Controlled Fall: Chapter 3 "Waking Up in the Hospital"

Posted on October 28, 2018


“Mr. Waddell, you need to wake up,” the nurse said shaking my arm. Just finally submerged in sleep I had no desire to fight to the surface.

“I’m going to give you a cup of water,” the doctor said. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth, the smell of curdled milk hung in my nose and I felt cooked from the inside out.

“You’re going to give me a cup of water?”

“Yes, but we need to reinsert the GI tube as well because your stomach has shut down from the shock.”

“That sounds like a fair deal.” They raised the head of my bed and gave me, not a Dixie cup, but a full glass of water. I took three big gulps before the doctor shoved the GI tube into my nose, hard plastic violating delicate, hidden tissue, water splashing capillaries, bubbling snot, tasting blood.

“Keep swallowing,” he said as I gasped. Tears tracked from the corners of my eyes into my hair. “Keep swallowing,” it clawed at my throat. Overriding the instinct to gag, “One more. Okay there you go.” They left. The machine sucked the water first then the brown bile.

A black cylinder the size of a magic marker hung by a cord wrapped around the bedrail. Depressing its button fed a dose of morphine into my arm, easing the hollow pain, which felt like a cold, metal pad pressing into the soft spot above my forehead and over my right eye, radiating electricity between it and the two pulverized vertebrae. I counted down to my next one then drifted to sleep only to be haunted by my recently finished final exams, the last thing on my personal hard drive.

The nurse came in and said, “I need to drain your bladder.”

“I can pee,” I said.

“Okay,” she said handing me a plastic urinal like a liter Coke bottle with a handle and a mouth as big at its base. I put it between my legs and prepared to pee like I always had only nothing happened.

“It doesn’t seem to work,” I said, returning the urinal. She then spread out a picnic lunch looking plastic box, smoothing the absorbent cloth on the tray, and placing two rubber gloves, a foil pack of KY jelly, another foil with Q-tips dipped in iodine and what looked like a flexible rubber straw, the length of, though far thinner than a curved Slim Jim, which she inserted into my urethra wearing the gloves stained brown with iodine, filling the urinal and commenting on the level of pee.

I didn’t feel a thing, except distress that I didn’t feel anything. No one had told me that I was paralyzed because my parents refused to brand me that way, worrying that it would be more debilitating than the injury, but when I’d broken my ankle at nine, I’d seen the x-rays. Not getting the diagnosis confirmed the dire situation. In fourth grade when my class read a book about a kid who became blind in a fireworks accident, I had said that I’d rather die. In the hospital bed, I told myself that this worst situation provided my greatest opportunity.

During the fall training, I had pushed myself to the brink, to prepare for critical times, which couldn’t get more critical. Quitting meant the death I saw in the hospital. The accident took skiing, the thing I did better than anything else and threatened to leave me alone, unworthy of love and an object of pity, but as a kid in the backyard I’d been the guy at the plate with the bases loaded, down by three runs with two outs and two strikes in the seventh game of the World Series. The story I told myself: I can be the hero. I can achieve the impossible. I have the opportunity to be exemplary in the way I’ve always imagined.

For the only time in my life I treated myself with generosity and nurturing to build the strength, health and confidence and avoid despair. Each obstacle offered a necessary lesson and the potential key to a miraculous recovery. I had to master and channel my thoughts and emotions, an area where I’d failed, not reaching the finish of a ski race for a year and a half and by succumbing to asthma when my father said it was all in my head.

I didn’t need anyone’s permission. Death stared me in the face. While my parents would walk through fire for me, my happiness, my health and creating the environment to heal became my responsibility alone. No one, not them, not the doctors or nurses could do it.

Dick Rossi, who had alerted my father after the accident said, “Don’t let them leave that stomach tube in too long. You’ll end up with a nose like mine.” He turned profile to accentuate his ski jump nose and then laughed and leaned into my father, giving him a friendly punch in the ribs. After I drifted off, Jack Jones, my Eaglebrook soccer coach who had convinced my parents to send me to private boarding school, resumed his Laurel and Hardy routine with my father.

“If it hadn’t been for me, you wouldn’t have three mortgages on your house.”

“I think about it every day.”

“Do you know how much you brought down the average income at each Eaglebrook Parents’ Weekend?”

“But I did sit next to Jay Rockefeller.”

“Yeah, you cozied right up to him,” finishing with, “Look at all the places they’ve gone and will go.”

The televisions announced that terrorists had brought down Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland killing eleven on the ground and all 259 onboard, many college students headed home for the holidays. My ski racing buddies smuggled me a half-sized Budweiser, which I still have. For the first week my mother slept in the chair next to my bed. Then she drove back and forth looping Bob Dylan’s Forever Youngand crying the tears she couldn’t shed in front of me: “May God bless and keep you always / May your wishes all come true /May you always do for others /And let others do for you. / May you build a ladder to the stars / And climb on every rung / May you stay / Forever young.”

She took my dictated application to summer French immersion at Middlebury so that I could study in Paris the next fall. My father, disregarding his principal’s protest, gave all his students A’s because they’d supported him during a difficult time. When my body stabilized enough to operate, I said, “If this means a long recovery, we should probably do my knee at the same time,” My torn Anterior Cruciate Ligament had never been repaired.

She said, “Let’s just do this one now and then we’ll see.” Surgery held hope even though the doctors told my parents that it would stabilize my back, not reverse the paralysis.

My college friend Jed stood frozen against the hospital room door.

I said, “Are you just going to stand there or are you actually going to come in?” He shuffled in, looking at the floor.

I said, “Have you been out skiing?” He looked to my mother for help. “It’s okay. You can ski. You can talk about skiing. I think about it as I’m lying here. I figure I can’t train, but I can do mental imagery. I imagine myself skiing well over and over. The season is lost, but I hope to forerun the Middlebury Carnival.”


