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Saturday, March 28, 2015

Crisis Party

What a day it’d been. I could hardly wait for Julie* to come with her surprise. The anticipation of the blessing the teenage Candy Striper had planned had kept me focused on something exciting that would close out this Friday.

The day had begun with the mixed blessing from Dr. Roberts*. He’d done a spinal tap to check the progress my brain had been making on the medications. It proved a really painful encouragement, but the pressure decrease indicated the drugs produced the desired effect.

On the bad news side of things: the implication of the results led me to understand that the progress would be monitored by repeat spinal taps. At least, he agreed that I’d not need to endure another arteriogram.

Any improvement in my headache pain had been lost by the procedure, plummeting to new depths of agony. Talk about discouraging. On the good news side, the pain returned to pre-procedure levels by early-afternoon, so the pain became bearable once again.

Early in the evening, the nurse raised the head of my bed forty-five degrees. “If you feel any pressure building, please put your call light on. Dr. Roberts wants to see if you can maintain your current level in the sitting position, but he doesn’t want you up in a chair just yet.”

I’d opened my mouth for my rebuttal, but stopped mid-thought as I heard the laughter of young people outside my door. They giggled and another door opened and closed across from my room. Silence.

“Did you hear that?” the nurse said, turning towards the door.

“No, I didn’t hear a thing,” I said, realizing that Julie may be up to something that didn’t really have hospital approval. Kids weren’t allowed to visit people in the hospital back then.

I heard the creaking sound of the door as the nurse opened it wider. “Hmm? I don’t see anyone out here. Okay, well, remember to let me know if your head begins to feel more pressure. I’ll check on you later.”

“I think I’ll need a couple of hours--maybe even three—to really know if there’s any change, so don’t feel like you need to hurry back.”

“Is that so?” the nurse said, laughing as she left my room.

I waited, anticipating Julie’s entry at any moment. I didn’t wait long.

I heard the scurry of several pairs of sneakers and a quick closing of the door. Giggles surrounded my bed, as did the pungent aroma of pepperoni pizza.

“Hey, you’re sitting up!” Julie’s excitement made me laugh, too.

“Yeah, it feels great to sit up.  Florence Nightingale will be back to check on me, but I told her to wait a couple of hours.”

I heard the paper plates and napkins being passed around. Oh, how marvelous that pizza smelled after such a long time on hospital fare. “Here, lift up your hands, so I can give you your plate.”

“Julie, who are these other voices I hear?”

“Oh, you don’t hear anyone but me; it’s against hospital rules, didn’t you know that?” I joined the crowd of giggles. “I couldn’t bring any of my friends here to party with you. I mean, I wanted to, but that would be breaking the rules.”

“Yes, I understand, but if you did bring anyone, who would you bring?”

One after another, the girls whispered their names. I felt the depression of my mattress around the bed, as each one sat.

“It’s a good thing your roommates were discharged yesterday; we need their visitors chairs,” Julie said.

“Julie, can I move this table on wheels over here? I need to get closer to the outlet; I forgot the extension cord.” Julie must have nodded, a bite of pizza giving her tongue another job just then. “I think this’ll be perfect,” the same girl said.

The little click preceded a burst of loud music. The sudden release of pressure at the foot of my bed, followed by a thud on the door to my room, let me know one of the kids had sprung to close the door tightly.

“Can’t have a party without music, can we?”

“It’ll be a short-lived party, if you don’t turn the volume down a little,” I said, laughing and chewing the savory treat. The volume diminished a bit. “Julie, how in the world did you get your friends up here? You never would’ve gotten by old Prune-face.”

“I found out when she takes her supper break. Then, I brought everyone up the stairway just across from this room.”

“Yeah, three flights of stairs!” said one of the party-girls.

“We burst through the door, only to hear someone already in your room,” said another. “We thought we’d get busted before we even got a bite of pizza.”

“I thought I heard you outside, but then, I heard the door slam and just silence,” I said.

“Yeah, we rushed back into the stairwell. Did whoever was with you hear us?”

“I think she did. The nurse had come in to raise the head of my bed; Dr. Roberts had just ordered it a few minutes earlier. Did you tell anyone up here about this party?”

“No, I didn’t. Maybe the dietician said something; I had to be sure you could eat the pizza,” Julie said.

“I can’t believe she told you I could!”

“Uh, well, she kinda said that a plain cheese pizza would be okay; but who wants to eat a plain pizza when we could eat pepperoni? I figured, if you can eat pizza at all, you can eat a little pepperoni,” Julie said before taking another bite.

The abrupt knocking on the wooden door brought total silence in my room; even the chewing stopped. “Is everything okay in there?” the nurse said.

“Just fine; I’m doing great sitting up. No need to take your time to check on me. I’ll call you if my head hurts more,” I said, trying hard to restrain my laughter.

“That’s good to know. Should I mark your intake for supper with two or three pieces of that pepperoni-scented cheese pizza?” The room exploded with laughter.

Julie walked over and opened the door. “Would you like a piece before these teenagers who aren’t really in this room polish it off?”

“No, I think Room 312 has broken enough rules for one night; the nurse eating the patient’s supper won’t be added to the list. Thanks anyway.”

