Prologue: October 3, 2006
A Category 5
Three paramedics arrive. They’re all good-looking. I mouth the word “cute” to Lee Anne over their bent heads and raise my eyebrows suggestively. She catches it and smiles. I scan for wedding rings. There’s just something about a take-charge, good-in-a-crisis man.
“Can you make it down the stairs?” the strongest-looking blonde asks me. Now that I’m up from my bed and we’re all standing outside my apartment, I can see he’s too short. Damn.
“Sure,” I say. I start to take the first step and my knees buckle. Immediately, there’s a paramedic under each arm.
“Guess not,” I joke.
I’ve filled them in. The headache, the nausea, the mass in my head. I even had the MRI film from August to show them. Dr. Campbell had slapped the image of my brain up against the light and laughingly asked if I could see the problem. He was being sarcastic. You didn’t need to have graduated med school to know something was wrong. It was the size of a golf ball. A cluster of blood vessels had malformed 36 years ago. They weren’t supposed to be there.
I’ve often been asked if I was scared. Call me naive. I failed to grasp the gravity of my situation. It’s true what they say. Nobody believes anything bad will ever happen to them. In my case, I didn’t believe it even while it was happening.
The closest I came to real fear was that moment on the bathroom floor after I grabbed my cell phone. Twice I had attempted dialing 9-1-1. Twice I heard three unmistakable tones. Misdials. I don’t remember my double vision or a lack of motor control starting then. But it was undeniable. There was a problem. Three little numbers. And I couldn’t dial them. I was alone in the apartment. Unable to call for help. Fear flashed. Ten seconds, maybe. And then it was gone. There was a knock at the door. My friend, Lee Anne.
I wave goodbye to her through the back ambulance window. She’s on my cell phone. She’s calling Vivian to meet us at the hospital where Dr. Campbell works.
I feel fine now. The nausea’s gone. It’s just this headache. Lee Anne offered to bring me her migraine medicine earlier that morning. I had taken her up on it. Thank God. Lee Anne is like that. Maternal. She calmly helped me pick out something to wear while we waited for the ambulance. “Now remember, it’s gonna be cold in there,” she said. It was still warm, October in Florida, but we decided on a sweatshirt with my shorts.
The ambulance takes a turn. My body shifts on the stretcher, and I readjust the sheet. My right leg doesn’t feel the same as my left leg. My left leg feels the cool, thin cotton over me, the hard metal beneath me, the warm skin of my other thigh. My right leg doesn’t feel any of that. There’s just this tingling, like when your arm falls asleep at night and you have to massage the blood back into it to get it moving. It’s like a giant wave washed over me when we turned, sweeping away the sensation. “My right side is going,” I announce to the men. “I can feel it. It just went.”
Even this is said matter-of-factly, without alarm. So they’ll know. After all, I’m heading to the hospital. The staff there will fix everything.
When I arrive in the emergency room, MRI film on my stomach, Vivian appears and begins speaking Nurse with the ladies here. People in uniform swirl around me with equipment. I’m grateful for Viv’s presence. She’s a friend, but also a professional. Her high-energy, commanding way, which I usually find draining and abrasive in the outside world, is ideal in this environment. Every facet of her personality seems custom-tailored to fit her job in an ER. I’m hooked up to an IV. Lee Anne and Vivian pass the time with me in a little room off to the side, partitioned by a curtain.
It hasn’t escaped my attention that Dr. Campbell isn’t whisking me off to perform the surgery he so boldly claimed to have done quite often. Instead, he comes in at intervals to conduct little neurological tests which I gather I’m failing. He’s in contact with Dr. Diaz in Miami regarding my condition, which seems to be rapidly deteriorating. A mirror image of everything in sight has appeared at some point. I sound drunk and everyone has an identical twin.
“Say ‘no ifs, ands, or buts’,” Dr. Campbell instructs.
“No ifs, ands, or buts,” I slur.
“Raise your hands like you’re holding two pizzas.” He flips his palms skyward. The action looks more to me like a waitress carrying two cocktail trays, but I comply. Or try to. My right hand doesn’t lay flat. The fingers are curling up slightly. I laugh it off.
