an adventure in recovery
By John M. Daniel
By John M. Daniel
How It Happened
At about two-thirty Thursday afternoon, February 23, 2017, the business telephone rang. It was a call Susan and I were expecting and had planned our day around: Chris, the delivery truck driver announcing that he had arrived in McKinleyville with a pallet of books from our printer in Michigan.
We sprang into action, as we always do when Chris calls: we left our desks and left the house and drove to Rainbow Storage, where we receive and warehouse our books. We led Chris through the maze of “streets” to the storage unit we had selected as the new home for our new books.
I used to do this job by myself. I regard the warehouse as my domain in the division of labor for our company, but we had decided of late to receive shipments together, because it made the job go faster.
Part of the job is to give back to Chris the empty pallet from the previous delivery. So while Chris was lowering the lift gate at the rear of his truck, I walked into the storage unit and took hold of the empty pallet standing against a wall of cartons. I lifted it. It seemed heavier than usual, but I was confident and I knew what I was doing; after all, I’d been receiving shipments for thirty-two years, the whole time Susan and I had been publishing books together. So I began carrying the heavy load out of the unit and into the street. Damn, that pallet was heavy!
Halfway across the street the pallet got out of my control and began falling forward. I reached out to grab it, missed, tripped on the low side of the pallet, flew forward across the street, smashed my head against the opposite wall, and fell to the asphalt, landing on my left hip.
I tried to move.
I couldn’t move.
I began to worry: maybe it wasn’t such a good idea for me to try carrying that pallet by myself.
Somehow Susan and Chris got me into our Honda CRV and Susan drove out of Rainbow Storage, with Chris following close behind in his delivery truck. We left the new books half in and half outside the storage unit, to be dealt with later. As for now, we were on our way to the emergency room at Mad River Hospital in Arcata. At this point in the story my memory is hazy, and the following events are jumbled for a few days.
At Mad River I was X-rayed and found to have a fractured hip. I couldn’t be admitted to the hospital because Mad River Hospital didn’t have an orthopedic surgeon on staff, so I was delivered to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Eureka, where I remained for “observation” until I could be turned over to Eureka Rehabilitation and Recovery, a for-profit institution which I will refer to as rehab, although I increasingly thought of it as dehab. I was in the hospital six days. I was in Rehab for six eons.
The Back Story
In my novel Vanity Fire, the protagonist, Guy Mallon, who happens to be a small press publisher, is injured—almost killed—by an accident in his warehouse. A pile of books falls over on top of him, knocking him down onto the cement floor and covering his body with full cartons of books. After getting out of the hospital, Guy jokes that he always knew he’d die with his boots on, but this time he lucked out, thanks to the good friends who rescued him.
A few years ago I began losing weight. Susan and I both noticed it. The weight loss disturbed Susan, but I welcomed it. When we first came to Humboldt County fourteen years ago I had weighed 151 pounds and had considered myself unattractively fat. But over the first few years I began to lose weight gradually, dropping to the high 140s. A bit later I had slipped to the mid-140s, then the low 140s. I was proud of my slim naked reflection in the bathroom mirror, but getting a little concerned that I was losing out of control. And so on until shortly before my accident, when I weighed 131, which was no longer welcome. It was a loud alarm.
About five years ago I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. The symptoms weren’t and still aren’t especially severe—an intermittent tremor, an annoying stammer, atrocious handwriting—and are kept under control by medication, Carbidopa-Levodopa. But there’s no sense in denying that Parkinson’s is a progressive disease and I have experienced its subtle but worrisome progress.
For almost as long as Susan and I have been together (thirty-four years) prior to my accident, we took early-morning walks every day, five days a week. We walked a mile each morning and it took us twenty minutes to half an hour. This habit felt good and we both remarked often on how alive and healthy it made us feel. In recent months, however, I’ve experienced growing fatigue in my legs. This has been concurrent with a general weakening of my arms. Opening pickle jars for Susan is no longer a snap, and a forty-pound suitcase is a struggle to schlep. Was this loss of strength connected to the Parkinson’s?
