Controlled Fall: Chapter 4 "Rehab"

Posted on November 12, 2018

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Rehab held the key to my future and we researched facilities like colleges, settling on University Hospital in Boston. The night before my transfer I watched a hockey game on TV. When one guy crashed another into the boards, the thought slipped out, “They could hurt themselves.”

The next morning, I waited out an ice storm that slicked the roads between Hartford and Boston, parked in the hallway, staring at the ceiling from my gurney. Automatic doors leaked winter on my shrunken body, now the weight I’d been at thirteen. Finally, grey sky and faces drifted in and out of my field of vision as they loaded me into the ambulance. My mother assumed another seat beside my bed. Before we had gone a mile, the ambulance dropped and slammed into the first pothole. Anticipating each subsequent one like waiting for an electric shock, every muscle tensed to protect and suspend my spine, which I imagined as brittle as a fluorescent light tube.

When the elevator doors opened on F-5, I said to my mother, “Everyone is in a wheelchair.” One roommate had been shot in a gang incident, another, the drug dealer, beaten up and left to die on the train tracks. The third, who told me their stories, a former high school football player, had torn his aorta from his heart crashing his motorcycle on a wet road.

“Fecundity. What a great word,” Jim Linehan said, reading the chapter heading of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek over my shoulder. Fit, bald with close-cropped white hair and pink scrubs he said, “Middlebury College. That’s a good school.” I smiled. “Let’s get your vitals.”

I stuck out my finger for the heart rate clamp and waited for the tug on my lobe and slight pinch of the thermometer in my ear.

“How do you feel?” Jim asked

“Tired,” I said, “I just want to sleep.”

“Well you’re running a fever, fairly high, 103. We’re going to have to get that down. I’m sure this is the last thing that you want, but I have to pack you in cold compresses.”

“I’m sure it will be okay,” I said, still chilled from the trip.

“Unfortunately, this can be pretty serious. 103 can cook your brain. We don’t have a choice. I’ll be back in a moment.”

When he returned, he said, “Hopefully we can get this down quickly. I’ll try to make it as painless as possible.”

I shivered. My head throbbed with exhaustion.

The night doctor materialized, “I hear you have an infection. Let’s start an IV to get you some antibiotics.”

I gave him my arm saying, “Usually my veins are pretty easy to find, but they seem to have gone into hiding.”

“We’ll make it work,” he said, “You’ll feel a slight pinch.” I did, then he twisted the needle back and forth. “That didn’t seem to work,” he said, “I’m going to have to try again. You’ll feel a little pinch.” Again, I felt it, not moving my arm. Again, he fished for the vein. My right hand balled in a fist just as he said, “Let me see if I can get a nurse.”

“Hi there,” the nurse said, “Let’s see if we can do this without any more pain.” She pinned the vein in my elbow with her left index finger and inserted the needle, “There you go.”

Jim returned, “I’m sorry. I heard that didn’t go too well. We’ll see if we can make the rest of this a bit more painless. You have a urinary tract infection. We can treat it quickly and easily with antibiotics. You’ll feel better soon, but we need to get that fever down and it’s going to take a while.”

When he left, just wanting to sleep, to stop the pain and the cold, I finally broke, “I don’t want to be like this forever,” crying to my mother for the first and only time in the hospital.

“I know,” was all she could say, “I don’t want you to be like this either.”

“I can’t control anything. I can’t be like this.”

“Jim said they’d get the fever down quickly.”

“I know. I know,” I said, already starting to come out of it, “It’s just all out of my control.”

Awake and cold, my mind ground to a nub. Around ten o’clock Jim said, “That’s good enough. You’re down to 100. Let’s get you some sleep. You will need the energy to get better.”

That Friday night, in between races at the University of New Hampshire Carnival, Bart Bradford parked the navy-blue Ford Econoline van topped with a ski box and stenciled with Middlebury College Ski Team on the street outside the hospital, unsure what he might find when he returned. Twelve of my teammates, all in bright blue, uniform jackets, broke the gloom. The next day my friends Frank, John and Sara drove three hours from Middlebury to Boston and back. Sara gave me a little brown and white teddy bear with a blue ribbon and a mixed tape. Louis Armstrong sang, “I see friends shaking hands, saying how do you do? They’re really saying, ‘I love you,’” The Traveling Wilbury’s, “You’re the best thing that I’ve ever found, handle me with care,” I read too much into the lyrics.

