12 August 2007

Crash Test, Dummy

If it was, in fact, a "crash test", I think I may have passed. The fact that I'm alive and kicking and able to write about my unexpected "exam", at the very least, testifies to the fact that I was spared to tell the tale. That's got to count for something, right?

Friday Morning, I headed out at around 10:10 for a 10:40 AM appointment to have my car serviced. I ran back in the house three times - looking for my shoes, my iced tea and something else which I can't even remember.

Somewhere in another part of Wilmington, a 34 year old woman and her daughter were in their car, having driven in from Lumberton, and she was lost and looking for I-40.

I stopped within about an eighth of a mile from my destination and moved into the lane that would allow me to turn left after the light changed from red to green. When the light changed, I began making my left hand turn and right in the middle of that turn, the woman from Lumberton who was looking for I-40, forgot to notice she was about to run a red light and, instead of the interstate, she found me and smacked right into my car, sending me into a spin.

When my car finally came to an unexpected screeching halt, I sat there with an airbag in my face, a crumpled left arm, a few cuts and bruises and feeling dizzy and completely disoriented. She landed about 200 yards from where I sat and I remember sitting in my car, pushing the now deflated airbag out of my face, and shaking. I remember shaking a lot. My heart was pounding and I wondered if I was seriously hurt and I remember thinking that I needed to breathe.

Within seconds, a very kind man in a pickup truck rushed over to me, leaving his vehicle in the middle of the intersection, and he asked me if I was OK? He was very sweet and appeared genuinely concerned. I remember thinking, I have to get up out of this car and walk. I need to walk. I need to move. I could literally feel my heart beating like a snare drum, but I needed to make certain my other parts were working. I skittishly looked down to see if there was any blood. My arm began blowing up like a balloon and I could almost see the bruises forming, collected pools of blood just beneath the surface of my skin. I was very aware of my breathing and I was afraid I would start hyperventilating which would signal a loss of control on my part and I was very keen on staying in control. "Slow down. Breathe slowly. You're OK.", became my mantra and I was determined to keep repeating it until I actually bought into the idea that I was, in fact, OK.

I kept glancing at the vehicle that hit me and it was several minutes before anyone emerged from it. I didn't see any visible damage to the other car from the vantage point of my car, but my PT Cruiser looked as if it had hit a brick wall. In the floor of my car, coins lay scattered about and my phone charger cord was tangled around my iPod and fine dust was suspended in the air, from the sudden explosive deployment of the airbags which prevented me from being thrown through the windshield. I was still seatbelted in, but I had a desperate urge to move in order to prove, if only to myself, that I could.

Within minutes, a female paramedic was hunched down beside me, asking me if I was OK? Good question! As it turned out I was curious about that myself. I could hear my heart beating in my ears and I had the strong desire to walk and walk and walk and shake myself out of the fog that had settled around my brain. I had a strong suspicion that a hospital visit was looming in my immediate future and this added to my stress, which no doubt added to my heart rate.

Many times during these recent late spring and summer months, I have felt that I wouldn't want to exchange places with anyone, thoroughly enjoying my life to the extent that I wouldn't want to miss a single one of the magical moments I have experienced. Friday Morning, however, I would have given anything NOT to be me. I knew instinctively that even the shuddering thought of being prepped for a root canal would be a step up from my present location at the intersection of "car" and "wreck".

The sweet, perky paramedic took my blood pressure which, interestingly enough, reported systolic and diastolic numbers within normal range. My pulse, however, was an entirely different story and she grimaced as she tried to count the beats. "Your heart rate is 170 right now - you're in shock, ma'am.".

Yikes! Not good! I could have done without that information. The mention of that figure, and her obvious alarm at the number of beats per minute, probably cranked things even higher.

She told me we needed to get in the ambulance and get a monitor on me. She asked me if I could walk with her. My answer was two-fold: Yes, I could walk but no, I'd rather pass on the whole monitoring plan.

"Yes, but I don't want to lay on the stretcher and I don't want a monitor because if I do that, I will become convinced that I'm not OK and so if it's all the same to you, I'll just sit in your ambulance."

She smiled and hesitantly agreed to the terms of my condition.

I asked her for a drink of water and she said she couldn't do that until I was checked out at the hospital. I kept asking anyway. The answer was always the same, but I desperately wanted some water.

