My Wheel LifeThe stories of how I got this way, and the motivations that keep me rolling.
Day 1 – In the Moment (Part 2)
I hadn’t intended to make Chrissy cry, but she did, instantaneously upon hearing me say, I am not okay. I could have used a good cry myself at that moment, as long as it was in privacy of course. Instead of shedding tears, however, I begrudgingly forced a smile to all the unfamiliar faces surrounding me as we made our way down the tunnel’s long hallway to the back roads of Sea World, the place where an ambulance eagerly awaited me.
To my surprise, I recognized a familiar face in the back of the ambulance. Chad. I couldn’t yet quite place how I knew this man, but felt certain I knew him in some way.
“Wait, do I know you?” I asked.
“You look familiar,” he replied.
“Were you a gymnast?”
“Yes! I went to Brown’s. Wait, did you go to Brown’s too?
“Yes!” I exclaimed in excitement. And then the reality of the circumstance creeped upon us. “Well this is awkward. How’s it going?”
He looked at me and smiled as I laid there feeling embarrassed. Motionless, taped to a backboard and being shoved into the back of an ambulance is not the ideal position when it comes to reuniting with old friends.
“I’m good,” he answered, smiling. “You?”
Chad knew I was paralyzed by the time I arrived to him. Someone had radioed the message on his way to Sea World. At that particular time no one had informed me of a prognosis. So I was still hopeful the whole incident was a fluke, an accident, a brief moment in time I’d look back upon and laugh at during the intermission of shows to come. I’d say to my teammates, “Remember the time my body went numb and I had to go to the hospital.” And everyone within earshot would recall the moment and laugh because it’s what people do when awkward situations happen and everything ends up being okay in the end. The only problem was—I was not okay. I did know that much.
“Well I’ve been better,” I replied, chuckling. It was so comforting to see Chad, even though we hadn’t been close friends in the past. Already, it felt as if I had someone on my team.
“So, eh…” he paused. “I have to cut these clothes off you.”
“Wow, that’s a little forward,” I teased. His eyes widened.
“I’m kidding! Do what you have to do,” I instructed, feeling like a teenager undressing in the girl’s locker room for the first time.
Maybe if I close my eyes he won’t see me.
I heard the scissors rip into my green and yellow lycra shorts, and then into the leotard underneath. I pretended that’s where the cutting stopped, although I know it didn’t. There was underwear and a sports bra to go through, too. Chad started an IV and began pricking my body with a small needle, curious to see where I had sensation. He would place the needle on different parts of my body and ask, “How about now?” I couldn’t tell where the needle touched my skin and when he didn’t touch my skin at all. So I just apologized for my poor performance aloud, and then internally chalked the miscommunication between my brain and body as having too much adrenaline.
In what seemed like seconds, we had already arrived at the helicopter located on the other side of the theme park. I was clothed in sheets. I could hear the whooshing of the propellers nearby, and noted it was time to say goodbye to Chad and hello to a different set of strangers. Since I was being air lifted, no one from the show was allowed to travel with me. Amongst all the chaos, I felt lonely. Yet, I was considering this to be a good thing.
The transfer from ambulance to helicopter literally took seconds. Before I could process what was happening and the fear that comes along with flying, my backboard was locked into place and the man in charge of me signaled the pilot to go. After hearing a few clicks from the cockpit, up, up, and away we went. The man before me reminded me of a Muppet, if there ever was to be a Muppet that specialized in helicopter rescue EMT. He wore large, soundproof earmuffs, and sported a thick, Burt Reynolds mustache that hid most of his upper lip. He even donned aviator sunglasses.
“Are you okay?” he yelled over the wind gushing through the open door, introducing himself. “We’ll be to the hospital in no time. Let me know if you need anything.”
