Stories from my Darkness

Last week I had dinner with my wife and my parents and our talk turned to the time, five years ago next month, when I was hit by a car and ended up in the trauma ward of Scripps Mercy Hospital. I was driving my bike to work when a car hit me from behind, and then I joined the fraternity of those who suffer the effects of traumatic brain injury.

The dinner-table chat was the longest one my family has ever had, in my presence, about the kind of person I became immediately following my brain injury.

I call that time a darkness because I don’t remember anything that happened for at least a week following the accident. I don’t remember the accident itself because trauma interrupts your brain’s ability to process memory. Why the rest of the week was a blank, I’m not so sure. Maybe it was the injury. Maybe the drugs, they gave me, induced amnesia.

But the stories I hear about that time sound like they’re told of someone I don’t know. It’s as if I wasn’t even there. An irrational, deluded stranger was trapped in my skin.

I was belligerent. That even made it into the police report about my accident. I would typically wake up in my hospital bed and not know where I was, or why I was in a neck brace and connected to forest of tubes. I would curse and scream as I tried to pull them all off.

For a while, I wasn’t able to swallow food and I couldn’t sit up. Some nurses finally managed to prop me up in bed, and presented this to my wife as a great triumph. Karen thought I looked so pathetic she started to cry.

The cast of characters that surrounded me has slowly taken shape as the stories have been repeated. There was a red-haired nurse with a southern accent and a neurologist from New York. Someone in the trauma ward told my wife it would be years before I’d be able to balance a check book. Another told her I’d be back to normal so fast, I wouldn’t even bother to think about it.

I’m told that once, in the hospital, they showed me photos of my children to see if I could recognize them. I could, and I remembered their names. But when they asked me where I lived, I told them Minnesota. Only one scene from Scripps Mercy stands out in my memory. I remember looking up from a hospital bed as I was paid a visit by Dr. Michael Sise, the director of the trauma ward. He was smiling. In fact, everybody in the room was smiling. I didn’t know why.

My disorientation continued after I was moved from Scripps Mercy to a hospital run by my health plan, Kaiser Permanente.

The docs and nurses at Scripps Mercy were professionals, when it came to dealing with brain-injury patents. But the people at Kaiser didn’t know what to do. I kept telling them I wanted to go home, and they’d call my wife to tell her to come and get me. Didn’t they realize I was still messed up and needed hospital care in spite of what I said? I also kept telling people I’d be back at work in a week. It would be months.

Soon, my long term memory returned. Later, my short-term memory came back and I stopped asking people questions that they had already answered twice.

Soon, I would have been able to balance a check book if that had been something people with online banking still did. But the other guy was also wrong. I remember my accident. It changed my life.

Right after the accident, I couldn’t think straight and I couldn’t take care of myself. But I had someone. My wife took care of me as she would have cared for a child.

It was not until my accident that I learned something so simple I’m embarrassed to say it. Family is what matters. From here on, all I can do is try to return the favor.

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