Maybe it was fatigue. Maybe it was too much caffeine. Maybe stress was keeping my adrenaline level too high. Whatever the case, the trip from crisis back to normal was taking far longer in my head than it was in reality.
Hypervigilance is the term they use now but I didn’t know it. I just felt jumpy. My reactions were exaggerated and on a hair-trigger. Like I was one step farther away from reality than normal as I walked back to the room.
“She’ll get used to it” implied this was our new reality. That things were not quite the way they were before. That something had changed that I didn’t yet understand. I loved our old reality. Why was I winding myself up like this?
Suzie looked up expectantly when I walked back in.
“What did he say?”
“He said you’ll get used to it,” I reported without comment.
“Okay.” She looked skeptical but then shrugged. “I guess I’ll have to.” She put her hand on her head and then seemed to dismiss it. There was nothing to be done. It seemed selfish to complain about your miracle to the guy who just saved your life.
We settled into our usual conversation, which was reassuring. I reported on my night and she told me about hers. I talked about the kids and she talked about the nurse with the English accent. I silently analyzed her speech patterns for anything out of the ordinary.
The only thing she had trouble with were medical terms, which was odd. After college, her job included medical transcription of doctor’s clinical visits. It was an area of expertise. But she didn’t need those words outside of a job that she no longer did.
Still, it was something different. And anything different worried me.
“Do you think the kids could come and see you?” I asked. “The last time they saw you, you couldn’t talk.” She turned her head quickly with a smile of anticipation.
And her head sloshed.
“What was that?” I asked.
“What was what?”
“Your head. It made a . . .” I hesitated. “A sloshing noise.”
“You could hear that?”
“Oh, that’s weird. Doctor Rosenthal said it might do that until the cerebrospinal fluid regenerates. I didn’t think anyone else could hear it.”
“Okaaaay.” I was trying not to overreact. “So, that’s normal?”
I nodded. It was only then that I realized she had used the word cerebrospinal without a pause. Maybe there was a new kind of normal out there for us. Beyond this really weird one.
I made a judgment call that afternoon and asked Dad to bring the kids up to see Suzie. I’d gotten permission from the nurse. My idea was that they would be cheered up to see their mother talking and doing so well.
In fact, they hadn’t realized how bad the situation was until they saw their mother in SICU with all of the other patients who looked like they were dying. When they saw Suzie, they focused on the pressure monitor and bandages.
Before, they believed Mommy was fine and getting “fixed” at he hospital. Afterward, they were left with more fears to worry about.
It was a stupid thing to do but wouldn’t be my last mistake. Navigating the strange divide between home and hospital was daunting but I knew the mistakes I made with the children would last the longest. How much should I focus on helping Suzie and how much time should I spend focused on them? Even with help, these were the hardest decisions. More than anything, it proved how much all of us needed Suzie.
Mom and Dad took them all to Bekah’s last Christmas performance that night to cheer them up but the celebration seemed to emphasize our absence.
They kicked me out of SICU that afternoon for regularly scheduled nursing duties, a sponge bath and fresh linens. I went downstairs to get some lunch and kill a couple of hours. I soon got bored and was walking the halls to burn off some steam. I passed the radiology lab and curiosity triggered a random thought.
I pushed through the door into another waiting area and approached a tall desk that separated the office space. There were gleaming racks of specialized files behind the desk. An intimidating nurse looked up.
“May I help you?”
“I’m not sure. I was wondering, do patients have access to look at their x-rays?”
“Yes. Why do you need to see your x-rays?”
“Actually, my wife’s x-rays.” Her suspicious eyes narrowed. I had some explaining to do. I leaned over the counter and lowered my voice in a futile attempt at confidentiality. “My wife just had brain surgery and the doctor said the tumor was really big. I just wanted to see what we are facing.”
The suspicious eyes turned to doubt. She looked at my jacket. I realized I was wearing a gift from my previous session that said KCAL News, Los Angeles.
“And you are the husband?”
She paused, thinking. “What is her name and birthday?” I told her and pulled out my driver’s license for further proof.
“I wasn’t in the room when the doctor showed her and I just wanted to see for myself,” I offered.
She examined the license, eyed me over the top of her glasses, then spun on her heels and disappeared into the files without a word. “The husband” was clearly not in her job description. I waited, feeling vaguely like a bank robber pulling a heist. When she returned her face was no less stern.
“It was a CT Scan. These are films of the pertinent images from the axial orientation. You can’t take these. I need them back. There’s a light box around the corner.” She looked down a hallway.
“Yes ma’am,” I said, automatically. She just looked like a ma’am. Or a sergeant. “Thank you.”
She rolled her eyes and went back to work.
