MY CRASH AND I: WHAT I LEARNED FROM TOSSING MY ACURA IN THE AIR
In five minutes my Acura RSX would be spinning and bouncing more than eight feet in the air with me in the driver’s seat. How to describe the noise? Imagine being inside a huge tin can filled with pebbles bouncing down a bumpy road. Bang, clatter, crash, rattle, even crackle! The noise!
But I didn’t know it as I waited for the left-turn signal to turn green. Just a short ride south on Audubon Road, a right turn onto Engler Boulevard, left on Chestnut Street and I’d be within sight of home. A nice quick nap and then two wonderful unscheduled days ahead to work on my writing projects. It was a good day, April 15, 2015, I’d just had lunch with women friends followed by a painless visit to the periodontist. Maybe this was a slower route home, but more peaceful than route 41. Looking back, maybe “peaceful” wasn’t such a good choice, but I’d have plenty of time later for “What ifs.”
So far, you can rely on the relative accuracy of my report. From here on in, remember that memory is not a manila folder in an internal file cabinet, but a constantly modified creation. I do have the reports of a couple of eye witnesses, enough so I know that what I recall doesn’t meet with what I see when I drive past the spot now. It’s enough to know I couldn’t have been airborne more than three seconds if it’s true that’s how long air bags remain deployed. It’s enough to know there weren’t as many trees to avoid as my memory conjures.
It was as if a heavy dark comforter suddenly fell away from my eyes and I saw the last of a line of cars directly in front of me. Unspoken words travel in milliseconds through the brain. “I did it. I fell asleep. I can’t hit those cars.” I swerved off the road to the right, taking a piece of the bumper from the car in front of me. I only know that’s true, because the insurance company paid him some $200 for the damage. “Was he mad? I asked later on in my recovery. The answer was “no.” I can’t imagine what it must have been like for him, not only suddenly to be hit ever-so-mildly from behind, but to be on the sidelines to witness my flight. I do know it was traumatic for the witnesses I met later. I remember steering like crazy to avoid trees, saying to myself “I’ve got to get my foot to the brake, but I have to keep steering.” Then I was flying and rotating in the air, saying “Oh My God!” No, I wasn’t praying. I was curious. What an amazing thing was happening. No, I wasn’t in fear of dying. The noise was even louder as I seemed to bounce, and then suddenly it was over. I was sitting right side up in the driver’s seat of my Acura which, as I saw in the photos later, looked like a tin can ready for recycling.
I think my first thought was “OK. Just relax and let them take care of you.” Or maybe it was “There’s black smoke. I’ve got to get out. It’s going to burst into flames.” I do know my thoughts were interrupted by a kind man whose name I later learned was Frank. He reached in through what was left of the passenger side window and took my hand. “Just stay still. 911 has been called. Help will be here in seconds.” It must have been very uncomfortable for him leaning through that broken remnant of a window and – as he later reported – holding my hand that was gritty with shattered glass. “Did I hurt anyone else?” I asked. Hearing his answer “no,” I relaxed easily into total relief and dependence on my potential caretakers.
“I deliberately kept asking you questions,” he reported. I remember some of what he asked, like “Where do you live?” I know he asked me, “Are you married?” because he later confirmed my answer, “No, I’ve been happily divorced since 1976.” He didn’t appreciate my humor when I said, “I think I’ve totaled my car.” One can’t blame him for thinking my brains were scrambled, given the surprise of seeing a “little lady” alive in the driver’s seat when he feared finding a bloody dead body. (He says he saw a “little lady” in the driver’s seat. What a gentleman, he didn’t say “little old lady.”)Then the wonderful first responders arrived.
But first let me tell you more about the event as reported by Frank, and by Trace whom I met later at Auburn Manor where I was recovering. It turns out I managed to avoid hitting Frank’s house and others. I don’t even remember seeing houses. And here’s Trace’s story as he came to my room at the rehab center. Demonstrating with his cell phone bouncing on my bed, be told me he’d been heading north, about to turn left into his street, when he saw my car approaching, apparently at a normal speed. Fate led him to be patient and wait for the car to pass before making a left turn. I guess it’s about that point where I fell asleep and gained speed. What I know is his choice not to turn spared both him and me from dying in a direct collision. He reports my car flying over the street sign (about eight feet above the road), hitting the ground, bouncing, hitting the ground again, bouncing, and finally coming to rest right side up. He said he called 911 even as I was in flight, telling them to “send everything.” At some point I took out a city light. I know that because my insurance company paid the bill. Trace, like Frank, expected to see a bloody sight. I think it was important for him to have the opportunity to describe the accident to me. There is trauma in witnessing such a thing. If I understood him correctly, he fetched his wife once the emergency vehicles – and I – were gone, so she could see the remnants of my car. Either he or Frank, or both, report finding self-help books scattered all over. I always carried copies of my books in my trunk – hope springing eternal that there might be a sale. When I told a visiting pastor that story, she commented, “Well, that’s one way to spread the word.”
“I knew the injuries couldn’t be too bad,” Frank reported, “when the ambulance didn’t use the siren in transporting you away from the scene.” He also reported on the agility of a young man who crawled in through what little space was left where there had once been a rear view window. It’s not too clear what wonderful service he was performing, but I wish I could meet him as well to say my thanks. And speaking of windows, I learned that the glass in the car shatters into bits of sand, just one way technology works to spare additional injury.
