Continuation of Separate Paths
Because the social worker at Harborview had contacted Providence Mount St. Vincent about admitting Rich for physical therapy, they didn’t assign another patient to my room. They expected Rich to be transferred to their facility, and we’d share the room.
Stacey and Chris, however, were working with Harborview physicians and social workers, along with Rich’s insurance company to obtain the approvals necessary to transfer him to the Swedish Hospital Acute Rehabilitation Unit at Cherry Hill. If admitted, he’d get more intensive therapy, something he needed following his disorienting brain surgery and loss of his leg.
Not wanting to share my room with a stranger, I strung along the social worker at Providence, saying Rich wasn’t cleared to go to rehabilitation. It was mostly true because he transferred to Swedish the day before I left Providence.
Up until that time, Rich vacillated between hallucinating, bewilderment, and occasional lucidity. When asked to draw a clock, he drew a cartoon character with hour and minute hands that emanated from its nose, and other features that had nothing to do with a clock.
Being miles away, I couldn’t discern his true condition, whether he was mostly rational or lost in la-la-land. The only connection I had to Rich was calling Stacey. When Rich called me or I called him, our conversations were disjointed. He’d talk for a moment then announce someone walked into the room. Or he’d turn to Stacey and Chris, asking them a question, forgetting I was on the phone. I’d spend 10 minutes, listening to their conversation, which did nothing to allay my anxiety.
I explained my frustration to Stacey, who said that Rich slept a lot and she and Chris hadn’t talked to him very much. Except, they had the opportunity to saunter into his room at any time. And the pictures and videos they sent me, confirmed they were often together, enjoying meals or hanging out in another part of the hospital.
I realize the relationship between a father and his children is special and stronger than of a husband and a nonparental spouse. And I was happy Stacey and Chris had put their lives on hold to be with Rich. They provided the one-on-one attention he needed to emerge from his fog. However, while Rich was getting the emotional and mental support he needed, I was floundering in the wind.
In a 24-hour period, I was lucky if I talked to Rich for 10 scattered minutes. After three days of my trying to have a conversation with him, to ascertain his true mental state, I was emotionally battered.
That evening, I went down to the lobby and stopped by the childcare center. I watched the children for a few minutes, tears streaming down my face, until a teacher approached me. We talked for a few minutes, and I shared that Rich was mostly incoherent and unreachable. She gave me a hug, but it did little to alleviate my distress.
I then wheeled myself to a quiet corner at the front of the lobby, crying and pondering how I could move forward. If Rich’s cognitive state didn’t improve, I’d have to figure out how to care for him, along with work full-time, maintain our Coupeville house, and our three rentals, and pay the bills. I’d always left financial matters to Rich, so the prospect of overseeing our affairs was frightening. I don’t even know how to use an ATM, let alone manage a plethora of online accounts and billing paying services.
Contemplating my next move
Through the tears, the only beacon of hope was my job. If I could demonstrate I was physically and emotionally able to return home, I could be released. Once home, I could return to work, writing marketing and sales materials for Microsoft. I’d be surrounded by my cats and the things I love. There would be neighbors who could help, and I would have the freedom to manage my own care. However, there was no way I would be released unless I had someone who could temporarily stay with me.
An idea popped into my head.
The tenants in our Mount Vernon house are an elderly couple along with their daughter and grandson. I’ve always liked visiting with the wife, Barb, who enjoys cooking and gardening. They’ve come to our house for dinner, and always insist we visit when in Mount Vernon. “Perhaps,” I pondered, “Barb would be willing to stay with me a few days.”
Happily, I had her phone number. Taking a deep breath, I called, barely able to hold back the hysteria as I explained our situation. As expected, she was upset, and kept saying, “I knew it. I knew something had happened to you.”
After a few teary-eyed moments, I broached the question as to whether she could stay with me for a few days. Her answer was an emphatic “yes,” which came as a relief. While I didn’t have details on my release from Providence, at least, I could say that someone would be home with me.
After talking scarcely ten minutes, my phone beeped, indicating I had another call. I told Barb we’d talk later, then answered the other call. It was Rich.
His voice was clear and his sentences logical, like he’d never been in an accident and his brain sliced open. I kept saying, “Is that really you?”
And he’d respond, “yes,” confused over why I was so shocked to hear his voice.
We talked for fifteen minutes with me constantly interjecting, “Oh my god, you’re back.”
Then he kinda’ faded away. But at least, there was hope that he had the capacity to eventually break through the fog and return as the man I’d known for 18 years. Sigh of relief.
I then called Barb back, saying I’d let her know when I was cleared to go home.
