My Stroke: Part 2: Waking Dream

And what will happen – will I dream?
I am too scared to close my eyes
For a second; please hold me
None can change in me these things that I believe
But I don’t know what happens now
I am too scared to close my eyes

VNV Nation – ‘Legion’


You may have noticed that the previous entry in this sequence ended by saying, ‘We rested.’ It did not say, ‘We slept.’ This is deliberate. That first night in the ICU, the only thing keeping my eyes closed was unfettered exhaustion and a steady supply of IV-fed drugs; whether any of them were meant to make me sleep, I don’t know, but sufficient quantities of blood-thinning agents coupled with painkillers will do the trick well enough. I lay, half-sleeping, half-aware, listening to the droning hum of the machines monitoring my life. My wife curled up like a cat in a wicker chair far too small for any such purpose. Beeps, whirs, and the occasional drifting voice from the hospital PA lulled us in and out of fitful dreams; I think we half hoped that what was happening was the dream, and we’d wake to find ourselves curled around one another in our bed when light broke. Unfortunately, the horrid dream was the reality.

With the dawn came concerns; I was the sole breadwinner for our family. It was clear that I wouldn’t be working; for how long, I didn’t know. Around 6 or 7 am, I picked up my cell phone and found the stored entry for my boss. Voicemail. Of course. “Hey, Jason. This is Chaz. I’m, uh, in the ICU at Enloe [the name of our local hospital], so I’m, um, not gonna be able to come in today.” Somewhere in my drug-addled and still confused, fog-filled mind, it hadn’t clicked. It never occurred to me that this was going to take days, weeks, maybe months to recover from. It never crossed my mind to explain in detail, or to even mention in the message that it was my own emergency that landed me where I was.

Not long after, I got a call back; worriedly, my boss — a father of two — asked if something had happened to my son. The shock was palpable through the phone when I explained, to the best of my ability, what had actually happened. I don’t really recall the specifics of the conversation, other than that he urged me to take all the time I needed, and to focus on recovery before thinking about working again. I optimistically talked about returning as soon as I could, regardless; my family – my wife, my son – depended on that. The conversation ended with much yet unknown.

At this point, I should note that my condition, physically, was at its worst. My entire left side, shoulder to toe, was paralysed and all but numb; I remember moments of confused panic when my wife would lovingly lay a hand on mine, or pet my arm — the receptors had gone haywire, and couldn’t tell the difference between a loving caress and a stabbing pain. Anything brushing against that side sent waves of unspecified data coursing through me. The cool touch of a fresh bedsheet was like nothing I had felt before, and nothing to which I can put words. Any attempt on my part to use any left-side limb met with dull nothingness; not even the struggle of pushing a muscle that refuses to obey. Just … nothing, as if an entire half of my body was simply a flesh-wrapped sandbag somehow grafted on to my remaining functional bits.

Between the brain injury, the constant drug-dose, and the whirl of activity, the events to follow swirl around; inconsistent, sporadic memories of panic and relief, of heart-wrenching fear and hopeful desire. I know I was moved, cords, IV drips, and all, from my bed to a gurney, and wheeled to an ambulance that took me across the street to the imaging facility; here, I got to experience my first MRI. Unlike the prior CT scans, I remember this. I was warned that the machine, from inside where I would be, could be incredibly loud; it was, but I much more distinctly remember that it was ice-cold inside. Shivering uncontrollably, I did my best to hold still at their request. I think they pulled me out to add some blankets to help with that. After the scans, I was returned to my room in the ICU.

My mom and sister visited; this stands out to me — and them — for some interesting reasons. You see, I’m typically a reserved kind of person; I have a strong, constant inner monologue, but I tend to keep my thoughts and, more specifically, my emotions to myself. Pumped full of no small number of things, though, and still in a half-shock state overall, the filter was most certainly off. I rambled endlessly, smiling and joking and choking back a welling weep-session all at once. I remember my mom remarking to the nurses that it was the most talkative she’d ever seen me. We had a laugh about that, too, and the nurses were very surprised by my open and, perhaps, off-colour humor about the entire affair. That remained a constant through my entire recovery process, a steady supply of gallows-jokes and oddly-worded commentary. I think it was a hallmark of my road back to whatever normalcy I was going to regain.

The results from the MRI showed, at least in a physical sense, the cause of my stroke. My right carotid artery had dissected, forming a blood clot over the time between when I initially felt the lightheadedness in the office before and when I’d been laid down on the exam table. Laying down had given it the opportunity it needed to travel upward, into my brain, causing what’s known as an ischemic stroke, spreading damage throughout the right side of my brain. I took pictures of the scan results with my phone.

All told, I spent three days in the ICU. It’s a blur, as I’ve mentioned; I know my family members visited more, and my wife never left my side.  The ward nurses were even kind enough to look the other way and allow a brief but greatly appreciated rule-breaking visit from my son — kids aren’t typically allowed inside the ICU rooms, for relatively clear and logical reasons. I was taken for more MRIs at one point. I struggled through meals, each one bringing waves of nausea like I couldn’t believe. I don’t remember if, or how many times, I failed to keep it down. Anti-nausea medications were added to my existing retinue of drips, pills, and shots. Blood was drawn several times a day, monitoring the coagulation factors, looking for identifiable risks, searching for more answers about how an otherwise-healthy 27 year old male had come to be rendered half-mobile and swinging in and out of coherence. Nights were especially difficult, as laying in bed was my only activity in the day, and my limited mobility left few options to tire me. Fitfully, I weaved between moments of calm sleep and panicked sobbing. My hope dwindled with every passing hour, and, while I did all I could to imagine recovering, the crashing reality that I might never regain function in my left side splintered my emotions. I wondered — mostly, but not always, to myself —  if the Chaz of before all this was gone for good. I wondered if my mind would start to fade from me, and I would cease to be myself in a fundamental way.

Eventually, I was told I’d be moving to a normal room, outside of the ICU. Days of monitoring and constant vigilance had played out their role, and the doctors and neurologists were confident that I had stabilized enough to allow me to relocate. A room with less menacing-sounding monitors. A room with a window to the outside. A room where non-family visitors could enter. Ecstatic, I prepared for that as best I could; we spent the third night in a row crammed into the confines of the intensive unit, my wife still spending her night-times curled up in the small chair in the corner.

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