On Friday evening, four days after our accident, a dear friend Shana, who I met several years ago, came to visit. Decades ago, Rich and her husband worked together at IBM. I was relieved to see Shana because I needed her Jewish perspective on what had happened.
Often when someone goes through trauma or has a life-changing event, they turn to religion or spirituality. I’m not particularly religious but have always believed in karma and done what’s “right” to strengthen providence from creating bird and insect friendly gardens to helping people in need. In Judaism, these acts of kindness are known as mitzvahs.
Going a step further, Judaism recognizes the world was purposely left imperfect when God chose to “rest” on the seventh day. Jews, therefore, feel an obligation to complete the work by fixing the world. The concept of tikkun olam or “world repair,” emphasizes every time you perform an act of kindness or do good, you better your own existence, as well as the lives of future generations.
Because Rich and I always try to do good and speak out for the less fortunate, we always felt our exceptional luck or karma was the reward. While we’ve had setbacks, and numerous challenges, we’ve always forged ahead and, in the end, achieved our goals.
Karma, nevertheless, seemed to have let us down on Memorial Day.
Shana shared a Yiddish adage “Mann tracht, un gott lacht,” which means “Man plans, and God laughs.” Despite careful planning, the road of life is unpredictable. In our wildest dreams, Rich and I couldn’t have envisioned being in a major motorcycle accident, especially since we only rode during good weather, and went short distances.
We were the epitome of a middle-aged couple, ambling on their Harley in our lightly worn leather boots, and coats, with maps and a park pass in our saddle bags so we could check-out scenic spots, and headsets in our helmets so we could chit-chat along the way.
Was God laughing at us in our twin hospital beds, me in pain, Rich buzzed out from numerous procedures? Had karma failed us, or did fate catch up?
I kept reviewing all the things I’d done wrong in life to result in Rich losing his leg. While I was told not to “go down that path,” I couldn’t help veering off to the irrational that my actions resulted in the accident. Surely, my arrogance at feeling like we’d made it – a fabulous house in Coupeville, jobs we enjoyed, everything we could want, and an amazing life ahead of us – was the root cause of our bad luck
Even worse than Rich losing his leg was his upcoming brain surgery. While we were hoping a coil could be used to clip Rich’s aneurysm during his angiogram, his was too big and in a sensitive area, near his pituitary gland.
An aneurysm is simply a balloon-like bulge of an artery wall, which can become thin, leaking or rupturing into the surrounding area. By placing a coil or clip around the bulge, it can stop or prevent bleeding. Once identified, it’s crucial to act quickly because a burst aneurysm results in death 40% of the time. If you survive, there’s an 80% chance of disability.
A craniotomy is performed to clip an aneurysm. The surgery consists of making a small incision in the scalp, a piece of the skull, called a bone flap, is removed, the dura, which protects the brain is peeled back, and then the surgeon “separates” the brain to access and then clip the damaged artery.
The prospect of Rich undergoing a craniotomy was frightening. I conjured up scenarios of something going wrong from infection to his personality changing. After all, operating on the brain isn’t like removing a gall bladder. It’s tampering with the organ that controls all aspects of your body, emotions, and intelligence.
Countdown to surgery
The Saturday and Sunday before Rich’s brain surgery, his children Chris and Stacey were with us, helping pass the time in-between scrambling to wrap their arms around our health needs, coordinating the care of our house and pets, retrieving our mail, remotely supervising the addition of grab bars and shower chairs in our bathrooms, accessing Rich’s Quicken account to pay the bills, and much more.
I was very grateful for their support!
On Friday, they’d visited two rehabilitation centers to determine which one would be best for my care. They chose Providence Mount St. Vincent in west Seattle because they had a cat, TJ, on the floor where I’d be staying. Unfortunately, the paperwork hadn’t been completed on Friday, so I entered the weekend, not knowing if I’d be transferred on Monday.
Even though I was anxious to move forward with the next steps of my recovery, I was thankful I could spend more time with Rich. I was determined to make the best of the weekend, banishing from my mind the unthinkable that Rich might not have a satisfactory outcome from the craniotomy.
Saturday was enjoyable with Rich starting to eat and talk more. By Sunday, he seemed somewhat back to normal, even though he was weak, and couldn’t get out of bed by himself. At least, he was back to joking, taking an interest in his affairs, and looking forward to leaving the hospital.
Then Sunday evening came, and my mind wandered to the realization that it might be the last few hours I spend with Rich. The calm I felt during the day when Stacey, Chris, Rich, and I were chatting about silly stuff and doing video calls with Chris’ kids, Coen (6) and Caitlyn (4) was replaced with anguish.
Once again, I felt like a giant balloon had been inflated in my gut, compressing my lungs, so I could barely breathe. My body was filled with dread. While I wanted to scream to release the pressure, I knew it would only cause angst for Rich and a rush of furious nurses.
And I couldn’t share my fears with Rich. He was eager to have the surgery, alleviating the possibility of his aneurysm bursting. Plus, he was so zonked on painkillers and gabapentin, which dulled the nerve ending of his stump, I doubt he realized the gravity of what was going to take place the next day.