But then they found blood around my lungs from breaking my ribs. Jim said, “If you weren’t so fit you wouldn’t be able to breathe.” I didn’t tell him I’d always had asthma and hadn’t taken any medication since the crash. Apparently, I’d chosen this moment to outgrow it the way they’d always promised. A doctor sliced the skin between my ribs and inserted a tube to drain the blood, more violating than the fourteen-inch zipper scar down my back, but nothing compared to the day they injected IVP dye to look at my kidneys.

“Any shellfish allergies?” the doctor asked.

“Scallops,” I said, “I’ve had them twice and vomited both times.”

“Okay, tell us if your throat starts to close.”

Worried that I was susceptible to the power of suggestion I waited, “I think my throat is closing.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.” They gave me adrenaline and Demerol. The bed grew hair and I hid underneath its sheets all afternoon.

As much as I needed to get strong and walk out of there, I had to wait for someone to bring my clothes and wheelchair before I could get out of bed. I wrestled my limp foot into socks, underwear or pants for half an hour, arm-swinging myself out of breath to roll over and pull up my pants, which bunched and twisted. Shirts refused to fall flat. It took fifteen minutes to pee, the picnic lunch catheter kit spread in front of me.

Transferring to the raised, padded toilet seat, was a feat of strength and commitment that I didn’t think I’d ever master. My body no longer sent the messages to urinate or defecate. Schedule became king. I marked my last pee, planned the next and established a time to empty my bowels, spending the whole day taking care of myself and not doing a very good job. I got splitting headaches if I sat up for more than an hour. Tests and exams, unlike the ones I’d just finished, took me to all corners of the hospital, where I read and waited my turn as the world passed.

My PT Liz Cole rolled a twenty-five-pound weight bar on bicycle wheels over me to bench press for the first time. I did a set of ten and then put my right hand behind my left shoulder and pulled my arm across my body to stretch the way I always had. My hand didn’t recognize the back of my shoulder. The muscles had disappeared. Straps that hung from the ceiling and attached to the back of my chair allowed me to learn wheelies without the risk of falling over in my turtle shell body jacket.

When I peed myself, Jim said, “Sometimes this happens. We’re going to use a condom catheter. It’s adhesive. You’ll pee into a latex bag strapped to your leg.”

Feeling like I’d saved tons of time, I told Mark, “They gave me a leg bag.”

He said, “I peed myself a couple of times, but I hid it. I can’t wear one of those things.”

“I know, but it’s so much quicker,” I said. “I just need to get out of here.” Spring Semester started in a week. That’s when Dr. Freed, the head doctor, called me into his office.

“Come in,” he said, “I’m here to tell you that you’re not ready to leave. You haven’t been depressed. Your life has changed significantly. I don’t think you’ve had time to grieve. People start drinking and doing drugs. You’re not getting the same messages from your body. Drinking and drugs can be dangerous for anyone, but you run the risk of kidney failure if you don’t empty your bladder because you don’t get the message. Or you get a skin break down because you sit on something hard. It only takes a short period of time to damage the skin. When it dies it never comes back the same. You don’t know how delicate your body is.”

“I need to be with my friends. I can’t tell you that I’ll never be depressed. I’m sure I will, but that’s also normal. You’re right, I’m not ready, but I know that I can deal with most of what comes my way.”

“Leaving is against my advisement.”

The next day Jim, Liz, my mother, therapists, and doctors met, everyone but Dr Freed. Jim said, “I think that Chris is ready to go back to school. Sure, there are still hurdles, you need to be able to sit up for three hours straight before you can leave,” he said looking directly at me, “But I think that he’s a strong, thoughtful and smart individual. His family will be there for him at every turn. Friends have visited throughout his stay here. He’s not leaving to be alone. He’s returning to a community. This is a tight timeframe, but I fear more of what the idle time might do. In my opinion returning to Middlebury College,” he looked at me, “is the healthiest thing that he can do right now.”

“Does anyone have any concerns?” he asked the group. Some concerns were voiced mostly of logistical nature. Would I do my pressure-reliefs? Would I continue therapy? Someone asked my mother what she thought.

“Chris has always been strong willed. If he says he wants to do something he’s going to do it. He’s been like that since he was little. I have no reservations about going back to school and his ability to deal with the issues. I won’t stand in his way.”

My parents were visiting when a man with forearm crutches walked in consciously placing his heel on the ground with each step and causing a commotion of excitement behind him.

“Hi, I’m Bob McKenna,” he said, “My friend is good friends with your cousin Patrick at UMass. He told me that I needed to meet you. Patrick tells me that you are a big skier.”

“I raced for a while,” I said, looking at his crutches, “Were you a patient here?”

