We ran into the Emergency Room. I was still in my swimsuit and was barefoot. They wouldn’t let me see him. They kept me at the desk with forms and questions. Someone put a cotton blanket on me, and soon my sister arrived with my t-shirt, shorts and flip-flops. And my purse with the magic health insurance card.
It seemed like hours but it was not much later when they let me in to see him. He was on the table in the middle of the room, draped in a sheet. I saw his cut up swim suit lying in a sodden mess on the floor. There was an oxygen mask on his face and an IV tube in his arm. Dried blood was in corner of his mouth. His eyes were closed.
“What happened?” I asked them and they asked me at the same time.
“Did he have a heart attack?” I whispered.
“Did he dive into the shallow end of the pool?” they demanded.
“No.” We answered simultaneously.
“He didn’t dive, he did a cannonball…you know where you jump in with your arms wrapped around your knees, pulled up against your chest. He didn’t hit his head.”
“His heart stopped twice in the ambulance, but we don’t think his heart caused the accident. We are sending him to Plattsburgh via helicopter. They are the trauma center for this area. You can follow him there.”
“Will he live? Will he be okay?”
“We don’t know.”
I had been holding his hand. It was cold, and he didn’t squeeze me back. I leaned over and kissed his forehead.
“I love you. If you die on me, I swear, I’ll kill you.”
They shuffled me out. I went to my parents’ house to change. I told my frightened children that daddy was in the hospital and I was going to stay with him. I think I told them that he would be fine. I called his parents. They were speechless.
I drove with my sister and her husbandto Plattsburgh, past the Mohawk Indian enclave. I wondered if they had taken shots at the helicopter transporting my husband over their territory as they had sometimes done in the past. Is he already dead? If he is not, what is he?
We wandered through the halls at CVPH until we found the Intensive Care Unit. They wouldn’t let me in to see him until the doctors met with me. They put me in a conference room with two doctors. They told me that Mitchell had broken his neck, a C1, C2 and C3 fracture, the very worst kind. His heart had stopped in the helicopter. They had intubated him to keep him breathing. I told them he had a living will and that I was his health care proxy and that he did not want extraordinary measures taken if he was not going to have quality of life. And that he had a “do not resuscitate” order. They tried to tell me that it had no effect. I told them he was a lawyer and I was a lawyer. They pushed back from the table in unison, putting distance between me and them.
That is when they said they wanted to drill four holes in his skull to fit him with a halo from which they would hang weights to stabilize his neck.
“You want to drill holes in his head?!” I squeaked, too astonished to scream. “This will help him get better?”
“He isn’t going to get better.”
“Then why do you want to drill holes in his head to stabilize his neck?”
“In case he gets better.”
“You said he wasn’t going to get better. Is he going to die?”
“He might not make it through the night.”
“Then why drill holes in his head tonight if he will be dead by morning?”
“He might live.”
“For how long?”
“We don’t know.”
“What do you know?”
They proceeded to bombard me with statistics for spinal cord injuries. Most people died instantly, especially with this kind of fracture. Mitch was paralyzed from the neck down. He couldn’t speak, he couldn’t move his head, he couldn’t move anything. His muscles would atrophy; his internal organs would start going haywire because of the havoc being played with his nervous system. The prognosis was not good.
“So he is going to die, if not tonight, then soon. Why put him through the ordeal of drilling holes in his head? Why not let him go peacefully.”
“Well, he’s awake.”
“Then why are you talking to me? Is his brain damaged?”
“Not that we can tell.”
“I want to see him and I want you two to come with me and explain the halo deal. He’ll decide. He’s not dead yet.”
I stood and marched to the door. They followed me. We got to the ICU and they made me wait again. A nurse in raspberry scrubs came to get me. The ICU consisted of a nurse’s station in the center of large rectangular room, with curtained cubicle along the perimeter of the room. Mitch was on the far side, just across from the main desk of the nurse’s station. He was lying flat in a hospital bed. A tube was taped to the corner of his mouth; IV’s were running into both arms.
His beautiful brown eyes were blood-shot but open. He looked at me in alarm, and then looked away, his eyes skittering around the small enclosure which now held me, two doctors and two nurses. I took his hand as his glance returned to me.
They told Mitch about the halo, told him it would stabilize his neck until the swelling from the broken vertebrae went down and they could ascertain how much damage had been done to his spinal cord. Mitch looked at me and raised his eyebrows.
“They say it will give you your best chance at recovery. Your neck has to be kept still so it can heal. The holes won’t hurt and you won’t feel the halo once it is on your head.
He looked at the doctors and then at me.
“Okay.” He mouthed the word to me.
“He says okay, you can do it.”
I leaned over to kiss his cheek. I couldn’t get near his mouth. I put my face next to his and whispered in his ear.
“I love you, I will always love you. Try to get better for me. Try for the kids. I love you.”
They sent me out to the ICU waiting area, three sofas, three corner tables and a wall-mounted TV. My sister was there, her husband had gone home. It was almost midnight and the lights dimmed and the TV clicked off. I told her what was happening. I was exhausted. I lay down on one of the couches, the one across from the door into the ICU. I was freezing. One of the nurses came out with two pillows and two blankets. My sister and I tucked ourselves in after thanking the nurse and making her promise to get us if anything happened.
I lay there in the dim light, hospital noises fading, until there was only the whoosh of the air conditioning and the bell from the elevator down the hall.
Then I cried.