We've all heard it, and now I know it: life can change in a blink. We can plan and train, form attachments to things and life as we know it, become complacent when everything is going well, and it can all disappear in a flash.
A school bus driver with no children on the bus to keep him alert can lose focus at the wheel. Instead of slowing down and stopping at a busy street, the bus can speed into cross traffic, slamming into whatever happens to be passing at that particular moment. There would be no grand plan. Luck of the draw would determine which of the vehicles innocently navigated on a beautiful New England Fall afternoon would take the brunt of the blow.
My fight or flight reaction wasn't an either-or choice: fight to at least try to avoid the inevitable and flight into the open oncoming traffic lane. Could I speed past the point of impact?
Just when I thought I had made it, the thunderous jolt smacked the passenger side of my van.
Even daring amusement park rides from my youth couldn't have prepared me for the sensation of careening sideways in a super gust of wind at warp speed. Reality twisted into a yet unexplored dimension.
Doctors later asked if I lost consciousness. In truth, I don't know. Things did go dark, though maybe it was just because I closed my eyes when all hell broke loose. If I did black out, it was for only a split second because I clearly remember waiting out an interminable series of thuds and scrapes as my van rolled ... and rolled ... and rolled again and again.
Relaxing, I gave in, my left arm swaying as if on its own ride above my head. My right elbow got hit hard when the car rolled on its roof and a plastic bin stored on the floor demonstrated Newton's Law. I endured each new crash, wondering how much longer I would spin out of control. Later I would become thankful that my eyes were shut, preventing nightmarish swirling visual images for future instant replays.
At last, all became stilland disorienting. Hanging sideways in my seat, my view was a cracked but intact windshield perpendicular to the ground in front of me. To my left, a broken window revealing exposed pavement; to my right, the sky through the opening where the passenger window had been. I briefly considered the possibility of fire, and of climbing up on the seat and up through that opening, and then saw that I'd have to get past the jagged, broken glass around the window's perimeter, not to mention being far from the ground. The solid floor of the van prevented my seeing the street to the right, and I wondered about the state of the school bus. Was not hearing screaming children a good sign or a bad one?
It was so quiet, and the world seemed to have stopped along with my car. I felt suspended in time as well as in my seatbelt. "I don't need to hang here," I thought. I grabbed the steering wheel with my right hand, reached around to undo the seat belt with my left, and gingerly lowered myself to sit on the edge of the driver's window, my left foot on the pavement outside, my right foot still to the right of the steering column. Stuff hurled through blown-out windows on the van's final impact created a strange landscape on the ground outside: my purse, a box of tissues, a medical emergency kit (a lot of good that did out of reach!), CDs, and more. I sat trapped, strangely calm, looking out at the stopped line of traffic down the road, with nothing to do but wait for the help I knew would come.
Two angels soon peered through the front window. What brave souls! Would I, having just observed a vehicle smacked and rolled around until it slammed against a pole, watching glass fly and every surface crushed and pushed out of alignment, find the wherewithal to go to the rescue of those inside? The young man, a youth minister, kept up a stream of assuring patter: the police have been called and are on their way ... they'll get you out ... are you okay? ... is there anyone else in the car? ... I was behind youyou did all the right things to try to avoid the collision .... He even reached in with tissues from my own box on the ground for my bleeding hand. His compassionate presence provided a tranquil interlude until the police and fire trucks arrived.
I will never forget the voice of the police officer who leaped into my car through the rear window opening, yelling "where are your babies?" as he passed the two overturned children's booster seats. His question will haunt me forever. How does one express the necessary gratitude that those seats were empty, as were the passenger seats on the school bus?
The police officer squatted behind me, talking, distracting me from the disturbing pounding and crunching of the Jaws of Life. Though the medics were averse to my initiating the movement onto the board they positioned at the window, there was no way for them to reach in and lift me. I convinced them that I could do it, and they reluctantly allowed me to slide myself onto a putrid green board that would win no prizes for comfort. Surrounded as they whisked me into the ambulance, I had no view of the accident scene. Had our local newspaper not printed a photo of my car wrapped around a telephone pole, I never would have experienced the full emotional impact of the scene.
During the ambulance ride, I asked the attendant if I would need to sit for hours in the ER waiting room. "Oh, no," he said, "you're going right in. You get the royal treatment." And he was right. Before I knew it, six or seven people bustled around me, attaching fluids, probing, hooking me up to monitors, several asking questions of me at once, and then, I realized, someone was cutting up the front of my skirt. "I can lift my hips so you can take off my clothes," I protested. "No, you can't," she said, "you aren't allowed to move." When she attacked my underpants, I couldn't help being amused. I said to her, "You know how our mothers taught us to wear clean underwear in case we're in an accident? Well, just this morning, I discovered a hole in the first pair I put on, and that thought went through my head. I replaced them with a good pair, and now you're cutting them off." With a devilish grin, the nurse leaned forward, scissors held in mid-cut, and quipped, "What your mother forgot to tell you? We don't care what they look like." This nurse, with her wonderful sense of humor and spirit, made an unbearable experience bearable over the next few hours.