After the nurse left, our party began to wind down. We dared not take advantage of the nurse’s kindness; I didn’t want to get her in any trouble on account of us. What a terrific way to end the day!


*Name changed, though I wish I could remember Julie’s real name, because I’d love for people to know the name of the teenage girl who went to all this trouble to make the hospital stay livable for me.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Mixed Blessing in the Crisis

From the first rays of Friday morning, I’d been trying to work out what kind of surprise Julie* cooked up for me. The teenage volunteer at the hospital had come to my room on her own right after school that week. Her Candy Striper assignment had to do with manning the Snack Bar, not personal Braille lessons for me.

Yesterday’s announcement that she’d planned a surprise to reward my progress, added a bit of joyful excitement to Friday. Little had I known how much I’d need that diversion to get me through the day.

When Dr. Roberts* arrived early for his morning rounds, I knew it wouldn’t be a routine day. Normally, I studied Braille; or if someone had time to help me, I worked on hospital administration business. He told me he wanted to do a spinal tap to check how the many medications had been working.

I’d shared with him that my head did feel some better; now, he wanted numbers to confirm I’d been improving.

The nurse reached to roll me to my left side. “Pull your knees up as tightly as you can,” she said, moving the sheet to keep my legs from getting tangled. “Okay, that’s good. Tuck your chin to your chest. Now, grab on to the back of your thighs near your knees and pull yourself into a ball.” I heard the doctor getting the equipment needed for the spinal tap ready behind me. “Pull as tightly as you can. Picture yourself like a basketball.” I pulled as hard as I could.

“Okay, that’ll be fine. Just relax now,” Dr. Roberts* said. “I’m about ready here; I’ll tell you what I’m doing and when you need to pretend to be a basketball.”

I released my hold, taking a few deep breaths. I’d never had a spinal tap; but I’d seen enough of them done to know that, while it bore no resemblance to the agonizing cerebroarteriogram, it hurt like crazy, too.

“I’m going to paint your back over the area where I’ll be introducing the needle,” the neurologist said. I felt the cold liquid being spread over the lower part of my back near the spine. When the circles of cold stopped, I felt a tiny prick. “That’s the numbing agent you’re feeling now. The same thing that a dentist does before he works on your teeth. You know about that, don’t you?” I nodded my agreement. “Good. That’s the same principle. It hurts, but not that bad, right?” Again, I nodded, hoping that the numbing would be as thorough in my back as it had usually been in my jaw.

The doctor pulled his hands back, sounding like he’d moved in his chair. “I’ll wait for the deadening to take,” Dr. Roberts said to the nurse. “It shouldn’t take too long.”

I felt the pressure of his two fingertips a few times before he spoke to me again. “Okay, young lady, I think it’s numb enough now. You didn’t feel my fingers that time, did you?” I shook my head, though my attention had been drawn to the nurse who had begun to pull my legs up closer to my body.

“Get as tight as you can,” the nurse said. “You know the tightest basketball gives you the best bounce, don’t you? Well, try to be the best ball you can and hold it there until the doctor says to relax.”

I didn’t feel the needle go in, but I certainly felt the lightning bolt of pain that shot down my right leg. “You felt that? Where?” the doctor said.

“Down my right leg.” I let go of the breath I’d been holding.

“How far down your right leg?”

“To my knee.”

“Hmm? Okay, so I’ll move the needle’s target a little. Try to tell me if you feel it this time. Tell me which leg and exactly how far down.”

Again, I never felt the entry of the large-bore needle, but a white-hot bolt of electricity pulsed down my left leg. “Left leg, to my ankle,” I gasped as I spoke.

“Try to pull tighter,” the nurse said, grabbing onto my shoulders and the back of my knees to help me tuck my torso in a tighter ball.

The third try with the spinal needle launched sharp pain down both my legs to my knees. The doctor pulled back; I heard his deep sigh.

During each brief respite between jabs, I focused on the Braille letters I’d tried to learn. I reviewed the location of each raised dot in each letter. Sadly, the duration of pause provided review of no more than three or four letters before the painful jolt. My memory couldn’t retain where I’d left off, so I just began at the beginning of the alphabet each time. I really got a, b, c, and even d down well.

At last, I felt a slight popping sensation inside, rejoicing in the doctor’s exclamation. “We’re in! Okay, hand me the tube,” the doctor said to the nurse, no doubt holding his hand out to receive the test-tube that would collect a tiny bit of spinal fluid for analysis.

“Hold still. Don’t move,” the doctor said to me. “You’re doing fine. I’m going to hook the manometer onto the spinal needle to measure the pressure.” I felt the pressure of this change, so I knew the sensation to my skin would return relatively soon now.

“I can feel that, doctor,” I said. Focus on the surprise Julie’s bringing you, I told myself, since the doctor said nothing.

Seconds later, I felt the cold, wet gauze cleaning the disinfectant off my bare back. The fumes of rubbing alcohol wafted around to my nostrils.

“Are you done, Dr. Roberts?” The snap of the latex gloves leaving his hands answered my question. The nurse moved around to dry the area and apply a Band-Aid, while the water running in the sink clued me to the location of the neurologist.