The large, white envelope held two dark sheets and I pulled out the films. I tried to look like I knew what I was doing, even though I obviously had no clue. I hoped watching TV doctors do this would be sufficient training.
I found the lightbox and searched for the switch to turn it on. After a few tries, the light glared in my face. I slid the dark acetate into the clip on the top of the viewer and the image came into view. There was no need for radiology school. The problem was shockingly obvious.
The view was from the top of Suzie’s head, looking down as if you had cut across her brain horizontally. The left frontal lobe looked like it had a pie-sized slice removed with the pointed end going to the center of her brain. It was a massive black triangle that took my breath away.
I put up the other film and looked at every angle but the first view had been clear. I was lucky to have her at all. How had she survived? How was she talking? What other problems would she have? I had read the stories about personality changes and mental disabilities from brain injuries.
And yet she appeared to be fine.
I stared at the images until they were seared into my brain. There was nothing more to learn. I pulled them down and put them in the envelope. I flipped off the switch and returned them to the desk. Then I walked the halls until I was exhausted.
Dr. Roselthal came by for rounds before visiting hours resumed. By then the pressure monitor had been active for twenty-four hours with no increases.
“I think the danger of swelling is over and we can remove this now,” Dr. Rosenthal told Suzie.
“That’s good news.”
“I’m going to have to put in a couple of stitches.”
He got the nurse to bring him the needle and sutures and started to begin.
“Uh, wait a minute,” Suzie interrupted. “Aren’t you going to numb it with something?”
“Nah. It’s just a couple of stitches. No big deal.”
“Okaay,” she hesitated and he began.
He was wrong.
“It hurt!” Suzie informed me in no uncertain terms when visiting hours finally allowed me back in. I was really starting to hate those locked doors.
“He came while I was gone?”
“He just started sewing up my head.” She ignored me. I could tell by her expression that she was more surprised than mad.
“Well, it looks a lot better. I’m glad that tube is gone.”
“Hmph.” She was unconvinced. “Well, he did set up a meeting with the oncologist in the morning.”
This was something we were looking forward to. It was the next step to getting better. Because of her mother, Suzie believed that chemo, no matter how difficult, was key to her survival.
“He didn’t even warn me,” she circled back once more. But this time she smiled.
It was late when the nurses started the flurry of activity needed to move Suzie to a regular room. Suzie wasn’t sure she was ready to leave the safety of SICU. The staff had been so kind and attentive. The constant monitoring was reassuring. Even the glass wall was a connection to the energy and activity outside.
I, however, was ready. I could spend the night in the room with Suzie instead of locked outside worrying. The night passed quietly and we slept until the light of day was fading the night sky. We woke up and talked about nothings, each of us aware of how precious these insignificant words were.
My father’s words came to mind. “Things will look better in the morning, son,” he would say. This morning the words never felt truer.
The previous night, Suzie had happily changed from her hospital wrap into a soft white cotton gown decorated with ruffles and eyelets. It was a small reclamation of control over her life. The head-wrapping battlefield bandages had been exchanged for a smaller patch of white silk tape that looked for all the world like a bow.
As she sat on the bed in the rising glow of morning, it could almost have been a hotel room on a well-deserved vacation. I got up, sat beside her, put my arm around her and we watched the sunrise together. In that golden light beneath that brilliant blue sky, all of our crushed dreams and dashed hopes seemed possible again. The future was reborn before our eyes and stretched like a highway to a distant horizon.
We had passed the test. We had endured the darkness. We had faced our worst fears and beyond and we had reached this bright and shining morning. Together. It was nothing short of dazzling.
For the rest of the morning, we basked in the relief. The twisted knots of tension began to unwind. We talked of nothing serious, savoring the moment.
Shortly after lunch, there was a knock on the door. It was the first time anyone had bothered us all day. A small man appeared dressed in a white coat.
“Hello. Suzzanne Ritchie?”
“I’m Dr. Eric Raefsky. I’m an oncologist. Dr. Rosenthal asked me to meet with you today.”
“Of course. This is my husband, Dennis.”
We shook hands. He was shorter than me but had a firm grip, a short red beard and a ring of thick red hair. He wore gold wire-rimmed glasses over dark eyes. He wore a striped tie, had a collection of pens in his pocket and a stethoscope hung haphazardly around his neck.
“We’ve been looking forward to meeting you,” I said.
He nodded without smiling. He sat on a chair as far from Suzie’s bed as the room allowed. Like he was afraid of catching something. He looked down at his chart and flipped through it for a moment but appeared to be scanning. Finally, he looked up and spoke.
“Well, first of all, I want you to know that your situation is not entirely hopeless.”
The words were so unexpected that I wasn’t sure I understood them. I replayed them in my head and they sounded even worse the second time.
“What did you say?” was all I could manage.