In the space of a moment your life can change forever.
By Eileen Register
BRRR-i-i-ng! I reached over to shut off the alarm. Stifling a yawn, I grumbled, "7:00 already? I gotta quit this late night stuff - I won't be worth shit today..." Bounding out of bed, I rushed to the bathroom, jerked my underwear down, and sank to the cold toilet seat. Just as the bare flesh of my behind made contact, an excruciating pain shot through my spine at waist level. Thinking I had pulled something in the rush to alleviate my full bladder, I relaxed down onto the seat. The pain intensified ...it felt like an explosion ripping through the center of my body from back to front. Stifling a scream, I rose from the seat as soon as the stream of urine stopped. My panties fell unnoticed to the floor. My legs tingled, wobbled, felt as though they would give at any moment and allow me to crash to the floor. "What the fuck is happening?" my mind screamed, but words wouldn't come. Gripping door frames, furniture, anything I could grab, I somehow made it from the bathroom to the bed. As I collapsed onto the mattress, my legs stopped tingling...
I tried to rise, but my legs refused to respond. They felt numb, heavy. The pain in my back had receded a bit - now it felt like sledgehammers...fifty pound sledgehammers...banging constantly against my spine. Carefully, using my hands, I lifted first one leg then the other onto the bed and fell back on the pillow. I tried to sit up and found that I could not. Regaining my voice, I screamed, "Billy! Get in here quick!" I was scared...really scared.
Rushing into the room, my son recognized immediately that something was terribly wrong. My pale, tear- streaked face and the crooked position of my body on the bed brought fear to his intensely blue, deep-set eyes.
"What the hell is going on, Mom?" he cried.
"My legs won't move!" I screamed hysterically. "I can't move! Call someone...call 911...call an ambulance!" I roared almost incoherently, as cold, stark terror took over.
Grabbing the phone from my headboard, Billy punched the buttons, his hands shaking so hard he nearly dropped the receiver. "Send an ambulance to 342 North Spring Circle... something is bad wrong...it's my mom. She can't move her legs...no, she didn't fall... damn it, just get someone out here now!" He screeched as he slammed down the phone
Whirling to face me, he suddenly jerked his head away... "Mom, where are your clothes?" he whispered, a blush rising on his slender face as he continued to avert his eyes.
"Oh God," I whispered, "I can't let the ambulance people see me stark naked!" It's really strange how such inane, unimportant details assert themselves at times like this! "Grab those pants on the chair, Billy!" I barked hoarsely, "You've got to help me get something on..."
In spite of the seriousness of the situation, the next few minutes were hilarious. Pulling and tugging, my son tried to force my rubbery, unresponsive legs into the beige, nubby tweed slacks I had discarded a few hours earlier. Unable to bend or reach, I was a helpless rag doll as he laboriously worked the pants up my legs. By now he was so intent on his efforts that my nudity no longer mattered. Log-rolling me across the mattress, he jerked and pulled the waistband into place. Flopping me back onto my back, he struggled to zip the tight slacks without mangling the tender flesh of my pudgy abdomen. Had I not been so preoccupied with the pain in my back and the fear eating through my brain, I would have laughed.
"Now my bra!" I squealed.
Stopping dead, he stared at me, dumfounded...and the blush once again crept up his face. "Mom! I don't know a thing about putting on a bra!" he gulped.
"Right, tell me another funny one...you're sixteen, son, don't play the innocent routine with me! Just grab the thing and I'll get it on..." Once again aware of my exposure, he gingerly handed me the bra, his faced turned to one side and his eyes tightly closed.
"Never did like these damn things...UH!... OUCH!... To hell with it!" I exclaimed, slinging the bra away from me. The blouse was next; just as I fastened the last button with shaky fingers, a loud burst of sirens wailed around the corner at the end of the block and approached the house.
Leaping from the bed, Billy burst through the house, slamming the front door into the wood-paneled wall of the living room as he raced onto the porch. "In here!" I heard him scream, as more sirens joined the milieu in the front yard. Almost immediately, the chubby face of an ambulance attendant appeared in my bedroom doorway. Followed closely by his equipment-laden partner, he came quickly across the room and knelt beside me.
"What happened?" he queried. Fear, momentarily forgotten, washed over me. A torrent of unintelligible sounds tumbled from my mouth, and he laid his calming hand on my shoulder, urging me to slow down, settle down, and let them help me.
Gradually, I became somewhat coherent. As I described what had happened, a puzzled look crossed the faces of both Emergency Medical Technicians. One of them reached for the phone while the other extracted a blood pressure cuff and stethoscope from his bag. By now, at least three other men had swarmed into the room, and the EMT quickly related the situation, then sent them to fetch a stretcher, backboard and neck collar. Speaking quickly and quietly into the phone, the other EMT again repeated the sketchy details of my dilemma. The first EMT now had the cuff around my arm. As he read the pressure - 150 over 100 - the second man repeated it into the receiver. After listening a moment, he hung up the phone. "Joe, we are to treat this as a spinal injury...brace the back and neck. The doctor also wants an EEG hook-up ASAP."
"I TOLD you, I didn't fall!" I yelled at the two men. They ignored me.
Working quickly, they taped electrodes to my chest and hooked wires between them and a small box. Immediately, a needle began rhythmic tracks up and down the graph on the front of the EEG.
"Great," I groaned, "I'm not dead...and this isn't a nightmare, either."
Through the door came a stretcher. Taking the board off the stretcher, the two muscular men gently rolled me over and placed it under me. They carefully pulled me back onto my back and strapped me onto the board. With each movement, fiery impulses streaked up and down my spine. I screamed. Carefully, very carefully, they placed a thick foam block on each side of my head and strapped them into place. As claustrophobia took over, vomit crept up my throat. Gulping, I forced it back.