I looked over to my left where the wind was coming from. The space was free of any doors and wide open for catastrophe From my vantage point, which was lying on my back on the floor of the heli, all I could see was a blanket of blue sky. I thought of what may be underneath me, like I-4, the worst interstate in Florida and possibly the worst highway in the world. I imagined all the cars stuck, stopped bumper to bumper, in the every day traffic. I pictured people honking their horns, and yelling to each other while I sailed freely above them. I turned back to the Muppet just in time to see him place his hand on my legs in the most endearing way. Upon entering the helicopter, he had tucked a small, stuffed bear with a red shirt next to my side, my first get well present. I enjoyed his kindness, and it became comforting as we made our way to the hospital. The moment in the sky with the Muppet was certainly the calm before the storm of medicine and tests and therapy to come, only I didn’t recognize it then. Soon, the chaos started all over again.
Where I landed in regards to the hospital is still a mystery to me, but I was told I had arrived at Orlando Regional Medical Center. It was not the closest hospital to where I lived, but the best hospital recommended for neurological trauma. Upon departing the aircraft, the one I imagined to be sitting on a rooftop, I was greeted by a swarm of people wearing scrubs and masks. I watched the people scramble around me, like ants scattering when someone has invaded their home. Their urgency to take me inside the building was disconcerting.
Once inside the brightly lit room, the nurses’ movements were rhythmic as they worked together, checking off obligations most likely found on mental checklists. Pulse and blood pressure? Check. Insert IV? Check. Take blood? Check. Call for the doctor? Check. Eventually, someone got around to asking how I was doing.
“As good as can be, I guess,” I answered, still practicing the art of staying perfectly still. I remained relatively quiet as the people franticly worked on me. And then I heard someone speak out to me.
“Your mother would really like to see you,” said a woman from somewhere in the room.
How is that possible? I thought. I had just arrived to the hospital.
“What! I’m not ready,” I blurted aloud.
Apparently what I thought had been minutes had actually turned into hour or more. The IVs that were shoved into my arms also came with pain killers, among other drugs, and the medicines were starting to kick in, skewing my perception of time.
“She can’t come in here. She can’t see me like this,” I pleaded with the nurse.
I had become so distracted by the recent events, like flying in the helicopter, and landing on the hospital roof, and watching the strangers working on me, I hadn’t thought of my mom until that very moment. Now, I imagined her just outside the ER door pacing back and forth, most likely crying, frightened by the unknown and waiting for the opportunity to see me. The thought overwhelmed me with emotion.
“But she really wants to,” the lady continued. “She’s been waiting a really long time.”
I thought about what my mother may be thinking, and recalled how for the past twenty years she had said things to me like, “Be careful” and “Don’t get hurt.” For twenty years, I had rolled my eyes and irresponsibly answered with phrases like, “I will” or “Whatever, Mom.” But today I had betrayed her. I hadn’t been careful and I did get hurt and now I felt guilty for not obeying her wishes. How could I look at her in the face? What was there to say? I didn’t even know what was even wrong with me.
“Can’t she wait just a little longer?” I begged. But it was too late. From afar, I overheard a nurse prepping her for what she was about to see. She had already entered the room through the double doors.
“I’m sorry Mom. I’m so sorry,” I began apologizing. She hadn’t even made it to my bedside before I began my plea for forgiveness. “I’m really sorry.”
I watched her take me in with her eyes. She looked me up and down and then looked across the entire room. For the first time I had ever known, she had nothing to say.
“Mom, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” I repeated. Her face was red and splotchy, confirming that she had indeed been crying. Seeing her in this way suddenly made me feel hurt–unfixable–for the first time. My mother rarely cried, and never in front of her children, which ultimately meant I was in a bad, bad situation. This was very bad. I was curious to know if she knew something I didn’t.
“Mom?” I called out one last time.
She started sobbing.
“I’m sorry Mom. I’m so sorry.”
She reached her hand out towards me but then quickly retracted it, as if she didn’t know whether or not I was touchable.
“What are you sorry for?” she finally asked, sniffling and chuckling simultaneously. She smiled at me in the way that only mothers do for their children.