Stephanie wore a yellow turtleneck, not her color, when she returned early from Wisconsin to see me. Her teeth didn’t come together in that burst of excitement about to happen. She hung bedside waiting for me to invite her support. I refused. When she left, I wondered briefly if I’d been punished for hurting her that night—the events fit too closely, but thoughts about things I couldn’t change wouldn’t help me heal, so I let it go.

Each year we skied a half-day at Berkshire East then drove to Rita and AB’s post-World-War-II suburban ranch house in Beverly, north of Boston for Mass at St John’s. Christmas Eve and Easter were the two times we attended church despite my parents’ Catholic upbringing.

AB came from Scotland at ten, but you couldn’t cut through the Boston accent to find any remnants of a brogue. I had an Aunt Anner (Anna) and an Uncle Jawge (George), who both lived within walking distance of Rita and AB, who if he disagreed with you said, “That’s hoss shit.” Their house served as the hub for family, extended family, local politicians and friends, conversation, food, drink and debates in and between the dining room and the small kitchen. AB held court at the head of the dinning room table with mafia-don white hair swept back and both hands cradling the highball martini. They never drank before five. Rita, small, round spectacled, with her once-a-week-parlor tight curled, grey and white hair, ran the place as she had during all those years when AB had worked throughout the world.

That year they moved Christmas: five children and thirteen grandchildren, to an almost vacant Holiday Inn down the street from the hospital. I don’t remember much other than that they were there.

A few days after the surgery two orderlies, who barely spoke English and were two hours late, lifted me out of bed like sheet of plywood, dropped me into a stainless-steel wheelchair and left. Blood drained from my brain since I hadn’t been upright in more than a week. My face turned grey. My head swam. I felt nauseated and slumped lower into the chair, but those guys didn’t return for hours.

The next day when the nurse dressed me, my skin stretched against the staples that closed the fourteen-inch long incision down my back. Fabric from my pants gathered in my crotch and gripped hard on my thigh, guaranteeing to cut off the circulation. My t-shirt twisted and rode up exposing the flesh. Nothing hung. I either had exposed skin or a tourniquet.

My blond, six-foot tall therapist wore a thin black leather jacket and said, “First you need to position your chair parallel to the mat,” a three-foot high wooden structure like a bed frame with a blue nylon gym mat on top.

I banged my footrest against it, then the back of the wheel, then the footrest, then the back. I just couldn’t match the flat surfaces.

“This thing doesn’t seem to handle very well. It might be defective,” I said.

“I’m sure it is,” she said, “You’ll figure it out. We’re going to use a sliding board,” a polished board about 18 inches long, six inches wide, a quarter of an inch thick and tapered on each end, “to get from your chair to the mat.” She demonstrated how the sliding board worked. “You’ll shift your weight to your right like this so that we can slide the board under your thigh,” as she slid it effortlessly under hers. “The other side will rest on the mat creating a bridge. You won’t have to transfer the entire space at once.”

“Lean to your right.” I leaned and stared. My hips didn’t move at all. I leaned further and still nothing. The tapered shape of the polished board allowed her to slide it under my thigh. She helped lift and place my feet flat, but useless on the floor. “My God, this is a ton of pomp and circumstance just to get from my chair to the mat.” The sliding board bridge rose slightly from my chair.

“You’re going to put your right hand on the armrest and your left on the board. Then you will lean slightly forward, lift with your arms and move yourself onto the board.”

I pushed hard and felt totally glued to my chair. I’d been as strong as I’d ever been just a little over a week prior. I pushed harder without a ripple of movement.

“You should be able to do this,” she said.

“I do have a broken collar bone,” I said.

“Is that a problem?” she asked.

“No. I just find it a bit disconcerting.”

“Disconcerting. That’s a good word. I don’t get that a lot here,” she said, “That was good.”

“That was something. I’m not sure if it was good.”

“Try one more time,” she said. When I lifted, she did too from the Velcro belt secured around my waist, moving me halfway on the board and then keeping me in place as I teetered forwards, backwards and to each side like sitting on a tightrope in the wind.

“One more,” she said, lifting more than I did to the mat. “Now you lift your legs like this,” placing her hand in the bend behind her knee.

Even flat on the mat, the tightrope swung with every slight weight change. Resting almost all of my weight on my right arm, I fished with my left, unable to look because my counterweight head pointed in the opposite direction. She let me struggle then helped. Finally, as I lay flat on the mat she said, “We’re going to practice rolling over. I’ll make it easier for you.” She crossed my right leg over my left. “Now, swing your arms hard to the left,” smoothly demonstrating a roll to her side.

I windmilled my arms, but my body felt like it was buried in sand from the sternum down. She pushed from behind on my next try and supported me as I teetered on my left side.

“One more thing.” She eased me flat on my back, then lay next to me again. I had to look out the corner of my eye. “This is how you’re going to sit up.” She slid her hands into the back pockets of her pants palms down. “Slowly, you walk your elbows underneath you,” she rocked from side to side until in a seated position. I copied her movements, but couldn’t budge from the mat.

That night after everyone had left, I lay in something like peaceful twilight. The hospital never became completely dark or quiet. Something shone or pulsed or beeped or hummed. My thoughts drifted. I’d recovered from a broken back, the closest to death I’d get without dying, but was still me. I promised, if this is the worst, I won’t be intimidated again.

Chapter 3 read by the author. I'm starting to get the hang of it.

I thank Jack Jones for recruiting me to Eaglebrook School, we talk about my greatest play in baseball and he tells me that he knew I would be okay when he visited in the hospital.

My Sponsors

Bogner Deer Valley Volkl