On the afternoon of April 4, 1995, I was in downtown Spokane on business for The Spokesman-Review where I am employed as an advertising account executive. As I left a building, I was struck by a fast-moving bicycle and thrown to the concrete sidewalk. This person was riding illegally on the sidewalk and traveling at about 10 to 15 miles an hour. I don’t remember the accident itself or even some things before the accident.
I was in a coma at Deaconess Medical Center for more than three weeks. I was not expected to live. When I miraculously survived, my family was told I may not have my mind or be the same person I was. Doctors weren’t sure I would walk again. However, here I am! My mind is intact and I am learning how to walk again.
This journey of the past year has taken its toll on me mentally, physically and emotionally. But if I have learned anything from this nightmare it’s that all of us are capable of surviving most anything. People around me say I am an “inspiration.” But in a situation like this you have two clear choices: You either become the best you can given the circumstances or you retreat from life. I chose not to retreat, but every day is still a struggle. I have permanently lost the hearing in my left ear, my sense of taste and my ability to smell. I see double. I am always dizzy. This journey is not an easy one.
People ask me if I “saw the light” when I was in my coma. I do not remember a thing about the coma. What I feel deep in my heart is this: While in the coma I was surrounded by friends, prayers and the love of my family, especially my daughter, Maisy. She held my hand and talked to me every day. On Easter Sunday, she hoped I would open my eyes and see her. I did not. I feel that as I hovered between life and death, God gave me a choice. Go to him or go back? My loved ones were pulling me back. My daughter, especially, was not ready to lose me.
After spending more than a month in the intensive care unit, I was transferred to the traumatic brain injury unit at St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute. I started out in a wheelchair, graduated to a walker and I presently use forearm crutches.
During rehab one day, a group of us attended a lecture by Dr. Neil Shulman. He is the doctor who wrote a fictional story about a newly graduated doctor driving cross-country to his future job as a plastic surgeon. The story eventually became the movie “Doc Hollywood.”
Dr. Shulman inspired me to look at the humorous side of my head injury. It was like trying to find humor on the darkest side of my life. Since my head injury resulted in double vision, I suddenly had “two” microphones in my face. I also saw two smiling heads, which of course belonged to Dr. Shulman. His smiles put me at ease.
I began: “After a three-week coma and a long bout in the intensive care unit, I was transferred to St. Luke’s. Every morning a nurse would come in and ask me in a monotone: ‘What is your name? How old are you? What is your birth date? What is the date today? And, where are you?’
“For the first three mornings I answered these questions with a serious and precise voice. By the fourth day, I felt they should know that I surely knew who I was and where I was. So when the nurse asked: “And, where are you?” I said, “The Twilight Zone.”’
It’s hard to find comical moments on this dark, disastrous side of life. And I’ve experienced many dark moments. Here are some:
It is a week after I’ve awakened from my coma. I am still quite confused. But I feel happy. I think I am 25 and have just had my baby, Maisy. My family and a nurse try to explain how I happen to be here. It takes me awhile to understand.
A therapist wheels me to the sidewalk outside St. Luke’s. She helps me stand up so I can hang on to a walker. I am so dizzy, unbalanced and weak in the legs that I can barely stand. I can’t keep food down and I throw up several times a day. Long feeding tubes hang from three holes in my stomach. My head is shaved on the right side. There is pain in my left ear. It rings loudly. I wear a gauze patch over one eye so I won’t see double. I recognize lilac bushes, but I can’t smell them.
The therapist notices that I am upset. In a kind voice, she asks: “Is your glass half-empty or half-full?” All I can think is this: “The glass is neither half-empty nor half-full. It is shattered on the floor.”
New Year’s Eve. I am alone. At midnight I light a candle and say a prayer. I listen to the song “Amazing Grace” by Joni Mitchell. I say goodbye to the worst year of my life.
Valentine’s Day. Chocolates and roses. What are they worth without tasting and smelling? I have a dentist appointment to begin taking care of yet another problem caused by my injury. When I arrive at the dentist office, I see on the counter a box of chocolates and a dozen red roses. I think: “Wow, someone is really loved.” The lady in the office says “These are for you.” I read the card: “To the greatest Mom in the world. Love, Maisy.”
My daughter and others help light the way in this darkness. I am unable to drive, so I take a taxi everywhere. I have grown quite fond of one woman taxi driver. She mentioned one day how horrible it must be that I can’t taste or smell. She said, “I’d rather go back to my Dumpster-diving days than not taste or smell.” I hesitated and then I shared this thought with her: “I’d rather not taste or smell than be in a position to Dumpster-dive for food.” We were both amused by our different perspectives.
This year, I turned 50. Before my injury, turning 50 was probably the most difficult thing I had to face in 1996. Now I think it is indeed a privilege, though I was still feeling quite down before my birthday. Not only was I turning 50, but the actual one-year anniversary of my injury was just days away. This disaster really occurred. It was not a bad dream.
As my birthday approached, I reflected on the reality of my life. I lose my balance and fall down frequently. When people walk toward me, they are moving up and down like an old movie does when it goes off its sprockets. Taking a shower is a daily ordeal. I sit on a chair and use a hand-held showering device. It’s difficult to shave my legs because I see double. I consider putting on makeup “therapy” because it teaches coordination to my right hand. But as I put on mascara I poke myself in the eye frequently. Handwriting is difficult. I tire easily. One of my therapists told me it’s because my brain is working overtime. I am deaf in one ear with constant ringing that never stops, and I am partially deaf in the other ear. My upper lip and upper gums feel numb. This never goes away. Emotionally, I am all over the place. Often, I feel very alone.
Anyway, my daughter and I had dinner together on my actual 50th birthday. The next night, Saturday, she planned and executed a surprise birthday party for me at the house of my fiance. I hobbled in, someone turned the lights on and everyone yelled, “Surprise!”
I was speechless and stood there with my mouth open and tears flowing. Because of my double vision, I saw twice as many people. Instead of 50 candles on my birthday cake, I saw 100, but it was wonderful seeing my friends and co-workers. I am fortunate to have such lovely people in my life.
I thank Maisy for that surprise party. I thank my friends for bringing their love and presents! This celebration was exactly what I needed.
Early on in my recovery, I was hopeful that the doctors were wrong and my taste would return. I decided to microwave some popcorn. Our dog Brownie sniffed the air in anticipation. I envied him. Whenever we ate popcorn before the injury, Brownie would position himself about five feet away and we would throw him a piece. He would jump up and catch it in midair.
The buttered popcorn was ready. Brownie was in position. I threw him a few kernels. He missed all except one. I popped a piece in my mouth. I felt as if I were eating oily Styrofoam. I sat down (not easily, I can assure you) on the carpet next to Brownie. He was 16 years old. He had suffered a stroke three months before.
“I’ll never pop corn again,” I told him.
He looked at me and sighed as if to say, “I don’t care. I can’t catch in midair anymore anyway.”
Brownie died recently, another dark moment in a year filled with them. But I am still here. It is Easter Sunday. And this year, unlike last Easter, I can open my eyes and see Maisy. And see the life I was meant to come back to live.