“Oh yeah, F-5 for months after I decided to use the fire escape instead of the stairs to avoid an old girlfriend. That didn’t work out too well. They put me back together, but there’s so much more. I’ve done a lot of therapy on my own,” he said looking down at the plastic braces that followed the back of his legs from his New Balance running shoes to his knees.

“You should check out this program called Shake-a-leg in Newport, Rhode Island. Harry Horgan, the founder, walks about fifty percent of the time. It’s a holistic healing center—Rolfing, Feldenkrais, massage. It’s about healing yourself.”

My father stepped in, “We were thinking of the Petrofsky Clinic in California?”

“There are a lot of good places,” Bob said, “I’d consider the Miami Project as well, but Shake-a-leg is different. It deals with the whole person. The power of the mind is pretty amazing. They do it really well.”

“Did you go to Shake-a-leg?” I asked.

“No, I didn’t, but I wish I had, and I’ll probably do something with them at some point. Harry is a good friend and a great person. I’d definitely look at it.”

When Bob left, I said, “Well, I guess we should check out this Shake-a-leg place.”

To leave the hospital I had to demonstrate that I could survive outside of it. My parents picked me up on Friday for a furlough to Granby. I borrowed a hospital wheelchair until insurance bought my own. Packing involved much more than a toothbrush and fresh pair of underwear. Fifteen catheter packages for two days filled a box big enough that my father had to rotate it to enter the front door. A padded toilet seat. Light blue chucks, absorbent pads. All the pills.

The house looked colder with no snow on the ground. My father used the handles on the back of my chair to pull me up the three steps to our side of the grey duplex. They raised the thermostat from 64 to 70 as I shivered. The house felt small compared to the hospital corridors. Rugs added a layer of resistance, making me wonder if I’d ever be able to get around.

At Lechmere, to buy a golf game for my computer, I became the freak. Everyone stared. They peeked around corners. In their faces I saw pity. So young and his parents would have to take care of him for the rest of his life. What happened? What did he do? Was it his fault? They don’t know me, I thought. I needed people who knew me.

Terry Ball, an Eaglebrook, Deerfield and Middlebury alumnus, was the only person I knew in a wheelchair. I asked him about spasms, random muscle firings that made my legs bounce up and down or shoot straight out. He said, “I just say go for it boys. Run, run, run, build some muscle,” and laughed his high-pitched laugh.

“What’s it really like? How do people treat you?” thinking of all the bitter Vietnam Veteran caricatures that I’d known from TV and movies.

He said, “Let me give you an example. If I’m at the supermarket and someone asks if they can put my chair in the car, sometimes I say, ‘Sure,’ and other times I tell them, ‘I’m really in kind of rush, I should do it myself.’ That really gets them,” laughing again.

“I have to order a chair. If I had to order a road bike, I’d know exactly what I wanted, but with a chair I have no idea. What do I want? How much will my needs change when I leave the hospital?”

“Like a bike, you want a light chair, especially since you’ll have pull it into your car. You probably want one that folds, so it can go behind your seat. A two-door car gives you more room. Armrests, you’ll get rid of those pretty quickly. Swing away footrests are okay.”

Two months after the accident I left the hospital Friday and returned to Middlebury Sunday, exhausted from every bump on the three-hour trip. At least thirty friends moved my things to an accessible room across from the dining hall. Deans Frank Kelly and Ann Hanson had transformed the school. Ramps attached to almost every building. There was no snow on the almost two hundred-year-old campus, built mostly out of granite, a saving grace.

My parents had bought a waterbed to prevent pressure sores. Fatigue crushed me as my father read worthless directions. Matt Stewart, a tall, muscular guy with hair so long that a couple of years later he’d win a Halloween contest as Princess Leia, popped in, offered and built the frame. I slept. My mother and father stayed a week apiece in a campus room most recently occupied by the Dalai Lama to allay fears they couldn’t voice, any more than the tears they hadn’t been able to shed in front of me.

I couldn’t stay awake past eight o’clock. It took two hours to prepare in the morning. The first day I froze from wearing the turtle shell body brace in the shower. Three female friends picked me up for French class, alternating pushing up the hills. The Middlebury Carnival races that I intended to forerun were that weekend. I sat at the bottom in my uniform jacket and warm-up pants even though I couldn’t zip them completely. Everyone stopped to say hello and good luck. Ace Eaton, one of my good buddies, said, “It’s nice to see you here. Hopefully, you’ll be back full-time next Fall.”

“I’m already back.”

Chapter 4 read by the author

I wish I could have included the whole conversation with Jim Linehan.

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