Last November (2016) I turned seventy-five.
A couple of months ago we purchased a stationary bicycle, because the motion of pedaling a bike is considered helpful for controlling the progress of Parkinson’s. I very much enjoyed adding twenty minutes of “biking” to my daily routine, and kept the habit going until the day of my accident.
I can’t remember when the move to rehab happened, but it was a cold night outside and I was transported in an ambulance equipped to carry a stretched-out patient. I was drugged at the time, and the only sensation I was aware of as I waited in the hall was a repetitive, intrusive, irregular BONG! Eventually I awoke in a bed, to the sounds of televisions and human snores. I had no idea where I was, but I didn’t like being there.
Somehow I got out of the bed and began walking, using my wheeled bedside table as a walker. I walked toward the light, which turned out to be a hallway. A powerful-looking and -acting woman stormed up to me and demanded, “Where do you think you’re going?” I’m told I answered, “McKinleyville.”
I was put back in my bed, where I somehow fell asleep to the gentle lullabies of snoring roommates and TVs. The next morning I woke up but still felt goofy. This goofiness was a part of my brain’s mad adventures for as long as I remained on a diet of Norco, which I took whenever I had severe pain (several times a day) and whenever I couldn’t sleep (every night). This Norco dependency had to stop, lest I get addicted and remain half-brained forever. Half-witted and constipated. (Constipation was a major motif in my stay at dehab, but I’ll spare you the details.)
I tried to give the drug up, by my brain went wild in the night, with fantasies of a main boss who lived in the mansion up on the hill and gave orders to the minions down around the lake, including me. These announcements were heralded by spasms in my left leg. The boss wanted the minions’ labor to help him recover. Somehow I vaguely reminded myself that my mind and my body were both parts of the same person, and that person was me, but the nightmare was every bit as real as the reality that I was responsible for my own recovery. BONG! BONG!
Several times a day I was helped out of my bed, sometimes to take a wheelchair ride to the Physical Therapy gym, where I did repetitive exercises both boring and difficult. Twice I was taken to a scale and weighed. The first time I weighed 121 pounds. Thirty pounds below what I had weighed when Susan and I moved to Humboldt. BONG!
I went through a cesspool of depression. I saw so many people in their endgames as I plowed my wheelchair around the land of dehab, people sunk into easy chairs in the lobby with their eyes closed and their mouths gaping open like their own private gates of despair. And I realized, or at least imagined, that I was on the same train ride.
And I wondered if it was worth fighting. Did I really need to be alive? I was mostly gone anyway. All I’d have to do was refuse to eat any more of this place’s refusable food. Why was it important to stay alive anyway?
I found myself unable to read. My short-term memory couldn’t retain the contents from line to line, let alone page to page. Not read? Not write?
And then it became obvious. I was willing to give up life, but I would never, ever give up my life with Susan.
Susan came to rehab and kept me company for many hours every day I was there. Her smile was what recharged my belief in the beauty of life. I am certain it was thanks to her that I survived dehab and am now at home…and writing.
Love makes life worth living.
Learn and practice humility. Humble is the new hip.
If you’re underweight and over-aged, don’t pretend to be young and strong. The people you’re trying to impress, including yourself, will just think you’re an idiot.
Leave the heavy lifting to the able-bodied upstarts without Parkinson’s Disease.
BONG! is a patient’s request for help from the staff. Don’t be too proud to use it.
I just wrote “Love makes life worth living.” Of course I was thinking primarily of Susan when I wrote that, but I was also thinking of the many, many other kind people—family members, friends old and new, colleagues, and people I have never met but whom I know through my seldom and shallow dips into social media. From these treasured friends I received love in the form of help with making my home more cripple-friendly, loans of equipment, get-well cards, cookies and chocolates, visits, phone calls, and emails bearing love, support, and good wishes. I have intentionally left their names out of this account, for fear of turning this simple narrative into an awards ceremony acceptance speech. To those many saints (you know who you are) I send back my gratitude and love.