“Well, it’s a mangled pizza, but it’s a pizza!”
Everyone in the room cracks up.
I feel an anxiousness in recounting these events that I didn’t feel at the time. I want to take that girl lying there by the shoulders and shake her. I want to yell at the doctors and nurses, “Somebody do something! What are we all waiting around for? I’m getting worse!”
But the truth was, everything that could be done was being done. I’d handled my part. I’d arrived at the hospital quickly. I was in the right place. A false sense of calm had settled over me that Dr. Diaz’s ominous second opinion “Don’t let anybody touch you” couldn’t penetrate. He said that back when my only symptom was tingly lips. And today, according to Dr. Campbell, Dr. Diaz still wasn’t willing to operate. The malformation was located deep in “high real estate” — the brain stem. I didn’t research it at the time to avoid scaring myself silly, but I’ve since learned that the brain stem controls reflex actions and essential internal functions such as breathing and heartbeat. To operate at all was to take incredible risk.
I had something rare. Extremely rare. Technically, I was having a stroke. Not the “ischemic” kind that older people tend to get. Those are caused by a blood clot traveling to the brain. I was having a “hemorrhagic” stroke, in which a bleed in the brain is caused by a malformation or aneurysm. Arteriovenous malformations, or AVM’s, are one type of malformation. Of all strokes, only thirteen percent are hemorrhagic. Of those thirteen percent, only two percent are caused by AVM’s. What I had was rarer still. Add to that the location of this malformation, and it’s no wonder I had hurried up to wait. Even the brain surgeons were looking for a brain surgeon.
Vivian, Lee Anne and I spent the morning in the little room. We were all cutting up and I was in good spirits. I reported in my slurred way that this was “fucked up.” I marveled at everything that happened to me with the curiosity of an outside observer, rather than someone whose life was in danger. The mangled pizza incident had caused me momentary concern. Of far greater concern was that Viv was about to call my parents, specifically my mother.
I’m not the kind of person who falls ill and immediately wants, and can only be comforted by, my mommy. My mother isn’t a particularly nurturing person. Well, compared to my father she is. When I was a child, she gave lots of hugs and kisses and said “I love you.” She always got after my father to hold, comfort or talk to me. She’s wonderful at the showing and the saying. She’s rather less inclined to be good at the doing. Home-cooked meals and band-aiding boo boos were not her thing. I grew up to be very independent.
Maybe I strove for the normalcy my father represented. Maybe I tried to maintain some control as things fell apart that day, something I did more easily with my people-pleasing father than my strong-willed mother. Or maybe, as I’ve told my friends over the years, it was simply that my mother drove me crazy.
Whatever the reason, I begged Viv not to call her. When she insisted, being more aware of my dire condition than I, we compromised. She’d leave my mother a message to update her, she’d tell my father to get here quick.
I don’t remember my father’s arrival or anything after that. Viv and Lee Anne report that while I was getting a CT scan, they all went to lunch. That seems so regular. But just because I was in the middle of my own personal disaster, doesn’t mean the world stopped spinning. People still had to eat, right? I wouldn’t eat again for two months. Or see the outside world, except from a hospital window or parking lot, for five months. I don’t recall what that final meal had been. It could’ve been Chef Boyardee out of a can for all I know. That would seem like fine dining in the months to come.
By the time the three returned, I’d lost the ability to speak. The blood in my brain had wiped out another critical function and I was drowning in silence. Lee Anne says I was still quite expressive with my eyes and I got mad that everyone was talking about me, but not to me. She came over to repeat what the doctors said. I was to be life-flighted to Gainesville. They’d found someone to do the surgery the next day. Viv called her husband to say if he wanted to see me alive, he should come now.
She also called my emergency contacts and then some. She called my mother back. My mom, dad and Danielle would fly from South Florida. Rob, Riley, Viv, and Lee Anne would all make the drive from Jacksonville. They were all en route to see if I’d weather through.