Still dark at four in the morning on April 2nd, 2009, the first day of my vacation seemed to be going just fine. The trip from Georgia to Delaware was commonplace for me by then, and I was eager to be on my way.
I drove through the sunrise and everything was fine at around seven. I was getting the nibbles and cracked the bag of Cheetos and a can of gingerale I’d placed on the passenger’s seat the night before. I began nibbling and sipping away, keeping my eyes on the road, thinking in about another hour I’d stop and stretch my legs and top off my gas tank.
By eight I’d crossed into North Carolina, making great time, thinking gas and peeing was now priority. I pulled into the center lane and started looking for exits with gas stations that weren’t too far off of I85.
The next thing I knew, there was a paramedic knocking on my window, telling me to stay still, and relax, that they were going to have to cut the roof off of my car to get me out.
I have absolutely no recollection of the accident. Apparently I veered left, hit the guard rail, bounced off, back across four lanes of I85 and hit an abutment on the right side of the road with force enough that my car spun around and ended up facing the wrong direction. My car was trashed, the right front tire was bent back into the passenger side floor, the steering column was broken and on the floor, the steering wheel resting in my lap. The air bags deployed, windshield shattered, Cheetos and ginger-ale everywhere, and Aha still wailing from my CD player. I looked down at my left arm on the rest, thinking that it looked weird. And I will always remember the acrid hot engine smell mixed with road dust. And the sound of the windshield shattering the rest of the way and landing on the quilted cover the paramedics had stretched over me, covering my face to protect me from the broken glass. As the paramedics started to take me out of the car, I looked over and told them to grab the black tote bag, and I must have blacked out because I don’t remember anything else until I was in the ambulance.
Paramedics rushed me to the closest ER, to get a CT Scan of my head and spine. Fortunately there were no head or spine injuries, so it was decided, with my extensive injuries that the paramedics should take me to a different hospital, 40 minutes away, because they had a better trauma unit. They loaded me into the ambulance and took off.
In the trauma unit, they began cutting off my clothes and examining my injuries: a shattered left ankle, torn ACL and meniscus in my right knee, torn right rotator cuff, broken left wrist, two broken ribs and a fractured sternum, and extensive bruising across my chest from the seat belt. To the side they were placing what was left of my clothes in the trash. A scrub-clad young man held up mittens he’d dug out of the pockets of my shredded Cruxshadows hoody. “Want me to save these?” “Yes! Please! My grandmother knitted them for me, before you were born.” He probably thought I was delirious, but it was true. I’d pulled them out and decided to wear them that past winter. As old as they were, they were in better shape than I was. Not much in the belongings bag: the mittens, my Crocs, my wrist watch that they’d cut off my arm, my bra, which was cut off and I have no idea why they’d saved and my tote bag which contained my most essential personal items.
I turned my head in the other direction where a police officer stood, asking me what I thought happened. I honestly didn’t know. He is the one that extrapolated the bits of information I provided into an idea of what must have happened to me. I was more concerned about what must have happened to others if my car careened across four lanes of I85 N at eight in the morning. “Was anyone else hurt?” The question burned. To my surprise the answer was a relief: “No. No other vehicles were involved in the accident,” the officer reported. A miracle.
Four hundred miles away from my friends in Georgia and my family in Delaware, I was helpless on a gurney, scared witless, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The social worker dialed my cell phone for me and got hold of my son in Delaware, and my landlord/friend in Georgia.
I’d never had a broken bone before. I’d had several surgeries, almost hemorrhaged to death twice, all kinds of other dings and dents during the course of my half century of life, but nothing broken. I sure made up for it on that misty April morning.
By the time they screwed, bolted, tacked and plated my ankle back together, set and splinted my wrist, braced my knee, and I woke up from the anesthesia, my sons were there. I heard them quietly listening to the doctor as I tried to focus my eyes, still groggy in the recovery room, and then Joe noticed I was awake.
He held my hand, and smiled, and said I would be alright, which I had enough morphine in my brain to believe, and I saw Billy on his cell phone, then he came over and they stood by the gurney, talking to me for awhile. But they couldn’t stay the night because Billy had to work the next day, and they’d come together. I told him I would be fine, and tried to make myself believe that. I reminded myself that I was their mother, I was a big girl, and that the doctors and nurses had taken care of me just fine before my sons had arrived, they would do the same after they left.
