All the King's Horses
In the span of a millisecond, I'm walking home from the library, then TICK, I may never walk again. I'm carrying my book, crossing the street, seeing a white Toyota in the far lane, waiting for it to pass. The Toyota is speeding, erratic, over to where I'm standing. The rest is a blur. Me: hearing a THWUNK, feeling my body crumble. The Toyota: dragging me along on its grille. Me: wondering if I left dishes in the sink, my journals out. The Toyota: swerving, speeding up, bucking me off.
Silence. Dead or alive? Beats me. Is Heaven this quiet?
I'm in a vacuum, then suddenly, an explosion of noise. "I'm a doctor!" "Honey, can you move?" "Don't move her!" "What's your name?" "What a shame, so young" "Poor thing" "Not a thing we can do without a doctor" "Where'd the doctor go?" "He just kept on driving, can you believe it?" "You're kidding." "Kids, go inside now. I said, NOW" "Now, what kind of doctor did you say you are?" "Psychiatrist." "Shit." "Help is on the way, honey, can you hear me?" "GET ME MY BOOK!"
I'm alive alright, and I'm screaming for my book. "Delirious," someone says, probably the psychiatrist. Two men run towards me with a gurney. I open my eyes and see red: not pink, not Life-Through-Rose-Colored-Glasses, but a dangerous, scarlet red. I must have landed on Mars. "GET ME MY BOOK!" I hear again. A bloody girl is screaming bloody murder. She wants the book she was carrying home from the library, the book by a recently deceased TV executive who might have found this incident worthy of a special. She wants the book called The Last Great Ride. But she is me, and this ride is mine.
"What's her name?" someone asks. Police faces talking to Civilian faces. A hand belonging to one of the faces offers my purse, but when I reach to get it, my arm won't move. Trendy teenagers on rollerblades circle me. "Oh, man, her arm's coming off," a mouth with cherry lipstick says. My face feels warm and wet, my head like a bowling ball. A strike, on Bundy Drive! There's a huge crowd now. What's everyone staring at, huh? THE SHOW IS OVER, FOLKS! I'm perfectly fine! I'm a runner and a pre-med student and a writer and a healthy 30-year-old woman who has a physics class to get to in two hours, so thanks for your help, but I have to go. I have to go back to my life. "Great, honey. But can you move your limbs?"
Sirens, flashing lights. A paramedic straps me in, another speaks through a walkie-talkie. "25-year-old female, 110 pounds, dislocated left shoulder
" "I'm thirty and 95 pounds," I interrupt, "and my shoulder's not dislocated, it's right here on my arm. I've located it, see?" "Possible paralysis," the paramedic continues, but I don't correct him this time. I can't, because my mouth becomes immobilized, as if in agreement. I remember from an old "ER" episode that you can still move your eyes, even if you're paralyzed. I see The Last Great Ride lying next to me on the gurney.
Running now, moving down a hall. Doctors in scrubs talking loudly in hurried shorthand: about me, above me. I see their chins. There's a procession as men carry me along on a gurney, like a Jewish bride, an ancient Empress, a quadriplegic. Let's move her! Be careful! On my count! A razor blade slices off my Levi's, my panties, my bra. CBC. Chem. 7. Blood gases. Tubes in my right arm, my femoral vein, down my nose and throat and into my stomach. This is gonna hurt, honey. Don't breathe. You'll feel like you're choking to death but you're not. How can you be so sure? Is Heaven this
A catheter goes in. "Where's the urine?" a doctor wants to know. No urine, not a drop: a urine desert. Lots of worried glances. I try to push the Coke I drank at lunch into the tube, I push as hard as I can, but nothing happens. Where's the Coke? Did it spill out with the blood? How's that for blood gases? The doctor fiddles with the tube, presses down on my belly. "We got it folks!" Sighs of relief, but not from me. I don't feel the wetness at all.
"Can you feel this?" a voice asks. A man with a moustache is touching my toes. Or so he says. "How about this?" I don't feel a thing. "Here?" Nothing. Is this some kind of joke, like those trick birthday candles that won't go out no matter how hard you blow? "How about here?" he asks. Where? This isn't funny anymore. You doctors, with your arcane senses of humor. You guys really should get out more!
More doctors: pushing, poking, prodding. Drawing blood from a bleeding girl. Tubes are handed off to a runner, like in a relay race: pass the baton! GO, GO, GO! The chin above me keeps moving, barking out orders. Central line. NG tube. Call Ortho. Call Neuro. Call Radiology. Call the chaplain. The chaplain? Oh my God, I'm really dying.
"We've called your parents," the chaplain says in a soft, concerned voice. Too soft. Too concerned: solemn, like he's giving a eulogy. I'm sprawled out like a snow angel, strangers in blue cotton stationed around me, working on my body parts. "Is there anything else I can do?" the chaplain whispers. Yeah, you can turn back time, you can make this go away, you can get all the king's horses to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, but all I think to say is, "Can you get me my book?"
"This isn't a textbook dislocation," explains Ortho, a cute resident with a solid chin, big blue eyes and a sheepish Asian medical student in tow. "Oh, man, this really is a bad one," he tells his student. They both laugh. Guys, please get out more! I try to stare them down, but my head is in a vice. I slant my eyes to catch their attention, but they continue laughing. Maybe I'm cross-eyed. "Oh man," Ortho repeats, then he turns to me, an afterthought. "We're going to relocate your shoulder now. This will hurt a lot, okay? So we're gonna go ahead, okay?" Okay? I have a choice? No, thanks for offering, but I'll pass on that relocation. I'll pass on this entire afternoon, if that's okay. "Okay," I say. He touches my arm and the pain radiates through my heart. I scream and the chaplain asks if there's anything he can do again. "You can make it stop hurting!" I yell, but the chaplain says he can't do that. "I'm just a social worker, you know."
I've never felt pain like this before. Not when I had all four wisdom teeth removed in one sitting, not when the man I was living with said, "I don't think I love you anymore," between bites of penne in spicy red sauce. This is primal pain, excruciating, an atomic assault from deep within. I'm screaming something—I don't know what or how loud or if it's even my voice anymore. The pain is overwhelming, so much so that I don't feel the poke. A needle in my right arm, directly into the muscle: demerol or Valium or morphine. I drift off, feeling nothing again. Please God, let me feel my toes.
