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(For background on the airplane crash and trauma hospital stay, see What I Saw After the Crash)
“Mr. Berlander, you’re going to Rehab tomorrow.”
Bolts of happiness and hope zap through me. Electricity. I am so elated that I manage to fall-off to sleep, even with the dirty old bastard in the next bed spitefully sucking on his dentures just to annoy everyone around him.
The ride to Rehab is just as awful as all the other ambulance trips, but I am too happy to much care. “Who cares about potholes,” I think.
Crash! Bump! Slam! Ungh!
And then we are. Martha is there, having driven there behind the ambulance. I am transferred not to a gurney but to a wheelchair, a new experience. Gravity slams down on me again, but I refuse to protest. I’m in rehab, and I’m going to get better!
I am wheeled inside and up to a room. A real room! Yes, it has two beds and a lot of equipment running out of the walls, but it feels different; like a place from which to leave better than when you arrived. I almost didn’t make it. My HMO didn’t want to pay for this place, preferring instead a far less capable place. But Martha, with the help of a psychologist friend, had managed to beat-down even the grasping HMO and get me a place here. For about the 200th time I thank God for Martha.
I am transferred to the bed. I am exhausted. Today, it’s been Gravity 1, George 0. But tomorrow’s a new day. And I’ve made it this far on guts.
I instantly fall asleep.
Rehab. What a wonderful word. The clinical separation between being a victim and being a survivor.
The Rehab hospital is clearly different from the medical center where I’ve just spent the worst six weeks of my life. Rehab is lighter, airier, brighter, more relaxed, I think. The smells are less sharp, less alarming. There is less life-saving gear in the rooms. The pace seems more relaxed. There are no running feet, sharp exchanges of medical information over a silent shape that they are trying to save. There is a curtain between my bed and my roommate’s. Can’t see or hear him.
I take stock of myself. Left arm numb and elbow frozen. Right leg in a flexible cast (“It’s a horrible break.”). That damn triple junction IV line in my chest is gone, leaving just an angry red infection that is being treated with antibiotics. Right arm is immobilized with a metal external fixator. Hands are numb and non-responsive. IV bag is plugged into me again. Jaw hurts and it is hard to talk or eat. They have “RCed (reconnected) my Foley” – the urine catheter. The collection bag gurgles softly against its bed-frame mount. It’s quiet and I lie there, recovering from the ambulance ride from the medical center and the subsequent ride in a wheelchair to my new room.
“Are you all set, Mr. Berlander?”
‘Shouldn’t I be asking you that?’ I think. But I say, “I’m ok.”
“OK. Rest now.”
Like, what else could I be doing?
“Rehab starts tomorrow.”
“Wake up, Mr. Berlander.”
“Uch. What time is it?”
“It’s 5:30.” I flash back to Naval Aviation Officer Candidate School and half expect SSGT William Randolph Thurber, USMC, to burst from behind the curtains, screaming insults and orders.
“First we’ll shave you, then breakfast.”
“When can I get a bath?”
“Not for a while. But that will come.” I think of the mess of reconstituted blood that ran out of my head when they sponged my hair back at Medical. My head itches all the time.
A PCA (Personal Care Assistant) brings some warm soapy water and shaves me with a safety razor. It feels great! As I am slowly recovering I am becoming increasingly aware of how dirty I am and how uncomfortable that makes me. The PCA carefully shaves me and then pats my face with a warm wash cloth. I experimentally flex my hands. Nothing. I can feel them a little but they are like gloves filled with heavy clay. Suddenly I don’t feel so optimistic.
Then, breakfast. Re-learning to eat as an adult is so foreign to us that it is hard to describe. Your body literally forgets how to take and digest food. Even the smallest amount of milkshake or soup or oatmeal immediately knots your stomach and gags you. I fight to swallow and keep it down. If that weren’t bad enough, I am fearful of having to move my long-neglected bowels. I am completely immobilized and dependent upon others. And when I have to take a crap, it’s RIGHT NOW! because bowel control is long gone and has to be relearned. And I have no way of getting a bedpan under me first. You don’t know humiliation until you’ve been an adult lying in your own crap because the bedpan was a little too slow in arriving. The only good news is that rehab crap is like baby crap: a sort of homogeneous mush that doesn’t smell very bad even if lying in it is awful beyond words.
This time the PCA gets the bedpan under me in time. This initiates a need for the Bedpan Reverse Curve, in which I have to arch my back enough to get the pan under my butt – no small feat when you have zero muscle tone and the only things you can move are your left foot and right elbow. I succeed and Magic Breakfast Hour is concluded.
