attending plays at the Whidbey Playhouse and Island Shakespeare Festival, seeing a flick or two at the Blue Fox Drive-in, and going to the Skagit Speedway for sprint races. When the weather warmed up, we planned to explore various lakes and waterways in our Hobie double kayak.
We also looked forward to working in our newly created vegetable garden. We still needed to plant blueberries, raspberries and thornless blackberries, along with tend to the plethora of rapidly growing produce and herbs, including spinach, arugula, baby lettuce, two kinds of onions, several varieties of tomatoes, beets, and cucumbers, squash, cantaloupe, strawberries, basil, chive, rosemary, garlic, and much, much more.
In early spring, I’d replanted my peonies in a newly created, manure- and mulch-rich bed, and on Mother’s Day, added dahlia tubers. I was eager to start picking flowers in a few months. Finally, with our peas and beans starting to come up, we needed to put up trellises in a few weeks. And as an experiment, I’d planted a bed of “three sisters,” beans, corn, and squash. I was excited to see whether the beans would climb up the corn stalks, and the squash protect everything from weeds.
I also looked forward to fussing in my other gardens, which are teeming with rhododendrons, hydrangea, salvia, lavender, English daisies, poppies, pansies, irises, day lilies, and other perennials. Many of the plants are young so they need extra water and care.
Rich had several projects lined up, including building compost bins, adding a 100-gallon catch basin to capture the overflow from his rain barrel system, install a fan in the greenhouse, add solar lights to the top of the garden fence posts, and replace the lights on the back deck.
Plus, we’d recently purchased two cement statues, a pelican and ornate birdbath, which we were going to paint and place in our garden. We’d been researching painting techniques on YouTube and looked forward to completing this project on a warm weekend.
But a distracted driver who couldn’t wait just two seconds until we passed on the opposite side of the road dashed our plans… at least in the short run.
Unfolding medical saga
In a sense, medical treatment is like a well-written play or movie, they reveal just enough information to keep you hooked, but not enough to see the full picture. There are plot points, twist-and-turns, and unexpected revelations.
Seeing my leg in a metal brace, and feeling the pain and heaviness, I knew it had been broken. And the nurses also shared the back of my left calf had been gashed open. It would be days before I knew the extent of my injuries.
When I opened my eyes in the intensive care unit (ICU), what plagued me wasn’t my injuries, but Rich’s. Tearing at my heart was replaying his agony as he laid on the street, begging for water and relief from the pain. It was if a giant balloon had been inflated in me, pushing down my inners and filling me with unyielding anguish and foreboding. I breathed in short breathes.
“Why did this happen,” I wondered trying to find something positive to grab onto. “Why us?”
Everyone who traipsed into my room, I grilled about Rich’s condition, and was assured he was doing well, and was down the hall.
It wasn’t until early afternoon, when the ER doctor, who’d seen us the night before, arrive that I got a straight answer. Rich’s knee had been shattered, and the rest of the leg was hanging on by a muscle. Even if they’d managed to reattach the bones, muscles, and veins, the leg wouldn’t be functional. They opted, therefore, to amputate it above the knee.
I was devastated. More accurately, hysterical with grief.
For the rest of the day, I was inconsolable with short spurts of clarity.
When two become one
Both my fraternal and maternal grandparents died within a year of each other. It’s a well-documented phenomenon that people who’ve been married for a long-time often die within hours, days, weeks or in the case of my grandparents, months.
While two people form a marriage, they often become one, finishing each other’s sentences and simultaneously coming up with the same thoughts.
From the moment Rich and I met, we began merging into one, partaking in each other’s hobbies. I learned to sail and wire and setup fireworks. Rich took an interest in cooking, attending plays, ballets, and opera, and xeriscaping.
Two times, we’ve been apart for extended periods of time: When Rich moved to Texas, and I stayed behind for five months to finish my contract with Intel, and five years later, I moved to Washington while Rich spent two months in Texas, fixing up and selling our house.
For the most part, we spend nearly every non-working hour together, shopping, cooking, gardening, traveling, doing home improvement projects, biking, kayaking, hiking, watching movies and TV series, going to events, and delighting in sunsets.
When we’re apart, we constantly send text messages. Every morning, I woke to a message from Rich who left early in the morning to drive a bus for Island Transit. And he received one from me after my morning work-out. It was rare for us to be out-of-communication for more than 3 to 4 hours.
The accident didn’t just ignite physical pain, but the unquenchable angst of separation: The inability to talk to Rich, touch him and share a private moment. In our relationship, Rich is the mainsail, and I the jib. He’s the steadfast strength that keeps us going in the right direction. And I’m the one to make small changes in course and to balance the power.