"Do you know where you are?" a mouth asks. Neuro's mouth. Thin lips and yellow teeth. Don't you doctors know what smoking does to your body? My eyes are open but the nightmare continues. I'm strapped to a table, surrounded by curtains, still in the ER. It's hours later, getting dark, time for physics. Gotta get to physics, learn about electrostatics and forces and motion. Especially motion! "Can I move?" I ask Neuro, but he doesn't know yet. I've had CAT scans and x-rays, and they're trying to find a spine specialist and a radiologist to read the films. Spine specialist? Radiologist? Call a physicist! Force equals mass times acceleration. Unstrap me and let's see if my 95-pound mass can move!
"Move your big toe," Neuro orders. I try. "Can you move it at all?" Not this again. I hate this game. "Just a twitch, can you give me a twitch?" Nothing. "Okay," he says finally, disappointment in his voice. "Let's try something else."
"Where are you?" he asks. "The last circle of Hell," I reply, but Neuro gives me a blank stare. Doctors, you really should get out more!
"Okay, um, do you know what happened? Why you're here?"
"I was hit by a car," I whisper, and Neuro says, "Very good, honey!" his voice high-pitched and excited, like he's about to give me a gold star.
"Do you know what day it is?" Neuro continues, hopeful this time. "It's physics day. It's physics and library and running and writing day," I say, because I was never good with dates and that's how I look at time anyway. "Okay, honey," he sighs, "but do you know the month, at least?" Of course I know the month. Get that gold star ready! I'm about to answer, but suddenly I can't decide if it's September or October. I'm trying to remember when I got my last period because it always comes on the first of the month, but which month? Am I pregnant? Did I lose the baby? Is there any blood left for a pregnancy test? I say nothing and Neuro whispers, "Okay," which means I failed again. "Can you name the President of the United States?" he tries, a last resort, and when I say, "Bill Clinton," Neuro's skinny lips curve into a smile. I got one right! I run through my inventory of countries and capitals and presidents and princesses, in case he might ask me more: Lady Di? She's dead. Car accident.
Neuro leaves and returns with new questions. "Who are these people?" he wants to know. These people are my parents and my brother. They try to smile, but their pinched lips and bugged-out eyes betray them. I wonder what they see: their daughter, their sister, strapped to a table, tubes in her nose, mouth, arms, legs, and groin. I'm wired like a telephone pole in a busy city. My face is swollen beyond recognition, my wounds opened and garish and raw. Horrified, my family stands above me, three chins. "Everything will be okay," Mom says, but I can tell she doesn't really know that, doesn't believe it one bit. A drop of water falls from her chin and lands on my neck. At least I can feel my neck.
Doctors come in and out, a revolving door. I lose track of time: I'm waking up again, someone is taking the NG tube out, my family is back. It's midnight, they say, and I'm being wheeled into an elevator, up to 6 West, Med-Surge, where I've been admitted. What about physics? Is physics over? Did we learn about motion? No, no news yet
more tests to determine
specialists in tomorrow. My head is pounding and the light hurts my eyes. I'm in the room now, and they've shut off the bright florescent above my bed. The nurse hands me a call button, says I'm on morphine drip and feel free to ask for more. Morphine! What a nice nurse. Much nicer than Neuro. She leaves and my family follows, chins lowered. I lie still, like a mummy.
Commotion in the hallway wakes me up, or was I sleeping to begin with? All I know is that someone stuck a car alarm in my brain, wrapped my head in thick elastic and somehow got away. Frightened, I push the button for a nurse. "Yes?" the nurse asks. "What do you need?" I want to tell her that I'm nauseated and disoriented and in unspeakable pain, that I feel like I'm about to spew out a billion Cokes like a human soda fountain, but nothing comes out. No Cokes, no voice. The room starts spinning, slowly at first, then very fast. I'm riding the teacups at Disneyland, and the ride won't stop. Trapped in a painted teacup! Look, there's Mickey and Minnie and someone dressed like a nurse! Her face is rotating, her questioning smile going round and round. "What do you need?" she repeats, her words slurred like the cartoon character that she is. "I need my book," I say, but then my teacup spins away.
I sleep for a very long time. I dream that this is all a dream. I learned in biology that humans are actually paralyzed during REM sleep, and that when dogs thrash about in their sleep, they're dreaming about being paralyzed. Or maybe I heard this from the celebrity dog trainer on "Oprah." My paralysis is sometimes interrupted by nurses with blood pressure cuffs, pulse ox machines, thermometers and needles. But nothing hurts, because it's all a dream. If I can just stay asleep, nothing will be real. It'll just be something to tell the shrink the next day. "Well, doctor, the strangest thing—I dreamt I was paralyzed last night." "Hmm, very interesting. In what areas of your life do you feel paralyzed?"
"Are you awake, Miss Gottlieb? Miss Gottlieb, can you hear me?" "She can't hear you Bill." "They said she could hear." "Well, she can't." "Miss Gottlieb, we need to talk to you." "Bill, give it up, okay? We'll come back later." "I'm not coming back later. They said she could
" I can't sleep with all this chatter. I open my eyes and see blue—better than red. Not cotton blue, but polyester blue. Blue and badges and notepads and turkey chins. Too many donuts can give you a turkey chin.
Officer Bill wants names of disgruntled boyfriends or coworkers or peers. He tells me the witnesses report that the accident looked like a hit, an attempted murder, the way the driver dragged me half a block on his car, knowing I was hurt, trying to knock me off. The witnesses think it was intentional, that it must be someone I know. Which witnesses, I wonder: the teenyboppers? the psychiatrist? "In my professional opinion, Officer, this man has a lot of anger." Or no insurance. Or anger over having no insurance.
I tell Bill that the man described by the witnesses couldn't possibly be anyone I know: I don't know anyone with a white Toyota, license starting with 2XYJ, who is 25 years old and male and Hispanic and has a thick moustache. It was a hit-and-run, I say, but Bill still wants suspects. He keeps talking about the point of the impact: how it was a felony at the point of the impact, and how after the impact the guy attempted to kill me: manslaughter. "The point of the impact is crucial," Bill says firmly, and I stare back, incredulous. A guy got careless or wasted or drunk, and now I may never walk again. Do you see a point to this impact? Huh, Bill? Does it makes sense to you?