I was okay until Saturday when my heart rate spiked up to 145. I ended up in Cardiac Care, with a gazillion monitors on me, and trying to get through the automated phone system of the Human Resources Department of the retail pharmacy where I work. My phone service kept dropping the call, I couldn’t get through to a human representative, to tell them that I wouldn’t be back to work and that I needed a medical leave of absence, and the stress built up with every dropped call finally leaving me crying in frustration. Talk about counter-productive to my health!
The doctors medicated me and stabilized my heart. I went back to a private room with my monitors, catheter, IV, casts, splints, brace and stress.
At the end of the first week, my friends Linda and Christine came up from Georgia and visited me. They brought me some incidentals, and cleaned out my car for me. They recovered a lot considering the condition of the car. When they went into the salvage yard where it had been taken, and asked the man there if they could gather up my belongings, he said in an awestruck voice, “That woman lived?”
My glasses were mangled on the floor. The steering column was practically on the floor, and mangled, so the keys in the ignition were irretrievable. I had a 12 cd holder on my visor that was nowhere to be found, and my medicine bag that a shaman friend had made for me, that had been hanging on my rear view mirror was gone.
They retrieved my suitcase from the back seat, tote bags that were on the passenger seat, stuff out of my glove compartment, stuff out of my trunk, my lab coat that had been on my back seat. But when I asked about Rosie’s Beanie Babies, they had had no luck. I figure, since they were behind my driver’s seat on the floor, they were either under the seat or had gotten lost when I was dragged out through the roof. Out of all the stuff I lost, I was most upset about that, because I knew it would be weeks before I would have access to a computer to order her new ones, and I’d already missed her birthday.
However, Chris and Linda came into my hospital room like a warm tropical breeze, hugging me, joking with me, stashing incidentals they’d picked up for me in my bedside table, and bringing a little piece of my life in Georgia to me until I could return to it. They replaced my cell phone, which had been cracked and was dropping calls, and my glasses, and made me laugh in spite of myself. Then they went back home to begin the long wait for me to heal.
I finished out the second week in the hospital, improving a little each day. I was able to sit up, feed myself better, (though the nurses still were cutting my meat, I had no strength in my arms). I found that the seemingly small things were the most frustrating: waiting for a nurse to put me on a bedpan, the IV needle that painfully jammed into the crook of my arm every time I tried to do the least little thing, the heart monitors that popped off whenever I moved, (I started snapping them back together myself so the nurses wouldn’t charge into my room thinking I was flatlining), the catheter, and having to drag all that crap with me when the hospital staff tried to lift me into a gerry chair and sit me in the hall to give me a change of surroundings.
On April 17th my surgeon released me to a rehabilitation facility in Raleigh, two hours closer to my home in Georgia. Also, I had a friend in Raleigh, Carolyn, who works in an orthopedic facility. Not the one I was headed for, Carolyn’s was not in my insurance network, but she recommended the one where I ended up. She also knew what my needs would be, and offered me a great deal of much appreciated advice as well as getting me clothes for physical therapy, and other items I was desperate for.
I was scared of the two hour ride, but it went smoothly enough, and I was still on oxycodone, which insured that things were mostly pain free. For two hours I texted my daughter-in-law and concentrated on finally being free of the heart monitor wires, the catheter, and best of all that goddamned painful IV needle stabbing my arm with every slightest move.
I didn’t know what to expect from a nursing facility, and was nervous as the ambulance drivers lifted my stretcher from the back of the vehicle. On the way inside, they made comments: “This is nice, there are patients sitting outside.” And once we entered through the doors: “The nurses are not sitting around at the station, they are paying attention to the patients in the hall, and in and out of rooms. Good sign. And it doesn’t smell like urine, that’s always a good thing.” I nodded, agreeing. The place was clean and nicely decorated. By the time they wheeled me into my room I felt much better; relieved. Two male nurses, Yamil and Dayton showed up and helped the ambulance crew sheet-lift me into the bed. They were nice guys, Dayton over six feet, Yamil smaller, but strong, they were my first friends in Raleigh. And they were in my room every day. Yamil was the nurse at my end of A Hall, Dayton was from B Hall. They made sure I was comfortable, pulled the table over my bed and placed the dinner tray, (which a very thoughtful nurse’s aid, Alla, had ordered for me), and then left.
