Take time to deliberate, but when the time for action has arrived, stop thinking and go in.
- Napoleon

Saturday, December 9, 2006

Remembering is sometimes the hardest part

It was the weirdest dream she’d ever had. She was in a room she’d never seen before, lying in a bed that wasn’t hers – the walls were yellow and she could make out a window on her right. Second later, she was in a different room and a different bed – the walls were green now and the window was on the left. People she knew came in and left; people she didn’t know came in and left, It was like a movie being played on fast forward and reminded her of that time in college when she’d tried pot. The room shifted to blue and the windows switched sides again. The people were moving slower now and she could almost make out the words they were saying.

Then she awoke in a room she didn’t know, in a bed that wasn’t hers. It was like the last part of the dream. Except that when she tried to move there was pain – tremendous pain. She didn’t remember any pain in the dream. She felt around on the side of the bed for the button she knew (but didn’t know how she knew) was there. Minutes later a woman came in. This woman was talking to her as if they knew one another, but she couldn’t remember ever meeting the woman. From the way the woman was dressed, she could only be a nurse and she crossed to a machine beside the bed. She pushed a button on the machine and turned to take the patient’s blood pressure.

“Who are you?” The woman in the bed asked.

The nurse smiled at her in an odd way – it reminded the woman of how people reacted when her cousin Terry – who was a mongoloid – asked questions. “You remember me. My name is Sherri.” As Sherri wrapped the cuff around the patient’s arm, she began asking questions – silly questions.

“What year is this?”


Sherri wrote a note on the chart she held. “Close. It’s 1994. Do you know what day it is?”

“Not really.”

“It’s January 28th.” Sherri said cheerfully. “Do you know who the president is?”

This one she was sure of, “Ronald Reagan,” she replied.

The nurse smiled in a way that the woman now knew she wasn’t right. “OK. Today we’re going to get you out of bed and get you cleaned up. You’re starting therapy today.”

The woman remembered what had happened the last time she had tried to move. “I can’t get out of bed.”

“Sure you can. I’ll help you. Remember how we got out of bed yesterday and went for a walk?”

Walking reminded the woman of something. “I need a cigarette.”

Sherri laughed. “Well, you know it’s been a couple weeks since you had one. You ought to think about quitting.”

While she mulled this new information over in her head, the nurse moved a wheelchair into position next to the bed and helped her into it. It hurt like hell, but she was too busy trying to think of something important to notice much. The nurse rolled her through the room and into the bathroom. Pausing at the sink she pointed to the items around it, “You’re mom brought your things from home. I’ll bet that you’ll be happy to brush your hair and teeth after all this time. I’ll leave you to do that and if you need any help, just press the button on the wall. When you’re finished, we’ll get those hospital clothes off and get you into the shower. You can change into some real clothes when you’re finished. Your mom brought you some clothes, too.”

The woman was trying desperately hard to take all of this in. It didn’t seem real and she wondered if she were still in that horrible and weird dream. As she heard the door close behind her, she glanced up into the mirror above the sink and looked at herself for the first time in weeks. She didn’t look right – too thin and too pale – but it was the red line extending from her eyebrow to her cheekbone that caught her attention the most. She began to cry.

It wasn’t a dream. She was in the hospital. She remembered someone telling her that she had been in a car accident; she remembered that her leg had been broken – and other things.

She looked into the mirror again and saw this pale and pitiful thing looking back at her. She stopped crying and resolved to beat this thing. When the nurse came back, she was brushed and ready to take what she knew must come next. In the shower she saw the rest of the damage, but screwed her courage up determined not to cry. Crying didn’t solve anything and she knew that there were things that needed solving.

The nurse had laid her things out along the bed. Now here were some things she recognized – clothes she had bought for when she was pregnant… “Where is my baby?” she asked.

“She’s with your mother and father. Remember?”

