Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Confessions of a Former Invalid

This past Saturday marked four years since I was hit by a minivan crossing the street on foot. (I mention the event without preamble because I hope that anybody who reads my blog already knows about this rather dramatic incident and won’t be shocked by the revelation.) It left the minivan with a broken headlight and left me with a thrice-broken pelvis, a concussion, and nerve damage in my left leg.

Everything is healed except the nerve damage—and honestly, how important is it, really, to be able to make fists with your toes?

But that’s not what I actually want to reflect on: I thought I’d spend a serious moment or two sharing what I learned from being a helpless, bedridden patient, and how it’s changed my outlook on both health and sickness. It has occurred to me that very few people my age are fortunate enough (and I mean fortunate) to have a brush with serious health threats and then recover to the point that they can truly appreciate their wellbeing and comfort. Maybe my reflections won’t mean anything to someone who hasn’t experienced being an invalid, but on the off-chance that it might, here goes.

I learned that nurses have a very difficult job and deserve every ounce of respect we can give them. The doctors (bless them too, of course) see a patient for five minutes, prescribe an IV or a test, and disappear down the hallway. The nurses check the IVs, prepare you for the tests, help you get to the bathroom, clean up when the meds make you sick, keep you company for as long as they can when you crumble into a ball of nerves and fear in the middle of the night. Their hours are awful and they spend more time with bodily fluids than most people would even care to imagine.

I learned that when people hear you’re in the hospital and say, “Well, at least you’ll get a chance to catch up on your sleep,” they have never been in a hospital. Coumadin shots at 2 in the morning, doctors’ rounds with sleep-deprived residents at 4, the constant beeping of monitors and the snoring of your heavily-drugged suitemate…not to mention the fact that you’re broken!

Also, when folks say, “I guess you have plenty of time to do your reading,” they have never been on strong pain medication. I tried to read Chaucer’s “Parliament of Fowles” while on morphine. This was a bad idea. I STILL don’t understand that poem, and I blame it at least in part on the fact that I first encountered it while under the influence of controlled substances. And besides that, if you’ve never felt it you simply cannot understand the entirely debilitating enervation that comes from being unwell. The meds make you hazy, the lack of sleep makes you incoherent, and you just can’t muster the energy or the enthusiasm to apply your vacant mind to anything. I couldn’t even check emails while I was in the hospital, I was so incapacitated by the whole experience.

I learned that people are not themselves when they are unwell. You get cranky, petulant, waspish, and impatient, and God bless the people who put up with invalids, and God bless the invalids who manage to keep smiling. My first suitemate in the hospital was like that—a gentle soul in for some kind of joint replacement and patient as an ox through all the tests and the surgeries. People like her are a blessing to those around them.

I learned, too, that we are bodily creatures, as much as intellectuals wish to live in their minds. Never before was I so acutely aware of how entangled my own being is with the physical body that houses it. The hospital strips you of your dignity in so many ways—through no fault of its own, but simply because it doesn’t (can’t) care about your intelligence, your soul, your individuality: you are there because your flesh and nothing else matters. You are pierced, palpated, scanned, and transported like a piece of meat—the hospital ward is the great equalizer, and it is a humbling equality. I will never again take for granted the dignity of being able to shower by myself, walk down the hall without pulling an IV along like a lame pet, put on my own socks, sleep without a monitor, wear underwear.

More importantly, though, I learned a great deal AFTER I got out of the hospital. I also learned—and this is the most profound lesson of my experience—what it might be like to live with chronic pain. The nerve damage to my leg extended, at first, to my lower back (I did, after all, break my pelvis right next to where it connects to the spine), and though they swore up and down (after their barbaric tests) that my sciatic nerve was undamaged, I had the constant, unrelenting symptoms of sciatica for almost three months. The six weeks on crutches was nothing compared to the jolts of electric pain shocking through my back and leg every few moments, day and night. Neuropathic pain is cruel without being a properly treatable injury. I don’t want to harp on the discomfort, because obviously I was able to work through it, and so many, many people suffer infinitely more every single day, but, just for a short time, when the doctors shrugged and said, “It might get better. It might not,” I did realize what it would be like to look into the years and years of future and think, “I might always be like this. I might never be comfortable again.” It is a cold, bleak feeling. It has given me a much more profound respect and sympathy for those who actually DO live in constant pain, and have no hope of ever being free of it.
Last but not least, I learned how incredibly blessed I am to have a wonderful family who dropped everything to come and be with me, and, once I’d been released from the hospital, to take care of me at home. Funnily enough, it never occurred to me right after the accident that my parents would drive down from DC to the hospital; I was quite surprised to see them in the doorway of the holding area where I was put until a room could be found for me. I blame the concussion for my surprise. My poor sister, after being so distracted by the news of my accident that she put her cell phone through the laundry, took the long bus ride from New York to Charlottesville to surprise me with a visit. My father used up all his vacation time to be with me, and my mother put her entire life on hold to be my live-in nurse from October through Thanksgiving. I am, indeed, blessed.