Nearly 17 years earlier, when Rich was informed, he needed to move to Austin, TX to keep his job with IBM, I’d arrived at the conclusion that I couldn’t live without him. That evening, we jointly proposed to each other, and the rest is history.
Lying in a hospital bed, just 10 feet away, I could feel his calming influence, and the idea of that being taken away from me was petrifying. While Rich dozed, I wept.
That evening, Rich’s nurse was Joe, a heavyset man from Hawaii with Polynesian blood, and a soothing voice. While the nurses usually zip into your room for a few minutes, give you a dainty cup of pills, check your vitals, and leave, Joe stayed for 20 minutes, talking to Rich and I about his life and how he mellowed from a rebellious teen to a disciplined soldier, and later a nurse. I’m sure his message of hope and positive thinking drifted into one of Rich’s ears, and out the other, but it calmed me down until another wave of fear arrived.
My nurse for the night was Faith, a cheerful woman from Kenya with two older children, and a two-year old named “The President” because of his tendency to boss everyone around. Faith, as her name implies, was a godsend. She spent the night bopping in-and-out of our room, allaying my anxieties, assuring me Harborview provided the best care, and Rich would be fine.
Faith provided the faith I needed for the next few days.
My thrashing mainsail
The next morning, Monday, Stacey and Chris came to the room early to visit with Rich before his surgery. I just laid in bed, rocking my right leg back-and-forth – my Erector Set left leg leaden on a pile of pillows – in physical and mental pain. Around 9 a.m., several nurses and assistants came into the room to “get Rich ready.” I’m not sure what they did because they quickly closed the curtain between us.
I suspect they bathed him, checked his catheter, unhooked him from various monitors, and ensured his IVs were functional. The entire time, I took shallow breaths speaking in whispers to Stacey and Chris, and not daring to look at my breakfast, let alone eat it, knowing Rich was hungry and thirsty, having fasted – once again – all night.
Before taking him to the operating room, they rolled his bed near mine, and I got to squeeze his hand and lean over and give him an awkward kiss. I couldn’t erase the thought that these fleeting seconds may need to last a lifetime. As his bed left the room, I wanted to scream, “wait,” but I knew it would make no difference.
The rest of the day was torture.
Half of me just wanted to leave the hospital and go to Providence Mount St. Vincent to start my rehabilitation. The other half wanted to see Rich. Wanted desperately to lie by his side and feel his warmth. Hear his breath. Be enveloped in his arms.
By early afternoon, I was convinced the surgery was over. But they’d hardly begun. It wasn’t until around 5 or 6 in the evening when his doctor called to say the surgery was a success, although unexpectedly complicated. They needed to use two clips to seal off his fusiform aneurysm, which occurs at the junction of the “Y” formation where a blood vessel branches and extends into both smaller vessels and into the single larger vessel. In addition, there were ancillary issues, which further compromised the integrity of the vessel.
It was a relief to hear the surgery was over and we could visit Rich in a few hours when he was transferred to the neurology ICU. We waited for another hour then Stacey snagged a wheelchair, and we rolled over to the neurology unit. The nurses, however, were just getting Rich settled, hooking up his monitors and reviewing his charts.
We zipped over to the waiting room, which was arranged in pods with twin-sized padded platforms that could be used as beds. Bags of clothing and essentials were in most of the pods where people had set up “camp,” so they’d be nearby their loved ones. With Harborview being the only designated Level 1 adult and pediatric trauma and verified burn center for Washington, and also the regional trauma and burn referral center for three other states, patients and their visitors come from across Washington, Alaska, Montana, and Idaho.
Around 8:30 p.m., a nurse let us know we could see Rich. I was super excited and goaded Stacey to push me faster in the wheelchair with Chris a few steps behind. My zeal was short-lived.
Rich was very agitated, chattering nonsense, and grabbing anything within reach. To keep him from pulling out his IVs, they’d tied down his hands. Nevertheless, he was thrashing around, his stump extended into the air.
He talked about driving a bus, picking up passengers, flying Jedi, and space crafts. Occasionally, recognizing Stacey’s and Chris’ voices, he’d make an off-hand comment or chastise Stacey for something she didn’t do or say.
I tried to talk to him, but he didn’t recognize my voice, which was disheartening.
Suddenly, he fell into a deep sleep. A physician came in, and tried to wake him up, pounding on his chest and shouting “Richard, Richard, RICHARD,” but he didn’t flinch. He simply disappeared into a dream state.
After fifteen minutes, I asked to be taken back to my room, overwhelmed, frightened, and not knowing if the Rich I knew was ever going to return. Yes, we’d been told “messing with the brain” can result in delirium and personality changes, which could last for days, weeks, and even months, but I never accepted it would occur.
Shattered, I returned to my room, and looked forward to leaving the next day for Providence Mount St. Vincent.
To be continued…
Thank you to Mark Asthoff and Priscilla Du Preez for their wonderful photos on Unsplash