It was raining. A cold February rain. The man on the radio was talking about the groundhog, and the wipers were squeaking in rhythm with the raindrops pounding my car. My little student was chattering about something and I engaged in small talk with her to keep the “non-responsive” from ringing in my ears. The hospital was about 10 minutes from my house, but my car seemed to be in slow motion even though I checked repeatedly to make sure I was going the speed limit. Replaying the phone call in my mind, all while talking about nothing, seemed surreal. Like an out of body experience in which I am watching myself from a distance.
I discovered on this day, that I have a physiological response to trauma.
I initially feel a blow to my gut making it difficult to breathe. Next comes the daze, in which fog seems to engulf me and my thoughts are unclear and jumbled. I find it difficult to comprehend words and put together ideas that are cohesive. Yet, at another level, there is crystal HD like clarity in which the smallest details engrave themselves in my mind’s eye. This is the day that pattern of reaction started…many years later I found the word Cancer elicited the same response. Fog and acute clarity in the same moment. For example on this cold February day, the helicopter waiting at the hospital when I arrived was vivid. The engine was running, though the rotors were still. It was waiting on the helipad beside the ER door like a hawk ready to lift off in seconds. It was white with blue and red detailing. It seemed random at the time, but I found out later that it was there to take Bill to another trauma center if the neurosurgeon didn’t show up within so many minutes. Fortunately, he arrived just moments before they were going to load Bill up.
Being caught in the time warp between fog and crystal clear, I found the details of the ER like a dream.
The nurse asked my student if she understood what was happening. I realized she thought it was my daughter and informed her that the girl’s mother would be there soon to pick her up. I saw relief flood the nurse’s face, and she offered to take my little friend until her mom arrived so that I could go in the ER. I was ushered into a room with a nurse and a policeman and introductions were made. They told me Bill had been calling for Shell, or Shelly at the scene, and they were relieved to find that that was his shortened affectionate name for me. They asked questions about how long we had been married and how long we had known one another. The nurse said that calling my name was a good sign that he would remember me, maybe not that we were married, but that he should have enough long term memory that I would be in it somewhere. I swallowed hard. Somewhere in my mind the word non-responsive was clashing with his calling my name, but I didn’t recognize the incongruence at that point. I still pictured him comatose and silent in a bed surrounded by machines. That’s what non-responsive means right?
The policeman gave me Bill’s ‘personal effects’ which included his wallet, a bag with a bloody shirt, and his wedding ring. He was saying something about having to cut his pants off to get him out of the van. I wondered, “Is this really happening? Is this even real? What is this…why am I here?” But I nodded and thanked him. He gave me Bill’s ticket and apologized for having to do it. There was something about rain, and following too close, and sliding, and construction trucks…I don’t really remember… but the wedding ring I was holding in my hand shone like the sun.
The nurse spoke next, telling me stories of my husband’s strength in lifting her 5ft. by 5 ft. frame off the floor with one arm. She said it was a rarity for someone to lift her at her size. She went on to explain that they were trying to get a CT scan of his brain at the moment, but he was fighting so it could be a while and that I could not see him until they had him back in the ER. Once again my mind’s picture and the one she painted conflicted with one another, but I couldn’t formulate a question to ask. I heard, head injury, neurosurgeon, something about fight or flight response, adrenaline, 7 people and handcuffs to get him into the ambulance at the scene…in a blur I just nodded without the least bit of understanding.
I was ushered into the waiting room…where I sat alone.
I remember thinking “I should call somebody.” I used the phone at one end of the room and finally got my folks. Still couldn’t reach his, so I sat and waited. Our pastor’s wife arrived shortly. After my alarming phone call she had rushed to get there. Not too long after her, my sister-in-law arrived. I don’t remember if I called her or if mom did…but I was glad to see her. She and my brother lived the closest of all the family and could get there fastest. The mom of my student arrived and sat with me for a bit before gathering her daughter from the nurse and heading out. It was a while before mom came I think. Seems like it anyway. At some point I started to hear Bill screaming in the back. I couldn’t tell what he was saying, but I knew his voice. I knew he was yelling out. I asked at the desk if I could go back to see him, and they told me they had to stabilize him first and that the doctor had to see him again before they could move him to ICU. That was the first time I computed this was going to be a long term thing.
We were not going home this night.
The waiting room was filling up as the day went on. Mom arrived. Bill’s screams continued. At some point, I could no longer sit and listen. I fled the room. Mom followed me into the hallway and held me while I cried. She told me to take a break and she went back in to hear if there was news. I took some deep breaths, got a snack, walked the hallway for a bit. Once I pulled myself together, I went back in about the time the nurse was calling for me to go see him.
In the hallway outside his cubicle she gave me and mom a little speech. “If you feel faint do not try to walk, just get down on the floor and we will get you out. If you feel you will vomit…same thing…just get down on the floor and we will help you. It will not help him if you faint and hit your head, so be cautious. Also remember that plastic surgery can fix his face. He looks pretty bad at the moment, but that can be fixed.” So with that wonderful admonition she pulled back the curtain and I stepped inside.