Drying his hands on a paper towel, he stood at my bedside. I’d already been returned to the ordered position--flat on my back. I drew the sheet up to my armpits, waiting for his findings.

“The pressure isn’t where I’d like it, but it’s dropping. I think we can increase the steroid a little and see if that helps. Your headache should get better.”

“And, what about my vision?”

“It’s too early to tell; you may have lost it permanently.”

“I think I’m seeing fewer chains of those colored pyramids, but I’m not sure. I’ll pay attention to that.”

Dr. Roberts squeezed my hand, “Hang in there, girl,” he said and out the door he went.

I commanded myself to concentrate on Julie’s surprise, not to linger on what the doctor had said. Not only had he suggested that my eyesight might not return, the implication of the medication increase let me know I’d be experiencing another spinal tap to check the pressure somewhere down the line.

I’d just not think about that; I had a surprise to look forward to that very evening. What in the world had this teenage friend planned for me? I could hardly wait.

*Name changed.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Sunshine in the Midst of Crisis

I heard the cheerful chatter of my favorite teenage Candy Striper as she visited with people along the corridor to my room. I’d first met Julie* when I worked in this hospital, and she served as a volunteer, manning the counter at the snack bar. Julie put the sunshine in any coffee break.

“Here you go, you sluggard!” Julie proclaimed as I felt the weight of something heavy land on my abdomen. “I’m going to see that you don’t get behind in what’s happening out there in this cold, cruel world.”

I laughed at the reminder of my own words to her many months earlier when trying to urge her to read the newspapers, not just skip over the world news. “Oh you are, are you? How do you propose that I read the pages?”

“Braille. I heard that blind people can get newspapers sent to them in Braille.”

“Uh-huh, but I don’t read Braille, Julie.”

“Not yet, but you will by the time you leave this hospital. I’m going to teach you.”

“You can read Braille, Julie?”

“No, but I can see, so how hard can it be to learn. Let’s begin!”

Suddenly my right hand rested on a page full of raised dots. “I’ve brought you a Braille primer. It’s a big, heavy book, so it’s gotta be good, right?”

I giggled along with the teen, trying to retain all that she told me about each letter of the alphabet. Each afternoon, Julie came to grill me in my Braille homework, reinforcing the cells I got right, repeating with genuine kindness those I’d missed.

“Tomorrow, we celebrate!” Julie declared at the conclusion of my Braille lesson on Thursday afternoon. “I’ll be a couple hours late, because I’m bringing a surprise for you. Don’t eat much supper.”

“I don’t think they’ll let me eat any surprises, Julie. It has something to do with salt content and reducing fluid levels in my body. They want to be sure my brain isn’t getting any more fluid than a bare minimum.”

“Like I don’t already know that,” she harrumphed. “I cleared it with the Dietician already. Our only little problem is… well, I’m working on that. Don’t worry, you’ll like this surprise. You’ve earned it.”

Early the following morning, Dr. Roberts appeared at my bedside. “The nurses tell me that you think your headache is getting better?”

“I do. The balloon that felt like it would explode and blow out my skull, seems to be deflating. Is that possible, or am I just getting used to it?”

“Oh, it’s possible. That’s what all those medicines have been trying to do. I’m going to have the nurse help me do a spinal tap this morning. That’ll give me some numbers to check against your earlier arteriogram.”

“Tell me I don’t have to suffer through another one of those tests down in Radiology. That about killed me off.”

“No, I’ll do the test right here. It’s not comfortable, but it’s not that bad.”

I knew very well that, unless the doctor had ever been a patient, he had no idea how bad something hurt. I steeled myself for what was to come, but I held the picture of Julie’s surprise as my reward for making it through the procedure. Maybe the results would bring some good news.


Friday, March 20, 2015

Hazel’s Crisis

When I downed the bedtime load of medication in one swallow, I failed to notice the additional tablet in the little cupful of assorted colors and shapes. My brain registered the change shortly after the REM sleep began.

The swishing tails of dozens of black cats tormented my dream, so much so that I actually sat up in bed, wildly swinging my arms to get those tails away from me. I struggled to wake up, believing if I could leave this dream, the cat tails would vanish.

“Myrtle*, Myrtle!” the voice came in a loud whisper, then a shout. “Myrtle, wake up. The girl’s fighting something over there. Psssst! Myrtle!”

“Uh, wha-a-a--” registered as a sound in the opposite corner, but I continued my battle. “Shut up can’t ya, Hazel*; it’s the middle of the night. Go back to sleep!”

“I can’t while she’s doing that. Myrtle, what if she comes for us? Go get the nurse, quick!”

“I’m not gonna get outta this bed and go get no nurse. I want to sleep; I don’t need a nurse. You put your call light on, if you want a nurse. Now, be quiet and let me sleep.”

I must have fallen back on the pillow by the time a nurse came, because the only memory I have of that night, is the cat tails just out of my reach and the loud whisperings of my elderly roommates. Nothing was said the following day; but Hazel had prepared herself for the late-evening visit of the nurse.