Eating has exhausted me and I get to rest for the rest of the morning, during which my doctor comes by to check The Fracture Circus and test my mental acuity. My head injury from the crash (a hemmatoma, a hygroma, a subdural swelling, scalp split open to the hairline, jaw and nose broken, and a partridge in a pear tree) is slowly recovering, but I am instructed that I will also be seeing the hospital psychologist on a regular basis so as to track how many marbles have returned and if they are in the right place.
I get to rest.
“Time to get out of bed, Mr. Berlander.”
And there’s Mr. Wheelchair. The nurse and two PCAs lift me out of bed. I’m like a sack of meat. No muscle tone at all. I can’t even lift my arms enough to get them out of the way. It’s a horrifying feeling, being completely helpless. I’ve earned a brown belt in Shukokai karate and can’t even wipe my own nose. I hate this! I hate the helplessness. I had earned a Letter of Achievement in the Naval Reserve for being the only one in my squadron over 40 to score “outstanding” on the physical readiness test. Now I can’t even walk. I hate even more what it seems to promise for the rest of my life. Karate is over, I realize with a shock of sadness.
I slump in the wheelchair. Gravity, which we all usually take for granted, is a heartless bitch. Just because you are seated doesn’t mean it stops tormenting you. I find myself slumping further down into the seat, helpless to stop it. My back muscles are jelly. I try to use my left foot to arrest my descent and that helps a bit but I am immediately exhausted. I have spent the past six weeks in a bed and my body has lost the ability even to sit up straight. How could this have happened??
The corridor passes slowly as I am wheeled along. I notice a breeze as the air moves by me slowly, so long have I been immobile in bed. The floor plan is a rectangle of four interconnected passageways, so I soon find myself back outside my door.
“OK, Mr. Berlander. I’m going to let you sit out here for a while.”
Panic hits. A double shock. Panic at being left alone and helpless, and panic at my distress.
“I need to lie down.” A hint of petulance?
“In a few minutes. You need to start practicing sitting up.”
Practice sitting up? How do you “practice sitting up”? But that’s what I am forced to do.
The minutes pass like hours. Gravity’s silent, merciless acceleration is quietly beating the crap out of me. Tears of pain and self-pity start to flow. I was so happy to get to Rehab. Can it get any worse than this?
After an eternity the nurse reappears and I am helped back into bed. How glorious! Did anything ever feel so good? I can’t think of anything else as I lie back on the cool sheets and feel gravity reluctantly roll away to lie quietly in a dark corner again, regarding me with dark, pitiless eyes. I am almost instantly asleep.
“Lunch, Mr. Berlander.”
Oy. I had been happily sleeping, dreaming I was flying on a long-ago Navy mission. Flight. Freedom. Happiness. It’s a new day. I was up at 5:30 again. Breakfast was more glop fed to me by a PCA. My hands remain numb and useless.
“I have something for you today.” She takes two small plastic devices out of a sealed bag. One is a clear, curved piece of plastic with a clip mounted on the bottom. The other looks like a plastic spoon attached to a cup holder.
“Try swinging your feet over the side. That’s it.” I find I can sit on the edge of the bed for a short time without too much discomfort. My wheelchair workouts seem to be paying off. The Velcro patch on the cast on my right leg catches against the sheet. She takes the curved piece of plastic and clips it to the side of my breakfast dish. She takes the spoon thing and gently attaches it to my right wrist with the cup holder thing.
She holds the plate down on the bedside swing table. “Try eating by yourself.”
I am slowly graduating back to real food. Lunch is soft meatloaf, peas, and canned peaches. Wow. ‘I must be coming along,’ I think. I attempt to get some peas between the plate guard and my spoon. The spoon flips clumsily and peas go onto the floor, the bed, and my pretty hospital nightie. I picture a lurching zombie from a Stephen King novel trying to eat a victim daintily.
“Try again.” More peas go flying but I manage to capture three and slowly lift my “crip spoon” towards the general direction of my mouth. I actually get two of them into my mouth, the third fleeing for parts unknown, giggling.
‘Man, this is gonna take a while,’ I think. I am already starting to sweat with the effort. My fractures are beginning to protest. Strongly. I grit my teeth and martial on.
After about ten spoons-full of peas and meatloaf, sweat is running down my face and sides and I am starting to pant from the effort. My arm is on fire and shaking so badly that nothing is making it to my mouth. My bed is full of food. The PCA takes pity on me, tells me to relax, and feeds me the rest of my lunch. She then cleans the food from my bed. Exhausted, I lie back down against the pillows. Sleep is easy.
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