Ten years ago today (January 25, 2003), I fell 80 feet (24 meters) while rock climbing at T-Wall, a popular climbing site in Tennessee. The doctors said I might not live; when I did, they said I’d never be the same again. Today, not only am I “normal,” most people don’t even know this incident ever happened. This is part three of my story. (To read parts one and two, click here and here.)
A scream. More of a growl, actually. Arrrr! Arrrr! Arrrrrrrr! The pirate a few rooms down was hallucinating again.
Footsteps echoed off the laminate floor.
I could hear machines humming. My machines. Whirrrr. Whirrrr. Their green lights glowed in the dark. I pretended they were aliens.
I had to go to the bathroom. A call button hung to the right of my bed. This was for my nurse. With my good arm, I reached over. I missed. I tried again. This time, I pressed the button.
“Yes? How can I help you?” a voice said over the intercom.
*Seriously? Did she not remember I couldn’t talk?
I waited. An hour passed. Finally, at 4:06, the nurse came.
“What ya need, honey?” she asked.
“Bathroom,” I mouthed.
“What was that?”
“Bathroom,” I mouthed again.
“Ohhh, okay. Hold on.”
She slipped out between the blinds and came back with a bedpan. I arched my legs and she placed the plastic container beneath me. “Just holler when you’re done,” she said.
The bedpan was hard. I hated going to the bathroom. When I was done, I pressed the button. An eternity passed. Finally, as I was about to turn 100, she returned to wipe me clean and remove the bedpan. “Now get some sleep,” she said.
I looked at the clock. It was 4:13.
“Good morning!” Bright light flooded the room. “How are you today?”
I squinted at the phlebotomist in the light.
He cleaned the injection site. “1, 2, 3, ouch!” A needle pierced my vein and red liquid flowed into the attached tube.
My left arm was black and blue thanks to him.
“Hi, Jessica! Did you sleep okay?”
“Time for your chest X-ray.”
The X-ray team wheeled a large machine into my room. Two technicians slid a board beneath my back and put a heavy radiation shield over my stomach. In the dark, I stared at the light. “Staaayyyy stilll,” a technician said. I stayed still. She and the other technician moved a safe distance away. Flash!
They looked at the computer. “Again.”
They repositioned the board. We repeated the scenario.
They pulled the board out from under my back. “Okay, hon, we’re done torturing you now.”
“. . .”
I breathed a sigh of relief as they left.
The tiny window above my head was getting lighter. My chest was rattling. I fumbled for the call button.
“Yes, dear?” The nurse looked tired. Her shift would be over at 7.
I didn’t feel like talking. I motioned to my trache.
“Okay, sweetie,” she said.
A different nurse appeared. This nurse was young. She was wearing bright purple scrubs with flowers on them. “Well hello again,” she said. “Right on time.”
I looked at her.
She unhooked me from the ventilator and attached a suction tube to the cannula in my neck.
The cannula was a curved plastic tube that entered another tube just above my lungs; on the outside, it blocked the incision and connected me to oxygen. This was how I breathed. Periodically my lungs filled with mucus and had to be suctioned out. This is what she was doing now.
I coughed again.
I coughed and coughed and coughed. As I did, slimy yellow stuff began to ooze into the tube.
“Eww, it looks like snot,” the young nurse said.
When I’d coughed up as much of the yellow stuff as I could, she put the suction tube away. She then removed the cannula and put it in a disinfecting solution. While it was soaking, she used q-tips to clean around the incision. The used q-tips were yellow, too. I closed my eyes.
“All done,” she said at last as she replaced the cannula and changed the collar around my neck.
I wondered, briefly, what I looked like.
“Thank you,” I mouthed as she reattached the ventilator.
“No problem, kid.”
She whistled as she walked away.
Carlotta. My big black nurses‘ aide.
“Gooo’ mornin’, missy! Ain’t it a glorious day? The sun’s a shinin’ an’ I’m a singin’ . . . an’ look at you!”
She meant I was alive.
As she talked, Carlotta prepared a basin of warm soapy water at a sink in the corner of the room. It was time for my bath.
“I been to church on Sunday. The preacher—ohhh, he be soooo good! We was a singin’ and a prayin’ an’ the Lor’ came upon us . . .” Suddenly her voice became quiet. She looked at me mischievously. “. . . an’ we did the holy dance!” At that, Carlotta threw her hands in the air, splattering water everywhere, and began to wiggle. Her whole body jiggled as she turned in a circle. “Puh-raaaise the Lor’!” she said.