After I’d taken the bedtime doses of medication, and the nurse had clicked my guardrail into place, Hazel called the nurse over to her bed. “What is it, dear? Did you need something more tonight?”

“Come here. I want to tell you something about her,” Hazel said in her typical Super-sized whisper.

The nurse squeezed my forearm, making her way over to Hazel’s bedside. Listening to eighty-year-old Hazel recounting the frightening events of the previous night, brought back the memory of the cats. Oops! I must’ve talked in my sleep, or maybe I really did swing my arms as frantically as I had dreamed I did?

I heard my guardrail being shook a tiny bit. “You see, dear, it’s quite secure. Now, lie down and get some sleep. Everything’s just fine.”

I would’ve explained my nightmare to the nurse, but she’d already begun her way out of the room. No need to take more of her time. I should have.

Once I’d again reached the dream-state, the drama moved into Act II. This time, I relived an event that actually had happened several weeks earlier.

My dear friends had purchased a small, used cabin cruiser to enjoy the lazy days of summer on the man-made lake not far from town. It needed a lot of elbow grease; I delighted in having a part in the cleanup.

One of those jobs had been tackling the deck inside the only stateroom (cabin). It had taken a lot of scrubbing with a stiff brush just to reach the stage where I could use a normal scrub brush on the wooden planks. At last, it was ready for the soap and water.

Having re-lived this moment while lying flat on my back, the time had come to finish the job. I flipped over, drew myself up on all fours, and began scrubbing the deck with that soapy scrub brush in my right hand. I had no awareness that the hospital linens didn’t feel at all like old wooden boards as I moved my arm vigorously in the circular pattern.

As soon as I began moving backwards to continue my scrubbing, Hazel launched her verbal flares of alarm. “Myrtle! Oh, Myrtle, wake up! Wake up, right now!”

“Stop it, Hazel! It’s none of my business and none of yours either. Just go to sleep and leave me alone.”

I had no trouble hearing the two squabbling octogenarians, but it didn’t stop my cleaning. I just kept backing up, scrubbing away. I clearly saw the deck on which I labored for my friends.

The metal clattering of a guardrail alerted me that one of the ladies wanted out of her bed; I’d help her as soon as I finished this last little bit of deck. I heard Hazel’s screams leave the room, before the space fell silent.

My hallucination ended as my bare leg rested on the top of the cold footboard. I’d stretched it out, expecting to continue my backward scrub, but the chilly steel abruptly returned me to a conscious state.

“What in the world--” I said out loud. “I must be dreaming again, but it doesn’t feel like I’ve been asleep.”

Hearing the sheets rustling near me, brought an end to my oral argument. There were others in the room; I needed to get back under the sheets and go to sleep. Moments later, however, Hazel and the nurse returned. I lay silently, listening to the nurse.

“Hazel, you cannot get out of bed. I’ve told you that before, and I mean it. You put that call light on and I’ll come to you.” The sound of a bedrail being raised accompanied the irritated words of the night nurse.

“But, I told you. She. That one over there. She was crawling out of bed.”

I supposed the nurse, at least, glanced in my direction. I was about to speak, but hearing the nurse’s next words brought such a graphic picture into my mind, that I struggled to keep from exploding with laughter.

“Hazel, don’t you think that you could hurt yourself climbing over the back of your own bed, dragging a half-full catheter bag behind you like a tail? It’s attached to your insides, Honey.” The change in direction of the nurse’s voice let me know she spoke, while squatting to re-attach the bag to the bed frame in order to keep it off the floor. A few seconds later, she said, “There you go, Hazel. Everything’s fine now. See, the girl over there is sleeping; she’s not trying to get out of her bed.”

I tried to decide if I should explain at that moment or just wait until morning. I didn’t think Hazel would be comforted either way, but I did want the record to reflect Hazel hadn’t lost a few of her remaining marbles on account of me. I fell asleep before making a conscious decision.

The following morning, I told the nurse about the two previous nights, explaining that I’d scared poor Hazel half to death. “Is this something that’s related to whatever it is that’s going on in my brain right now? I’ve never been a sleep walker or had scary things like those cat tails. It’s hard enough to just see long strings of colored pyramids obscuring all of my vision and the pain is awful, but am I about to lose my mind, too?”

The nurse explained that the hallucinations I’d experienced the previous two nights had been caused by the addition of a sleeping pill. The staff had urged the neurologist to give me something for the pain so I could sleep; his compromise had been to order a sleeping pill.

“What a relief!” I said. “Please, tell the doctor—and the evening nurse who should be giving me one of those little jewels tonight—that I, officially, refuse the sleeping pill. It does nothing for the pain, and it’s scaring my little roommate out of her own sleep.”

From that moment on, nighttime in our room returned to the peaceful sounds of elderly ladies snoring through their own dreams. However, my daytime routine shifted into second gear.

*Names changed.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Coping with Crisis Pain

The pain wracked my head throughout the entire night; I couldn’t imagine it getting worse but it had. The previous morning Dr. Roberts* had explained the ballooning of my brain due to the excessive production of the cerebrospinal fluid, so the danger of the increased pain added to my stress. The pressure had already taken my vision. How much more could the brain swell before the breathing center slipped down through the hole at the base of my skull? Would I actually feel that, or would I just stop breathing?

