I missed the entire season of Grey’s Anatomy last year. I was hospitalized when the season started and never caught up. A few weeks ago, I decided to watch Season 10 on Netflix. I was soon sucked back into the story of Grey, Christina, Derek and Bailey.
Sunday night, Monday morning, really, about 4:00 a.m., I couldn’t sleep. I flipped open my Kindle. Read or watch Netflix? I chose Netflix. The next episode of Grey’s was cued so that was my choice. I settled in to be lulled back to sleep by the trials and tribulations of the doctors from Seattle.
My blood froze with the opening scene. Christina and her intern were operating on “the black mambo,” the trickiest of all heart repairs. Derek arrived for a neuro consult. Surveying the patient’s X-rays, he opined, “Why are you operating? He has a C-3 and C-4 fracture, he’s paralyzed from the neck down.” The scene shifted. There was Christina explaining the surgery to the patient’s wife, while the patient lay unconscious, on a ventilator in a tilted orthopedic bed, with separate supports for each limb. Mitch’s bed. The same special, at that time experimental bed, that my husband had been strapped to for 30 days in 1988, after breaking his neck. C-1, C-2 and C-3 fractures. Paralyzed from the neck down.
Why did I wake up at 4:00 in the morning? Why did I decide to watch a show rather than read like I usually do? Why was that particular episode the one that popped up?
Monday was to be an amazing day. My first book, a memoir about dating after 15 years of widowhood, was being released on Amazon. I was excited and scared. I believe, after consulting with my “person” who had survived the loss of a beloved husband herself, that Mitch was sending me a message: I’m still around. I know what is going on. This is a big day for you and I know it. I am always with you.
Here is an excerpt about that damn bed, from my work in progress, 32 Days: A Story of Love and Death.
July 10 – Sunday
The morning was spent organizing, setting up a base at CVPH. I was staying in the ICU waiting room so I could be available at anytime for Mitchell. I had not seen my children since Friday, although we spoke every day from the payphone in the lobby.
I had made my decision that I would stay there with Mitchell until he went home or to another facility. My kids were safe at my parents for the time being. I had enough sick, personal and vacation leave to be out of work for a month.
I begged change from everyone I saw so I could call my babies. And everyone else in our lives: our friend Susan, with whom I worked, who would take over my caseload and notify law school and work friends. Our neighbors, Kim and Al, who baby-sat the two cats, the mail, the house and kept the neighborhood posted. Our Rabbi, who offered daily blessings.
Later, I met with the doctors for a discussion about a new bed for Mitchell. The doctors wanted Mitch in a bed that was compartmentalized for his legs and arms and head, covered in nylon like a rain jacket and slowly rotated 45 degrees in each direction. It was an experimental bed and its purpose was to keep fluids from settling anywhere, especially his lungs, and to keep him from getting bed sores. Our health insurance was good insurance through my policy with the State. The experimental bed would be covered.
As always, I consulted with the patient, much to the consternation of his doctors. I kept getting the feeling that they thought his brain was paralyzed too.
He was so isolated, so alone. I was his only contact with the outside world at that point. The ICU was like a small fortress, no admittance to anyone except family and then, only with strict scrutiny from the nurses.
The unit itself was divided into cubicles around the nurses’ station, with private rooms in the corners. A window was in the wall behind his bed, high up so you could barely glimpse the sky and nothing else. There were walls on either side of his cubicle, but it was open to the centrally located nurse’s station with only a curtain to provide privacy. He was directly across from the front of the nurse’s station, where someone was always present, because he was the most high-risk patient. There was one night stand against the right-hand wall and one stool to the left of his bed.
I had already started pasting drawings from my children and my nieces and nephews on both walls. There were also cards and letters from family, friends and colleagues. Someone had made a sign that read “one day at a time.” We had thumb-tacked it to the ceiling, over his head, like a prayer to Heaven.
After a short time, I became immune to the shock of seeing Mitch motionless in bed, in that cubicle. I was living on nerves and adrenaline, grateful for each hour he was still in my life, pathetically thankful for every word he whispered to me around the tube in his throat and his paralyzed vocal chords.
Our friend, Mary, arrived late in the morning during one of my few breaks from haunting the ICU. She lied her way in, as only an experienced trial attorney can, by claiming to be Mitchell’s sister. His raised eyebrows at her appearance were met by her kiss on his cheek and her cheery “Hello, brother mine.” It was enough to fool the nurses.
I found her sitting on my stool, giving Mitch a blow-by-blow account of her latest trial. Her eyes locked with mine as if willing me to be strong at the sight of a sympathetic face. I smiled, a wobbly smile and she reached out to squeeze my hand. She was stroking Mitch’s arm, never missing a beat with her story.
“I can’t feel that, you know.”
Mary started, as Mitchell continued in that almost non-existent whisper, “I can only feel from the neck up.”
She stood and moved to his head, rubbing her fingers through his thick curls, chatting away as if we were sitting on our deck, sipping pink lemonade and gin. The nurses shooed us out after a few minutes. There was always some adjustment, some treatment, some medication to keep Mitchell going.
We left the ICU. Mary turned to me, her hand still clutching mine.
“You look like shit.”
“Yeah, I know. But I don’t look as bad as Mitch.”
“No. Jesus. It would be hard to look that bad.” Her laughter was hollow.
We grinned at each other through our tears. She got me some lunch and later some dinner. We sat together in the waiting room. Mary took notes on what I needed and strategized about what could be done by friends, colleagues and former classmates to get Mitchell admitted to AMC as soon as possible.
As darkness fell, Mary left, to go off to a hotel room, with promises to return in the morning. It had been Heaven to share the burden of my fears with someone who knew us so well,
I was alone with him once again, perched on the little stool next to his bed, catching a glimpse of the face I loved more than anything in the world.
I dragged myself out around midnight. I was exhausted. I was demoralized. I was terrified. Still awake at 2:00 a.m., I went back to the ICU and pushed open the door from the empty waiting room. I walked quietly around the back of the nurses’ station to Mitch’s cubicle. The shift had changed at 11:00 p.m. Some nurses in raspberry scrubs were sitting on high swivel chairs at patient tables, writing reports. But three were gathered around my husband’s bed. My gut clenched. What was wrong now?!
Before I could give voice to my alarm, one nurse turned to the other two and whispered,
“I told you he had the most long, curly, gorgeous eyelashes you would ever see.”
“I didn’t believe you. They’re amazing.”
“And his eyes are the most beautiful shade of brown and gold.”
“And he belongs to me,” I said as I moved to the foot of the bed. They all smiled at me. The nurse who had spoken first laid her hand on mine and squeezed. Then she said, “Yes, he does. And you are so lucky.”
Yes, I was so lucky to have him. But would I be lucky enough to keep him?