While the EMTs were doing their job, the policeman was asking me for my insurance card. “It’s in my handbag in the zipper section of the little case holding my credit cards.” He looked in my handbag, and there ensued a “No it’s not; yes it is; no it’s not” conversation until I caught on that he wanted the auto insurance card in my glove compartment, not my health insurance card. Interspersed he asked me several times how fast I was traveling. “Well, until I took off, I was driving the speed limit, 50,” I responded several times. “I have no idea how fast I was going when I was avoiding the trees.” To tell the truth, it seemed to me like I was flying – well, actually I was. By the way, the next time I rode past that area, I noticed that the speed limit is 45. Thank you officer.
I remember one fireman working at getting my earrings off. In response to his question I explained there was a kind of hook behind my ear that had to be pulled off. When days later I arrived at Auburn Manor for rehab I was given a plastic glove with my earrings inside. I appreciated that kindness. Maybe it’s a regular process, but it still seemed to me like an act of thoughtfulness. By the way, I later met and thanked that man who works as a painter at Auburn Manor.
Frank tells me it was quite a while before the ambulance took off with me in it on the way to the 212 medical center, no sirens sounding. I suspect I was sedated at 212, because I’m not sure now whether the memories I’ll report next happened at the first stop, or later when I was transported to the Hennepin County Medical Center. But it is relevant here to confess that I am really quite vain about my appearance and clothing. What I do remember is lying on the table with the doctor (a woman, which is noteworthy for one who lived through the time when any doctor was, of course, a man.) asking me were there clothes I especially wanted to preserve. “Oh, yes, my pants. I had them specially altered to fit.” No problem, they were easily removed and set aside. “And I love this jacket,” I said. After a slight attempt at saving it, I had to agree my arms and back were in no condition to assume the right posture to remove it, so off it went in pieces. Not much of a loss when you consider what might have happened. How often I have said that since. “It’s nothing when you consider what might have happened.”
And now things get a little fuzzy. I remember having a delightful conversation with Aaron, the EMT who kept me company inside the ambulance, but I don’t remember whether that was on the way to 212 Medical Center or to Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) which was my second stop. I do know I was alert and rational and interested in chatting with him.
Somewhere early on in the process I was told they would contact my son. “Don’t bother him yet. He’s got a lot on his plate,” I said. “There’s nothing he can do right now. Wait until later.” They didn’t wait, and Doug visited me at HCMC. For one thing, at my daughter’s request, he took a photo of my black and blue face (the only thing showing above the sheets) so she’d feel less distant at her home in Williamsburg, Virginia. Lisa reports she couldn’t stop crying when she heard the news. Then she picked up the phone and called a lovely mutual friend near me. Kathy is that kind of person; Lisa was comforted, and, of course, the news spread to one of the best and most helpful groups of friends one might have. More later on that. What Doug didn’t get a photo of was my legs that looked like I was wearing black hose. I didn’t notice that either until I was transported sometime later to Auburn Manor for rehab.
“My mother bounces,” my daughter reported to others after she had adapted to the news and been reassured that I wasn’t seriously injured.
While Doug was there, I handed out assignments. He was to take care of insurance issues, and it was up to Lisa to let interested people know about the accident. (I tend now to call it “the event.” After all, what was accidental about it?) I also gave instructions that I was not to be put on the prayer list at Mount Calvary Lutheran Church where I am a member. I guess remnants of Swedish opposition to letting others know my business bubbled up from somewhere deep in my ethnic psyche.
I remember episodes of being wheeled about in a hospital setting, presumably at HCMC. There were times when I was thirsty and given ice chips spooned into my mouth. I was told to practice breathing into the instrument they gave me to measure the strength of my inhales. “You have four broken ribs,” they told me. “The biggest danger with that is developing pneumonia because of a failure to breath deeply enough.” I started then and there to work at measuring my breathing. I certainly didn’t want pneumonia. I continued practicing, getting better and better at breathing, long after I was on my home recovery. I found it helpful to remember a current TV ad in which the grandpa says “I have trouble getting air out of my lungs, so it’s hard to get it in.” So I made sure to push all air possible out of my lungs before inhaling – working for an A+ in breathing. I was also told at some point that I’d lost two inches of height. I didn’t make the connection right away between that and the L1 disc compression fracture they would explain to me later. Nor did I anticipate how it would affect my appearance.
Sometimes I was lucid and talkative. I had some good chats with nursing staff about my involvement in a study of the nurse in the outpatient department back when I was working for my doctorate. Back then we had observed that the only way a nurse could advance in her career would be to leave bedside nursing and go into administration. In other words, to basically change one’s job. Yes, they agreed, that’s still the case. I also remembered from when I was teaching the Psychology of Women at Southern Connecticut State University in the late 60s early 70s that I had a male advisee who wanted to transfer to the nursing program. His family was basically ready to disown him if he did such an embarrassingly “feminine” thing. At the same time, some female nurses were hoping men would enter the field because that would raise the pay level. I think I was having good conversations. The nursing staff might remember it differently.
My son brought me my computer so I could work on the presentation I was scheduled to do as part of a panel at the Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska on April 28. I know my mind was working on it, but I have no clear memory of how I managed with my computer while I lay in bed.
What I didn’t take note of was the absence of food and water because the surgical department was deciding whether to operate to deal with my L1 compression fracture. If they were to do surgery, they would want me to have been fasting. In my in and out sedated state I didn’t much care. As a matter of fact, I didn’t have much of an appetite until I finally went off oxycodone and then morphine months later.
Maybe someone explained the alternatives to me. I just don’t remember. I do remember I wasn’t as grateful as I might have been when a team of four or five folks visited from the surgical department to inform me they’d decided I should wear a brace for three months. My guess is they thought I’d respond with relief, but I didn’t understand that surgery had been avoided. Just as the brace news was a surprise to me, I surprised them by insisting on a conference with Phil, my chiropractor, before accepting their plan. They seemed a bit stunned and maybe annoyed when they left my room. A while later, when I was on the phone with Phil, someone reappeared from the group, apparently sent to convince me to accept the brace. The medical information was exchanged, and both parties agreed it was in my best interest to follow the surgical team’s recommendation.