She didn’t remember, but she was satisfied with the answer. They finished getting her dressed and she was rolled along to the elevator and the therapy rooms downstairs. “I need a cigarette.” She explained. She reminded her again that it had been weeks since she’d had a cigarette. “Listen. To me, it’s only been a couple days. Is there a way I can have a cigarette?”

As the elevator doors closed, the nurse told her. “There’s no smoking in the hospital, but after you’re finished with therapy, I’ll take you out back to the employee smoking area. You can have one of mine and maybe when your mom comes later, she can bring you some.”

During therapy, she asked many questions – questions that she had the feeling had been asked and answered many times before. She found out that she had been in a car accident on January 11th. She heard, although she didn’t believe it, that she had run a red light and been broadsided. The speech therapist (Speech therapy? I don’t have a problem speaking.) told her that she had sustained a traumatic brain injury and that speech therapy wasn’t just for speaking problems, but also to assist with memory problems. The last thing she remembered – and even that was fuzzy – was New Years Eve, so that made sense. She’d get that fixed and she’d be fine.

In physical therapy, she learned that she had broken her thigh near her hip joint and the scars were from the surgery to repair her. She also learned that she had broken her pelvis and her collar bone – but neither of those hurt much any longer. In physical therapy, she also discovered her goal. She decided that she would get out of the wheelchair and walk like any normal person, but that was going to take a lot of work.

Later that day, her parents arrived. They looked tired, but they seemed cheerful. With them, they brought a baby. It was kinda cute, but she was never much on babies. Then she remembered that it was her baby. As she held the gurgling bundle on her lap, her mother explained the events of her car accident and that her daughter had already been dropped off at the daycare when the accident happened. For the first time, the woman talked to her mother as if she were sane again and her mother looked relieved. She learned much later that for the past 17 days, although she had seemed conscious, she hadn’t acted like herself.

She set about learning everything there was to know about her injuries and her condition. She asked endless questions of the doctors and the nurses and the therapists, but now when she asked the questions, she remembered the answers.

She was released from the hospital on February 23rd – still in her wheelchair and still in therapy. Most of the people she encountered were kind and she progressed rapidly – all things considered. She knew that the only way to get better was to work hard, so she worked harder than she ever had in her life. She graduated from wheelchair to walker and walker to cane within two months, but she still wasn’t normal. Her short-term memory was good; her middle length memory wasn’t; her long term memory was swiss cheese. She couldn’t reason very well, and she found abstract concepts confusing. Her math skills – never very good – were shot to hell.

A sickly-sweet therapist talked to her like Mr. Rogers would talk to a five-year old. She went to the manager of the therapy branch and promptly fired the old bitty from her case.

A sickly-sweet social worker told her gently that she shouldn’t consider going back to her old job and should consider maybe working as a clerk or a gardener. She fired the social worker and told the manager that if she had to have ‘sessions’ she would work with a real psychologist, thank you very much. They contacted the neuro-psychologist she’d had in the hospital and he came over once a week to talk with her.

She rallied together the people in her group therapy sessions – the ‘higher level’ TBI patients, they were called – and they held their own bull sessions outside in the garden. More psychological therapy occurred out there than had ever occurred in group.

In computer therapy, she taught herself MS Word (for DOS) and designed the new ‘patient guide’ – by patients for patients. In physical therapy, she became a cheerleader for anyone who was having a tougher time than she. Throughout the building she became a mentor for the newer patients, and a confidant for the ones who had been there longer – some of them in therapy for years. She planted marigolds in the garden and sweetpeas in the window boxes.

Every day, her mind and her body healed – albeit slowly.

The memory still fails her now and again. The worst damage was to her childhood, but she learned that the memories were still there, even if the old paths were washed away. If she works hard enough she builds new path to the old memories. She learned tools for improving her memory, for improving her mind, and where a tool didn’t exist, she created one of her own.

The scars are still there – now faded and white – and the weather reminds her every now and again of why they are there. The outward visible signs are few – the limp comes rarely and the scar near her eye is small – in the words of a friend it makes her face look cool.

In the havoc created by a lack of attention on the way to work, she learned what she was made of.

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