by Elaine Miller
It was five o’clock in the morning. The phone rang. It was my ex telling me that Mary had been in surgery for five hours with a team of orthopedic surgeons for her right leg and neurosurgeons for her open head injury. He had preceded the conversation with telling me there had been a terrible accident. He said they did not know if she would live or not. I told him that first he tried to ruin our lives and then he tries to kill one of our children. I hung up the phone and tried to think.
I sat for a few minutes, got up and dressed. I grabbed my purse, left the house and drove around for a half-hour. I was furious I had not been informed earlier as the accident had occurred at nine o’clock. It had been July 21,1975. We were now into the next day.
It flashed through my mind how I had taken the girls and gone to a July 4th picnic and I could see Mary running around laughing and playing with her sister and other kids. Mary was thirteen and a half the day of the accident. Marie was eleven and my son was fifteen.
I talked to God and asked why had this occurred to us. I had thought a divorce after almost fifteen years was the hardest thing I’d ever lived through and now this accident. The fear of the unknown was almost overwhelming.
I drove back to the house. I picked up the phone. I called my parents. My mother said she knew she would live. I called my brother and my friends. I threw things into a suitcase. Two of my friends came and refused to let me drive over and said they would take me. I left with them. I was too distraught to argue further. My parents packed and were soon following in my wake.
We drove straight to University Hospital in Iowa City, Iowa. Memories flooded my senses. My children were born here, while my ex had gone to school and become an attorney. I remembered the walk through the corridors and up to the maternity ward to have Mary in that hospital. It had been a happy time then.
We got onto the elevator and went up to the neuro intensive care. My ex was standing there. He went in to inform the doctor I had arrived. I was ushered into intensive care. There were beds lined up on both sides of this large sterile looking room. There were patients of all ages in the beds tied to IV bottles, traction’s, ventilators. I saw Mary at the end of the right hand row.
The doctor hurried out, as I stood there mesmerized into immobility. She took my arm and led me into a small conference room with only five or six chairs and a table. We sat down at the table and I leaned nervously on my elbows. She told me before I went down the long aisle to see Mary that we needed to talk.
I felt numb. I sat and nodded. She began by telling me that Mary was critical. I told her I was a registered nurse and understood that. She started in to explain everything to me. She said that Mary had sustained a broken right femur. She had required seven blood transfusions due to the open head injury and the severe bleeding of the femur internally. I sat nodding my head.
Mary had a Stimmon screw through her leg just below the knee with her entire leg suspended in traction. Part of the traction hooked onto the pin with overhead pulleys, which kept the leg out straight. The entire traction was in suspension and she would be able to move it from side to side when she regained consciousness.
Mary had a severe brain stem injury. The brain stem is the body’s computer. It tells the body when to breathe, controls appetite function, bowel and bladder control, temperature control, among other things. She also sustained an injury whereas the brain slammed around in the skull, going forward and backwards upon impact. This causes the brain to swell. The doctors had placed a screw connected to a lead and monitor to measure head pressure.
The doctor said that most people don’t survive these types of assaults to their body, but because she was young and healthy, she might survive. She said they were using an experimental procedure on Mary that they had just used on a few people before. They put her on an ice mattress and cooled her body down to between 92 and 94 degrees. This puts the body almost into suspension to try to keep the brain swelling down to a minimum. It allows the body to attempt to repair itself at the lowest metabolic rate. The other procedure was to infuse the drug curare, which paralyzes the central nervous system. She was given a drug to keep her unconscious to avoid her waking up and being trapped in her body without being able to move or speak. She was to be kept in suspension and unconscious for five days, then they would up the temperature and gradually decrease the curare over the next two days, then at that time, we would see if she regained consciousness.
Mary was fed intravenously with cut downs in both arms to thread the lines into her body. She had a ventilation tube in her mouth and into her lungs. She was connected to a ventilator breathing for her. She had a nasal gastric tube threaded through her nose and into her stomach connected to a whirling pump gavaging or washing her stomach continuously with an antacid. They were infusing massive doses of cortisone in an attempt to keep the brain swelling down, which in turn creates ulcers in that big a dosage.
The heart leads were in place to monitor her heart and pulse along with monitoring her blood pressure. The head pressure lead would fluctuate up if anyone handled Mary or bumped her bed. Finally the doctor told me that without a doubt Mary would be retarded and could have some paralysis. In other words, everything about her condition was up for grabs and if she lived there wouldn’t be much left.
I sat and looked at the doctor. She asked me if I had any questions. I thought yes, why would you save someone with an outcome like that? How can you be so sure? Do you think you are God almighty? I was filled with rage. I’ll show you, by God, if she lives she won’t be a retard! If you can’t do better than that, I can! You people like to experiment with lives whenever you can. It doesn’t matter the outcome. You do everything in your power to save someone, then you walk away and our lives are left to pick up the pieces.
I stood up and the doctor ushered me out of the conference room.. She told us we could go down the aisle and see her for ten minutes even though it was not a regular visiting time. I slowly walked down the aisle and looked at the other patients as I went along. I was finally standing next to Mary. I stood looking at her. There were no bruises or cuts anywhere to be seen. Her head was shaved and swathed in bandages. She was lying there with all her tubes and her eyes closed. She was motionless. I touched her and she was cold. She looked like a large doll lying there. I glanced at the gauges. They were blinking in rhythm. Her head pressure fluctuated a few points up, then back down. The machines were the only sounds around her.
I stood and thought this can’t be real. Maybe if someone pinched me, I’d be out of this nightmare. I saw her running and laughing in my mind. I started to feel like this was a dream. My ears started to ring and everything around me started to dim. I just knew I couldn’t faint. Here I am a nurse and all I can do is stand here and faint. There were no chairs. I had to stop this feeling. Now, I could barely see or hear anything. I bent way over and let my head hang and acted like I was messing with my shoes and hose. The feeling was terrible. I would start to rise or look up and I still was unable to pull out of it. My ex was standing there just looking at me. I wasn’t going to let him know either. Finally I started to recover. Noise came filtering through and I was able to focus.
I went over to the bed, leaned over and called out to Mary. I told her Mom and Dad were here for her and that we loved her. Of course there was no response. Then I noticed that her head pressure soared up when she heard my voice. Was that normal or could she hear me calling to her? I stood up and looked around again. I felt overwhelmed with inadequacy. I’d worked hard and had graduated from nurses training only a year before. There was nothing I could do for her but talk to her and wait. All that equipment was way over my training, I wouldn’t even have been able to care for her. I swallowed back tears and turned and walked the long way to the door.