I heard the sounds of squishy-soled traffic picking up outside my room; morning had arrived. One pair of squishes entered and tapped my arm. “Good morning. I’m Joyce*, and I’ll be your nurse today. I have your morning pills,” she said and shook the little cup before continuing. “Since you’re not really supposed to be sitting up for long, do you want me to help you sit to take the pills, or would you prefer I raise the head of the bed for a moment?”

I had already begun sitting up as she spoke. We both laughed. “I realize that you are probably used to assisting my roommates, but I really can sit up myself,” I said, tilting my head towards the octogenarians still snoring away across the room from me.

“I thought you couldn’t see; how do you know there are two elderly ladies in this room?” the nurse whispered.

“Process of elimination,” I said with a giggle, “unless the hospital figures if the patient can’t see, the gender of roommates doesn’t matter.”

“I suppose the harmony of their night noises let you know more than one patient occupied the other beds?”

“Exactly, but it really was easier than that; they told me their names.”

“I’m surprised to see them in your room; Dr. Roberts let it be known that he didn’t want anyone else in this room for a couple of days. Guess they needed their rooms. I hope they won’t bother you.”

“Don’t worry about it; it’s the pain, not their snoring, that’s kept me from sleeping.” I held out my palm to receive the pills. “Can’t just slip me a Demerol, I suppose?”

“I so wish I could; I know you must be hurting,” she pressed a small glass of cold water in my other hand as she spoke. “Your breakfast will be here in a minute. Hope you like rubber cubes of red stuff for breakfast?”

“Boy, this place really knows how to torture the young, doesn’t it? Jell-o for breakfast, and I suppose a cup of lukewarm beef bouillon?” I handed the empty glass to the nurse.

“Hmm? I’m not sure; it might be chicken for breakfast and beef for lunch.”

“I figure that’s my punishment for throwing up their dinner all night long, right?”

“If you’re a good little patient, and eat up your breakfast, I’ll see about getting you a better lunch,” she said. “Your plastic friend is right here, if you need it.” I felt the tap of the emesis basin against my arm. “Actually, there was a pretty blue pill in the bunch you just downed that should keep you from returning their breakfast to them in a basin. It should also help you sleep a little.”

Joyce patted my arm, moving to check on my roommates, one-by-one. I heard the light clatter of the clipboards, but the nurse didn’t disturb the ladies.

Mid-morning, my father’s voice interrupted my surface-level sleep. “Hi Honey. How are you doing this morning?”

“Hi Daddy. I’m so glad you’re here. I hope you slept better than I did.”

“The nurse told me you had a bad night. Your head hurts?”

“Like a son-of-a-gun,” I said, repeating the very words he’d said when I asked him if his chest hurt the morning after his heart attack years earlier.

Laughing, he said, “That much, huh? I suppose they didn’t give you anything for it?”

“Nope. That’s where your heart attack and my brain attack are different. They want me to feel everything, so I can tell them when something changes.” I felt my father squeeze my arm and take hold of my hand. How the feeling of that strong hand comforted me. It always had; and to Daddy’s last night on this earth, it always would.

“Mom had to work today, but she’ll be up later. Can I get you anything, Honey? Or do anything for you?”

“Well, as a matter of fact, I wonder if you can find my briefcase. They might have put it in my closet with my real clothes.”

I felt Daddy’s hand leave mine, and heard him push back the chair. The high-pitched scraping sound told me he’d opened the closet door. One more job for maintenance, I thought.

“Here it is. Do you want me to look for something in it?”

“Please, Daddy. If you’ll pull the over-the-bed table around to your side of the bed, you can lower it to make a table for you.” I heard the wheels bumping around the bed, resuming my instructions when the sound stopped. “Okay, good. Inside the briefcase, you should find a manila envelope with a stack of papers. If you’ll take out the first bundle, along with the yellow pad and a pen, please.”

“Do you want me to read the papers to you? Or is it just something you want me to find in the writing somewhere?” I heard the papers being shuffled as he spoke.

“I have the rough idea of what that first stack is, if you can just read the headline at the top and the bold print on that first page to refresh my memory, please.”

“Honey, this looks like work to me. Are you sure you should be doing this and not resting?”

“Daddy, my head hurts so much; I just have to get my mind on something else. I figured if I concentrated on work, I’d take my mind off the pain. I don’t know if it’ll work, but it’s worth a try; besides, then you can tell the Hospital Board that I kept working, even when I was in the hospital. They’ll think they got a really good deal when they hired me.”

“But, what did the doctor say about--”

“He only said I couldn’t sit up,” I interrupted my father’s protests. “I’m not sitting; I’m flat in this bed. Please, Daddy, it’s the only thing I can think of to put my mind on something else.”

Thus began the special time I shared with my father who served me well as a bedside secretary for the length of my hospital stay. I knew it had to bother him when my moans escaped in the middle of a dictated sentence, or I interrupted his reading, asking him to wait a minute; but Dad didn’t say anything. He didn’t refuse to continue, nor did He insist I stop and rest. He let me decide when to quit each session.