I don’t know how many days I had spent lying on my back before the brace was ordered. I do remember I was quite willing to let the staff be in control of keeping my body straight. I do think I spent some occasions in a slightly raised position while I was at HCMC. In fact, I remember that it was OK for them to adjust the bed to a 30 degree angle. I think I was upright while they fitted my brace. I do know it was months later, sometime in October, that I finally felt free to sleep in different positions. It was important to keep everything straight, I mean, literally straight. Even when I was in rehab I would ask the aides at bedtime to be sure my body was straight as I lay on my back. To tell the truth, it was easy to yield control to my caretakers. It was like a vacation from responsibility.
Once the surgical team had made its decision, things happened rapidly. The brace builders measured and fitted and fitted again until they and I were satisfied (well, sort of.) I was to wear it for three months whenever I would be in an upright position. It came with a packaged white T-shirt because a shirt was to be worn at all times under the brace, even when showering. In the meantime the social worker, or whatever her official title, arranged for me to be transported to Auburn Manor in Chaska,within a few minutes of my home and good, caring friends. What a blessing.
I was transferred sometime around April 22. (Dates weren’t important except for the anticipated forum on April 28.) Kevin was my EMT companion in the ambulance “I’ll sit behind you,” he said, “because that’s a safer seat for me.” Then there was some rattling of papers and he moved up to a seat beside be. “You’re healthier that I am!” he declared, referring to my records.” Thence ensued an interesting conversation when I discovered he is an ex Marine, as was his father and his grandfather before him. We discussed how differently returning servicemen had been treated in the several wars in my memory. Certainly not so great for the Viet Nam vets. I sort of hated to have the conversation end, but there we were, rolling me in to Auburn Manor.
I was greeted on my arrival by Robin, a lovely teaching nurse, and a crew of very caring aides. It was Robin’s job to teach the aides how to get my brace on and off while making sure they kept my body in a straight lying down position. That involved teaching them – and me – that I should roll whenever getting into or out of bed, or having my brace attached or removed. Keeping my back straight was an absolute requirement. “You were a mess when you arrived,” Robin later reported. I wasn’t aware. I do know one of the first things they did was give me a shower. Quite an undertaking for the aide. I don’t know how she managed to stay dry herself as she sat me on an open seat, soaped me up, washed lots of sandy glass out of my hair, and sprayed me clean, all while working around the brace. As one injured service man once described to me, the aide washed everything possible before handing the cloth over to wash “possible.” I noticed later that in most cases the aides brought the bath chair to the patient and wheeled in it to the shower room. It was primarily a nursing home facility. Most of the residents were there permanently. I know of only one other person who was there rehabbing, in her case from knee surgery.
Robin thought it didn’t make sense to keep the T-shirt on while showering, but we learned pretty fast that the wet brace against bare skin was not a good idea. From then on, it was scary when I lay on my back while they pulled the wet shirt over my head. I couldn’t twist my arms enough to remove it myself. I’m sure it wasn’t anything like the awful torture of waterboarding, but I did think of that every time I held my breath while they removed it. At some point I had acquired another shirt for them to put on me after a bath. But I didn’t acquire a bunch of them until later when my daughter bought a package of boys T-shirts for me. More on that later. The aides dried the brace before reattaching it to my torso, including using a hair dryer on the Velcro fasteners. After a few times, they realized the heat was damaging the Velcro, so they abandoned that drying process.
Sometime early on, the nurse on duty had the job of counting and recording my bruises and their location. She repeated the process a few times while I was there. What a tedious enterprise for her! I can only guess the reason. Was it to protect the nursing home from any claims of abuse I might make? Or was it a way to measure the healing progress?
I had a private room with a shared bath that I could use freely when I was up and about with the brace on. Nighttime was a different story when the aides didn’t feel comfortable putting my brace on so my needs had to be met by providing a bedpan. Shades of my lack of modesty back in the days when I gave birth. I still giggle when I remember the middle-of-the night conference with one of the attendants who knew her way around the iPhone. Mine was new to me, acquired on a special outing with my son to the Verizon store when May 6 had arrived and I was entitled to get a new one. On the night in question I complained I had been awakened by a random and unwelcome sick sex text somewhere around 2 a.m. “Oh. Sophie (I don’t remember her real name) can help with that,” said the aide, and she called her on the internal communicator. Sophie, another aide, came and, as I lay on the surgical bedpan, showed me how to turn off the sound. We had a delightful conversation about the advantages and uses of the iPhone.
But let me get back to telling the story of my stay at Auburn Manor.
The aides there are amazing, really dedicated to helping. I was impressed by one young woman who left to take an office job. She was back the next day, asking to be allowed to return to the job she loved. And how respectful they were to the residents, understanding of those who regularly begged to return home, or who wandered the halls making sad noises and getting lost. Always I observed the staff looking like they enjoyed being with the people they served. As I was completely accepting of being cared for, it occurred to me that a nursing home might not be so bad when I reach the point of confusion and real helplessness.
I can report that I experienced pain, only because I remember being very willing to take the Oxycodone and Tylenol I was given on a regular basis. I worked out a plan for receiving the full dose at 9 p.m. just before bedtime, helping to assure I’d sleep through the night. The aides had a regular routine. First they rolled and tugged the ted sox off, the opposite of the morning routine when they worked them on – not an easy job, but necessary because of the swelling in my ankles. Then they removed the brace and tucked me into bed, making sure my body was straight. Pillows were placed to help raise my legs. Auburn Manor didn’t have the obviously expensive equipment that had kept massaging my legs all night at HCMC At my request, the last step before turning off the light was to open the slats on the venetian blinds so the outside lamps served as my nightlight. Nothing brighter was needed, given the magic of cell phones and Kindles that light in the dark. The table next to my bed held those toys to keep me company as I fell asleep, a process that happened fairly quickly.