My call with Rich and knowing Barb could stay with me for a few days, got me through the weekend, along with visits from two friends. Throughout the weekend, I spoke with Rich, sometimes successfully, and other times, he was easily distracted, simultaneously talking to Stacey or Chris, or having to hang up because a medical professional came into his room.
On Tuesday, the last full day I was at Providence, I was jumping through hoops to get discharged. I needed to prove I could take a shower by myself, negotiate around a kitchen, walk a significant distance with a walker, and understood what exercises I needed to do at home. Additionally, I shared pictures, sent by Stacey, of the newly installed grab bars, shower chair, and raised toilet in our bathroom, along with the handrails on the two steps into our house from the garage.
When not meeting with physical and occupational therapists, a social worker, and nurse practitioner who validated my fitness to go home, I was sending emails to my neighbor Lauren. She has a roomy Cadillac ATS and had offered to drive me back to Coupeville. I’d be able to stretch out my legs and relax in the large, cushy passenger seat. And the trunk of her car would be large enough to accommodate my wheelchair.
In addition, I contacted Barb to let her know when I’d be arriving in Coupeville. And because I needed to have my stitches removed at the Harborview Orthopedic Trauma Surgery Clinic before going home, I was coordinating with Stacey who would wheel me to the clinic.
With all arrangements made, I packed my stuff, and plopped onto my bed to enjoy the last few hours of my amazing view of downtown Seattle, Elliott Bay, and the ship traffic. No sooner had I got comfortable when John, another chaplain at Providence, came into my room.
I liked him immediately. Of Irish heritage, he’d been born in the Bronx and lived there for much of his life before moving to Seattle, where he drove a Metro bus for many years. Anyone who can drive a bus in Seattle traffic must either have nerves of steel or have an exceptional sense of humor and love of mankind. John was the latter. He smiled, recalling the many people he’d met over the years, driving them in four seasons of weather, sharing their lives in the microcosm of his bus.
At the end of his visit, John revealed he’s written poetry for most of his life. When he visited Ireland, he stumbled upon a cemetery, which inspired him to write a poem. If I wasn’t so mesmerized by his soothing voice, I would have grabbed my phone and recorded the poem, because it was astonishing.
After he left the room, I sat on my bed in a daze, processing what he’d said, and the experience of being in the presence of a truly benevolent and genial being.
Barely five minutes passed before I heard a knock on my door. It was Cleo, the chaplain I’d spoke with the first day I was at Providence. We caught up on my progress. I shared that I’d posted my first blog article about the accident. She was pleased and felt Rich’s and my adverse turn-of-events and eventual recovery would be of interest to other people. She commented that people often write about themselves or another person having to overcome adversity, but there aren’t many books about a couple who jointly had to overcome traumatic injury.
I concurred, cementing my goal to continually write about our recovery for the next 18 months.
Start of long, emotional day
On Wednesday, June 5, nine days after our accident, I was finally released to go home. First, however, I needed to go to Harborview to have my stitches removed. The night before, a medical supply company delivered the wheelchair I’d be bringing home.
After going down to the cafeteria to eat breakfast, I said good-byes to several people before a cabulance came at 9 a.m. to drive me to Harborview. The driver was a chef who used to work at Microsoft as a contractor and was in training to become an EMT. We chatted about Microsoft for much of the trip, with his sharing how he was expected to work long hours plus overtime at catered events. Previously, he was a sous chef at an upscale Seattle restaurant. While the hours were more reasonable, the pay was dreadful.
It took a surprisingly long time to reach Harborview with Seattle traffic, and having to travel on two-lane residential roads for the last mile. Stacey was waiting for us, and immediately whisked away my bags and vase of flowers, bringing them to her car, while the driver wheeled me to the orthopedic clinic. I’d never been there before so I didn’t know what to expect.
After a short wait, I was wheeled into a room, and sat on a low examination chair with a high back, which could be lowered. There was no way I was going to sit up while my stitches were being removed, which started at the top of my hip and extended down to my ankle. Laying on my side, Stacey played soothing music on her smartphone while the nurse removed my 60 or so stitches. The procedure was more irritating than painful.
Afterwards, I was visited by Dr. Robert D. Wojahn, M.D. an orthopedic surgeon who’d assisted Dr. Sean E. Nork, the highly skilled, orthopedic trauma surgeon who mended my broken bones. Dr. Wojahn talked to me about my injury and wanted to know if I had any questions. I’d met him several times before while at Harborview, so we had a bit of a rapport. I then left with a stack of paperwork, including a release to go back to work, handicap parking pass, and medical records.