Nighttime continued to be hours of unrelenting agony. Finally, the nurses persuaded the doctor to give me a sleeping pill, at least. That’s when the nightmares began for my roommates.

*Names changed.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Mysterious Origin of Crisis

Having been on the other side of hospital rounds, I know that a doctor and his entourage of students and residents meet a lot of small anxious patient-family units each morning. All are waiting for test results or other crucial bits of information in the life of their loved one. This time, my parents sat nervously chattering as the footsteps approached my room.

Dad stood, of course, deferring to the doctor as if he out-ranked him. The doctor waved his hand, palm-down, as he pulled a chair over to sit by my bed. Even-so, Daddy didn’t take his seat until the neurologist sat.

What my parents hadn’t realized caused me to stop breathing. I knew this doctor well enough to know that he never sat at a patient’s bedside; I sometimes wondered if he ever sat at all. Hearing him take a deep breath, I steeled myself for the news.

“I’ve spoken with the radiologist, at length, and we’ve reviewed your test results. You show every evidence of a brain tumor, but we can’t find it,” he said matter-of-factly. I thought I heard a tiny gasp escape my mother’s lips; her small hand crushed mine like a vice. “You couldn’t be this sick and not have something serious going on; you do know that, don’t you?”

“I just don’t feel that sick, Dr. Roberts*. I have this awful headache, but honestly, I don’t feel sick.”

“For Pete’s sake, girl; you’re blind. How’d you think that happened, if you’re not sick?”

“But, don’t blind people just see a black field where their eyesight should be? I can see a bright-white background behind those strings of colored pyramids waving around in my field of vision. It seems to me that, if they left, I’d see you okay. Is that not true?”

I pictured the physician’s hands combing through his dark curls. I’d often seen him do this when frustrated and searching for the right words. Finally, he spoke.

“Can you see me? No, you can’t. A person who cannot see a hand in front of her face is blind.” I heard his deep sigh before he continued. “Look, I don’t know if your white background will turn to black or not, but we’re going to try to get as much back as we can. First, we need to stop the progression before there’s more than your vision to worry about.”

“Do you mean my headache? I’d really like that to stop. Sometimes I just can’t sleep because it hurts so much, no matter in which position I put my head.”

Finally my mother could stand it no longer. I heard her whispering something to my father. “Doctor, my wife… and I… would like to know about the test results. You said what it didn’t show, but is there anything you can tell us about what it did show?”

“I’d like to know, too,” I said, though I’m not sure I’d spoken loud enough to be heard.

“Yes, the test showed us that her brain is swelling. In the middle of the brain is a place with four chambers. One of those chambers is filling with fluid and we can’t see why. Because the brain is contained in the skull, there is a limited area to offer the brain when the fluid makes the brain grow in size.”

“So, that’s why my head hurts? It does feel like a balloon inside is being pumped up.”

“That’s exactly what’s happening, only it’s not air; it’s cerebrospinal fluid. We’ve got to get that fluid to stop producing more than the brain can handle. The space that’s normally open between your brain and the inside of the bony skull is completely filled now. Your brain is pushing against the inside of your skull. Soon it’ll have to use the space in the vertebral column. You can probably feel the pressure on your back already, can’t you?”

“Yes, I feel pressure, but it doesn’t really hurt like my head. Are you saying it will also hurt that much?”

Dr. Roberts put my hand on his knuckles. He held up his forearm with his hand in a fist. “Your brain and your spinal cord are one unit, like your hand and your arm. If the brain continues to swell, all of the entire unit will swell. There is a tiny space for the spinal nerves to move around inside the bones of the backbone, but the spinal cord is taking up those spaces now. That’s the pressure you are feeling.”

“So, what will happen to my arms and legs if that pressure continues? Will it be like in a car accident?” Reminders of paralyzed accident victims danced before my mind’s eye. I’d seen too many of those in my time riding an ambulance. My heart rate accelerated.

“No, you’re not going to get paralyzed from this,” the doctor said. I let go of the breath I’d not realized I’d been holding. “Do you remember your anatomy? At the base of the skull, what’s there that lets the spinal cord pass through?”

“The foramen magnum.” I said, wondering what my knowledge of anatomy had to do with anything right now.

“Exactly, and through that hole, do you remember what sits at the bottom of the brain, just where the spinal cord attaches?”

I did remember. My own lectures to the Highway Patrol officers on the importance of immobilizing the neck and spine at motor vehicle accident scenes came rushing front and center. I nodded, unable to speak.

“She may know, doctor, but we don’t,” my mother said, squeezing my hand again.

“At the bottom of the brain is the breathing center. If the brain and spinal cord continue to swell, the medulla oblongata of the brain will slip through that hole in the skull. It will act like a tourniquet. The breathing center will be unable to do its job.”

“Okay, we get it; I won’t be able to breathe,” I said. “What can you do to stop the brain from producing all that extra fluid?”

Dr. Roberts outlined the medication regimen that would begin immediately. Heavy doses of steroids and other things, but I didn’t hear anything about pain pills. “What about the pain in my head, please. Can’t I have something for that now that you know what’s wrong with me?”

