By the time Dana got me to the Emergency Room, I was paralyzed from the neck down—I couldn’t move or feel a thing from my shoulders to my toes. If I concentrated, I could still mumble a few short words and turn my head a little from one side to the other. Breathing wasn’t a problem and my heart was racing, internal testimony that my sympathetic nervous system was at full throttle: I was preparing to fight or take flight, even if I couldn’t make a fist or stand up and run.
So Dana left me in the car while she ran into the E.R. to get help, returning with a nurse’s assistant pushing a wheelchair. She put the wheelchair into position and said, “Okay, sir, please slide over into the chair.”
I slowly turned my head to see her and mumbled my reply while Dana said, “I told you, he can’t move.”
“Oh, wow. Let me think. How can we get him out?” A few minutes later she and Dana had lifted, pushed, and pulled me out of the car into the side-less wheelchair. The assistant then wheeled me through the waiting room, into the triage area where she left me with Dana. A nurse standing behind a long counter motioned for us to come over and began asking questions. Dana moved me over and stepped up to the bar. She answered questions, while taking the list of my medications out of my shirt pocket and handing it to the nurse, all while I sat beside her—affirming her answers with a nod.
Next, a nurse’s aide pushed me across the room to one of the semi-private desks below the sign “Financial Services.” She moved a chair and pushed me up to the desk, while Dana took the chair beside me. A cheerful young woman introduced herself and began to ask her questions. Now we were in trouble.
She couldn’t understand my best efforts to respond. And Dana didn’t know the answers. We’d only been dating for three months—only two months if you accepted Dana’s claim that at first we’d been on “outings together”—not dating. And we’d been engaged for less than twenty-four hours, an engagement that was supposed to be kept a secret until we told our children—at least until the cheerful young woman asked Dana, “What’s your relationship to the patient?”
“Well…,” Dana told her, “We are engaged to be married.”
This is why the first person to learn of our engagement wasn’t one of our children or parents—not even a close friend.
“Congratulations,” along with a flood of other excited words came from the young clerk, who then flashed a knowing smile: how romantic—two old geezers just got engaged. I suppose I can’t blame her. On our first outing, I took Dana to see a movie. When I stepped to the ticket booth, using my cane, I was given the Senior Citizens discount at the age of 48—and no, I didn’t correct the clerk or give the money back.
Dana swore the hospital clerk to secrecy as she dug my wallet out from my back pocket, movement I couldn’t feel. And armed with my information cards, she was able to answer enough questions to satisfy the clerk, who then sent us back to the triage area, beaming with knowledge of our secret.
Let me pause to correct a misperception. While I said earlier that I couldn’t move (and I couldn’t), this does not mean that I wasn’t moving. In fact, any unsecured part of my body moved in response to gravity. The first nurse’s aide had fastened and tightened the seat belt of my wheelchair and put my arms in my lap before wheeling me inside. But because the wheelchair had no armrests, I was having a terrible time staying upright. When we spoke to the triage nurse, Dana stood beside me, and I leaned against her. And while we sat before the financial clerk, I leaned on Dana again. But when the clerk sent us back to the triage desk—and in their infinite wisdom they directed us out to wait in the lobby until my name was called, well, things began to get interesting.
Dana’s father was a family physician for years in Hearne (just outside College Station, home of Texas A & M) and an E.R. doctor at the other, smaller hospital in Abilene. In short, Dana grew up knowing how things worked around a hospital and was not shy about pushing the system when it needed to be pushed. So after the nurse gave her pronouncement to take me away (and I was dumbfounded), Dana left me in the wheelchair to approach the desk and argue my case. This is the woman I love.
The only thing she forgot was what the charge nurse, who had just walked around the corner, needed to see. I was going down, tipping over the side with no ability to save myself. It was a sick feeling; I couldn’t stop my fall and had no voice to cry for help. At the last second, Dana saw me and caught me as she continued to point out in kind but firm words, that sending me to the lobby was the dumbest thing she’d ever heard. She wasn’t about to take me away. If they wanted me in the lobby, they’d have to move me, and take care of me. Or, they could do the sensible thing and get me back to a room, keep me safe, and find out what was happening.
When the charge nurse came around the corner and saw the commotion, she immediately directed an aide to take me back to a room. In seconds I landed in one of the large crash rooms with a flurry of activity, each action displayed like a movie playing frame by frame. Six people lifted me up from my chair to the bed. One nurse was trying to get as many answers as she could from me, which was almost nothing. Another took Dana into a corner of the room to grill her for information.
Someone began shining a bright light into my eyes and asking well rehearsed questions: “Does your chest hurt, Mr. Pemberton? Does your head hurt? Did you fall? Does your back hurt? Have you taken any illegal drugs? Can you open your mouth for me? Are you having any trouble swallowing?” May God forgive me, I lied: I was having a little trouble swallowing, but I was terrified they might try to put a tube down my throat if I nodded yes. So I nodded—no. “Do you know what day it is? Can you count to ten?” I should’ve begun in Hebrew, but the thought came too late, and it was hard enough to speak my own language.
At some point during the questions and the hands pushing and probing (that I still couldn’t feel), I realized the nurses were taking off my shirt while others were at the other end of the bed, removing my shoes and socks. Up north, toward my head and chest, the medical team was hooking me up to their machines. One nurse slid a blood pressure cuff over my arm, touched a button to start automatic checks, and then put a clip on my finger to measure the oxygen in my blood. Two other nurses shaved spots off my chest, pushed on sticky electrodes, and clipped on wires that ran to a heart monitor. The experience was surreal. If I shut my eyes everyone disappeared and I could only hear voices and machines. But I felt nothing: not a cold stethoscope, a needle from the blood draw, or movement of hands on my body.
Then it occurred to me that we might have a problem. I became uninterested in the flurry of activity up north and very concerned about what might happen down south. My shoes and socks were now off, and my fiancée still stood ten or twelve feet away from my bed with another nurse. This wasn’t the way I wanted her to get “to know” me—and I mean all of me. At the same time, no matter what happened, I didn’t want her to leave the room. I wanted her beside me, holding my hand, even if I couldn’t feel it. But I had no control over what would happen next. If my pants and underwear went flying across the room, there was nothing I could do about it. I was completely and totally at the mercy of the professionals surrounding me. Ah, yes, this was my best day.
–to be continued–
Excerpt from a working manuscript, A Fire in My Bones: A Memoir of Life with CRPS (copyright Glenn Pemberton).