Through it all, the speech and language pathologist I was trained to be hovered above in diagnostic mode. I seemed to comprehend what was said to me, and could formulate sentences and find the right words. Before going for a CAT scan, I asked to call my son to see if he could pick up clothes (in what would they have sent me home had I not done that?!?) and come to my rescue. Without my cell phone and speed dialing, I was overjoyed to find I remembered his phone number. I felt even better when I began to describe where he could find clothing. At least my language skills seemed intact.
As luck would have it, my son was working at home, so he was relatively close and available. His presence and patience were quite comforting. After several hours of lying prone, the radiologist pronounced me fit to go home. There were no apparent fractures and the CAT scan looked okay, though he advised that I had probably suffered a concussion. I happily sat up, only to experience another reality as a wave of dizziness hit me. "Whoa!" I exclaimed, as I grabbed the sides of the gurney. The nurse sized up my state immediately. With a twinkle in her eye, she announced, "if you faint, we'll have to admit you into the hospital overnight."
My son and I shared a knowing look, and I lay back down. Better not to rush. He raised the angle of the gurney in slight increments as my brain adjusted to each new level. Once I could sit, standing seemed elusive. I wasn"t going to get off that gurney until I knew I could walk unaided. The astute nurse raised the odds for success by wheeling me to right outside the bathroom door. Remembering that I had eaten only an apple all day, I asked for orange juice, which did the trick.
Once dressed, the nurse put me in a wheelchair to deposit me in the waiting room while my son went to get his car. She admonished me to take it easy, warning that pain levels would increase over the next few days. "Where can I go without my car?" I lamented. "I loved that car!" She leaned over, put her hands on my shoulders, and said into my ear, "Cars are replaceable, grandmothers are not." For the first time all day, tears welled up in my eyes and a lump in my throat prevented speech. I merely watched her walk away, unable to even thank her. What a wise and wonderful woman. There is no doubt that she is fulfilling what she described as her childhood "calling" to help others, and it was a privilege to be one of the beneficiaries of her loving care. She is aptly named Angela.
A few days later, I shared my experience with my physician's secretary, requesting an appointment for assessment of intense chest, neck, and back pains, and to see if physical therapy would be indicated for my sore elbow. Though no fracture was visible on the x-ray, there was bone bruise and probable tendon damage. I was stymied by my physician's response. Through her secretary, she conveyed the message that she has no room in her schedule for acute care. Her advice was to attend the hospital's walk-in clinic that evening. There was no way I'd be exposing myself to sniffles and coughing in the waiting room when it hurt just to breathe.
Have hospital administrations with a bottom line taken the care out of medical care? Are we to receive caring attention from passers-by and strangers in the ambulance and ER, while our personal physicians are kept so busy they can't see the very patients they are supposed to know and treat when a problem arises? Was I to hear expressions of care and concern from everyone but my own doctor? Is it any wonder that I have a long history of turning to complementary approaches?
My acupuncturist agreed to see me the next day, beginning a helpful, healing course of deep tissue massage, acupuncture, and electrical stimulation. I drove to my first appointment with my hands at the bottom of the steering wheel of my rented car, my first trip in it, unable to lift my arms any higher. On the drive home two hours later, I held the top of the steering wheel.
Dizziness lasted longer, affecting my ability to focus on my work for a few months. I literally had to retrain my eyes to focus closely for long periods of time. I continued to experience waves of dizziness every time my head changed position. Most frustrating was my inability to maintain balance for certain yoga postures and to spin for contra dancing. I finally decided to create my own brain-retraining program: if an activity made me dizzy, I worked at doing it until it didn't. Finally, after six months, I could spin away at dances, and just in time for nice weather, ride my bike.
Hearing witnesses' accounts of my van's egg roll, and looking at its crumpled, humbled remains, bring home the fact that my being alive and functioning is a gift. Maybe it was the good crash-test rating, or that blessed seat belt that held me tightly in place through it all, or relaxing and giving in to whatever happened rather than trying to fight the motion. Or maybe it was the protective angels who transferred from my Grandma to me when she no longer needed them. Along with all the bumps and grinds, I am aware that just two feet forward, and the dent from the phone pole would have been over my head instead of an empty seat.
I feel I've been spared to do whatever it is I'm yet supposed to do. I've been granted time, making me think about how we use our time, something we often forget to do in our busy lives.
For me, it is time to play and laugh ... to love and treat others with patience and compassion ... to continue to spend precious time with my delicious grandchildren ... to seek beauty and truth ... to give back to others and the community in exchange for life's blessings.
We need to think about rearranging our priorities ... to be aware that overload often prevents personal commitment and sharing ... to realize that pride often prevents our telling those we love how much we care about them ... to admit that we are vulnerable beings in need of love and help ... to practice forgiveness for ourselves and others ... to enhance the future of our offspring, humankind, and our planet Earth.
I offer my son's glowing sunset, taken from an ice breaker in the Arctic Circle. May it provide inspiration for us all to put a fire in our bellies, to see the gift of color and light and expansiveness and possibility. Consider that what he saw, in reality, was a horizon that went on forever, unencumbered by imposed boundaries and limitations.
May we all be gifted with the time to seek unlimited possibility in helping ourselves, others, and our planetwithout needing the blink of a wake-up call.
This essay originally appeared in a slightly different form, written under a pseudonym, in the Spring 2006 issue of Cell 2 Soul, an online journal of humane medicine and the medical humanities, located at http://www.cell2soul.org.
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