At some point my prescription was changed to morphine, Opioids do help with pain and sleep. And reduced pain helps with energy, so I was ready to think about the panel on forgiveness in which I was scheduled to participate on the evening of April 28th at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska (where I sing in the choir). I was excited about presenting a different approach that would accommodate a definition of forgiveness as a balance of justice and mercy, like two sides of the same coin. To help with this, I wanted to design a handout demonstrating one side or the other of the coin being overextended, or exaggerated. And this takes me to an account of the fabulous and fun help I got from friends and family.
I needed paper to sketch my ideas for a handout, and clothes to leave the nursing home looking decent. Doug worked with me on the handout, designing and printing from his computer at home. Dear Carol and Kathy had some apparently giggly fun shopping in my closet. One very useful item was a warm black hoodie that continued to be my constant companion long after I returned home. One of the aides insisted I should zip it up part way to conceal the T-shirt that covered my breasts which protruded through a space provided in the brace. “You don’t want the men leering at you,” she worried. I don’t remember any leering men, but it made her happy for me to cover my T-shirt.
A few tops from my closet worked out well over the brace, and Carol and Kathy found my loose fitting black pants that I wore when I went to “Curves” to exercise three times a week. It turns out I never did get back to “Curves,” because it closed shortly after my “event.” Gwen, the young woman who had owned it, was an inspiration to me. She had constant painful back problems, always wearing a brace. At the time of closing her business she was about to have surgery to relieve some of her intractable pain. My problems by comparison were as nothing.
So I was prepared with appropriate clothing to be delivered by bus and wheelchair to the forum on April 28th (I managed to add some drama by circulating a photo of my poor little crushed Acura.) I have frequently wondered and asked what would be the preference of people in wheelchairs. I was sure it was important to make eye contact, and to speak to the person in the wheelchair, not to the person with them, as if a wheelchair would make one deaf or stupid. But what is most respectful? To bend over to speak? Or to kneel down to be directly at eye level. I know now what the answer was for me. But remember, my occupancy of the wheelchair was temporary. I can’t assume these are instructions for every situation. At any rate, the truth is I hardly noticed how people did it, as long as they spoke directly to me.
Talk about the kindness of friends! It was no small task for John and Susan to get me there, and for others to join the team to return me to Auburn Manor when the bus failed to show for the return trip. And how welcoming folks were. I do think the loving care and compassion I received from so many helped to keep the healing juices flowing through my body.
The care of friends didn’t stop there. Carol and Kathy dropped by often, bringing my mail and doing other errands. At one point Carol brought the bag of my books that had been retrieved (by Doug) from my Acura. She didn’t get far, though, with removing the books, because the bag was filled with sandy glass. My neighbor, Scott, a Pastor at another church in town, discovered I was there when he came to conduct a service. His offer of help of any kind, including from his wife, a nurse, was most welcome. I did appreciate Angela’s help a couple of times after I got home. And then there was my neighbor Jean who spotted Carol going in and out of my house. When she learned that I wasn’t traveling, but rather was right down the street in rehab, she came by with flowers.
Mary, my retired Physical Therapist friend, came by for a visit. I asked her help in getting me back into physical shape. She jumped right into the role, finding an extra chair to bring to my room for guests. I guess it was OK with the staff, or no one noticed, but it stayed for the balance of my time there. Right from the beginning she nagged me in the most wonderful way. It was she who took me to my second visit to HCMC for my “brace” checkup. “Don’t drag your feet. Take clear steps, heels first.” “Stand up straight with your walker.” She still monitors my behavior.
There were visits by folks from Shepherd of the Hill and offers of visits by Pastors at Mount Calvary. I declined the latter. That they cared about me warmed my soul, but I needed time to stay on top of other things. I did, though, ask for a visit from Dave Olson, the Senior Pastor, because I knew he would somehow help me understand why I was still alive. I also knew he would appreciate the humor in my saying “I guess I totaled my car.” Just his presence was a comfort, and he did help me understand. Not stuff like God wanted to spare me for some special mission, but good, practical realization that my Acura was really well constructed. I felt even more powerfully that I’d been given a gift of more living, so I should probably do something useful with it. I did feel his blessing – even let him pray with me at the end. I know folks from Mount Calvary would have visited as well, but except for people like Carol & Kathy, they didn’t know about the accident. – my choice. Truth be told, I didn’t long for visitors. I had little enough time as it was to work on my presentations and to stay in touch with out-of -state friends. And I really loved napping.
Now I’d like to talk a bit about the good people of Auburn Manor – and of the services provided primarily by Medicare. The Physical Therapists had me doing exercises supported by my walker, and with exercise bands of increasing challenge. When I was released to go home, exercise bands and instructions went with me to continue the exercises. I still do them every morning, not that they come close to the workout I used to get at “Curves.” The Occupational Therapists introduced me to some wonderful tools, like the amazing picker-upper. (I’m sure there’s a more technical name.) It seems so delicate, and yet it is a marvel of engineering. It picks up heavy things like books, and light things like dead bugs on the floor. Then there’s the tool for pulling on sox without bending much, and the long shoehorn with an obvious purpose. There was also the Speech Therapist whose job it was to decide whether I’d been cognitively affected by being tossed around. She apologized every time she came with harder and harder puzzles and questions, but she had to put in a certain amount of time to satisfy Medicare requirements (as I understand it) before she could sign off on me.
