A charming, deep voice cuts through my semi-conscious state, "We have to get you into surgery right away, Miss Martin."
“Will it leave a scar?” I hear myself reply.
“Yes,” the charming voice says, “but the alternative is paralysis.”
“Go for it,” I say, and then the charming voice is gone.
I have fallen and broken my neck. I cannot walk and while my arms are happy to oblige whatever I ask of them, my snarled hands will have nothing to do with me.
It had been a night out with the girls. I was wearing a pair of very cute new red heels and was feeling quite spunky. Perhaps here it is best to explain that I’m not normally a big party person, so just the very fact that I was feeling “spunky” should have tipped me off that trouble could not be far, but the shoes were new and, by God, I was going to show them off.
At the end of the evening, the drive home along a winding mountain road coupled with copious amounts of tequila is making me nauseous. We pull over. I open the car door and no sooner do my cute new red heels hit the ground than I lurch forward and slam face down into an unseen ditch. Immediately, I know I’m screwed. I can’t move. I can’t even yell for my friends. I do manage to softly whisper, “Jesus, help me,” even though I cannot remember the last time I was inside a church. I lay there for what feels like an eternity. Where are they? Don’t they notice how long I’ve been gone? Finally, they’re at my side. No, I’m not okay. No, I can’t get up, roll over, or take your hand.
The ambulance ride to the hospital is hazy at best. I recall apologizing a lot. Had, I realized the seriousness of my situation I would have been terrified. As it is, I just feel stupid.
I awake from surgery in a room with only a nurse. My neck is protectively engulfed in a soft collar. The surgeon has removed the disks between C- 4, 5, and 6 and inserted a titanium rod in their place. I must wear the collar for several weeks until my neck fuses. We don’t know if I’ll be able to walk and my hands are still non-responsive. I’m single and live with a disabled dog and three cats. I have no family nearby. I’m alone. Who will take care of me if I cannot take care of myself? I start chatting – about nothing, about everything – small talk, I can’t shut myself up. I want to appear normal, strong, and above all, in control. Always in control. The nurse is kind. She smiles, nods, keeps up her end of the exchange. I suspect she knows how scared I am, but she doesn’t let on and I am grateful.
At some point I’m transferred and wake up in a two-bed hospital room. Nurses are a constant. Everything must be done for me. I’m a person for whom a manicure can be outside my comfort zone, but now no part of my body is off limits. Every fiber of my being wants to scream out in protest, but realizing that I’m totally dependent on this staff of strangers, I am unfailingly polite.
My surgeon visits. He doesn’t have to tell me who he is. I recognize the charming voice. He asks me to take his hands and squeeze them. I’ve got nothing. He looks worried. Clearly, he expected more improvement. I change the subject, nervously joking about my comment to him before surgery, “Will it leave a scar?” What a complete idiot he must have thought I was. He smiles now. “I’ve heard dumber,” he says.
My girlfriends stop by en masse, filling my room with flowers and determined to pick up my spirits. “You look great,” they say. “Really?”, I reply. I realize I haven’t looked into a mirror since before the accident two days ago... Three?... I can’t remember. One of them tentatively holds up her compact for me. My face looks like hamburger. Miraculously, my nose is not broken and all my teeth are intact. I just stare. “Maybe some lipstick,” she offers. I smile to hide my feelings, something I’m good at. “I don’t think lipstick is going to do it.”
I’m worried about my animals, especially my eleven-year-old dog, Aussie, a Chow/Australian Shepherd mix with a disk injury that had paralyzed her hind end a couple of months earlier. She can walk in front, but her back legs need to be put in a little cart I had custom-made for her to get around and go outside to relieve herself. My friends assure me that she will be cared for and, true to their word, they hire someone to stay at my home.
Fiercely independent. That’s me. Always ready to lend a hand, but reticent to accept such help in return. Growing up in an alcoholic home taught me that others cannot be counted upon to carry the ball. Need equals vulnerability and, until now, I’ve spent my life successfully avoiding both, convinced that my very survival depended on it.