Lying in the hospital feels like an endless haze interrupted by changing shifts and rounds and meals I don't get because I can't ingest anything by mouth. My lips are too swollen, my jaw too fractured for chewing. My meals hang in a plastic bag on an IV pole, right next to the morphine. My roommate, a sixty-something former actress named Evelyn, a chatty woman recovering from gallbladder surgery, gets meal cards to fill out: lasagna or chef's salad? chicken or pot roast? butter or margarine? When my bag is empty, a nurse brings in a refill, hangs it on the pole. I look at the labels on the plastic containers and fill out meal cards in my mind: sucrose or fructose? saline or potassium? a little demerol for dessert?
At the crack of dawn, Dr. Attending arrives with his procession: cocky residents and frightened medical students. He points and posits, testing his team—the Red Team. There's also the Blue Team, Neuro's team; the Pink Team, Plastics; the Yellow Team, Radiology; and the Spine Team. (They don't have a color.) "They think they're in a different league," Neuro winks. Doctors, please try to get out more!
The med students circle me, then shout out answers, grub for grades. Gross Anatomy, with a living corpse: Which tests to be done on my body? What to rule out? What to rule in? What to say to impress Attending? I don't have patience for this. This patient has no patience. Not in supermarket lines with ten items or less, not when left on hold by automated voice machines playing Barry Manilow, and certainly not when her fate is at stake. I tell Attending I want the story, the scoop, the dirt, the low-down. I want to know what my life has become. I AM NOT A TEXTBOOK. I AM NOT A FINAL EXAM. YOU, DR. ATTENDING, TELL ME WHAT YOU KNOW! "I don't know yet," he says. "We have a lot to examine and it takes time. We're not gods."
People keep praying for me, asking God to do His best. Visitors arrive with Bibles and flowers and bromides. "You're lucky to be alive," they say. You call this living? "I know of a New York Times stringer who's a paraplegic, writes his columns from home in his wheelchair. And then there's that guy who wrote an entire book by blinking his left eyelid
" Is this supposed to give me hope? "You look better today, more yellowish-green and less purplish-blue." Call Eileen Ford: the sallow look is in! "With technology today, you can do anything. Look at Christopher Reeve—he's directing movies. I think the spine specialist here knows who his doctor is." Spine specialist? Forget Dr. Spine, the Man With No Team! Call Dr. Kervorkian! I want Dr. K's team, the Black Team, the Team of Death! "Come now, you don't mean that, Lori." Oh yes, I do.
It's a choice, I say. How to live one's life, what constitutes living, is a matter of choice. I can't live like Christopher Reeve. It might be politically incorrect, it might sound ignoble, it might not make the cover of People or a Barbara Walters exclusive, but at this moment that's how I feel. Does suffering necessarily equal nobility? "You could have been killed," people say. "He almost killed you." Maybe he did, I think. Living horizontal is a choice.
There are 257 tiles and five silver fire sprinklers on the ceiling between my room and the elevator. I'm on a gurney that's being wheeled to the MRI area. Careful. Go slowly. Lift her over the bump. Two black chins: MRI transport. Larry is the friendly one. He looks younger than me, five years younger, maybe more. We're in the elevator and he's talking to Duane about his weekend, about how he took The Wife out to dinner, how he's done with partying and looking for booty on the Boulevard, how his family is everything and that's why he takes The Wife out once a month. A little dinner, a little dancing, a little
He makes a gesture I can't see. I can't see anything below his chest, but he can see all of me. I'm in a hospital gown, a blue and white plaid minidress, too mini, exposing my bruises and abrasions and matted pubic hair out of which runs a catheter. Like a ragdoll, I let them lift me up, put me down, inject a dye, and roll me into the MRI machine. It's a narrow cylinder, a space so small as to make healthy people feel paralyzed. They give me earplugs because the noise will be loud, the noise of giant magnets making images of my brain and spine. "If you need help," the technician says, "just talk into the microphone." HELP. I need help. Help me back into my old body. "We're ready, okay?" No, not okay. I'll pass on this offer too. No thanks to the lovely MRI behind curtain three! "Okay," I whisper.
The noise in the tube is deafening. Someone's knocking on my brain. Hello? Anyone home? This is an emergency! Please answer the door! The machine sounds like a construction site, like the drills and hammers they used to install hardwood floors in the unit next to mine four days before a writing deadline. I had complained to the landlord, screamed at the workers, gone ballistic. For four days, I felt like I was living in Jurassic Park, The Ride, and now I really am: The Last Great Ride. I vow that if I ever recover, I will have more perspective: I won't get upset about things like not finding a parking space or the noise from hardwood floor installation. Really, I promise! I'm bargaining with God. LET'S MAKE A DEAL: I'll trade you Legs for Perspective! Going once, twice, three times
Sold, to the lady in the MRI machine
"This next one'll be very fast," the MRI technician says through his microphone. Like a TV announcer, he keeps telling me what's next. "This next series will take four minutes." "Coming up next, very loud, fast knocking noises, for a duration of three minutes and thirty seconds." "We'll be back in two and two to see if Greg has found his Love Connection!" TWHACK, THWACK, KNOCK. The machine bleats through my skull, and I remember the knock, the thwack, the point of impact, as Officer Bill liked to call it. I think about the driver who hit me and left me for dead in the street; how I would stop if I hit an animal, a tiny bird even, but a human being? Where is this guy's humanity? Did he see me in his rear-view mirror, lying immobile in a pool of blood? Did he bother looking back? THWACK! KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCK! Did he tell anyone about the accident? Or did he drive home to his family and act as though nothing had happened? "How was your day, honey?" "Fine, you know, the usual." I wonder what he's doing now, if he's sleeping soundly or fucking his wife and having an orgasm. SLAM, BAM, THWACK, KNOCK, KNOCK! I wonder if I'll ever have another orgasm, if I'll ever scream from pleasure instead of pain again. THWAAAACK! "The test is over Miss Gottlieb. We'll have your results this evening."