For meals I was seated with two interesting women. One I learned later had been an officer in the Air Force. She communicated by pointing, calling every man a bastard and every woman a bitch. She and I had some interesting interactions at the table, with my doing most of the talking, of course. I learned of her previous career when representatives of the Veterans of Foreign Wars had a lovely ceremony on Memorial Day to honor the vets who were patients there. Each Vet’s military status was described and a plant delivered to him/her by one of the Boy Scouts present.
My other table companion was offended at being called a bitch until I pointed out that was our tablemates method of communicating. Saying this reminds me how very respectful were all the aides of each of the residents. Every one had a story to tell about a life fully lived, though I didn’t get to hear all the stories. I was interested in one woman who was also a Vet. With the Physical Therapists she resisted all action and conversation – wouldn’t even squeeze a sponge – but when her daughter came to visit the communication was active and enthusiastic. Aging is tough, even without physical and cognitive impairment. I think the worst part is loss of the respect one had as an adult. But I never saw the folks working at Auburn Manor talk down to a resident as if to a child.
The folks in the dining room did everything they could to make the diet satisfying and the eating comfortable. I, for example, prefer unsweetened almond milk, so they allowed me to bring some that they stored and delivered to my table with cereal in the morning. They also caught on that I didn’t eat bread products, so they would often serve me the sandwich contents without the bread. One patient provided shrimp which they prepared for her each day. Every week we were given a menu from which to choose, but even more effective was the fact that the servers simply learned our preferences. How important it is that each resident is treated as a respected individual! I will confess, though, that it is an institution, and like all institutions the food can eventually become boring as the same menus are recycled.
Especially pleasing to me was the kindness of the staff in making it possible for me to continue working with a few clients – setting aside a room I could use with one who came in person, and preparing a “Do Not Disturb” sign for my telephone sessions.
My social life did go on. Doug and I had tickets to Brigadoon at a local theater on the evening of May 2d. We went, armed with my walker and extra Tylenol should I need it. I think we also kept our date to go to the matinee at the Guthrie Theater on May 3, but I confess I can’t remember what we saw. I do remember fussing to find the place to store my walker while I walked to my seat – holding the railing. (Nothing new about holding the railing. That had already become habitual.)
I think I passed up our scheduled plan to hear the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in the evening of May 1, but I do remember with special joy my Mother’s Day excursion. Doug and I had tickets to see “The Crucible” matinee that day. We also had plans for brunch before the show, so I had obtained permission from my physician to have one drink with the meal. But the thing that made the day really special was the surprise presence of my daughter, Lisa, from Williamsburg. It was the best Mother’s Day ever! Lisa busied herself going into stores getting the supplies I needed, especially the boy sized white t-shirts to go under my brace.
And now here are a few things I learned. I ordered a Bloody Mary and it didn’t taste good. I didn’t finish it. In fact, none of the food tasted good. It didn’t taste bad, just not good. I did look forward to meals, but I’m not sure why. I did enjoy the cup of tea, though. I realize in retrospect that nothing tasted really good as long as I was on the opioids.
I learned some other things that day too. I learned that carpets in many locations are there to trip up someone using a walker. I learned that restrooms are great about providing large booths for the handicapped, but the entrance doors are very heavy. And I learned that just because I was feeling good and happy I overdid the activities when we went to the mall after the show. I was pretty tired the next day.
Each time I left campus, I refused to take the Miralax intended to prevent opioid – induced constipation. Let me tell you, if you are ever in that situation don’t pass it up. When the constipation did eventually hit, it was awful. The TV ads don’t come close … “It’s as bad as childbirth,” I said to one of the nurses. “It’s worse,” she replied. “I’ve experienced both.” Just a word to the wise.
I had always wondered why people using walkers bent over so far to push them. It seemed to me their backs would be happier if they raised the height of the walker and walked straighter. My sister with severe back pain explained that it’s because the back hurts. But my Physical Therapist friend says it is better to keep the back straight. I can testify that I worked very hard to keep my back straight, and it was far from easy. It took constant thought to work at tightening my abdomen and keeping my back in line. Recalling my mother helped a lot too. She was in the habit of running her finger down the center of my back to startle me into position, so I regularly channeled her memory. These many months later I’m pretty good at keeping good posture without bothering her, but things are a little tougher by bed time when my abdomen wants to protrude and my back wants to crumble. It’s traditional now for me to make lots of happy noise when I first get into bed on my back.
As I reported earlier, my PT friend also made me stop shuffling. Lift your feet when you walk, and put your heel down first. What a job! Making sure I did the right thing with my feet while keeping my back straight and my tummy tucked. But I was determined not to walk like a duck.
Now just a little more about recovering at Auburn Manor. For me personally, it was a lovely balance between being almost totally dependent on others to care for me while making it possible to continue doing the things about which I am enthusiastic. I even had my hair shampooed a couple of times. It was tough, because the equipment was not intended for someone with a brace. We found that the best way to handle it was for me to bend forward over the sink – not really comfortable, but do-able. And the hairdresser was lovely – a delight to chat with.
There’s a little more to tell about my brace and my stay at Auburn Manor. A month after the brace was applied, on May 22, I had an appointment at HCMC for an X-ray and meeting with the Nurse Practitioner. Also a very pleasant young lady, who was, I’m very happy to say, willing to share information with my Chiropractor/Nutritionist. That connection helped a lot when I was recovering at home. My dear friend Carolyn drove me there, basically guiding me from one office to another as I was still in my dependent mode. I happily followed along on my walker.
