Author’s note: The following passage is the first excerpt from Chapter 9, “August 4th,” of my book, Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life. This is the 71st excerpt in the blog series.
Just five days after the tracheotomy procedure, doctors decided I was ready to move onto the first phase of recovery. The daily X-rays showed that the haze that ominously covered my lungs was dissipating. I was able to breathe with less mechanized oxygen.
My heart, defying the strain caused by ARDS, weakly and steadily pumped blood to my hungry organs. The latest CAT scan and MRI demonstrated no loss of brain function. I was becoming more alert every day as the last remnants of the sedative medication left my body.
Without the distraction of the vivid dreams caused by ICU Psychosis and the sedatives, I was beginning to understand what was happening. The dreams gave me bits and pieces, but I still had no real understanding of the puzzle that had become my life. I had a dream that a distinguished politician and his wife visited and gave the girls tickets to the red carpet opening of a new teen movie.
While the specifics of the dream were pure fantasy, I learned that my friend, California State Assemblyman Joe Coto, did find his way into the ICU. Completely unrelated to that visit, the girls went to a popular movie that summer and told me all about it while I was in a semi-conscious state. My brain connected these separate incidents into one thought, and added the red carpet tickets.
I also dreamed of a rusty pail stuck on my head with its handle serving as a tight chin strap while a hose was lodged in my throat. Perhaps that was when the doctors put me on the BIPAP machine. Following doctor’s orders, Sandra tuned the television to channels I liked and played music that would keep me brain active.
Whether I was in a hot and dusty refugee camp unable to move or in a convalescent home with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin tunes playing in the background, there were several consistent themes to my dreams. An object in my throat, the inability to move my limbs, an insatiable thirst, friends and family in weird places all desperately trying to help me out of unrealistic predicaments.
As my mind cleared, I began to realize that I was in a hospital, paralyzed, with tubes and wires connecting me to all sorts of things. On August 1st, doctors removed me from intensive care to the ICU Step-Down Unit. The unit was an interim stop between the ICU and a regular hospital room.
I no longer needed a dedicated nurse caring for me around the clock. Physical, occupational, and later on, speech therapy would intensify. In the ICU, therapists provided exercises that Sandra could do with me to begin waking up my muscles that had deteriorated during the month I was on the paralytic medicine.
Following the therapist’s example, Sandra would lift my legs and arms, and gently raise my head up off the pillows. Rotating my ankles, she would strengthen my lower leg and feet muscles. Doctors told her that it would be a long and difficult road to recovery, but I would be able to fully function as the paralysis was related to muscles rather than nerves. I don’t have a memory of those first therapy sessions in the ICU.
The day I moved to the Step-Down Unit was blurry to me. I remember my bed being maneuvered through long hallways and going into an elevator. The first floor room in Step-Down was large with a window on one side looking out into the street and a large space between the door and the bed. There wasn’t as much activity in the unit and a nurse came into check on me in regular intervals. I didn’t feel as safe as I did in the ICU. When Sandra left the room, I was alone in what seemed like a cavernous space.
The first few days were uneventful. A nurse would check on me in the morning and write the goals for the day on a whiteboard. The entries included the day and date, medications to be administered, therapist schedules, and any other information doctors wanted included on that day. The nurse would ask me my name and queried me about the date. Sandra would read my lips and translate for the nurse.
With the breathing tube firmly in my mouth, I would say “Eddie” without sound coming from my mouth, and then follow-up with “Not sure.” The critical care doctor would arrive not long after the nurse and update Sandra on my progress: lungs getting clearer, heart stable, and all other organs functioning. He was always upbeat and positive, assuring Sandra that I was nearly out of the woods.
Later in the day, between Sandra doing repetitions of the exercises with me, the therapists would come in. They moved my limbs and tried to sit me up for a few minutes while bracing me to keep from falling. It was hard work and painful. I was no longer on sedatives and my muscles weren’t numb, so I could feel even the slightest movement of my body.
On the fourth day in the Step-Down Unit, the first true breakthrough in my cognitive state emerged. I remember looking at the whiteboard, reading the entries, and understanding the content. I didn’t really understand what was going on, but it didn’t look good. That morning the nurse greeted me with a cheery “good morning” and asked me how I was doing.
She followed with the standard questions, “What’s your name?” and “Do you know what day it is?” I lip-synced, “Eddie,” and “August 4th.” Although her eyes welled up with tears, Sandra’s smile was filled with many emotions: gratitude, relief, happiness. This was a pivotal moment in my recovery. I demonstrated to Sandra that I was aware of my surroundings. She couldn’t wait to report this great news to the waiting room.
With that out of the way, the day went on as planned.
Next Wednesday: My head was spinning when Sandra explains to me why I’m in the hospital.