“We are going to treat your symptoms; we don’t really know why we can’t see the tumor. We need you to stay away from anything that would dull your nerves. We don’t want to miss any changes in your condition because of narcotics.”

The news made my head hurt more; I’d held out hope that I’d be getting something for the pain, if only I waited. He refused me even an aspirin, though I doubt it would’ve mattered with this level of pain.

Swallowing the handful of different colors and shapes of medications started that very hour. The race to keep that medulla oblongata right where it should be was on.

* Name changed




Saturday, March 7, 2015

Crisis Temporarily Interrupted

Stretched out on the moving gurney, the events of the past two hours raced through my tortured head. How I wanted to curl up in the fetal position, but the leather security straps prevented any movement. Truly, had I been offered the opportunity to reposition myself, I couldn’t have done it, anyway; my body felt like it’d taken a real beating.

The screech of the elevator doors opening, followed by the bumping into the swaying square, shot a quick dagger strike through the top of my head. “Sorry,” the gurney operator said. “This elevator really needs maintenance to smooth it out some.”

His words registered but never interrupted my stream of thoughts. The cerebral arteriogram had produced more pain than I’d thought possible; but if the results helped the doctors to figure out why my visual fields had filled with strings of colored pyramids, it’d be worth the agony. I hadn’t felt the lurch of the elevator until it thudded to a stop.

As the noisy doors parted, I heard my father’s voice. My only thought was Thank You, God; Dad’s here for Mom. My father didn’t wait for the gurney to leave the elevator; he rushed to my side.

“Honey, you’ll never guess who’s just down the hallway from your room!”

I hadn’t given the arrival of my father much thought; I knew he’d join Mom after work. Even-so his first question in the elevator took me totally by surprise. “What. Did. You. say, Daddy?” I said, my throat so dry the words stuck on the way out.

The gurney began moving off the elevator, but Dad wouldn’t be distracted. “I asked you if you could guess who was in the hospital room just down the hallway from you,” he said, side-stepping to keep up with the moving gurney and not take his eyes off mine. “Oh Honey, you’ll never guess.”

What in the world was my father talking about. “Who, Daddy?” I said in a whisper.

The gurney stopped again; the driver’s attention glued to the conversation, waiting to hear the name of some celebrity. My father’s excitement didn’t keep him waiting.

“Linda Evans* from Miles City. Can you believe that, Honey? Linda Evans!”

My weary memory scrolled through all known acquaintances, coming up dry. “Daddy, I don’t know anyone named Linda Evans.”

He squeezed my hand through the blanket strapped over my body. “Sure you do, Honey. You used to play with her. We went there not long after Donna’s third birthday. You remember Linda, Honey.”

“Daddy, I was sixteen months old; I don’t remember Linda Evans.”

Not one bit undone by my memory-lapse, dear old Dad continued. “Yeah, it’s been that long since we’ve seen them. I just can’t believe that they’re here right now when you are!”

“Excuse me, Sir, but I need to take your daughter to her room.” The gurney began moving as he spoke.

Let me take just a moment to fill you in on my father, so you can see how God set this surprise of the Evans Family up just for him. This behavior was so not Daddy, and at the time, I wondered if it was just some measure of his extreme nervousness.

My father was a strong man, with an incredibly tender heart towards his wife and three daughters. He served many years as a company commander in the military, armored division—tanks. In fact, at the time of this event in my life, Dad served in that capacity for the Army National Guard.

By the time Dad met me on that elevator, he’d already made it through the first of a long list of heart attacks. There’s no doubt the bedraggled, pain-wracked sight of me on that cart would’ve undone Dad, had the Lord not intervened to momentarily distract him from the serious situation. I believe that the Lord used the visit he’d just enjoyed with the Evans Family to lighten-up the strain on his heart. Mom and I both needed Dad well and strong to help us through what would follow. God knew that and met Dad’s need.

The wait for the doctor to share the test results with us and his treatment plan seemed interminable to my parents. As the wall clocked displayed the passing time, they alternated holding my hand. As for me, exhaustion overrode my pain; I slept the hours they waited in the uncomfortable, straight-back hospital chairs.

* Not the actress, but a Montana family friend.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Agonizing Crisis of Pain

Leaning close to my face, the radiologist introduced himself, reinforcing the need for the Velcro straps that held my head at just the right angle on the molded foam. As he spoke, the natural reflex had been to nod my head.

“You can’t move your head or the test’ll be ruined. That’s why we strap it in there,” he said as he tapped the foam near my right ear. “You’ll not want us to repeat it because you moved.”

“Okay, I’ll do my best to keep looking straight ahead,” I said, turning only my eyes towards the space I’d heard his voice.

The radiologist chuckled, responding, “I know you will, dear, and the snug restraints will see that you don’t move.” After giving my shoulder a quick squeeze, the doctor moved away, followed by more clattering noises across the room.

While I lay on the hard x-ray table, my mind raced through a review of the events of the day. Had it really only been that morning I’d walked into the fuselage of Joe’s plane? Why had long chains of brilliantly colored pyramids obscured my eyesight? I reckoned we’d know after the cerebral arteriogram. I hoped the test wouldn’t make my already substantial headache any worse.