Until that meeting, I had hoped I might heal more quickly than they expected and I might be released sooner from the brace. That’s when I got a clear “It’ll be three months, three months. No matter what you do, it’s three months.” I learned at the last session that the point was to be sure my discs had not moved. It wasn’t a matter of healing. But let me get to the most important thing about that meeting. I complained about not being able to get up in the night on my own, having no one to remove the brace. “Oh, you can remove the brace yourself,” she said, and directed us to the office of the brace maker. My kind friend was very obliging about driving me there. I learned to keep the brace fastened on one side and to reach around to undo the Velcro fastenings on the other – all while rolling back and forth. Amazingly, it’s do-able. I think I had to develop a certain amount of strength before I could enjoy that freedom, but it was like being a real grownup. That night I fastened myself into the brace when I had to take a bathroom break. I opened the door to my room to access the shared bathroom, and there was a group of aides who happened to be in the hall outside my room. They were delighted, surprised and cheering. What great people!
Yes, being at Auburn Manor was a great experience. So great that I found myself wanting to lean into the care of others. But the time did come when I was to continue my recovery at home, I was really afraid. I didn’t realize at the time how much help I would get from Medicare services. To tell the truth, I’m not sure how much my secondary insurance was involved.
What I do know is the Occupational Therapist visited my home with me to point out what had to be done to prepare it for my return. Everything had to be brought down to arm level reach; I had to demonstrate I could do the stairs safely; a railing had to be installed at the entrance from the garage into the house; there had to be grab bars by the toilets and in the shower; the showerhead had to be changed to facilitate bathing while sitting on a shower chair. And everything had to be done to be sure I rolled into bed and slept only straight on my back. It was my fear that I would roll off the bed in my sleep, so I wanted a barrier railing to prevent that.
Enter now the same group of three women friends plus their husbands. A few days before my return home, they drove me to my house (5 minutes away from Auburn Manor) and rearranged clothes, linens, and kitchen supplies to meet the Occupational Therapist’s specifications. That included providing a supply of paper dishes since I was not to lift anything heavy. It got to be a little like a hen party as we giggled over selecting the clothes I might wear and putting them within reach. Carol decided to color code my tops. Kathy stored my winter things, and my bathing suits, out of the way on an upper shelf. And giggled; while she washed a spilled something off her jeans.
And now the husbands enter the story. All three of them took me shopping at a supply store where we accumulated what was needed to install the railings and other physical aids. Then they installed them! Are they friends, or what? Of course the women had to tease me about wrecking my car in order to get a date with three men.
Then the papers were signed. I was released to go home. Medicare was satisfied that I was ready. I was afraid to be alone, so I hired someone to be with me the first couple of nights. I didn’t know then how many more services I was to get. An aide came two times a week to help with the T-shirt and brace after my shower until the brace was removed, exactly three months after I began wearing it. (June 24, 2015) The nurse came often – once a week, I think. The OT and PT came a few times. I was well monitored.
While at Auburn Manor I was required to use a walker. A few times I was caught walking to the dining room without it. I think it was necessary for their legal protection, but it also felt necessary when I left campus on the occasions I’ve mentioned. In fact, I had a walker on each level of my home when I first got there. One was borrowed and two were purchased. They have all now been returned or donated to His House, the amazing thrift shop and service provider instituted by some very dedicated members of Mount Calvary.
Fairly quickly I overcame my fear of being home alone. I was eager to get back to my writing and normal life, but that proved hard to do, partly because I wanted to sleep all the time. As I told people, I was sure it would take a year to recover fully. That’s how long it took me to recover from viral pneumonia back when my daughter was two-years old and my son was four. Walking pneumonia, they called it, partly because I kept working until I had a break in my teaching obligations. I remember being so happy when the doctor back then told me to go home and go to bed. I was free to give up on responsibility.
Anyway, I told people it would take a year to recover, and by that time I’d be a year older, so it would be hard to tell the difference.
Looking forward to the time when I’d be released from my brace, I started counting the days to freedom by playing the daily solitaire puzzle on my iPhone. I haven’t stopped that habit. But I also got concerned about being prepared for two events we had coming up.
First there was the week’s writing course at Madeline Island in Wisconsin scheduled for June 15 – June 20 while I’d still be in the brace. The issue was finding help with handling the brace after showering. I appealed to the authorities there, and they kindly agreed to provide me with a nurse to help with getting the t-shirt off, drying the brace, and helping to get the clean t-shirt on. The rest I could do myself. I can’t say enough about how wonderfully helpful the administration was – and the other students. Doug was there as well taking a photography course. The cabin was a walking distance from the dining hall and classes, so I had a great opportunity to restore my strength. The walker was with me, leaning against the wall just in case.
Then there was the plan to leave for a cruise to the Shetland Islands, Iceland, and Norway, to be gone from July 29– August 15. And I had lost two inches! With the help of K Tailor, the best in the area, we managed to get things shortened that I wore from the waist down. We could work around the brace. It’s a good thing she was patient. She shortened my black palazzo pants, a staple for traveling, with one leg shorter than the other. Then I saw my chiropractor who managed to make them even. She had to do some fancy repair to make them equal.
On June 24, 2015, I had my second visit to the Nurse Practitioner, this time driven by my PT friend who provided the extra benefit of monitoring my walking. Fortunately she was very patient as we waited well beyond the appointed time to be seen. There is something good in that, though, because we were granted all the time we needed for questions once we were in there. I was relieved that the X-ray found everything was as it should be. Still, I was set off on another month of worrying that the brace wouldn’t really come off before the cruise.
Somewhere around that time I got up the strength to set up a chair in my garage, with a makeshift trash bucket beside me and, with the help of the picker-upper, managed to get things gradually out of the boxes containing the stuff Doug had rescued from my Acura. Such a little thing! Such a big accomplishment! Everything still made me tired.
