1/7/91 – Part Five

Again, we are told to wait. Incredibly scared, all of us keep up a good front. Others start voicing what I had continued to think, that because she is so youthful and in such good shape, she has a big advantage over others her age. I mean, she runs marathons, for Chrissakes. I cannot decide as I look into their faces whether they really believe this or they just don’t want to consider the other possibilities. We all react differently to the news that she’s in a coma, and no one knows what will happen. We all seem to drift apart from each other. Where before we were sitting together as a group, now we each drift off into separate little clusters, thinking about how she must feel, and maybe contemplating our own lives a little.

Mom ran religiously as I said, in snow or sleet and my years up to that point had been filled with reports of her mileage. In school or at work people would always come up to me and remark they had seen her running on the previous afternoon, usually somewhere in the vicinity of my house. As a result, her heart was in optimum condition. Her doctor told her often that she sounded, “as clear as a bell.”

Mom had also been a dedicated nutritionist, filling our bellies with wheat bread and carrot sticks as opposed to Twinkies and hot dogs. More than once since that night I have found myself grateful she took such care in making sure her children had healthy meals. It’s like I never noticed until that moment in the waiting room how much she cared for us and herself.

After what seems like days we are allowed to go in and see her briefly. It is like a movie unreeling, because she is placed in the very back of the intensive care unit. It secures my idea this is some sort of nightmare. As a result, my sister and I have to walk past every bed in the place and cannot help but see who is in what condition.

Medical College of Virginia Hospital is painted in very chemical, medicinal, green-gray and white. The color on the walls matches almost exactly the operating room greens on the doctors so that they seem to fade into the walls like ghosts. The building retains a detached feeling because of this, even though it’s supposed to be a place of caring and healing. Greenish-gray shadows give it a morgue-type feeling or a prison aura. The halls echo, so every step I take reverberates loudly in my ears. Again, I’m reminded of a nightmare.

Of course every surface is spotless, but I can still detect a smell of sick underneath all the ammonia and bleach. Underneath this, I smell death. No matter how much they clean, they cannot rub away the fact most of the people admitted to this part of the hospital probably have no chance of ever leaving alive. Death smells like cobwebs, a sickly-sweet mold, with a musty smell of decaying books. It’s horrible. On top of all this I smell rubber gloves, the dry acidy smell of gauze, plus bacterial soap and even urine.

As my sister and I walk into the unit holding hands, moving slowly past the patients, this mixture of smells hits us all at once. It makes me gag inwardly with the sense of foreboding it carries. Each patient we pass seem worse off than the one before. Most of them are geriatrics, lying limply, slack-jawed, tubes sprouting from them like a sci-fi movie. Most don’t even breathe on their own, and the hissing sound of the breathing apparatus makes a sickening kind of music – a sucking sound that makes my skin crawl. The rest of the patients are younger adults covered in bandages and more tubes.

Since this is the neurological intensive care unit, all the patients have some sort of bandage on their shaved heads, and the combination of this with their flimsy hospital robes gives me visions of Auschwitz. The scrawniness of the elderly does not alleviate this feeling at all, and another chill crawls its way up my spine. The ones who are unconscious lie like vegetables, unaware and unseeing. The worst patients have their curtains drawn, and I shudder to think of what condition could possibly be worse than what I was now seeing.

My mother lay at the very end of this long and harrowing journey of sickness and death. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many machines hooked up to one person, before or since. If everything else about that night remains a rushed blur of images, I will always remember the beeping sounds of the machines and the sickly smell of medicinal liquids, bandages, rubber gloves, and death hovering just over our heads. She too has bandages and breathing apparatus, but in addition to this she wears a neck brace and numerous other stitches and bandages appear on her face and arms. A large tube runs out of the top of her head and is attached to a monitor, meant to measure the amount of pressure on her brain.

Even with all of the machines, she looks peaceful, and miraculously, the only part of her face damaged is a small stitch above her lip. No wonder the doctor thought she was 25. In the midst of all this mayhem, all this mess, she still looks it. I smirk softly at the irony.

Clutching my sister, I begin praying that she gets her own room as soon as possible – I want her out of this room where the grim reaper seems to lurk in every corner. Unfortunately, this would not occur for many weeks, but as the days progressed and the number of machines attached to her dwindled away, I gained more and more molecules of hope. Even so, the hated brain monitor was one of the last to go, and its presence during our visits never ceased to be a source of discomfort. It taunted us with its presence, and served as a reminder that there was a very real possibility she would not make it through this.

I did not know this at the time of my first visit, but she would go through two more invasive brain surgeries to alleviate the pressure. Eventually, a small portion of the front part of her brain would be removed in order to save her life. The doctor repeatedly assured us the only effects would possibly be a very small change in personality and maybe a loss of memory, but I still cannot help but feel a portion of her died during those surgeries. It’s like they cut out a piece of Mom, and just threw her away with the sharps and other hazardous medical waste.

Of course, none of us, including the doctor, ever mentioned the word “lobotomy” but I can guarantee we were all thinking it. I can’t watch the movie “Frances” to this day without thinking of what had to happen to Mom. Today things have improved somewhat and they would’ve just removed part of her skull to let the brain swell and recede on its own. I wonder how her story would’ve been different had she had that kind of chance instead of what she got.

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