Without my mainsail, without Rich, I’m lost, essentially flapping in the breeze and tipping over when the winds increase.
Parade of visitors
One of my first visitors while in ICU – besides nurses, physicians and other medical professionals – was a social worker who wanted to contact our family. The Friday before the accident, I received a quirky text message from Rich’s daughter, Stacey, a mechanical engineer for the Puget Sound Shipyard, indicating she may be out-to-sea. I therefore told the social worker to track down Rich’s son Chris, whose address I knew, but not his phone number.
Without my phone, which was in a small purse tied to Gatsby’s backrest, I couldn’t access anyone’s phone number or email. Even if I had the phone, I didn’t have glasses, so everything was blurry.
Another visitor was a medical student who wanted to enroll me in a study comparing baby aspirin to heparin, an anticoagulant that prevents blood clots, an issue with people who’ve sustained a fracture or are bedridden.
While I tried to appear friendly, the dialogue in my head was “You’ve got to be kidding. I’m in horrific pain, emotionally drained, and overwhelmed with the minutia of contacting employers, ensuring our pets are fed, and maintaining our house, and you’re chattering about a research study!”
In addition, I realized the only way they could gauge the effectiveness of one treatment over another was by the number of blood clots research participants suffered or more realistically whether they had a stroke. I also asked how I would “administer” the heparin to myself since it’s an injection in the belly.
“We’ll teach you,” she coldly responded.
“Damn,” I thought, realizing I might be on the hook to inject myself daily.
Happily, after making a lopsided scribble on her release form, I was told to tap a button on her tablet. The randomized result was “baby aspirin.” Piece of cake. I’d already been taking baby aspirin before the accident. I simply needed to take it twice daily. And because I was in the study, I didn’t need injections of heparin while in the hospital or rehab.
Another visitor was a psychologist named Max with the rehabilitation team. His face and mannerisms were soothing, listening intently to my woos and nodding in support rather than offering vacuous drivel about positive thoughts and looking on the bright side. I’m not sure I felt better after talking to him, but at least, I had a good cry.
As the day started to close, Stacey, Rich’s daughter and her husband Shawn arrived from Bremerton, WA, along with Chris, Rich’s son who drove up from Camas, WA. Sure enough, Stacey had been out-to-sea, but because the tide was in their favor, by less than 15 minutes, the ship was able to return to port, and hence, Stacey could disembark.
I was deeply relieved to see Stacey and Chris who could take over our affairs from finding someone to care for our five cats and two birds to bringing in our mail, checking our garden, mowing the lawn, contacting our employers, paying our bills, interfacing with physicians, and much, much more.
After visiting me, they went to see Rich. Evidently, there were several major car crashes and shootings on Memorial Day, which not only inundated the ER, but operating rooms and ICUs. I ended up in the burn ICU, and Rich was on the same floor in another ICU. A physician I spoke with days later said he’d never seen so many people in the ER.
Strangely soothing aquarium
Despite my racing thoughts and clarity of what’d occurred, my body was “out for the count.” I laid as still as possible in the bed, a comfortable nest of pillows, under my head, under my injured leg, and under my arms to keep the tangle of IVs straight. I was too exhausted to move, and my throat hurt too much to eat or drink.
I laid supine as medicine was injected in the IVs, dripped from bags or handed to me in tiny white paper cups, technicians drew blood, nurses readjusted my leg and checked to ensure it had a pulse (they drew an “X” on the top of my foot so it was easy to locate), and paper-pushers asked me questions.
I requested the curtain in my room stay open so I could see what was happening in the hallway and the nurses’ station, which was just opposite my room. It was reassuring to hear and see the hubbub of people, and know I was safe.
Nevertheless, it was a relief when night approached, and I could slip into sleep, which had escaped me for most of the day. When I closed my eyes, I felt like I was in a swimming pool, floating in cerulean water with wavy stripes in various shades of blue. I could hear soothing synthesized sounds, which I reasoned was music meant to induce sleep. The tones and rhythms changed throughout the night lulling me into sleep.
Periodically, a blood pressure cuff would inflate on my arm, which was equally reassuring. And if I tilted my head back, I could see the wavy lines on the monitor, tracking my vitals.
Perhaps because I was on oxycodone, I found the ICU a peaceful haven. I liked the flurry of activity and sounds, which I later learned were alarms and alerts on the variety of monitors and IV pumps in patient rooms.
Thank you to Sara Santandrea and Jeffrey Hamilton on Unsplash for their great photos
To be continued…