I also began to think seriously about owning a car again and driving. Or I might decide to just go car-less. A friend of mine who used to teach High School business courses had talked about the expense of owning a car: there’s the cost of the car itself, plus insurance, maintenance, gas, registration, and who-knows-what else. The thought made sense. But how would I get about running quick errands to the store, or the 20-mile drive to my son’s house in Excelsior. So I began googling. Especially interested in smart cars. I called AutoPros, the wonderful folk who had cared for my Acura from the beginning. They are located in short driving distance from me, and have a well-deserved reputation as the best in the area. In fact, it’s apparently because of their meticulous records that Allstate gave me top dollar on my poor destroyed car.
My question to them: “If I buy a Smart Car, would you care for it?” “Well, yes,” Gary answered, but with the sound of doubt in his voice. “OK, What’s the doubt?” “Well,” he said, “I don’t feel you’d be safe in it. It’s so small other people don’t see it, and the visibility isn’t that good for you to see others,” Then he told me he was selling a 2006 Volvo for someone. The price was more than $1500.00 less than the insurance company had paid me for my 2002 Acura. It’s a good, safe car, he said. It might be good for you.” I have perfect confidence in Gary, so it was a no-brainer. “I think I’ll buy it,” I said. He agreed to finish getting it into perfect condition and then bring it around for me to see. I hoped it wouldn’t look like a Mafia car. When he did bring it, I was pleased to see it is a nice looking station wagon. I was content to sit on my chair in my brace in the garage and look at it, but he made me take a test drive. It really was quite comfortable, and he was reassuring that just because I’d had an accident didn’t mean I couldn’t drive. So I agreed to buy it. The decision had been made. I’d be a car owner again. When I finally did acquire it, my friend Kathy drove me in her new car to the licensing office to register it.
Life was beginning to feel normal again. Except that I wanted to sleep, or I fell asleep even when I wanted to do other things, like read.
To summarize my recovery time at home before the removal of the brace, all I really remember is sleeping a lot, on my back on my little love seat with my legs elevated. And I wrote a lot in my head, made plans to put the thoughts into the computer, to get back to blogging, and to read some about the period of time when my father first arrived in the United States. Not much of that got done. I could keep up on my e-mails pretty well. They could be read on the phone while I lay on my back. But even that didn’t last long before I went to sleep.
I had my day organized around waking up, solving the daily solitaire puzzle, rolling around to fasten the brace, getting up, sponge bathing (or waiting for the bath aide to come twice a week), dressing, “making” my bed, stuffing as much as I thought I would need into my red pouch bag and carrying it downstairs, along with my treasured picker-upper, leaving a hand free to hold the railing. Because I was supposed to eat some breakfast and take my supplements, I prepared oatmeal or eggs – something easy, because I was already anxious to take a nap.
Next came the trip to my bottom level, to my computer, and the bathroom where I had stashed an extra toothbrush and stuff. I made it through a few things before time for an equally unenthusiastic lunch and – oh joy! – lying on my back on the love seat with legs elevated, trying to stay awake, but falling asleep almost instantly.
All the while I was trying to get myself moving in anticipation of the cruise coming up on July 29, 2015. And worrying that they wouldn’t set me free from the brace on my supposed-to-be-final visit to the Nurse Practitioner.
But true to her word, she set me free from the brace on my last scheduled visit, July 17. Yes, it was three months, three months. I’ve since learned that three months is the standard amount of time to be sure nothing has been displaced.
Set free from the brace, I relaxed. Until I saw myself without it. Consider that most of the two inches had been lost in my torso, but my skin didn’t know that. It was still ready to cover two inches more than I had. And I had lost the curve in my back – not good for a vain person like me. I’ve managed to overcome that some, but the issue was to get my dresses adjusted to fit the shorter me. K Tailor was magnificent, working quickly to get it done.
And I moved around, as I continue to do, remembering my mother running her hand down my back, utilizing the Alexander training I had in walking as if the top of my head is attached to the ceiling. (If you decide to try it, don’t look up. Just imagine it’s connected to the top of your head.)
Okay, so there we are. The shower ladies no longer were needed. The OT and PT folks signed off on me. I was normal. Except for wanting to sleep a lot, and taking myself off the Morphine. Oh good lord! Was I ever sick. I mean sick all over. I don’t remember ever being that sick. It must have been a week and a half of nothing but being sick and surviving on the BRAT diet: bananas, rice, apple sauce, and toast. Kathy supplied my food needs, and left me feeling safe. My neighbor Angela, who at one point changed my bed for me because I couldn’t bend and bear the weight, brought me a simple beef patty from the neighborhood party. I was just barely beginning to get my appetite back.
Sometime after recovering from the withdrawal phase, my ankles began to lose the swelling. It took a while, but I noticed they were normal. I had learned to pull on the Ted sox with the sox helper, but I didn’t need to any more. What a relief. I still continue lying on my back with my legs elevated when I nap, or just need to make my back feel better, but I don’t have to do it for the sake of my swelling legs.
I don’t remember exactly when, but sometime before the cruise I found I could stretch to reach things on kitchen shelves. I stopped using paper plates and ate off real dishes. I wish I had kept a diary, but I was too busy sleeping every chance I got, so I don’t know when I first bent over to pick something up. I do know that Jean, my across-the-way neighbor, came to get my suitcase and stuff up off the closet floor so I could pack for the cruise. I think I was at a stage where I could pick up something light, but not anything so heavy as a suitcase.