Out in the hallway, where I wait on my gurney, there's a TV hanging from the ceiling. The French police have located the cousin of the bodyguard who was in the car with Lady Di and her billionaire lover when their driver smashed into a tunnel wall and they died. These officers also mention the point of impact. But the people mourning outside of Buckingham Palace tell the press only how tragic this death is, how untimely, how if only the doctors could have saved the princess, the world would be a better place. Lady Di, she was so strong! Lady Di, she was our idol! I wonder what Lady Di would do had she been saved, left alive but permanently disfigured and paralyzed. I try to picture the princess prone with a catheter, helpless like me, waiting almost two hours to be transported back to 6 West. Then I realize she wouldn't be lying here stranded, since the whole reason she died had to do with never being left alone in the first place. Where's the media when you need them?
Back in my room, there are magazines on the windowsill: Glamour, Cosmo, Vogue. Artifacts of visitors who came, waited, waited some more, then finally left. I never read these kinds of magazines because they're so far removed from my life, from normal people's lives: liposuction made easy, ten days to Racehorse Legs, how to snatch a zillionaire, how to act blase, which flimsy camisole to wear to the office. But now I stare at the images, read the bold headlines, study dating protocol, because this somehow seems so normal compared to what's going on here. Please let me wear a stretch satin minidress to work one day! Please let me gyrate my hips and dress in head-to-toe black like Alanis Morisette! Please let me have Racehorse Legs! Please give me legs that work again! I pray myself to sleep with Self, Shape, and Mademoiselle.
Sometime later, Allure is on my lap, the remnant of another relative who came and left. I'm still awaiting the test results, still in pain, still pushing the button for a nurse, like a child at an arcade. I open the magazine and realize it's the issue in which my name appears, the one that talks about my upcoming book called Stick Figure, A Diary of My Former Self. The subtitle refers to my childhood, my former self, but now I realize that I have two former selves.
There is me before the accident, and me after. I'm like Warren Beatty in "Heaven Can Wait," just after he's biked through a tunnel and a car runs him over. He was supposed to play in the Superbowl the following week. "There must be some mistake!" he tells the Angels. Yes, there's been a mistake, they concede. An inexperienced Angel screwed up, and the only way to fix things is for Warren to inhabit the body of someone else about to die. I think about all the times that I had wanted to become someone else, to look like someone else, to have what someone else had. But now I only want the body of my former self, the body that ran and cycled and danced and roller-bladed through tunnels near the beach.
At dawn the next morning, Dr. Attending returns with his team, the Red Team, dressed in crisp white coats. They march single file, military-style, into formation around my bed. I'm a very lucky girl, Attending says. You get hit in the thoracic spine region, you could be fine; you get hit in the cervical spine region, you're paralyzed or dead. My fractures are t-spine, not c-spine. Ah, the difference a letter makes! It's "Wheel of Fortune": I get a "T," Christopher Reeve gets a "C." Luck of the draw. Pick eight letters! Vanna, I'll take a "C," please. And an "R," an "I," two "P's," an "L," an "E," and a "D." In her skimpy dress, Vanna tiptoes over and flips the letters. Crippled! How many points for that word?
"Are you listening, Miss Gottlieb?" Dr. Attending interrupts. He's giving me the run-down, head to toe, reading from my chart without once examining me. CAT scan of brain: looks good, considering. Concussion: monitor closely, takes time. Double vision: ophthalmology consult, eyes may shake indefinitely. Broken nose: possibly surgery, demerol for pain. Mouth and teeth: dental consult. Fractured left jaw: wait and see, maybe surgery. Chin wound: risk of infection, sew up soon, Plastics is busy, lots of people chopping off their fingers today. Spinal fractures: body cast, stationary, morphine. Fractured humerus and dislocated left shoulder: relocated, keep immobilized six to eight weeks, weekly physical therapy. Torn ligaments in leg: not to worry, can't walk anyway. Full extent of recovery: not sure. Maybe 90%, maybe better, maybe worse. Gotta go.
Go? Wait, I have questions. Like what might not recover? My spine, my brain, my legs, my arm, my face, my jaw, my eyes? "Leave everything to us," Attending smiles condescendingly. He leads his team toward the door, but I stop them again. "What can I expect?" I yell across the room. Do I drop my writing commitments or not? Do I drop my physics class or not? Do I drop my boyfriend or not? Do I drop out of life or not?
"You ask too many questions," Attending sighs, glancing at his students, as if to say, "What a case this lady is!" Patients who ask questions! How dare they. Listen up, students! There will be a test. Lesson Number One: Beware of patients who ask questions. Their bodies are none of their business! Lesson Number Two: When patients ask questions, always reply with ambiguity and let the nurses (we are too busy and important) deal with it. "All I can tell you is that it's going to be a long haul, but you should make a near-complete recovery," says Attending, and the Red Team is out the door. Did you hear that, students?
"The Attending has ordered this," a nurse announces, walking in my room. "For pain." She hands me a gizmo to press which will deliver more morphine on demand. I press a lot, a rat with a lever. Press, press, press. I feel peaceful sometimes, and wonder why I never tried drugs in college, why I didn't take a few LSD trips when I could actually enjoy them. In my stupor, I forget about being horizontal. I'm running, skipping, jumping, doing pirouettes at the Met, triple camels on ice. I see my parents come in and out, shadowy figures, visitors I vaguely recognize. Press, press, press. I'm nauseated and dizzy and up on a gurney in a vertical position and about to fall down and break every bone in my body that isn't already cracked to pieces when a nurse walks in on the ceiling and I can't get back to horizontal and I'm about to fall hundreds of feet to the floor when someone's screaming, I'm screaming, until I go back to horizontal and the nurse walks off the ceiling and down the wall and takes my morphine lever away.
Hours, days go by. Five days, Neuro says. I get a bedpan instead of a catheter. I get soup instead of sucrose. I get Vicadin instead of morphine. I get a new roommate, a black woman with a big family who keeps asking if I've embraced Jesus yet, because I'm gonna need Him, you betcha honey. I get a nurse named Tina instead of Lydia. It's Tina's 4-year-old son's birthday, and she bought the kid a bike. "He's gonna flip when he sees it," she smiles. "I'm a cyclist too," I reply, but when Tina looks down at me, I realize how ridiculous this sounds. Always wear a helmet! Warren Beatty didn't wear a helmet in the tunnel and look what happened to him! Brain damage! Got involved with Madonna! I ask Tina for my bedpan and she lowers the bed's railings, rolls me over. Urine flows out, wetting my behind, the plastic beneath it. I'm more helpless than Tina's four-year-old who can feed himself and ride a bike and pee in a toilet. I've become an infant. Tina wipes me, puts the railings back up, then leaves. I cry all night in my crib.