A few minutes later Alla came into the room, with her exotic Ukranian accent, and offered me some little bagged snacks, animal crackers, Cheezits, and graham crackers, asked me if there was anything I needed, was very pleasant, and then disappeared to take care of her other patients. We had many talks about Russia, and I found that she was a pediatrician there, but that when she came to the States, she had to start all over again for a medical degree. That seems so unfair, but she rises to the challenge, working nights at the rehab center, and taking classes during the day. She’s a gutsy, tireless woman, who showed me that obstacles are there to be overcome.
Just after I finished my dinner, Yamil showed up with my Lovenox shot. From the first day in the hospital to a couple days before I was released from rehab, I would receive two Lovenox shots a day, a grand total of 240 shots. Those little suckers hurt. I grew to dread 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. when the shots were given. Like I said, it’s the smaller things that get to be the most annoying. But Yamil showed up with the shot and several minutes (later on, sometimes half an hour!) of conversation and jokes, so it helped me through the aggravation of the shots.
My first two months I was completely non-weight bearing. I could feed myself, one-handed, if somebody made sure the table was within reach. I used my cell phone, but only for a few minutes at a time; holding my arm up for more time than that really hurt my shoulder. Try explaining that to a mother who is famous for her marathon four hour phone conversations!
There is no indignity like that of realizing that the nurse’s aid at your end of the hall in the middle of the night is of the opposite sex, and three decades younger than you. I thought back to when I’d spoken with a nurse (a female one) in the hospital about not being able to clean myself well enough to eliminate odor. She said, “Well, it’s hard to clean around a catheter…and you’re a woman, you know? We’re juicy.” Amusing as I found that term, I had to admit it was accurate. I wondered, on my first night in the rehab center, if this young man got that, as I lifted my leg up so that he could wipe me after turning me onto my side off of the bedpan.
Colin did, actually, and though he was gentle and thorough every time he cleaned me up, the whole experience inspired me to work very hard to put myself on and off the bedpan and wipe myself. I was doing that within a week of entering rehab. Reaching back and wiping myself was a new adventure in pain, but I was determined.
Everyone in the rehab center who came into my room was surprised at my cheerfulness and ability to kid around and crack jokes. They were used to elderly patients in various states of dementia, and I was perhaps the youngest patient in the facility. However, I did have my down moments. One day I was frustrated with my limitations, I’d been trying to, on my cell phone, straighten out some insurance glitches and been getting a serious run-around, found out my employment had been dropped, subsequently dropping my insurance and leaving me without income. I finally just leaned back and sobbed. The stress, in addition to the pain and physical limitation was just too much. It all came out in wails, which I tried to stifle, to no avail. I heard the call bell sounding from the room across the hall from mine, as I wept. I heard a soft male voice say, “I think the lady in that room is upset, she’s been crying for a long time. Maybe you should check and see if she’s alright.” Oh God, I thought, not wanting anyone to see me in the midst of my pity party. Pam, the buxom, funny, no bullshit black nurse’s aid, who I particularly enjoyed teasing and laughing with, came into the room, took one look at me and said, “Uh oh,” instantly recognizing a crying jag. She put her arm around my shoulders, handed me tissues, and said, “let it all come out.” Which I had been doing for half an hour, and after a few more minutes, it was finally over. Pam gave me a drink of water, handed me a wet washcloth to wipe my face, and started to leave.
“Hey Pam, I heard that man across the hall ask you to come in here and check on me, that was nice of him. What’s his name?”
“Well, would you tell Leroy that I’m okay? He sounds like a nice guy.”
“He is. I’ll tell him.”
And indeed Leroy was a nice man. And someone who helped me through one of the most difficult, scary, painful times of my life.