I wanted to laugh, but though her antics continued as she began removing my hospital gown—one arm first, then the other—I was distracted. Red and black patches attached to EKG wires were stuck all over my abdomen and chest. My stomach tube startled me. It felt strange to lie there, so exposed, in front of a total stranger.
Carlotta didn’t notice.
“I been a prayin’ for you, chil’,” she said. “Tha’ night, when I saw your daddy sittin’ sobbin’ on the floor righ’ there—” she pointed to a spot beside my bed, “I said to myself, ‘That chil’ is my chil’; I’m gon’ take gooo’ care o’ her. And, Lor’,’ I said, ‘this chil’ gon’ make it. You ain’t a takin’ her—noooo way.'”
Carlotta paused to wag a finger at the sky.
Now I really wanted to laugh.
Gently, Carlotta began to wash my body with a sponge. To wash my hair she poured water from a cup. When she was done, she patted me dry and helped me into a clean hospital gown. Last, she changed my bedding by rolling me from side to side.
“There now, don’t that feel bettuh?”
I nodded, then shivered.
“Hol‘ on.” She slipped out the door and returned a moment later with a load of towels. They were fresh from the dryer.
With these heaped on top of me, I finally felt like I could fall asleep.
I looked and looked. Where was she? The only thing that kept me going in the hospital was my mother. My father had been there earlier, but after my shoulder surgery, he’d had to go home to California.
Finally, around ten, she arrived.
“Hello, beautiful,” she said. She was wearing jeans and a thick black jacket. It was cold outside. “Did Carlotta take good care of you?”
“Yes,” I mouthed.
My mom patted my head. It was still wet. “Want me to dry your hair?”
She already knew the answer. She pulled a blow dryer out of her purse and plugged it in. Warm air flowed over my head and neck. She was careful not to brush my stitches.
My friends were coming. I wanted to sit up.
My mom pulled my back brace out from a corner of the room. She undid its Velcro straps. The two ivory pieces—hard like bone—fell apart.
I rolled onto my left side. I would never be able to rest comfortably on my right side again. My mom placed the back of the brace behind me and helped me onto it. She then placed the front on top of me and cinched tight the straps. I felt like an oyster.
Now, to sit up.
We raised the back of the hospital bed. I was amazed by everything I could see from this angle.
Oh… Hurry up, guys! Hurry up!
My friends were gone. I hadn’t been a very good host. Despite my excitement, the morning’s activities had worn me out. I was tired.
My mom had stayed as long as she could. She’d read to me and played music. Once I dropped off to sleep, she left. But now I was awake.
I was thirsty.
I pressed my call button. A few centuries later, my nurse appeared.
“Water,” I mouthed.
“I’m sorry, dear, no water tonight.”
“Ice?” I asked hopefully.
“No, not ice, either,” said the nurse.
I was devastated. “Why?”
“Try to get some sleep, honey,” said the nurse. And then she left.
I stared at the ceiling in the dark. I’d nearly memorized it by now. Suddenly, I had an idea. I glanced towards the sink. There were disposable cups there. If I could just . . .
Back brace or no, I had to try.
Mustering all the strength I had, I sat up. My spine felt weak. I swung my legs over the edge of the bed. The floor was about two miles down. I couldn’t turn back now. Carefully, I dropped off the bed. My legs were wobbly, but I was standing! I could do this. One foot first, then the other. Then the other. Then the other.
And then, suddenly, my world collapsed. My legs crumpled beneath me. I crashed to the ground.
Lying on my back in the dark, I started to cry. My aliens were laughing at me. They were making funny sounds.
My nurse had heard something. She hadn’t expected to find me on the ground. What was I thinking? Didn’t I know I could have killed myself?
She and another nurse put me back in bed.
And then they tied me down.
End of Part Three
*I was unable to talk due to my tracheostomy.
• • •
My early days in the ICU were difficult because no one knew if I would live. I had to be chemically paralyzed and placed on a tilt table because I needed every last ounce of energy just to survive.
My later days in the ICU were hard because I started to be more aware. As a head trauma patient, I was impatient and impulsive. I also had trouble focusing: nothing interested me. This meant that my days confined to my room with a window too high to see out of were absolute torture.
I did have friends and family from all over the country visit me. People prayed with my parents and came to my room when I was well enough. To all of you, thank you. It is because of you that I survived.
- how to not die: the fall
- how to not die: the rescue
- how to not die: the missing piece
- how to not die: the road to recovery
- Woman rescued after fall from Waldens Bluff (chattanoogan.com)—The news article about my accident