In the morning, the Red Team comes back, five white coats. Day six, Neuro says, and by the way, we're in September. Dr. Spine has decreed that I can get out of bed, with the body cast. Follow procedure. Ten steps to sitting up. Log roll. Watch the IV. Stay in a straight line. Deep breaths. Watch the sling. Let us push you, pull you, lift you. Feet on the floor. Can you feel the floor? Okay, deep breaths, let's sit here for a while. Now, can you feel this? This?
Yes! The floor feels cold, an Arctic tundra. Tina covers my feet with slippers that remind me of those footsies attached to the one-piece bunny pajamas we used to wear at slumber parties. Feet flat. Don't use back muscles. Put weight on quadriceps. Careful of sprained ankle, torn ligament in knee. Thatta girl. Good. Take a deep breath. On our count. One
I'm up! SOLD TO THE LADY IN THE MRI MACHINE! I'm cashing in on my bargain with God. My head is spinning, my stomach feels like a shake in a blender, my nose drips spots of blood, but so what? How's that for Perspective? Legs for Perspective! The best deal I've ever made. I'm a master negotiator: I could be a lawyer, a CEO, a U.N. Peacekeeper, Boutros Boutros Gottlieb! I want to walk forever, I want to walk the hallways and the streets and the length of the city, I want to cross the entire country on foot, like Forrest Gump! But the doctors make me sit down again. Two steps. Enough for today. Okay, Neuro says, you can have a commode now. No more bedpan. A commode! A gold star!
I'm lying flat again, helpless, but blissed out. Nothing matters—not book deals or physics labs or car payments or curly hair in rainy weather or the people from GTE who call at dinnertime. I have Perspective! I have Legs! I start to agree with the visitors and their bromides: "It all worked out for the best." "There must be a reason this happened." "A positive outlook helps." "You're lucky to be alive." Lucky, yes. I drew a "T" instead of a "C." I'm the Scrabble champion of the world! I sleep soundly and dream in letters.
I wake up to find two turkey chins looming above me. Turns out Officer Bill won't investigate further. Won't even bother searching for the driver who left me for dead, who committed not only a felony, but a crime against humanity. Bill won't look at me when he talks, just keeps wobbling his fleshy neck and running down the facts: Called the DMV. Found 100 Toyotas in L.A. County with license plates starting with 2XYJ. Too many leads. Not enough manpower. If I were you, I'd hire a P.I. They'll be able to find him within a day. Easy. No problem. Piece of cake.
Piece of cake? Why can't you find the guy if it's such a piece of cake? Call Dr. Spine: Have him cure your spinelessness. No manpower? What are you so busy doing anyway? Putting tickets on the cars parked in handicapped spaces? I'm handicapped now! How about that, Officer Bill? If I were Lady Di, there would be an investigation! There is no investigation for people like me, Civilian Number 5,869. And all I ask is that you look at that list of 100 suspects, and rule out anyone named O'Reilly. The witnesses said the guy was Hispanic: Rule out Goldstein and DiFranco and Wong and O'Reilly. There, four suspects down, 96 to go. See? Piece of cake!
Officer Bill has tucked his chin into his neck like a turtle. He could be sleeping, or praying for me to shut up. I'm silent, recovering from my outburst, when suddenly his eyes meet mine. They're blue like his uniform, but lighter and piercing, sharp as the points on his badge. "I'm sorry," he says, "I know it's not fair, but that's how the system works. We do the best we can." He tells me to call him if someone comes forward with the full license plate, and that there's still a lawyer who was on the scene, someone they've been trying to interview, but whom they haven't been able to reach because he's out of town making a deal. A deal? Suddenly I realize that I've broken my deal with God, my Legs for Perspective deal: I yelled at the cop, lost it for a second. How easy it is to lose Perspective—to misplace it like an earring, or a contact lens. You look away and BOOM! All it takes is a millisecond.
Attending returns the next morning with his supercilious smile and obedient students. The students are less frightened now, more sure of themselves, experimenting with throwing humoring glances in my direction. They stand like Attending—tall, one hand on hip, one hand on chin, like Rodin's "The Thinker." They say "Hmm" and squint their eyes a lot. They watch Attending as he explains that I can be discharged soon, once they're certain I can walk without tingling, get to a toilet, eat solid food. He mumbles something about physical therapy, twenty-four-hour home nursing care and outpatient doctors, then says the nurse will fill me in on the details. The students say "Hmm," squint, and follow him out.
Late afternoon, time for my walk again. I've been calling the nurses for hours, pressing the button, eager to get up. I'm like a dog, leash in mouth, waiting for her owner to come home, whimpering by the door. Does Lori want to go for a "W" "A" "L" "K?" The nurse comes in. She needs two other nurses to help me up. Follow procedure. Log roll. Nice and easy. Body cast. Tighten straps. Sit here for a while. Can you feel the floor? One, two, three
I'm up! I'm dizzy and nauseated, my head is pounding, but so what? That's the deal, remember? Don't lose Perspective! Keep it somewhere safe, like a jewelry box. I take two steps, then three, then walk to the door. Two nurses support me, but it's my legs that are carrying me, my nervous system sending chemical and electrical messages in a loop from legs to spinal cord to brain and back again. What a miraculous machine my body is! How efficient! The nurses suggest I go back to bed, that we've done enough walking, but I've just begun, I want to walk the halls. Just to the nurses' station, I beg. Please. I promise I won't ask for anything else, won't press the button, won't say a word all night. "Well, okay," they shrug. Such a deal maker I am: Silence for Walking! Legs for Perspective!
