You never really quite know where the day will take you.
Last Monday I was dragging my feet getting into work. It was the first day of classes at Penn State and experience has taught me that the streets downtown would be thick with new students fresh off summer break. I took my time to wrap up email, packed my work bag and headed to the car. Belatedly I realized I needed gas, and decided to take care of two birds with one stone — I’d take the back road across town, gas up the Jeep and bypass the glut of students on campus. Gas acquired, I came up South Atherton and happened to notice blue emergency lights at the intersection of Easterly Parkway, a block ahead of me. I calculated it would be easier to turn off a street early and bypass what was clearly an accident — and congratulated myself on catching it before I got stuck in the traffic being redirected.
I was two blocks from work when TheCop called me from his work phone. Unsuspecting, I pushed it through to the bluetooth stereo. I still can’t tell you exactly what he said; only that ice froze in my veins as my brain tried to process the words into coherent thought. “Accident. DangerBoy. Ambulance. Head trauma. Going straight to Altoona. I’m with him.
Since that call I’ve spent most of my waking hours in a plethora of hospital-type rooms: ER. Trauma Center. ICU. Waiting rooms. Hospital rooms. The sensory overload has been nonstop — beeps, bells, whistles, alarms. Equipment, wires, monitors, tubes. The litany of injuries is long. Subdural and epidural hematomas. Head trauma. Fractured skull, shoulder, vertebrae, wrist, ankle. Strained neck ligaments and thigh muscle. Staples in his left arm and lacerations and abrasions in more places than not. He’s been outfitted with a neck brace, arm sling, wrist splint, and leg boot. Every conceivable test and scan — x-rays. Exams. MRIs. CT scans every 4 hours to check the status of the trauma to his brain. He doesn’t remember the first three days in the ICU, but I do. The empty eyes, barely open, the short, slurred responses as he fights to get out answers to the same questions asked over and over: What’s your name? What’s my name? Do you know where you are? What month is it? What year is it? Do you know what happened?
I will tell you this week has been a blur. Each time I’ve tried to sit down and write about it, I realized I didn’t know how to start, and I never really had enough information. The first three days while he was in the ICU, time crawled. We measured time in 4 hour increments, existing for news from the next CT scan which would dictate whether they needed to cut my son’s skull open to relieve the pressure from the bleeding. No food or drink because they might have to rush him into surgery at any moment. I had to text updates to the family and hoped that others would pass on the rest. I ended up relying on several Instagram posts pushed out to Facebook to update the general public because it was, quite simply, all I could do.
Once we established the brain bleed was not growing, things changed rapidly. Food and drink were brought in, as well as menus for upcoming meals. He was finally taken off an IV drip and fentanyl, which made him tired and prone to almost a fugue-like state, and switched over to pain meds in pill form which provided better control for longer periods of time, and my son finally started to come out of the fog. He was finally moved off ICU and onto a separate ortho/neuro trauma floor late on Day 3, and there was much rejoicing. On Day 4, they began to solve the puzzle how he could get around with three non-weight bearing limbs, and by mid-day, miraculously, they were transferring him to a rehab hospital. It’s almost incomprehensible that in the space of 30 hours, he moves from being monitored constantly for critical care in the ICU to being stable, out of danger, and able to begin the process of rehabilitation through physical, occupational, and traumatic brain therapy. It’s exhausting to swing through the extremes of your emotions. There’s the terror of not knowing how bad it is; there’s relief knowing he will be okay; there is even guilt knowing there are others who are not as fortunate as your son, and that it could have easily been someone else walking out instead.
Random things I’ve learned about crisis:
- Somebody has to be the strong one. Somebody has to make lists of people to notify when the bad things happen. This is difficult when you are terrified, and practically impossible when you don’t know anything. And yet, people expect you to be stronger than you are. Even if you can’t find your super cape that day.
- I wanted more than anything to have someone hold me and tell me this would be okay, but the one person I trusted to understand my fear was in an ambulance with our son, lights flashing and racing to a trauma center 50 miles away. I was alone with only my fear rattling in my brain as I desperately tried to catch up to the ambulance. For some reason, being able to see the ambulance meant in my shellshocked mind that I wasn’t missing critical updates. I never did catch up.
- People in crisis cannot process the phrase, “Let me know what I can do.” It is easier to thank and deflect. There’s simply not enough RAM to process that statement. I can’t tell you what I need, other than to have my loved one in the ICU suddenly be okay. Make that happen. That’s what I need more than anything.