“I don’t know,” I answered. Only I kind of did know why I was sorry. I felt like I had failed her. My body had failed me. And now my bad decisions had forced us into this sterile room that smelled of antiseptic, where people dressed in white were scrambling to put me back together. And…
“It’s okay. It’s all going to be okay,” she said, wiping her tears away… and then mine. I looked at her as she looked at me. We had drifted a part over the past two years because each of us had become too busy living our own life, and now it was like we were reconnecting and discovering each other for the very first time.
“I’m going to need to put her in traction,” the doctor announced, abruptly. He seemed to have majestically appeared, just in time to ruin our moment.
“Are you her mother?” he asked, offering his hand for a shake. He didn’t bother to wait for her reply before he began his bedside speech. “Hi. So the x-rays show that she…” the doctor paused to look at me. “you–have C5-6 vertebrae sublexation, or in other words the two vertebrae in your neck have switched places. You’re C6 vertebrae is where your C5 should be and vice versa.”
“Jesus,” I replied, having a hard time wrapping my head around what my neck may have looked like from the inside. What had I done?
“Is that even possible? How on earth do vertebrae switch places?” I asked.
The doctor pulled his shoulders up to his ears and then dropped them quickly. “I don’t know. I can only tell you what the x-rays show.”
“So what’s traction?” I asked. “Like a halo?” I had seen a halo on TV before.
“No. What I’m going to do is drill steel rods into the side of your head here,” and then he pointed to each side of my head, right above my ears.
“Steel rods?” I repeated.
“Yes. And then I’m going to add some weight to the end of this contraption that connects to the rods. The idea is that it corrects the vertebra naturally.”
“You mean pop ‘em back in place.”
“Well, not pop necessarily, but yes try to get them to naturally restack themselves so that the C5 is back on top of your C6.”
I was starting to feel woozy.
“How much weight are we talking?”
“Up to 100 pounds.”
“We’ll start small and gradually work our way up to more weight.”
“And what if the traction doesn’t work?”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”
“Am I going to need surgery?”
“If the traction works, no. That’s why I want to try this first.”
Based on the doctor’s aloofness, I imagined he was not used to having patients ask so many questions, or perhaps ask any questions for that matter. I learned later most C5-6 spinal cord injuries lose consciousness upon the accident happening. I was the exception.
“Does that sound good?” the doctor asked me.
“I guess,” I answered. It was more of a question than a statement.
“I mean, you’re the doctor,” I paused, addressing him, the man who would be responsible for my future. The man with delicate, carefully manicured hands. “I assume you know what your doing.”
I looked over to my mother, who appeared frozen in time. Perhaps in my drug-induced state I had shared my art of staying very still.
“You want to do what?” she asked, defensively.
The doctor took a deep breath before explaining the entire traction process once again, this time so my mother could understand what he was saying. Just before he hurried off, I flashed him my best smile with hopes it reminded him how precious I was and how precious my life was to some people, just in case he wasn’t feeling very emotional that day. I had read somewhere that doctors sometimes forget they are working on humans, and after years of daily treatment people become numb to emotions.
What I recall next, after having the sides of my head shaved, is the sound of the drill being turned on. It whined very much like a drill found in a dentist office.
“You ready?” the doctor asked. This definitely was not a question, but rather a statement of preparation. I grimaced at the anticipation of the connection—drill on skull.
I was surprised to not feel any pain when the drill inserted into the skin, this coming from a someone who acquired headaches from headbands. The people must have supplied me with the most wonderful drugs, I thought. Bless them.
Although even heavily medicated, the sound of the drill entering my skull was nearly too much to handle, in the way that nails screech across a chalkboard make people squirm. I also remember wondering what the drill looked like from the doctor’s perspective, like was there any debris that came flying off my scalp upon penetration?
“We’re all done,” the doctor announced. Time was really starting to slip away from me now. The entire procedure had only seemed like seconds when in fact there was a lot to be done in regards to setting up traction. There was the drilling, the insertion of rods, and then the set-up of wires and weight. I tried to imagine what I might look like in traction and pictured a scale from a grocery store attached to my forehead, hanging and dangling in the empty space behind me.