Out in the hallway, I see life again: people in business clothes, street clothes, workout clothes. Others in blue cotton, white coats, clogs. Phones ring, children carry balloons, custodians laugh, doctors eat, nurses flirt—there's a whole world out here. I chat with the nurses about vacation days, agree how unfair their schedules are, insist that they work much too hard. I'm making conversation, trying to laugh, trying to empathize, trying to concentrate, trying to stay upright. A wave of nausea sweeps over me. I'm riding a rollercoaster without a seat belt, and I'm stuck upside-down in the loop. "I think I'm gonna faint," I blurt out, even though I've never fainted before and I've only seen it happen in the movies. "I really think
A strange face is looming above me. I don't recognize the face, don't know where I am or who I am or if I am a person. I feel nothing, except for a dull pain on my left side. I'm on a floor somewhere. I think. The face is yelling, its mouth a wide "O," but I don't hear a sound. Then there's noise, but no meaning. I just see moving lips, like in those Charlie Brown cartoons: WAW, WAW, WAW. Uncomprehending, I close my eyes, open them again, and finally decipher the words. "You may have had a seizure," the mouth says. A woman in a white coat is putting my knees up with pillows. I pick up bits and pieces of phrases, voices coming from nowhere and everywhere at once. MRI, CAT scan, transfer to another ward. She was unconscious, just collapsed, never should have let her walk this far.
Horizontal again, I'm being wheeled to a new floor, private room. New doctor, doctor of my healthy self, doctor of my former self. He wants to make sure that everything's okay with my brain: no tests missing, no data lost. Like an earring? A contact lens? Perspective? On the wall next to my bed I see a white board that you can write on with markers, then wipe clean and start all over again. I have one in my office at home, for "To Do's" and "Calls" and "URGENT" messages to myself. On this board, though, instead of "To Do" it says, "Today is
"; instead of "Calls," it says, "Call for help."; nothing is as "Urgent" as getting better.
The board lists my nurses for each shift: an RN (registered nurse), LVN (licensed vocational nurse), and CP (the person trained to change bedpans, a surgeon laughs.) The nurses have names like Rosario, Esther, and Minnie. ("Like 'Mouse'—that makes it easy for my Alzheimer's patients to remember.") According to the board, it's Sunday, October 5th, and I don't know how I got here, lying in a hospital bed, peeing in a bedpan, feeling like my head might topple over every time I try to lift it. Just when I thought I was out of the woods, that nothing could hold me back, I've been stopped mid-recovery, thwarted like an aborted sneeze.
"It's the mystery patient," I hear, opening my eyes in the morning. A cardiologist stands above me, tan and dressed in tennis whites, his crown bald like Andre Agassi's. He says I'll need to be given a tilt-table test, the purpose of which is to make me dizzy and faint while they monitor me with electrodes, upright and strapped to a table. My parents walk in and I see their faces, the ones I saw in the ER, faces that say, "What has become of our daughter?" I start to cry in front of the cardiologist, because I have no Perspective anymore, I blew the deal and now it's too late. "I'm thirty years old and I can't stand up without collapsing!" I tell Dr. Agassi, but he wrinkles his eyebrows and asks, "What does that have to do with anything?" "I'm only thirty," I repeat, thinking my point self-evident, but Dr. Agassi just nods at my parents and walks out.
Transport picks me up for the test. Over the bump, into an elevator, upstairs to Cardiology. The hallways on this floor are quiet, no commotion like on Med-Surge. Everyone is very polite, excuse me, so sorry, how ya doing, let me hold the door for you. The doctors, nurses, techs—they've all gone to finishing school. Forget Med School, forget Nursing School, forget Dr. Attending's lessons on Demeaning The Patient—Miss Manners teaches here. Even the voice on the speaker says, "Code Blue" calmly, a hint of a British accent, the way a maitre d' might say, "Your table is ready, sir." I turn my head to the side, see a gurney next to mine. On top is a curly-headed kid, about eight or nine, staring up at the ceiling. "I'm only nine!" I imagine him thinking. "I'm only nine and I can't get up without collapsing!" As the kid rolls by, I decide that Dr. Agassi was right. Being thirty has nothing to do with it, doesn't make it any more tragic. Whenever it happens, whenever your body fails you, it always seems unfair.
"The tilt-table test was normal," explains the cardiologist, a white coat replacing his tennis whites. Yesterday I got dizzy and nauseated and lost all feeling in my limbs on that table, but he says the test was normal anyway. "I've consulted with the rest of The Team, and we're going to monitor you for another day, give your system time to re-regulate, get your blood pressure up to a normal level, then The Team will see how you do standing up." Which Team? What color is your Team? Do all cardiologists wear tennis whites? "Try to rest tonight," he says on the way out.
At midnight, pain wakes me from a fitful sleep, a dream in which I'm lying on a bed of nails like a magician, like Houdini, except I've botched the trick. The nails cut through my back, my kidneys, my spleen and stomach and heart, and I'm screaming but no one hears me. The nurses' station is too far away. "Call for help," the white board says, but you're actually supposed to push for help. I press until my thumb turns blue, but no morphine comes out. Instead in walks Dennis, who, according to the white board, is tonight's RN.
Dennis is about 6'6", with brown skin and a green buzz cut, like Dennis Rodman's before it became purple and then orange. I wonder if I'm hallucinating again (about Dennis Rodman? What is wrong with my brain?), if this tree of a man could conceivably be my nurse. If I were walking on a dark street and saw this formidable creature strolling towards me, I'd cross to the other side with the bright streetlights and heavy foot traffic. But here, since I can't walk, I simply say I need some morphine, the Vicadin isn't strong enough, I will die without some morphine. My voice is hollow, like it's coming from somewhere down the hall, and I wonder if Dennis hears me. He does, because he says he must page the doctor, get approval, I must wait. YOU TRY WAITING ON A BED OF NAILS! YOU TRY BEING HOUDINI FOR A FEW MINUTES! If I could move, I'd be squirming from the pain, trying to leap out of my body.
"Try to relax," Dennis says, his voice deep and strong, even when he whispers. He turns out the lights and I squeeze my eyes closed because the sliver of light from the hallway scorches my retinas. Even in the darkness, I sense Dennis' presence, his green hair buzzing with electricity. Then I feel something on my temples going round and round on my pulsing pressure points. For some reason, the sensation makes me mumble, "I was hit by a car." "I know," Dennis whispers, still strong, but gentle somehow, as soothing as his hands massaging my forehead. "I was just crossing the street, and this guy hit me and dragged me half a block and left, just left me like this," I explain, gesturing with my mobile arm, my right one, and pointing at myself.
