My Stroke: Part 3: Seeking Normalcy

And I know I can’t explain 
The commotion in my brain 
Like a terrifying reality 
Deconstructed but inadequately 

Bad Religion – ‘To Another Abyss’

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The most memorable thing about my being moved to a normal room was the ‘lift team’. A lift team is the means by which patients in a hospital, unable to move themselves in any meaningful way, are moved from one place to another. Typically, this involves two large, muscle-bound folks who are trained in proper transfer technique and work in tandem to support one another in the process of moving an effectively dead-weight human from a bed to a gurney, wheelchair, or other person-moving device. My lift team was anything but typical.

Her name was Toni. She was a shorter girl — not much taller than my wife, if at all — and had a slender frame. The other lift team personnel on hand were busy with an emergency patient who’d been airlifted in moments prior, and so, Toni was operating alone in moving me from the ICU. At first glance, I’d never have thought she’d be able to effectively and safely haul my half-limp form from the bed. She expressed some concern to this end, as well (being used to having a partner and all), but was determined to have a go at it nonetheless. With what I’m sure was no small effort despite the apparent ease, she quickly had me out of bed and sat into a wheelchair; I was wheeled down the hallway to an elevator, swimming in her apologies for the sweat she left on me in the process, which I repeatedly dismissed as unnecessary — after all, this was the small, thin superwoman who’d just singlehandedly done the work of two people and was doing so to expedite my egress from the ICU.

When we got to the new room, she (once again alone) lifted me up into the larger and marginally more comfortable bed of the hospital proper. Here’s where we learned perhaps the most amazing part of her feat in moving me: not long before, she’d been on the other end of this process after a hip and knee replacement. To this day, I’m really not sure whether it was strength or sheer will with which she’d managed to get me from Point A to Point B, but she did so impressively well regardless of mitigating circumstance. I had some time to settle in to new surroundings, but it wasn’t long before the never-ending stream of nurses drilled back into me that I was still in no shape to consider myself truly recovering. Again, the phlebotomist came and took what I was sure was far too much blood, and the IVs continued their incessant numbing of my would-be pain.

We had more visitors during this time, too. Friends, family, coworkers all coming to express their concerns and, I think, try to fathom the reality; I imagine that it’s a different experience entirely to hear that someone you know has been struck half-lame and bedridden, and seeing it with your own eyes as they lie mostly still in front of you. I tried to keep up my spirits, continuing the jokes (many, now, far on the side of inappropriate, as tends to be with my close friends), smiling as best I could. I got flowers, a bottle of wine, a book of crosswords. I also remember that, at a time in that first day, my loving wife managed to requisition the necessary materials to conduct a sponge bath; I had, after all, been laying in my own accumulated sweat for several days, and, any stench notwithstanding, I was beginning to develop red, irritating rashes from it all. Readers, you have not known true devotion until your significant other has washed you, laying in a bed, incapable of doing the deed yourself. I cannot express enough how wonderful it felt to have this done, and to have someone willing to do it.

Nights, though, remained difficult, sometimes insufferable. When I would drift off to sleep, I’d bolt awake in half-panic, the daze of intermittent consciousness forcing me to remember time and again that half of me was simply not working. My wife would lull me back to sleep, where the process would slowly repeat until morning, when the bustle of visitors, nurses, et cetera would keep me from any such thoughts. My second day in this room, I got my first taste of physical therapy; it was a simple act of sitting up, at the edge of my bed. I used my good arm to hold myself as steady as I could, and a vigilant hand kept near the other side to ensure I didn’t tumble to the floor. I sat up for about five minutes, then I was laid back down in bed to recover from the strain; strange as it may sound, it was quite a physically demanding task.

The second night, I’ll never forget. I told my wife to go home, be with our son, and sleep in our own apartment. My mom took on the task of staying with me in her stead (damned if they were going to leave me alone with my thoughts and beeping machinery). I remember a horrid, uncomfortable sensation of needing to urinate, despite the fact that I was, at this point, fitted with a catheter and, by all accounts, achieving the task at a normal rate. I was hot, uncomfortable, and riddled with the early onset of would-be bedsores. Around two in the morning, the panic and fear set in like it never had before. My poor mother did her best to console me, but the rising emotional storm made that an impossible task. Eventually, I had her find my phone and dial my wife. She talked to me, soothed me, and my nerves finally began to settle enough that after some time, we hung up, and I slept.

The third day, I met with the speech therapist; while my speaking didn’t seem to require any direct attention, they were concerned about my cognitive ability; they spoke with me, gave me some simple abstract thinking puzzles, and, satisfied, left me to more physical therapy. This time, with the help of a lift team (a proper one), I was moved to a chair. Propped up a bit with pillows, I sat up for a few hours, seeing visitors and generally relishing the fact that I wasn’t confined to a bed, even if it was a brief reprieve. I think I was let to sit for longer than they’d planned, but I was far from the only patient in the hospital and I was in no real rush to return to my “home” atop the sheets and pillows and antimicrobial mattress.

Eventually, though, I was moved back, and the routine of half-edible food, pills, shots, and blood draws continued. It occurs to me that I haven’t mentioned the food until now. Typical of a hospital, it was all technically edible but often bland and not particularly interesting. I didn’t know it at the time, but there were also some foods I couldn’t have, or could only have in small quantities; this, I’ll leave for later exploration, as it was something I learned great detail of later. I remember that nearly every breakfast, more than any other meal, made me nauseous; the scrambled eggs, in their many forms, were particularly good at this, leading to a string of experimental attempts to find a medication to soothe it, and a similar number of changes to my painkiller buffet in search of some combination of things that would help me keep my food down. For whatever reason, lunch and dinner didn’t produce this effect quite so much, and some were even relatively palatable.

At this point, doctors began to talk to me about my eventual chance to leave the hospital — not for home, but for a live-in physical rehabilitation facility run by the hospital, where I would continue my road to recovery for some indeterminate timeframe expected to be anywhere from three weeks to three months. The uncomfortable reality continued to settle itself in my mind as I tried to reconcile my insatiable work ethic with my utter inability to do anything like work. I was still to be kept in the hospital for a few more days, regardless; there were still more tests to run, more scans to collect, and other such business to tend to. Keeping exhaustion and the relentless scraping of depression at bay as best I could, I soldiered on for the last days of what had become my routine existence. My left side remained unresponsive and aggravatingly numb.

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