I must look ridiculous, I thought.
There was no telling what the traction was going to do or how fast it was going to take, so the doctor allowed some friends to come in to the ICU to see me. One by one, they filed through the door and up to my bedside like I wasn’t even in a hospital, but hanging in one of the Intensity Games locker rooms instead. Someone clearly prepped them for what they were about to see because they appeared cheery, and not afraid of my Frankenstein-like state.
“How’s it going?”
“You look great.”
“So happy to see you.”
“We’ve been here for hours.”
I don’t recall the responses I gave in return; I just remember being happy to see familiar faces. I also recall my body becoming heavy, probably the onset of drowsiness from the day’s festivities and the drugs given to me upon admittance.
“The traction is not working,” I heard a voice from far away say. My friends were gone. Had I dozed off in their presence?
“Jana,” a nurse said, soothingly. “We need to do a CAT scan. Okay?”
I was still carefully strapped to the backboard, with no idea what happened to the steel rods. Or what had happened in the last few minutes, or hours.
“Sure,” I agreed.
There were three technicians standing by the CAT scan machine upon my entrance to the room. As I arrived, they each scramble into a different position. While one prepped me to enter the gigantic, cream-colored machine, one of the techs rattled off some instructions.
“We can hear you in there, so let us know if you need anything. The test will take twenty minutes. Try to stay as still as possible. Blink if you understand.”
I blinked, and then verbally gave a cue that I could also speak. I was proud to still be conscious and cognitive, especially upon being told most people are not in this case. Then I closed my eyes and let the tube suck me in.
I opened my eyes once inside the tube, and immediately became overwhelmed with claustrophobia. Quickly, I shut my eyes tightly and decided this was the best way to continue the process. Instead of watching the bright light circling around me, I’d listened to the machine bang and clang as it made its way around my body. Never had I felt so relaxed, until suddenly an urge to vomit came upon me.
The feeling of nausea forced my eyes wide open. I was completely consumed by the tube, and not even able to see any light from the outside.
Why would I vomit? Where would I vomit? I wondered, slightly panicked about this new predicament. I never vomit. Maybe it’s a false alarm.
The saliva was multiplying in my mouth rapidly, causing my lips to pucker. I was dangerously close to spewing all over myself and debated whether or not to call for help. I rarely puke. And stopping the test would mean having to start all over. I did recall that as part of the instructions. And then a different thought occurred to me.
My head was still taped to a board, and I was wearing a neck brace. There was nowhere for the vomit to go, but up and then back into my throat.
“Help,” I called out, careful not to open my mouth too wide. “I’m gonna puke.”
I was yanked out of the tube as quickly as promised. The techs were literally outside waiting for any signal of distress, and never can I recall being so happy to see strangers.
“Do you need to throw up?” the lady asked.
I was too afraid to open my mouth so I blinked, and nodded my head yes.
“Listen to me Jana. Go ahead and puke. Don’t be scared. We’re going to turn the backboard to the side. You try to force whatever is there to come up and out. If you don’t puke on your own, one of us is going to have to stick our hand down your throat and scoop it out. Do you hear me? I will stick my hand down your throat if you need help. We don’t want you to choke on your vomit.”
I didn’t want to choke on my vomit either. So I started spitting. I also didn’t want this woman’s hand down my throat. What I didn’t realize immediately was that my body, my stomach muscles, as well as all the muscles around my rib cage that are used to heave, were paralyzed. Trying to vomit was not easy. It was something that seemed impossible for me to do. So I continued to spit saliva on command, until finally green bile started to make its way onto the table next to me.
“That’s it. Good job!” She cheered on.
In the midst of heaving, I heard one tech ask the other what was happening. “It’s probably from all the steroids they pumped in her,” she explained, calmed.
Steroids?!?! I knew I had been given morphine, but steroids?
I forced myself to heave harder, as if attempting to rid my body of the toxins and its problems… until finally everything went black.
Tune in Tuesday, March 19th, for the next part of my journey.