I am changed—more emotionally than physically—by my brief stint as an invalid; if my experience can mean something to others, I would consider it doubly worth its inconvenience. I learned what it was like to be helpless, to need others for absolutely everything, and I learned how to appreciate feeling well.

And always to have health insurance.

And not to jay walk.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


At last something to report that didn’t only happen inside my head! This past weekend my parents and I went down to Knoxville to see my sister, who is in Tennessee (the Volunteer State, I’m told) as an AmeriCorps volunteer. We were so excited to have a family reunion for no other reason than that we could do it!

I’d never been to Knoxville before, and even though it seems to have been hit disproportionately hard by the economic whatever-we’re-calling-it-now, I do have to say it has an incredibly cute Market Square—which, being a Charlottesville resident, I habitually called the Downtown Mall. I had to be corrected multiple times. My sister and two of her fellow AmeriCorps buddies also have a very cute house which they kindly opened to us during our visit. Actually, I’m not sure we asked if we could stay there or whether we just crashed, but either way, nobody kicked us out—Southern hospitality!

We had a lovely time together over the weekend, going to a huge flea market, seeing an unprecedented two movies in one day (one of which was Secretariat—see my previous post to understand how close I was to cardiac arrest due to ecstasy the entire time), playing dominoes, and getting an introduction to what my sister does in her job. Sustainable farming in the urban jungle—only wild idealists would think to try it, but that’s how the world gets changed. They’re very successful, I hear, and my sister has already learned more about solar dehydrators and rain catchment systems (and more about turnip greens, baby spinach, and okra) than I ever really knew there was to know. Example: you can make your own diesel fuel. Go figure! Part of the project of this farm is to raise awareness for sustainability issues, and after this weekend, I think my sister can consider my awareness raised!

Things that go wrong are always funnier than things that go right (and more interesting to those who don’t have an emotional investment in the heartwarming parts of a trip), so here are a few amusing snafus we encountered (or rather committed) during our visit:

- Believing we were driving toward a Burlington Coat Factory, we navigated very carefully to the geographical center of Knoxville. Explanation: we were using an iPod Touch to get directions and the map was so small we didn’t realize that the star was the starting point of the trip, not the destination. This is why an iPod should not be used as a substitute for a GPS system. I also believe I have now been permanently taken off navigator duty.

- In an attempt not to eat my sister out of house and home during our visit, we went to the grocery store nearby and picked up cereal, milk, and such things. We proceeded to eat absolutely none of it. Except the hot dog buns, which we only used because my sister already had hot dogs at home that we ate for lunch. This somewhat negates our efforts not to deplete her food supply.

- In trying to find a place to eat dinner before our second movie on Sunday (this one at one of those great two-dollar second-run theaters), we drove to no less than four places before finally getting fed. We asked directions from a local for the nearest pizza place, drove a good deal farther than she had indicated before finding it, and then discovered that it was take-out only. So we decided to be adventurous and try a mom-and-pop pizza place a few blocks away. No luck—it was carry-out as well! So it was back down the road to an Olive Garden—which we found, once we went in, to have a long enough wait that we would have missed the start of the show. So back down the road in the other direction once again to a little dive of a Chinese place, where we overheard one of the worker’s daughters exclaim, “Ooh, look, a dead bug! It’s got mold all over it!” However, the food was very good and none of us have food poisoning. (Side note to this story: when we got to the movie theater, we discovered a pizza place right next door. Oh, the irony.)
But the exception proves the rule: the fact that these little anecdotes are the biggest snags we hit in a weekend road trip from Virginia to a city half of the family had never seen before should just serve to indicate just how successful a venture it really was. We’ve always been lucky to have a very close family, and we say a hearty “Pshaw!” to anything that might separate us—even four hundred miles of highway.