Lauren was patiently waiting in the lobby to take me back to Whidbey Island, but first Stacey wanted me to visit Rich at Swedish where he’d been transferred the day before. We all piled into Stacey’s SUV, and drove nine blocks to Swedish. A person in reasonable shape could walk to Swedish, but it’s a hilly area, and not conducive to wheelchairs.
I was super excited to see Rich since we’d been apart for eight days. While Lauren and I got food in the cafeteria, Stacey fetched Rich.
I was shocked at his appearance and demeanor: Gaunt, disheveled, confused, and agitated. While he noticed my presence, he was perturbed, wondering why he was in the cafeteria and not the familiarity of his room. I tried to sweet-talk him, but it only made him more cantankerous.
Finally, I got him to wheel his chair next to mine, and to “consider” eating the food Stacey had bought for him, steamed broccoli, which he usually loves, and baked fingerling potatoes, which were delicious. He barely ate a few bites, claiming everything tasted the same.
After everyone finished their food, except Rich, we posed for a few pictures, then took the elevator to the rehabilitation unit where Rich was staying. His room was smaller than I expected with his bed just inside the door, tilted towards the hallway so he could be monitored by the nursing staff when they walked by. A large sign, posted outside the room, indicated the door should never be closed, and the patient wasn’t allowed out of bed by himself.
Still disoriented from his brain surgery, Rich was strapped into his wheelchair, and was evidently strapped into his bed at night. At one point during his stay at Swedish, he leapt out of bed to go to the bathroom and fell.
Stacey was also staying in the room on a narrow cot. The only element that didn’t make the room totally claustrophobic was a sizeable window that looked out onto Capitol Hill. In addition, the small bathroom had a shower, which was nice from a privacy point-of-view.
The bathroom I had at Providence was just a toilet with a sink in the bedroom area. To take a shower, you had to schedule time with an occupational therapist, who would take you to a large shower room where she’d supervise while you undress, walk into and leave the shower, and dress. In my case, the therapist had to tape a large plastic trash bag around my left leg to keep the stitches and rows of Steri-Strips dry. It was a humbling experience.
Euphoria to exhaustion
After visiting Rich, we returned to Harborview, and Stacey helped load my stuff into Lauren’s car. I’d taken a sliver of Oxycodone, so I had little pain, and the several hour trip, chatting with Lauran, with my legs fully stretched out, and bottom cushioned in the leather seat, went quickly, even having to wait for two ferries.
As we approached Coupeville, we passed where our accident had occurred, a straight stretch of Highway 20 with Squire Road on the right. The “distracted” driver who was traveling in the opposite direction attempted to turn left into Squire Road when she smashed into our motorcycle. There were still markings on the road, 16 days after the accident.
It was hard not to feel anger, knowing I was going home in pain, sanctioned to a wheelchair for months with permanent plates, screws, pins, and a rod in my leg, and she suffered no injuries. Nothing changed in her life besides having to bring her truck to a body shop to be repaired and paying less than $200 for failure to grant right-of-way. Her penalty was equivalent to turning left at an intersection without yielding to oncoming traffic.
Despite the memories that were dredged up as we passed the places, we’d stopped prior to the accident, it was good to turn into the driveway and see our house. At the top of the driveway, the lavender, which I’d planted the year before, was thriving along with sedum, which I’d haphazardly tossed into the ground earlier in the year. The vegetables and herbs in our garden had tripled in height.
On the opposite side of the herb and vegetable garden, irises, dianthus, columbine and salvia were blooming. While lovely to see, my heart ached, wanting to walk into the garden and see the other plants, including Asian bleeding hearts, hosta, ferns, astilbe, coral bells, and other shade plants I’d planted months earlier after ripping out the invasive ground cover.
While anxious to look around the garden, I was quite tired, especially since it was 6 o’clock at night, and I’d been up-and-about since early in the morning. Not remembering the code for the garage, and with several steps up to the front door, I decided the best option to get into the house, was to use my walker to get near the porch, sit on my butt, and pull myself up the steps. Once inside the house, I slithered across the entry hall, and stood up, using a column by our living room.
Lauren could only shrug at my tenacity.
After standing up, I used my walker, which Lauren brought to me, to hop into the kitchen, and plop down on a chair. Mission accomplished!
While being home should have brought joy, it ignited a rush of emotions. In the living room was Rich’s jacket, florescent vest, seat cushion, and bag with his trip information ready for his first day, the Tuesday after Memorial Day, to drive a fixed route for Island Transit. He was so excited to finally have a fixed route with Saturdays and Sundays off.
The rest of his uniform – shirt, pants, boots, and socks — was in our middle bathroom. Because he usually started driving at the crack of dawn, he’d get ready in this bathroom, making as little noise as possible to not wake me.
