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I was at work and my boss at the time and I were laying out who was going to write what parts of an RFP bid. I had left my phone in my office and when I got back I checked it and was surprised to see a number of missed called and four voicemails (two from my mother-in-law, and two from my wife) all within the last 10 minutes. I listened to the last message and she said that my wife and my son had been in an auto accident and they were being rushed to the local level 1 trauma center. I rushed there and enquired about my wife and son. A nurse said that she would take me to my son and I was escorted back into the Emergency Room. As I entered I saw two stocking feet sticking out from a bevy of yellow-gowned figures working frantically, but was so focused on my son that I didn’t really process that it had to be my wife.
My son was three, almost four, at the time and had a speech delay so his Mom had taken him to his speech therapy session and they were on their way home when they had their accident. He had about 12-15 words in his vocabulary at the time and the staff was worried because he wouldn’t talk to them. He had a head injury and wouldn’t let them touch him. He clutched his stuffed rabbit (Bun Bun) and they had given my son an IV and also given one to Bun Bun. The nurse would come by and ask him if he needed anything for the pain and he would shake his head and say no, but if she asked if Bun Bun needed anything, he would say yes and she would give him something and then pretend to give Bun Bun some as well.
They wanted to do a CT on his head because of the head injury and wanted me to stay with him and hold his hand. The only thing that I could do to help him was to sing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to him (his favorite movie at the time). I had to make up many of the words, but it helped him and he held on to my hand really tightly, especially when they straightened out his legs (he had a radial fracture of his tibia but they didn’t know that concentrating on the head injury).
While we were waiting for the CT to start a doctor came and got me to let me know that they were taking my wife to emergency surgery that she had a lot of internal injuries and I would get a chance to see her, briefly, on the way to surgery. I asked him if he could give me a prognosis, but he said he couldn’t because it was touch and go. I had come to grips with my son’s injuries and he seemed to be in pain, but not in danger of dying, but my wife it seemed wasn’t so lucky. I got to see her as they wheeled her by and briefly hug her but they were in a hurry and I didn’t want to delay them.
After the CT, my son and I were back in the ER and my phone was dying the nurse was able to track down a cord to keep me going and we waited. My in-laws showed up but there wasn’t much to do except wait. My Father-In-Law knew that my oldest would need to get picked up from school and he volunteered to do so. She was in third grade. I used my LiveJournal to keep everyone up to date because it was easier than trying to call everyone and waiting. They brought in a portable X-ray machine and saw the break in his leg and called in Occipital-Maxilo-Facial surgeons (they have MDs and DDS degrees) to fix his head injury, and were going to set his leg as well while he was under. His surgery was at about 7 p.m., about eight hours after he arrived. By then, my wife had had two surgeries and a procedure to stop some of her bleeding (she would go through 11 units of blood that day alone).
While my son was in surgery, they prepped my wife for her second surgery of the day. This was going to fix the issues they found in the first one. It turns out they had not closed her up and wouldn’t after this one either because she had one more surgery on her insides to go and another on her hip. This time I got the full array of docs who were going to be working on her. There were six or seven, as I recall, and each had to give me informed consent and get me to sign off on the surgery. By the last one, I was able to recite the side effects to them, and she was off for a few more hours in the operating room.
My son came out of surgery with a cast on his leg and a bandage on his head. The staff had taken Bun Bun with him into the ER because it made him less scared and Bun Bun also had a bandage on his head and a cast on his leg. He got a room on the peds floor and my best friend came by to take me to Walmart to get a change of clothes and while I was there I got a boom box that I could hook up my phone to and play the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang soundtrack to make him feel better. By the time I got back and after all the surgeries, it was about 3 a.m.
My son was fairly lucky, he had a scalp laceration and a fractured leg. My wife, well she bore the brunt of the damage. Collapsed lung, burst diaphragm, lacerated liver, burst bladder, damage to her elbow, and a shattered acetabulum. We would find out later that the hip injury has about a 40 percent mortality rate because of all the blood flowing through that area. It was one reason why she needed so much blood that day. I had to go to the junkyard to see if I could find her glasses (I did) and anything else and saw the car.
I learned a lot that day, though I didn’t know everything that I learned until much later. I learned that living in the same city as a level 1 trauma facility is really important sometimes. I learned that even critical situations take hours to resolve at a hospital. I learned that being able to focus on my son allowed me to not think about my wife when he needed me and there was nothing I could do for her. Music can be really important, and every time I hear Chitty Chitty Bang Bang it makes me think about how it helped us both to get through that day.
I learned from the ICU nurses that you look at the progress every day and realize it is a win. My wife was in that ICU for 11 days, but she got a bit better every one of them. It didn’t seem like it at the time, but it was a steady improvement. I learned that holding her hand when they would take her off the vent helped her breathe even though she doesn’t remember any of it.
I learned that community is really important. My company was great giving me a ton of support from a hotel room near the hospital, to some gift cards for the fast food places nearby, to a flexible work schedule when I was ready to get back to work. Our friends were amazing, but so were my daughter’s teachers and my Catholic ACTS brothers. They cooked every meal for my in-laws (where my daughter stayed until my wife came home 26 days after the accident) dropping off a meal each morning on their way in.
I learned that being able to accept help from others is a tough thing. We are taught to be independent and tough, at least I was, and letting others help us isn’t something that many of us find easy. We are able to offer help, but accept it…not so much. I credit the ACTS retreat that I went on a few years prior where learning to let others help you was a big lesson that they imparted to us.
This day 11 years ago resonates today because we never fully recovered. When I would see a news report of an accident on the roads and they said that no one died, I used to just move on and think everything was fine. It isn’t. For my wife, it was six months before she could walk without a walker or crutches, and still today her hip hurts at times. She has other health problems related to her other injuries and scars from the accident and the operations. Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” and in many ways we are stronger, but at the same time so much of our strength is taken up just existing.
So, the next time you hear about an accident and no one died, it may still have changed their lives as it did ours.Published in