I’d just begun to thank the Lord that Mom’d arrived before they wheeled me to Radiology, and that my dear friend, Cindy, would be here to sit with Mom until Dad finished his shift at the refinery, when I felt another squeeze on my shoulder. “Okay, dear, we’re ready to start.” I recognized the voice of the radiologist. I smiled up at him, listening to his instructions.

“The catheter has been confirmed to be in just the right place. You may think it strange to put it up here at the top of your leg, but we thread it up to the spot we need to introduce the dye into your brain for the test. Down here the blood vessel is larger so it’s the safest place to begin.”

“Yes, I know. I used to be a student radiology tech. This stuff is familiar to me, but I’ve never been on this end of the test.” I laughed, probably as much from nerves as from trying to make a joke.

“Yeah? Good. Then you can anticipate what we’ll be doing. It might help to picture it in your mind and focus on that.”

“We’re ready, Doctor,” I heard the lady say.

“Okay, we’re ready, too,” he said with a pat on the shoulder he’d just squeezed. “I’m going to tell you each time we’re about to shoot some dye into your brain. It will be painful for a few seconds, but we’ll be fast about getting the pictures. We’ll stop in-between segments, so you’ll be able to relax. Try to take deep breaths. Don’t move any part of your body.”

“Okay, I’ll do my best. Thanks for doing yours, too.” As the doctor moved away from the table, I realized that my arms and legs also had restricted motion. I hadn’t remembered that part of the preparation, nor had I felt the Velcro straps being secured.

“Here we go. First set,” the doctor barked at the tech behind the glassed-in control panel.

Seconds later, a stream of white-hot fire poured through the right side of my head. Don’t move! Don’t move! I silently shouted, clenching my teeth together. My fingernails dug into my palms. I heard the whir of clicking machinery; I begged God to help me make it through the test. The duration of agony seem to last forever.

“Got it!” the tech said into the intercom.

“Relax,” the doctor said to me. “Just take some deep breaths while I check the images.”

I didn’t respond to the radiologist; I was busy talking to God. Please, God, let him see what he needs; I don’t want to do this again.

“Are you okay?” a female voice said near my head. I tried to smile, but my lips formed more of a sneer. “I know it hurts. I’m so sorry.” I felt her pat my shoulder before checking the straps on the head restraint.

I wanted to tell her she had no idea how much it hurt, and I wondered if my patients had wanted to tell me the same thing years ago. The squishing sound of the doctor’s soft-soled shoes interrupted my reminiscing.

“They’re good. Let’s move to the other side,” the doctor said as he returned to his position. “Okay, young lady, here we go. You’re doing just great. Hold still.”

At least, I knew I would feel the liquid firebrand on the left side of my head. Funny how that teensy bit of awareness comforted me. The more information I possessed, the easier I found trials to be, in general, even more so when the challenge included serious pain.

The element of surprise removed, the anticipation of the searing pain seemed less frightening. I concentrated my focus on an imaginary scene of a flower-filled meadow near a waterfall. My brief reverie careened off the backside of my eyeballs, dropping into the abyss with the first blast of fire to the left side of my brain. Relax; don’t move! Relax! I ordered my body. I felt my nails biting into my palms but couldn’t release their grip. The pressure on the joints under my ears let me know my jaws had locked into their clench just as hard.

Finally, the agony abruptly stopped. I hadn’t heard the audible exchange between the doctor and tech this time.

For the next couple of hours, the scene repeated over and over. The lady stepped in to wipe the sweat off my face, and place a few ice chips in my mouth between segments.

Somewhere near the end of the procedure, clad in the flimsy, backless gown and covered with the hospital’s flannel-version of a blanket, my body started to tremble. What the intense, relentless pain couldn’t evoke in me, the fear of moving and ruining the test did.

Tears sprang from my eyes. I felt the warm, wet streams rolling off my cheeks, creating a small puddle next to my face. Oh God, help me. Help me, I pleaded, so weak I could no longer even shout in my mind.

“That’s it,” I heard the doctor say, at last. Hands on both sides of the table began working to free me. “I’m sorry. It’s a hard test, but you did well. You’re a real champion.”

“At least, I didn’t die. Do I still have both legs?”

“Both legs?” Then, I heard the doctor let out a raucous guffaw. “Oh that, it’s the law, you know. The physician has to tell you that. Yes, you still have both of your legs.” I tried to smile, but I don’t think my facial muscles moved. “You’ll be taken back to your room now. I’ll call your neurologist, and he’ll come see you about the test. You did just fine.” The radiologist squeezed my shoulder, shook my limp hand, and I heard his shoes squish him all the way out of the room.

Aware of being lifted onto a gurney, I listened to the security buckles clicking into place. I closed my eyes. “Oh, thank you, God. We made it,” I said ever-so softly. When the tech near my head said, “Amen,” I knew I’d actually spoken aloud.

Soon, I’d know the results, but all I really wanted was to go back to my bed and sleep this nightmare away. Funny how slight the morning’s horrible headache seemed now--after that grueling test.