A few days later I heard Leroy in the hall, sitting outside his door in his wheelchair, waiting for housekeeping to clean his bathroom. I called him, and in he glided, the hum of his electric wheelchair smooth and soft like his voice. I thanked him face to face for the day he sent Pam in to check on me and he told me he’d had days like that, many, for that matter, after his stroke. “I was paralyzed, and heard doctors say I’d never walk, have use of my arms, or talk again. I cried for weeks, then I started praying. And God answered me. He told me I had to stop drinking, had to stop all the bad stuff I was doing in my life, but if I did, I would have joy. And that he would help me. He said it wouldn’t be easy, but that I could do it.” And he smiled, lifted his arms up, and spun his chair around, straightened his legs from the knee, with some difficulty, but it was hell and gone from being paralyzed. “And you can do the same. I know you’re frustrated, but you have to think about the things you can do rather than the things you can’t. When you first came in here, you couldn’t do anything. Now you’re sitting on the side of the bed, They can Hoyer lift you into the wheelchair, and you can wheel yourself around the hall. You even went into the bathroom and leaned your head in the sink and washed your hair! It’s just a matter of time you’ll be walking out of this place,” he assured me.
And I thought about it. He was right.
Not long after that Kelly, my therapist, helped me use the slide board to get into the wheelchair. This was a huge improvement over the Hoyer lift, because it didn’t involve the nurses’ aids getting the lift, putting me into the chair, and returning to put me back in the bed after therapy. I did wait for Kelly to be in the room to put the wheelchair next to the bed, take the arm off the chair, and place the slide board for me to use it. I always erred on the side of safety.
That slide board gave me the ability to get into a chair without the Hoyer lift. After therapy, I would sit in the hall with Leroy and his roommate Arthur, and talk while Shelby would change linens and clean our rooms. We were all the way at the end of the hallway, and we dubbed our little area in front of our doors ‘the Porch.’ My occupational therapist, Purvi began calling us “The Porchies.” Other friends on the floor would join us for our little ‘Porch Chats,” Earl, Miss Nellie, crochety Mary. “Porch” time gave me and everybody else a little time out of our rooms, conversation, and many laughs.
Therapy was no day at the beach. After a lifetime of having problems with my right knee, it was the one they insisted was weight-bearing first, and I had to trust it with my entire weight because my left arm was still casted, and my right rotator cuff was torn and couldn’t support weight either.
That’s when Frank and I became buddies. My therapist, Kelly, was a small framed woman, strong for her size, but I was scared about standing at the parallel bars. Terrified, in fact. I didn’t trust (and mostly still don’t) my knee not to pop, brace or not.
Frank had been a medic in the army, and had the voice and demeanor of a drill sergeant. Everybody knew when Frank was on the floor coming to take one of his patients to the physical therapy room. You could hear his barking voice all over the floor until the elevator doors closed him in.
Frank stooped before me on a Thursday morning, as I rested my casted left arm on his shoulder, and then he hauled me to my foot, more smoothly than I would have expected from a 62 year old man who’d had double knee replacements. Unfortunately my left leg wasn’t far enough out in front of me and my weight went on it, which wasn’t allowed yet, there was pain in my foot, and I wailed to be sat back down. It shook me, and I refused to let them stand me back up again. This pissed Frank off. “She’s not even trying!” he said to Kelly, who shrugged, and wheeled me off the parallel bars.
Later that day I saw Frank, and said hello, and he ignored me. That pissed me off. Which, of course, was probably Frank’s plan all along. Friday morning, I stayed in my room and did my therapy exercises on the side of my bed. Kelly was obviously not happy about that. She thought I was quitting. What she didn’t realize was that I needed to psych myself up, and get my head around the physical challenge before me.
All week-end long I thought hard about what Leroy had said about concentrating on what I could do. My attitude would have to change. Strangers had more faith in my body than I did. But not for long.
Monday morning I was up at five. I washed up, changed into fresh shorts and a top, and brushed my teeth. I took my reacher and latched onto the arm of my wheelchair which was sitting by the wall across from my bed, on which the slide board rested, and pulled it over to my bedside. It was time. I removed the arm of the wheelchair, snugged it up to the mattress and braked it, raised the bed above the seat level of the chair, put the slide board in place and inched my behind across the board and into the chair all by myself for the first time.
I took off down the hall headed for therapy on the first floor. First time I’d slide-boarded unassisted, and now the first elevator ride unassisted. The nurses at the station in front of the elevators smiled. “Today’s the day I kick ass and take names!” I said, rolling onto the elevator. “You go girl!” Pam shouted as the elevator doors whisked closed.