In a few days I am transferred to a nearby rehabilitation facility. I’m encouraged because they only accept patients who have a good chance of recovery. The first day a nurse brings my breakfast tray, then leaves before I can explain that I can’t feed myself. I quickly learn that doing for myself is part of the physical therapy here. I resist the urge to go face-down into the scrambled eggs and lap them up like my dog, instead managing to manipulate the fork so that it makes its way to my mouth almost 50% of the time. Good for me. Sandy, my physical therapist, arrives. She’s a strongly-built, cheerful girl in her twenties. We work on getting me dressed and into my wheelchair. She helps only when all attempts by me have been exhausted. By then I’m wiped out and just want to go back to bed, but off we go to the therapy room.
To evaluate my hands, I’m to put ten of what seem to me to be absurdly tiny pegs into matching holes with first my right hand, then my left. I struggle with the task, hoping that at some point Sandy will realize my frustration and grant me a reprieve. She doesn’t. Twenty minutes later I’m done, but near tears. My job requires hours of typing. If my hands are useless, how will I earn a living? She teaches me a series of hand exercises to do on my own, objects to squeeze and manipulate to promote dexterity as well as build strength, and counsels me to be patient with myself. Patience has never been my strong suit.
Lunch arrives around the same time as my friend, Mary Ann. I ask her to cut up the chicken. I realize this is cheating, but I’m starving, so I promise myself just this once. The morning work on my hands seems to have done some good because the fork is finding its way to my mouth with a bit more frequency. Over the next few weeks, I work on my hand exercises diligently and slowly my hands begin to respond, first the right, then the left, which remains the weaker to this day. Eventually, I can even apply a little lipstick without ramming it up my nose and I start to recognize myself again.
Afternoons, it’s back to the therapy room and work on walking between the parallel bars, forward, backwards, sideways, Sandy always right there, giving me confidence, not letting me fall, teaching me that it’s safe to trust. I’m put on an exercise bike to build stamina, seven minutes, fifteen minutes, pushing myself to thirty minutes. Every little triumph is celebrated by my friends who are there daily to encourage and support me. They bring my mail, do my banking and keep me in the loop on the latest gossip. One day one of them even brings Aussie to visit. We’re quite a sight, Aussie in her cart and me in my wheelchair, rolling down the hallway together.
I graduate from the wheelchair to a walker, first under supervision, then by myself, allowing me the freedom to navigate from my bed to the bathroom, to stand and brush my teeth and, best of all, make it to the toilet by myself. I’ve been there almost three weeks and am in between the parallel bars when Sandy says, “Okay, now let go and walk forward over to the wall.” My heart starts to pound. I feel sick and start to shake. “You can do this,” she assures me. “I’m right here.” I take a deep breath and focus my eyes on a small spot on the wall. I hope it’s not a fly because if it moves it’s all over. I lurch first one foot, then the other, pitching each one in a flat, wide stance like a child taking its first steps. It’s not pretty, but I make it. And now I’m crying, because for the first time, I know I’m going to be okay. I can walk.
I’m told I’ll be going home soon. What should be joyous news sends me into a panic. I’ve felt safe here. My every need has been provided for. There is still so much I can’t do for myself. While I have much of the dexterity back in my hands, I can barely lift two pounds. How will I put my 38-pound dog into her cart the five or six times a day she needs to go out? My walking isn’t 100%. I’m still using a walker and can’t stand by myself even for the time it takes to make a meal. I haven’t been sprung from the neck collar yet and am still not supposed to move my head so I can’t drive to the store. How will I bathe myself? What if I fall and no one is there? And on and on…
A dear woman from the community insists on doing my grocery shopping. Another friend’s husband installs safety bars in my shower. My friends have bought me beautiful new bed sheets, washed all my clothes and rearranged my closets and drawers so everything will be within reach. They all take turns driving me to follow-up doctor visits. A woman I’ve known for thirty years, but had lost touch with, hears of my accident and travels the 200 miles to my home to stay with me until I’m able to be on my own. She cooks for me, cleans, helps me shower. When the doctor finally says my neck is healed and the collar can come off, she even helps me wash my filthy, disgusting hair that’s been matted to my head for a month.
I allow myself to need and to be vulnerable, to receive and let others give. I realize that I’m not alone. I never have been. I’m still a control freak, but maybe not quite as much. It’s been damn hard carrying the ball all by myself all of the time and a relief to learn that I don’t have to. It’s said that God tickles you with a feather and if you don’t listen He hits you with a brick. Apparently, I was one of His tougher cases.