When the Ballad of 2010 is written, March 26 is not going to be highly thought of. Anguish, fear, dread, anger, confusion, and disbelief are only a few of the emotions that swirled inside each member of my family as we watched my 5-year old niece, Katie, struggle to regain consciousness.
The next seven days were a roller coaster of optimism and resignation as we watched her condition improve and stall out. I believed each day would be the day she would wake up and start ordering us around as if nothing had happened. Some days it seemed so close we could touch it. Some days the doctors seemed encouraged and encouraging. Other days were profoundly discouraging and frustrating. The worst days were ones that mixed both, and there were too many of those. In situations of greater and lesser stress and severity, I've watched people try to achieve numbness to insulate themselves from the pain. For me, numb was highly overrated. I didn't do anything to achieve it artificially so maybe I was doing it wrong, but days of feeling hope rise and plummet isolated me in a very gray place.
I was becoming despondent. I couldn't go to the place where I abandoned all hope but the doubts and fears that were once being whispered from deep inside me were becoming screams. I could no longer ignore some dark possibilities and I felt lost. It was in the dark moment that things got worse. I got a call telling me my brother-in-law was being rushed to the ER at the same hospital, complaining of chest pains. He has a rather long history of cardiac issues and all of us have had to wrestle with its ominous significance.
I was seething and finally on the verge of becoming completely irrational. I didn't have a full melt down but I did get a little unhinged. I didn't start throwing or breaking things and I didn't have a crisis of faith wherein I started cursing at God in Latin but I was pretty pissed and in no small part because there was no one to be pissed at. I huffed and I puffed but the house stood still. My failure complete, I trudged down to the hospital, trying to figure out who to visit first.
I started in the Pediatrics ICU with my niece and for the first time I was in the room when a doctor made rounds. I listened as she told my brother and his wife that she was encouraged by some of what she saw and felt my chest loosen. I then listened as she laid out a scenario wherein Katie would be in in-patient rehab in Birmingham, Nashville, or Atlanta anywhere from two, four, maybe even six weeks or beyond. My heart sank and shrank as something gripped it.
Feeling defeated, I headed in the direction of the ER to check with my brother-in-law and got the first and likely only "good" news of the day. The good news? The examination revealed it was unlikely he'd had a heart attack. The bad news? It was probably gall stones. Now when we talk about bad news, that's about the best bad news I'd heard in a week. Gall stones aren't pleasant but they're a lot less shitty than comas and heart attacks. I don't do well with math but I'm sure there is some sort of formula or equation where less shitty actually equals good. If only it had stopped there. For reasons of a sensitive nature I'm going to withhold the specifics and also ask you refrain from jumping to (political) conclusions when I say things took a sinister turn when the word "insurance" entered the picture.
The writer in me wants to search for some literary device to convey to you the depths of my despair and dramatically reveal how I'd never felt worse in my life. The truth is I was so beaten down at that point I don't know how low I'd sunk. I may have felt worse than I did Friday night. I can't remember when but it's entirely possible. The writer in me would also love to provide a dramatic reveal, but we're going to stick with the truth. Trust me, it's dramatic enough.
My wife woke me up the next morning to tell me Katie had woken up some time during the middle of the night. Those were the words I'd been waiting to hear for eight days, so naturally they pierced my haze and sent me scrambling to the car in my underwear moving heaven and earth to get to the hospital, right? As you can tell from the setup, obviously not. I checked my e-mail. I read the blog update from my brother, who started maintaining one because he had to leave his phone off so much of the time when he was in Katie's PICU room. I read the words that Katie was awake, alert, and responding but I guess I was waiting for the other shoe to drop because I ambled into the shower without feeling much of anything but fatigue.
I walked into her room one hour later and our eyes met. I'd seen her blue eyes over that past week but she was never behind them. Our eyes met and I smiled and she smiled back. We'd been told by the doctors the awakening process was likely to be gradual. Over the next several hours, I watched her use a spoon to feed herself, smile, laugh, and remember. We began taking inventory not of what she couldn't do (yet) but of what was still inside her. She knew who all the Disney princesses were and still remembered who her favorite was. When asked to pick a movie to watch before nap time, she remembered her favorite movie of the moment and chose it. She laughed at the funny face my cat Rowdy was making in a picture I showed her and she remembered playing with him in our apartment. She was excited to take a bath. She still didn't have complete and equal command of all her limbs, her right side working but slower than her left. She still wasn't verbal although she tried multiple times to formulate words. There was still work ahead but on Saturday I visited Katie, not my niece in the hospital. She was in there and she was working her way back to us. After seven long, hard days, there was nothing gradual about day eight.
We still would have called it a miracle if that's the Katie we sent for in-patient rehab, but our kid had one more surprise up her sleeve. On Easter, she did everything she had done the day before but a little better. Her left side was stronger and more assured. Her "sleepy" right side was still trailing the left side but where there were times on Saturday she couldn't command those limbs, she made them begin to work for her again. She smiled, nodded, and laughed easier.