I rolled myself into the therapy room five minutes early for my seven a.m. therapy, and parked myself at the end of the parallel bars. On my way I announced to Frank, “today’s the day, Frank. No more chickening out! I’m gonna do this damned thing!” He responded: “You go sister!”
And I did. I put my full wait on my right leg for 12 seconds, sat back down, regrouped, and then stood for 20 seconds.
A week and a half later, after my doctor said I could put weight on my left ankle, I took my first steps, balancing with a four pronged cane, and walked off the ramped end of the parallel bars and over to my wheelchair. Every day I walked a little farther until I’d mastered the hallway outside the therapy room. Then Kelly took me outside and we walked from the front door to the back door of the building.
And inside, I either wheeled myself beside Leroy when he walked with a walker down our hallway, or, the last couple of weeks before I left rehab, I’d walk with him, and walk over to his room to chat for a few minutes.
Finally the day came for Winnie and Linda to come and pick me up. (Winnie’s name is Buster, but I call him Winnie because he’s built kindof like Winnie the Pooh, and he’s got a similar temperament). They stayed with Michael and Carolyn over night and came for me on Sunday morning, August 2nd, exactly four months after my accident. I walked out of the rehab center with my four-pronged cane, very much pleased with my accomplishments; very much concentrating on what I could do.
Right up until I got home and had to figure out a way to go to the bathroom. There was no way I could squat down on the regular toilet (I’d been using a commode over the toilet in the hospital, several inches elevated above the toilet height.) There had been a glitch ordering my equipment (commode and shower stool) and it wouldn’t be at the house for another 48 hours. I brought a bedpan home with me from the rehab center, and used it for those two days, but carrying it into the bathroom and emptying it was difficult because my wrist was not much help holding it level.
I was having a terrible problem with my ankles swelling. I ordered an herbal diuretic online, which took almost an entire week to arrive. I had no choice but to wait because there’d been a problem with my employment and subsequently my insurance was dropped. It was eventually reestablished, but hadn’t been in time for my homecoming. So I paid for my walker, commode, and cane out of pocket, as well as the diuretic.
I found that when I laid flat and tried to elevate my ankles in bed, my back would go out. It had been twingy in the hospital, and rehab center, but the hospital bed supported it, and I rarely laid flat. The disk had shifted during an MRI, toward the end of my stay in rehab, and had been giving me trouble ever since.
This presented a problem that drove me to desperation. I couldn’t lay down and elevate my legs because of my back. My ankles were seriously swollen. I couldn’t lie down to sleep, and I couldn’t prop myself either, in bed, without my disk shifting and causing excruciating pain. I was terrified I would lie down and not be able to get back up.
I was sleep deprived, and miserable. After all I’d been through, I couldn’t face the idea of having this awful pain for the rest of my life, in addition to all the other physical limitations I would have to deal with daily. What was the point?
I actually wrote notes to each of my loved ones, apologizing and telling them how much I loved them, just in case I got to a point where I couldn’t take it anymore and decided to end it. And I seriously considered doing just that. I didn’t want to live in pain every day. I didn’t want to have to return to the medical system where I couldn’t make that choice, and I didn’t know if I could function and take care of myself if this horrendous back pain was now in the mix. I sat on the edge of the bed, exhausted, desperate, depressed, and defeated.
Then Winnie and Linda knocked on the door and wheeled in this monstrous office chair that he’d replaced with a newer, lighter model. Winnie’d spun it until the seat was at it’s highest level, and I put two pillows on top of it. I found that if I wedged a pillow behind my back, I could doze off and sleep for around 20 to 30 minutes. I also rigged up a tv tray with a pillow on top to elevate my legs, and found that my disk didn’t shift as it had when I was lying down.
And then I went online looking for a hospital bed. I’d gotten my first disability checks from my re-established benefits, and had a thousand dollars in my account. It was supposed to be for catching up my rent, but Linda told me the rent could wait, I needed to sleep.