- It’s hard to identify a victim at an accident scene, especially when a car hits a bicyclist. There’s lots of blood — but not from the driver of the car. Fun fact: the way they identified my son was by an ID band he got from an ER visit not 24 hours earlier, where I took him for stomach pains. He left the band on for a laugh.
- We were fortunate TheCop was on duty when this happened; he heard it from people he trusted. I heard it from him. My kids, however, heard it through the grapevine, which I regret with all my heart. You do not want to get a text message, “What happened to your brother?!?” from a friend whose mother runs a preschool and called her when the girlfriend/teacher was picked up from her job by her father, another police officer, so he could take her to the hospital. By the time my kids tried to reach me, they were out of their minds with fear — and I was in a location with no information and no cell signal. Oblivious.
- I learned that my brain shuts down even though my body goes through the motions. I first turned around and headed to the scene of the accident, only belatedly realizing they were already on their way to Altoona. Somehow I turned my car around again and headed towards Altoona without having any idea where I was going. I screamed at the top of my lungs at red lights that stopped forward progress and drivers who blocked my path. I couldn’t use the phone because I was busy trying to focus on having both hands on the steering wheel and not crying so I didn’t sail over the side of the mountain. That probably wouldn’t have been helpful.
- My brain would not stop listing all the “What ifs?”. It’s hard to understand conversations with people because your brain jumps the gun and is out the stall, down the track, and around the first turn and, when you haul it back and calm it down, you’ve missed the relevant content. Be prepared to repeat yourself when speaking to people in crisis. Gently, but repeatedly.
- Altoona apparently has a number of hospitals. None of them are actually named Altoona Hospital. When you add trauma to the search parameters, you get UPMC Altoona. If you can think to add “trauma.” I had to guess. Thankfully I guessed correctly. People in crisis shouldn’t have to guess.
- Siri can be a clueless bitch when she can’t understand me — freaked out, crying, or screaming. Siri desperately needs crisis care training.
- Once you find the right hospital, Google Maps is your friend. Until you get to the hospital and can’t park because half of the parking spaces outside the ER have orange cones blocking your path. I was very close to ramming those cones with my car. Instead I had to waste precious minutes to circle around to find the parking garage, which is on the opposite side of the hospital and has shittastic internal signage to get a frantic parent from the parking deck through a maze of unmarked hallways to the ER. Clearly, they don’t expect people in need of the ER to park in their parking deck.
- By the way: ER is not Trauma. This can practically be a breaking point for a mother about to lose her shit because all she wants to do is find one of the two people in this place she recognizes before her heart dies.
- Emergency staff will always direct their updates to a uniformed officer. While this is understandable, in crisis, this is infuriating to the mother who is standing next to him.
- People in crisis are tightly wound, and we are still dealing with the many layers of that crisis even after our loved one is out of the woods. A kind word or —God forbid — a hug threatens to bring me to tears and shut down my brain. Large groups of people are actually overwhelming for me now. Please don’t take offense if I step back or tell you I want to talk about anything other than my son. ANYTHING. Know that at some point when it’s safe, I will collapse and think and remember and thank. Just probably not today.
The irony does not escape me that the Airborne infantryman made it through some of the toughest assignments the Army has to throw at their soldiers — Ranger School, SERE training, a tour in Afghanistan — and made it home safe, only to be hit by a car on his way to class on his first day as a college freshman. I haven’t processed my feelings about that accident, nor about the driver who hit him. I’m waiting to see what the police investigation finds before I expend energy there. In the here and now, I’m focusing on how far we’ve come in nine days. To be completely honest, traumatic brain injury scares the hell out of me; I don’t know what ramifications that will have on our lives from this day forward. But I can finally say that we will handle it. I began to see the light of hope when the humor returned, a smile, recalling shared memories and even singing along to music. We’re still dealing with a lot of frustration and some measure of unknown, but we are making progress. I could never have guessed a week ago that I would be sitting in an ICU, waiting with baited breath for results of a CT scan to tell me if my life was going to be okay; likewise, I would never have guessed that we’d be this far along the path of recovery. I’m indebted to those who choose to serve others — to the EMT professionals who calculated that it was actually quicker to drive to the trauma center 50 miles away than to try transporting a victim to a helipad to get life flighted. To the woman who stayed with my son while he was bleeding on the street, waiting for first responders to arrive. To the surgeons, physicians, nurses, and cleaning staff who care for patients in critical condition, and also take the time to care for and update the family who waits for any scrap of information. To the friends and family that remind us that we are loved. To those who show up because we don’t know how to ask. Thank you. I didn’t know I needed you.
You just never really know where the day will take you.