A week earlier, Andrea, one of the three amazing, selfless women who took care of our house and pets while we were hospitalized, had driven our two birds – a cockatiel and ringneck parakeet – to eastern Washington. She’d found a bird lover who was willing to take them since Rich didn’t feel he’d could care for them. The birds were noisy and messy, not a good combination for two people with frayed nerves and extensive injuries.
Where the large bird cage had been was now an empty space, which a few days later I filled with a newly ordered low massage table for Rich and me to use for doing rehabilitation exercises.
In the center of our kitchen island is a collection of hand-thrown ceramic bowls, which are usually filled with the fruits and vegetables we consume during the week, including bananas, apples, plums, oranges, nectarines, yams, potatoes, garlic, and avocadoes. Lauren had purchased some apples, which filled the middle bowl, but the others were noticeably empty.
I usually have a vase of flowers by the sink, especially during the spring and summer when there are so many flowers to choose from. But the vase was empty.
So many aspects of the house reminded me of our life before our accident when I could easily cook a meal, bake a pie, make dozens of cookies and candies for the holidays; spend hours outside trimming bushes, weeding and delighting in my gardens; mopping the bamboo floors to make them spic-and-span; feeding the song birds and hanging up hummingbird feeders, grabbing a jacket and walking down to either Hasty Lake or Libbey Beach, and spending hours in my hobby room, sewing, beading, and working on crafts.
Now all I could do was wheel into a corner and cry.
After being home a short time, Dan, Barb, and Marcia, our tenants in Mount Vernon, arrived and Lauren went home, just up the street. Barb brought clothes to stay with me a few days until I could get settled. With my mind racing, emotions out-of-control, tired from the long day, and anxious to put my stuff away, I probably appeared bossy because Marcia started yelling at me, saying I needed to be nice to her mother.
I took a deep breath, and proceeded to calm her down, apologizing for my perceived behavior. Earlier, Barb was putting away the food she’d brought, and getting plates for a quick dinner of Costco turkey wraps. While I knew Barb had glaucoma, I hadn’t realized the extent of her loss of eyesight. Instead of selecting the everyday dinner plates and bowls on the lower shelf of the cupboard, she was perplexed as to why I only had small plates and bowls, which were located on the shelf above.
We have two faucets for our kitchen sink. One for filtered water, and the other for tap water. She kept turning on the faucets full blast. I explained we have well water, and are careful not to waste it. However, throughout her stay, she struggled to grasp the difference between the two faucets and the need to conserve water.
Meanwhile, Marcia wanted me to more enthusiastically acknowledge the strawberries she’d picked from our Mount Vernon house. Over a year ago, the retinas in her eyes had detached, so she also had limited eyesight, making it challenging for her to pick strawberries. Additionally, she brought me a tiny vase of miniature roses from Mount Vernon.
The rose bushes had originally been at my mother’s house. I tried to demonstrate appreciation but wasn’t overly gung-ho since I was distraught, realizing it would be months before I could see my own miniature roses, sequestered within our fenced vegetable garden.
Meanwhile, Dan was wandering around the house, asking questions.
I tried to be courteous and helpful, but so much was being thrown at me. None of them seemed to realize the extent of my pain, exhaustion, and turmoil over having just returned home, incapable of doing much more than hopping on one leg with a walker and trying not to hit anything in my wheelchair with my injured leg immobile in a heavy metal boot plopped on a footrest that awkwardly stuck out from my wheelchair. In order to move my left leg, I had to lift it with my hands and either put it down on the ground or back up on the footrest.
Negotiating around the kitchen, getting into the laundry room, pantry, and master bathroom was super challenging. For the most part, I had to park my wheelchair, and use the walker, which wasn’t the safest mode of doing routine tasks like emptying the kitty litter box, picking up the cats’ water bowl, hobbling over to the sink, filling it with more water, hobbling back to where we feed the cats, and then putting the water bowl onto the floor, taking clothes in-and-out of the washer and dryer, retrieving items from the pantry, and even doing something as simple as making a pot of coffee.
At 8 o’clock at night, with my emotions unraveled and no pain medication in my system, Barb was rushing around the kitchen, trying to figure out where everything was located, Dan was pacing, anxious to leave and not overly happy that Barb would be gone for a few days, and Marcia was in histrionics, yelling at me.
After dinner, with the sun going down, Dan and Marcia decided it was time to leave. I said my good-byes, showering them with my gratitude for dropping Barb off, bringing dinner, and selflessly picking strawberries. As they pulled out of the driveway, I was hopeful the next few days with Barb would be less contentious.