"Calm down," I counseled myself. "There's no telling what's going on, but it damn sure isn't good... so let these people get you to a hospital!" Taking a few shallow, shaky breaths, I relaxed...at least as much as I could relax, lying on a stiff board with sledgehammers pounding my back and knives of flame tearing through my body. And fear...more fear than I'd ever experienced in my life!
The ambulance ride was, in a word, HELL! While one of the EMTs stayed at my side in the rear of the vehicle, the other, presumably a trained driver, proceeded to hit every single pot-hole and rough spot on the twelve-mile trip from my place to the hospital. Between bumps and their resultant spasms of pain, I asked the man beside me how long it took to learn to drive with such precision. As I winced again, he caught my tongue-in-cheek meaning, and, apparently relieved that I seemed to have gotten a handle on myself, he agreed that it took MONTHS of practice.
"Well," I whispered, "your partner must've been an `A' student."
Usually, when you go to the emergency room, you sit for hours among coughing, sneezing adults and screaming, whining kids, waiting your turn. Not this time. Within three minutes of arrival, nurses whisked me into an examining room and quickly peeled off the clothes my son had so painstakingly put on me. Not one, but three doctors hovered over me. Again, calmly now, I explained my plight. A puzzled expression on his face, one of the doctors left the room. After a few moments of hushed consultation, the other two hurried out, firing orders at nearby personnel as they departed.
The pain began to subside somewhat. I tried to move my foot...three toes wiggled. Then a big, blonde, handsome intern pushed the door open and entered the tiny room, a hypodermic needle in his hand. "What in the world..." I began. He explained that the doctors wanted to relieve the pain a bit and relax me with a little Demerol so they could run some tests. Pulling back the sheet, he swabbed a small area on my thigh with an alcohol-soaked cotton ball and poised the needle. Squeezing my eyes closed, I awaited the pain, remembering how horribly Demerol had burned the last time I'd received it. Slowly, I opened my eyes. I could feel the man's hand touching me, but as I looked at the needle piercing my skin and saw the plunger slowly sink into the outer tube of the hypodermic, I felt no pain...no burning, liquid fire shooting into my body. Looking up at the young intern, I grimaced. Realization was lightening-fast. This was no passing thing; I was really in trouble here.
"Boy, I'm in a world of shit, aren't I?" I very delicately commented. Slowly, I faded into oblivion as the Demerol did its work....
The next few hours are hazy now...like floating in a thick, murky fog. I vaguely remember lying on my stomach, hanging head- first on a hard, slanted table, my ankles secured at the upper end, and watching a screen as the doctors injected something into my back. As the stuff snaked its way down the vessels revealed on the screen, I felt strangely disconnected, as if I was watching pictures of someone else's body. A technician at the downward end of the table kept pulling my head upward. I later learned that it was imperative to prevent the dye from entering the brain, but at the time I thought it was some bizarre torture. In my drugged haze, I wondered if I had been transported to the days of the Spanish Inquisition! Finally, the myelogram was finished, and I passed once again into blissful oblivion.
Later that evening, I began to reenter the world of the lucid. Screaming for the nurse, I demanded to know what in the hell was going on. Why were my legs still frozen? Where were all the doctors? Finally, a tall, lean, severely handsome man sauntered into my room and propped himself at the foot of my bed.
My brain screamed "ARROGANT BASTARD!" but I retained my cool. "Tell me what is going on, Doctor." I calmly requested. This was it...I wasn't sure I really wanted to know, yet I had to...
"To be quite honest, I don't know," he said.
"WHAT! My legs are dead and YOU don't KNOW?" I croaked, still trying desperately to stay calm.
"I have done a myelogram, x-rays, blood tests...everything is coming up negative. You are apparently paralyzed from the navel down...but in view of the tests, I cannot clinically diagnose the cause of the paralysis. I believe, however, that you have suffered a spinal infarction...a clogged or ruptured artery in your spinal cord."
Totally unsatisfied by such a brief explanation, I demanded to know more.
"You have lost the sensations of heat, cold, and pain, as well as movement," he explained, a superior glint in his eye. "But you retain the ability to sense touch and location (he demonstrated, asking me to close my eyes, then moving my foot to the left). The cord is organized such that the nerve tracks governing the things you lost are located along the anterior portion, and the things you have retained, along the posterior. The only logical explanation for your extremely specific losses is the occlusion - clogging - or rupture of the artery that feeds the nerves in the anterior portion of your cord. From the level of loss, I surmise that the infarction occurred at the tenth thoracic vertebrae." He sat back smugly.
"Okay, so my spine had a `heart attack'. But will it get better, Doctor? Am I going to be okay?" I whispered.
Apparently convinced that I was bright enough to understand and too bright to lie to, he continued. "I've only dealt with one other case, and that patient did not regain use of his body. His infarction was in the cervical spine; fortunately, yours is much lower. Frankly, though, I don't believe you will regain use of your legs."
Fiery anger shot from my eyes...I stared at this harbinger of doom for a moment. Slowly, teeth clenched, in evenly measured tones, I said, "Then YOU don't know who YOU are dealing with, Doctor!"
A brief smile crossed his face, then, regaining his solemn but somewhat less arrogant expression, he said, "With an attitude like that, you may just walk into my office in a year."
[Although some literary license has been taken, this is a true story that happened on January 24, 1987. Names and locations have been changed to protect the privacy of family members, and a bit of humor has been injected into what was an extremely traumatic experience in my life with many far-reaching effects. In spite of all that's come as a result of the changes this event wrought, I am still and forever will be The Optimist. When the world hands you lemons, make lemonade!]