"I know," Dennis answers. "I know, pretty one, I know." Then Dennis is Houdini and I'm floating above the nails, levitating, resting on a bed of air. "I know, pretty one," he keeps repeating, an incantation to prolong the trick. Houdini and his pretty assistant! The audience applauds, a standing ovation, and when the doctor calls back, and the morphine goes in, what occurs to me is: Could I possibly still be pretty?
In the morning, my parents bring mail to the hospital—cards and flowers and bills that are due. They also bring a notice from the library: "The book that you have checked out, The Last Great Ride, is overdue. You have three days to return it, or
" The postcard has been ripped. Or what? What happens after three days? Can I return this ride, toss it in the book drop? I put aside the mail and ask for a mirror. Could I still be pretty? My parents hesitate. They say: Wait. They say: It takes time to heal. They say: The swelling will go down. They say: It can be fixed. They say: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I say: What if the beholder's eye is shaking like a moving target?
A tech enters the room with a gurney. Time for another test, another scan of my interior. I'm carried again, into the elevator, over the bump, down the hall, past a series of paintings called "Man with a Cup," which show a tiny man climbing onto a giant coffee cup, falling into a giant coffee cup, and lifting a giant coffee cup, a Lilliputian hooked on caffeine. I count the tiles, the silver fire sprinklers, and catch a glimpse of a girl on a gurney. She looks gaunt, about 18 years old, greasy hair in a ponytail, neck clay-like, almost alabaster, beady eyes squinting at the ceiling. Her face is a marbled purple-blue, her broken nose swollen, her lips like giant pieces of black licorice. Every time we pass under a fire sprinkler, I see this girl—the girl I have become—reflected in the metal. So this, I think, is what people see when they view me from above: 2-D girl, smashed by a car, flat on her broken back. This is why people shake their heads and sigh and say, "Such a terrible tragedy," thinking I can't hear, or don't already know.
"I want the mirror," I say when I get back to my room, and reluctantly, Mom goes fishing in her purse. I don't look right away, but after my parents leave, I can't stop staring at the wreckage: I'm chasing my own ambulance. There used to be a time when I would look in a mirror for something specific—to see if I could wear orange with brown and get away with it, or how to part my hair on days I didn't feel like washing it. Now these questions aren't relevant, but I keep looking anyway, mesmerized by my reflection: I look to see if I am still here.
I'm still staring in the mirror when a man walks in my room. "I'm from the Heart Foundation," he says. Turns out he's a volunteer, here expressly for the purpose of cheering me up. He sits down and asks me where I'm from, what high school I went to, if I know his kids, who also went to that high school, if I know their friends. I'm trying to be nice—to smile and nod and say witty things—but this is a hospital, not a cocktail party, and I don't have it in me. I'm not very good at cocktail parties anyway, I usually excuse myself and spend the night in the ladies room, but tonight I can't escape anywhere, not even to the bathroom two feet away. I'm trapped in this bed, my limbs wanting to run fast and far on high, stiletto heels, my body powerless to help them to the ladies' room. The closest I can come is to ask for a bedpan, and that, finally, makes the volunteer call for a nurse and leave.
At 10:00 that night, my doctor does his rounds. Back in his sprawling Spanish-style house his wife and kids sleep, but he is the Team Leader, the decision-maker, the coordinator of tests, the one who must stay until the very end. Good news and bad, he says. Which do you want first? I want the good, I say. "Well, the bad news is, you have some bleeding on the brain, which is why you're having these neurological symptoms. The good news, though, is that it will get better with time, and it should resolve itself completely." Resolve itself.
"How long will it take to resolve?" I ask. "Well, we're not sure," he hesitates. My Team Leader looks away, takes a breath before answering. "Many months," he hedges, "but it'll keep getting better all the time." Months. A life can change in a millisecond, but it may take months to change itself back.
I 'm running off a cliff, falling backwards, catching myself, running and falling again, like a cat with 9,000 lives. My doctor says when I feel dizzy, I should keep my eyes opened and fix them on something, keep the visual input flowing. I pick up the remote, press the orange button, turn on the TV. I flip past the cardiac channel, the renal channel, a lady in an apron baking muffins (the "Leave it to Beaver" channel?), and settle, finally, on the neonatal channel. A baby is delivered, crying, screeching, reaching its tiny arms out for its mother. The father beams. The mother tears up. The nurse smiles and instructs them on infant care and what to expect. The baby won't stop crying, though. It already knows what to expect: Expect the worst! Expect danger! Expect to watch your back every second, or some car will come along and smash it to pieces! I flip the channel and see more tears, Rosie O'Donnell's tears. Rosie had a lump in her breast, and she wants the world to know all about it. How's that for visual input? I flip off the TV and stare at the blank screen.
I fall backwards again, try to keep my eyes open, search for something other than the TV to focus on. My room is filled with fresh flowers, life to offset death. There's a bulletin board next to my bed with a list of my allergies (Penicillin) and a flyer for "Al the Hair Doctor." (I do perms, sets, color. Will bring neck brace.) What team is he on? I wonder. There's a blue and red border painted near the upper molding, and lower down, a picture on the wall. I'd never noticed it before.
Unlike "Man with a Cup," this painting is soft, ethereal. A nubile young woman rides a magical, white horse. Her Rubenesque legs, sheathed in pink tights, are dangling off the right side of the saddle. Her blond hair is pulled up in a bun, her blue taffeta dress billows in the wind. She seems eminently free on that horse, riding off into the sunset, but then I notice that she's riding around an enclosed circular track, maybe at a fair, or a circus.
I push the motor that elevates my bed and as I get closer, I notice a shadowy figure sitting in the bleachers behind her. It's a faceless man in a dark suit and a dark hat, staring at her, sinister black brushstrokes swirling around him. She doesn't see him; she's looking in the same direction as her dangling legs, and she no longer seems free at all, but frightened, her eyes wide, lips tight. She has a trapped, ominous expression on her face, a horrific realization: she's about to fall off the horse, plunge down and fracture her spine, dislocate her arm, disfigure her face, and cause her brain to hemorrhage. Who would hang such a desolate image in a hospital? Who, in fact, would even paint such a thing? I search for a name to call this twisted artist, to take responsibility for this innocent girl, but the work is unsigned and I will never, ever, know who did it.