The cheapest hospital bed was over $2000. My VISA card was maxed. Insurance wasn’t going to cover it, and besides, I was having trouble with insurance still. I kept looking. I looked up Gerry chairs. They were almost as expensive as hospital beds, and weren’t much better than the office chair I was using. Then I came across medical recliners. It’s basically a Laz-E-Boy type chair, but it has a hydraulic lift that raises the chair and tilts it forward. The stool is also solid under the backs of the legs when raised, and there is apoulstered support at the back of the arms so there are no gaps that leave your arms unsupported. That feature makes the chair even better than a hospital bed for me, with a torn rotator cuff and wrist still in a brace.
This chair saved my life. It arrived within a week, and Winnie got it into my room and plugged it in. Though it will recline completely flat, I raise the stool and leave the back at 55 degrees. My back is supported, and I can sleep my normal six to seven hours a night.
I still have a little swelling problem (more in my right foot than my left, ironically enough), but I can sleep, shower, and take care of myself in my room. I have graduated from the commode to my toilet with an elevated toilet seat (with arms) attached.
And I am still concentrating on the things that I can do rather than those that I can’t.
The first month I was home I crocheted Leroy a blanket to replace one he’d given to me in the rehab center. It turned out very nice. I’d stitched a cross on it, understanding that his faith was the most important thing of all to him.
And also during that first month I ordered another set of Max and Ruby Beanie Babies for Rosie. Cait and Joe texted me a picture of her holding them, with the exact exuberant smile I’d pictured on her face when I’d ordered the first set…so very many months before.
A couple weeks after I got home in August, Winnie was laid off, and things have been a financial struggle between Winnie being on unemployment and me being on disability. But we’re managing. However there was no extra money to install grab rails, a railing up the garage steps into the main part of the house, (my room is off the garage), or any other special equipment that might have made things easier. But I am an inventive person, and almost always find a way to compensate for my circumstances. Like I placed my commode outside my bathroom door. With the door closed, I could pull myself up by the doorknob, the door being braced by its frame. And I hand washed my clothing, which was therapeutic for my broken wrist and arm muscles. It took awhile for them to afford it, but Winnie installed a full railing up the steps so I could get into the main part of the house. He and his son-in-law, JP, did this on Thanksgiving (which added to the long list of things I was Thankful for!), and it was the first time I was able to come upstairs for a family meal. It meant dragging cushions upstairs to put on my chair at the table, and hobbling on my cane very slowly, but hey, it’s another thing I can do! Sit and enjoy holiday meals with loved ones.
I’m still on disability, and will be for quite awhile. There are still some limitations that would make it impossible for me to work in an office every day, but that’s the can’t list. What I can do is write, and I have managed to build and publish my Owl’s Eye View Magazine website. It was a longtime dream before my accident. I wrote and worked, and learned how to bring that dream to fruition. And here we are. Another thing I can do.
Another thing I can do is be grateful. To my family and friends who were there, worrying about me, providing clothes and incidentals, visiting me over great distance, sending me encouragement through phone calls, cards, flowers, and texts. To the paramedics who dragged me out of my shattered car and rushed me to the trauma centers. To the hospital and rehabilitation center staffs who put my broken body back together, made phone calls for me in the ER, nudged me, stretched me, cleaned me up, joked with me, hugged me, Hoyer lifted me, encouraged me, fed me, medicated me, kept watch over me, tested me, lifted me up to the parallel bars, set up transportation to doctor’s appointments, transported me, put me on and off of and cleaned my bedpans, cleaned my room, did my laundry, helped me with insurance glitches and faxes, and brought me Krispy Kreme (yes Peggy, that’s you!!).
And finally, I am grateful to Leroy, for pointing out a very simple philosophy that has helped me immensely: Concentrate on things you can do, rather than things you can’t. Thank you, Leroy, for listening, laughing, (especially that wild laugh you’d let loose when I zoomed down the hall with my legs and arms out in the wheelchair, that face was priceless!), encouraging, and caring.
Well over a year since I’ve seen them, I have yet to hug my grandchildren. However, what I can do is Skype them, and thanks to the web cam I received for a Christmas present, I can see them face to face, talk to them, read stories I’ve written for them (I’m putting together a book of them), and even have tea parties with Rosie. Little Joey recognizes me, and I heard and saw him say “Nana” for the first time just the other day. All more things I can be grateful for.
So as I go forward and meet whatever challenges life has for me, my answer will be, “Can do!”