Besides packing for the cruise, I needed to continue gaining strength. I don’t remember when I began to be well enough to take a daily walk around the area. I do know I began working with my Chiropractor/Nutritionist as soon as I was out of rehab. First with acupuncture and chiropractic. He uses something called an activator, so he doesn’t do the old-fashioned twisting. And I went back on my nutrition regimen. He was confident my pain would decrease, and he has been right. It has decreased.
But still, my back was hurting, and nothing helped, not even Tylenol. So I’ve been free of all medications. Lying on my back with legs raised is good, though, as is walking.
The flight on the way to Reykjavik was very uncomfortable. I spent the time walking the aisles when the seat belt sign was off. That’s why I love an aisle seat. But the flight back was a different story. All the walking I did on the excursions helped a lot. Oh, and don’t forget, working at maintaining good posture.
Once I got back, I was ready to do some binge buying of clothes – fun when my daughter was visiting in the area for a while. Both of us got a little too enthusiastic, but I think I’ve calmed down a bit on that score now.
Finally, I have to perceive myself as recovered. I think, though, that I’ll never get back the energy I had before “the event.” Well, once in a while I do have a day like that. Maybe before the next cruise, scheduled for April 25.
I don’t know when it happened, but I’m now free to take all kinds of positions in bed – no longer confined to one “on my back” position. It took me a long time to put my brace in the recycling bin, and finally to get rid of the last of the three walkers – one for each floor. There’s something about saying goodbye to a significant portion of my life. And now I regret I never took a picture of my brace.
As for the car. I’ve decided to become car-less. It just doesn’t make financial sense to keep it. I am still neurotic about driving. Each jolt reminds me of the sounds and feel of that day. My imagination runs wild with possibilities of accidents as I’m driving. And the Volvo, comfortable as it is, seems cumbersome compared to the little two-doors I’ve been accustomed to. So I use it very little.
In the meantime, my insurance rates went sky high. So, I have the Volvo for sale with a broker. I’ve been lining up ways to hire drivers when I need them, and I have an Uber app on my phone. I’ve discovered places that deliver groceries. I think I can do it. I plan to put the proceeds from the car sale into a transportation account (which I hope not to touch.) In good weather the Presbyterian church is in walking distance, as are the grocery store and drugstores. Who knows, walking may prove to be good for my energy.
I just bought a treadmill. I know myself. Even though I’ve bought membership in the Community Center, and I’ve had instruction on how to use the exercise equipment, I haven’t used it. But I’m quite sure I’ll use the treadmill. It’s right here in my work area. The one thing that’s bound to cause back pain is sitting at my computer, and the one thing (besides lying on my back) that helps to relieve it is walking.
It’s been a trip – almost as educational as the time I took the Asia/Pacific cruise.
And I know I’m still healing. I assume it’s happening on the inside, because I can see it on my left leg – hard and numb by the knee until recently when it began to get softer and a bit prickly with sensation. My Chiropractor/nutritionist tells me we’re making progress.
I do miss my Acura, and my way of life before April 15, 2015. I do often think “If only …,” and then follows, “but what might have happened.”
I’ve parted with things before – my home – more than once –, my marriage, my cabin in Vermont, my busy Connecticut practice, friends who are gone, … and I’ve learned a lesson from working on “My Father’s House.” Whenever he met a challenge, my father did something about it – something constructive. So, mindful of the fact that we can never be sure what a split second may do, I am so grateful to be left with the ability to solve problems.
But maybe here’s the most important point. All the while I’ve been able to focus on my own recovery thanks to the blessing of insurance. Of course I’m grateful for that. I’ve seen the bills go by on their way to payment by my car insurance, Medicare, and Part B, and I know I’d be in deep trouble if I had to pay out of pocket. But it hurts me that not everyone is equally protected. Some folks would end up sleeping in the car – well, maybe not, since the car was also destroyed. Yes, I’ll say it. We need a plan that would protect everyone. It’s the only just, fair, right and ultimately sound thing to do. Did I say it clearly enough? We need a plan that protects everyone! … to promote the general welfare…
Oh dear Mona… what a story. I am very happy that YOU were here to write it. I miss your beautiful smile, and that purple ring we both love. I hope we are able
to cross paths someday… I would love to have a nice chat with you!!
Hugs and a kiss on the cheek
So much for me to think about and react to. I am so glad that you have been able to restore an acceptable level of “normal” and I respect that this came about due to your own personal dedication and effort toward this goal.
First, I reacted to the idea that a team of surgeons did not want to do surgery! Nearly unheard of except in the most futile of situations.
Your experience at Auburn Manor was nearly ideal. How amazing that you met and were cared for by so many kind and personally generous people. That speaks so well of Auburn Manor, not necessarily the experience in “nursing homes” universally.
How wonderful that you have managed to engage an ample group of friends over your years in Minnesota. They did not just “talk” support, they provided it through countless loving and meaning full plans to assist in truly necessary ways. That must serve to cement the strength of some of these relationships.
That you felt cared for by the insurance coverage of “the event” is actually quite remarkable. But, you have always been a fundamentally healthy person and it is as if Medicare could see that their money was well invested in your rehabilitation.
Yet, I think I was hoping for more of your reflections on what was happening within you, Other people make a huge difference in the recovery experience. It “takes a Village” for most everyone in times of need.
Early in my now fairly long career in caring for older people, I remember an instructor saying that there were three things necessary for successful aging. “Someone to love, something to do, and something to look forward to.” It seems you were blessed with all of those things and that you were able to absorb and own the changes within you because you were in possession of all of these things.
To me, that is a testimony, not just to how your responded to this “event”, but how you have lived your life. The lessons to others seem to me to be more entrenched in the decades before this, than in the noise, the recounting of the kindness of others and the value of efforts applied to restoration in this incident. Your response exists not only in this story, but in the person you brought to this story. Therein lies your true value to others – your example.
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