"GOOD MORNING, MISS GOTTLIEB!" I'm woken up by a professional but cheerful voice, an '80s aerobics instructor yelling, "Only eight more! Come on, gals, let's burn it!" It's still dark out, time to check my blood pressure, temperature, pulse ox. Give me your arm, your mouth, your finger. The woman makes notes, leaves, and a man walks in with a capsule in a tiny plastic cup, hands it to me, offers me some water. "Here's your antibiotic," he says. He is the most gorgeous man I've ever seen in person, a Calvin Klein model with a pill. "I finished my antibiotics four days ago," I explain. I notice that the nurses listed on today's board are Lina, Stella, Juliet. Where are Lina, Stella, and Juliet?
"Who are you?" I ask the man, and he says, "Scott." Then he goes over to the board, licks his finger, wipes off "tella" and writes "cott" after the "S." It scares me that they can't get the meds right, might poison you by accident. Even in a hospital, you have to stay on your toes, be suspicious of unsolicited capsules in plastic cups, of Unabombers in nurse's outfits. "Well, okay, I'll check on it," Scott says as he's leaving, but then he notices my flowers.
"Just stunning," Scott whispers. He touches the flowers lovingly, sniffs them, marvels at their arrangements. He says he used to own a flower shop back in Chicago, but then his Other Half, a Very Successful Architect, got some big account in L.A. His Other Half wanted him to open a flower shop here, but he would have had to start from the bottom again, which would make him Crazy and then his Other Half might leave him. Scott looks me right in the eye each time he mentions his Other Half, testing my reaction, my views on Don't Ask, Don't Tell. "What made you choose nursing?" I ask, hoping that didn't come out wrong, an unwitting insult, but Scott seems excited about his job. "I wanted something stable, and there'll always be sick people, right?" "I guess," I say, feeling like a widget, a microchip, a Cabbage Patch doll. Sick people: the cottage industry of the '90s.
"The blood on your brain is stable," my doctor says three days later. "It's time to get you up again." I hesitate, terrified of blacking out, of losing even more contact with the outside world. He says the longer I wait, though, the worse the fear will be. He explains how survivors of plane crashes need to board another plane as quickly as possible, how people who fall off horses need to get back in the saddle right away. What about Christopher Reeve? He fell off a horse and he'll never be able to get back in the saddle! And what about the girl in the painting? What if the sinister, faceless man in the bleachers stalks her forever, lassos her with swirling, black brushstrokes, pulls her off the horse again and again and again? What if all the king's horses and all the king's men can't put Humpty Dumpty back together again?
Suddenly I realize how frightened I've become, not just of death, but of life. I understand now why everyone who visited had said, "There must be a reason this happened." Why everyone had to be a philosopher—to give a senseless act of violence and lack of human conscience some meaning—all so we could feel that life isn't as unpredictable or fragile or uncontrollable as it really is. My doctor summons a nurse and they help me out of bed. Gently. Log Roll. Deep breaths. Blood pressure's low, let's wait. Have some juice. Sit here for a while. Tell us when you're ready.
I'm sitting on the edge of the bed, and it's dark enough now to see the lights in the windows of the rooms across the way. I imagine that I'm in a chic loft in New York, a voyeur in a Griffin Dunne movie, spying on the neighbors for kicks. An old man walks into the bathroom, his dimpled, flabby behind hanging out from his gown. Another man eats dinner in bed, chewing with his mouth open. An old woman with tubes in her nose watches TV. A younger woman attached to an IV pole paces her room, walks to her window, and gazes up at mine. I look down, caught, and notice cars on the street below. They honk, screech to stops, move quickly, create long swooshes of light. My blood pressure rises and the doctor says I can get up now. Don't use back muscles. Careful of the arm. Take a breath. Keep visual input flowing. One, two, three
I'm up again! I'm walking, slowly but surely, my own behind hanging out of my gown, the last modicum of modesty long gone through this whole ordeal. I walk to the window and see the young woman still staring back, and I think about my bargain with God, my Legs for Perspective deal. I try to guess what deal this other woman had made, how it was broken, how she ended up here anyway, and how we can't really depend on deals to protect us from moment to moment, millisecond to millisecond. I drew a "T" and I'm very lucky. Lucky enough to walk to the window and watch pedestrians cross at the white-bordered crosswalk below. Suddenly I feel the blood drain from my head and the doctor sits me down again, tells me not to go to the window like that.
"Stay away for now," he says, but I can't imagine ever feeling safe enough to watch people cross the street, to cross a street again myself. I know, though, that one day I'll step off another corner and pray that the car stops when it's supposed to. I'll step off of many corners in the course of my life, and every single time, I'll just have to hope for the best.
I'm being wheeled out for discharge, underneath the white tiles, the fire sprinklers, past the "Man With a Cup" paintings. I see my doctor on his rounds, and he says goodbye, see you soon, follow the orders, be patient. He bends over to sign some papers, and a quarter falls from his pocket. It rolls a few feet down the hallway, over to where an old man with an IV pole is standing. My doctor goes to retrieve the quarter, hands it to me. "Here, you'll need this to pay your bills," he says, his eyes dancing with laughter. Doctors, you really should get out more! The nurse turns my wheelchair around and starts to push me away.
The old man with the IV pole is wearing socks pulled up to his knees, like those men in Florida who wear knee socks with plaid Bermuda shorts on golf courses. He's a walking oxymoron—bald with very hairy legs—and is using his IV pole like a cane. I know that we're in the pre-op area, that this man will probably have bypass or kidney or prostate surgery in the morning, but still he smiles at me as I'm wheeled by. "Goodbye, dear," he says. "Stay well." I smile back and watch his fade, his face wrinkling in on itself like a dried-out apple. His life will change tomorrow, and he knows it. In a sense, any of our lives may change tomorrow, and somewhere deep down, we know it too.
Lori Gottlieb is the author of Stick Figure: A Diary Of My Former Self, a Los Angeles Times best seller which has been optioned for film by Martin Scorsese. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Slate, where she was a guest diarist, and Salon, where she wrote a column about returning to school as an older, nontraditional student. She is a medical student at Stanford, and editor-in-chief at kibu.com. You can find more info about Lori at lorrigottlieb.com