As I followed her to the ambulance, we passed by the woman who had been driving the other vehicle and in a trembling, tearful utterance, she spoke, "I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry I hit your car.". I remember telling her that I was sure she hadn't done it intentionally and I kept walking. I don't think I was still too sure of what had just happened to me. The feeling of unreality was disconcerting, to say the least. It's sort of like I cognitively knew that I had just been in a wreck, but there was this other "feeling" that I was not completely aware of what had just transpired. It was very much an "out of body" experience - like when you get a sense of watching yourself rather than being yourself.

Taking the proffered hand of a male EMT, I climbed up into the paramedic's truck and sat down on the bench facing the stretcher that they were trying their best to entice me to lie down on. I quietly, but firmly, protested and told them that it would be better for all of us if I just sat on the bench. My EMT Trio kept trying to convince me that to take them up on their offer didn't mean I was more injured, but that they really would love to monitor my heart. I thought about it, but again, it just didn't strike me as the thing to do. I will have to admit, however, that I respected their tenacity.

During the course of our negotiations, we compromised and I allowed them to place a clip on my finger which would report my heart rate, but no monitors, please. I mean, you have to draw the line somewhere, right? Give them an index finger and they want to place leads on your chest. Isn't that just typical? :-)

The paramedics exchanged amused glances with each other and decided that perhaps it might be the best course not to push their point, God Bless them. I told them I wasn't trying to be difficult, but explained that for me to lie on a stretcher would make me think I was dying and I'd prefer to stay away from such ideas and that if I allowed myself to believe that I was seriously injured, they'd have to deal with a massive panic attack and I wanted to save all of us from that if possible.

Within a few more minutes, the other driver and her 15 year old daughter joined our merry little group in the ambulance and the 15 year old had no issues with laying on a stretcher and happily allowed herself to be tended to. Her mother started complaining of chest pains and, while I was sorry that she wasn't feeling on top of her game, I remember thinking, "There you go people, now you have someone to play the part of a patient and you can leave me quietly to my anxiety." Every few minutes, the male EMT would pull out the finger monitor and place it on the index finger of my right hand and as he did so, I would search his face as he calibrated my pulse rate. He kept frowning..."Your pulse is very high - it's 165. You really should be lying down...".

Being well-trained in the "the glass is half-full" school of thought, I came back with a more positive spin; "165? That's great! It's coming down! It was 170 bpm a few minutes ago - it's a good trend! Let's celebrate!".

He just looked at me like I was a nut but he always grinned, even if he did shake his head as if to wonder what kind of a freak I was.

"Do I look OK?", I queried several times, not out of vanity but as a means to assess my "condition". I wondered if my pupils were equal and not dialated because I was seriously afraid of a head injury for some reason. He swore I didn't exhibit any signs of a person with a concussion - I can't help but wonder, however, if he didn't indeed think I was a "head case". I didn't bother to press the issue.

"You look a lot better than I would if I had a pulse of 165!", he cheerfully said in an effort to make me feel better, I'm sure. "If my pulse was that high, I wouldn't be sitting up arguing about laying on a stretcher!".

Gee, thanks. I think.

On the way to the hospital, I pulled out my cell phone because there were two calls I needed to make but I wanted to be careful of the tone I used, so as not to create unnecessary panic. We didn't need any additional panic - I had enough panic going on for several people, and I dearly didn't want to scare my parents to death - so my next challenge was how to inform them without causing them to require the assistance of their own set of paramedics! I decided I would try and be "light" with the news and get off the phone as fast as I could.

I dialed my parents number and my dad answered, "Daddy, I had a wreck - it wasn't my fault, but my car got smashed and they're taking me to the hospital."

"Are you OK? Are you hurt?".

"I'm OK - my arm is a little bruised, but I think I'm just fine otherwise."

"I'm leaving right now. I'll see you in a few minutes.", he said, no doubt fighting to sound as casual as I was trying to sound, but I'm sure he was scared to death.

When we pulled into the hospital ER, the paramedic who had been sneaking in pulse readings from my finger, informed me that I would have to sit in a wheelchair because if they found out what my heart rate was and saw that I had "walked in", he would lose his job. I thought about that and decided I could handle the wheelchair issue. I promised him I would not be the source of his firing and agreed to be wheeled into the ER - as long as I was sitting in an upright position. Detente is a good thing and I understood his position.

A few minutes after being wheeled into the ER, I saw my Dad at the information desk and I said, "Hey Daddy!", in a voice loud enough for him to find me. He walked over and gave me a big, heartfelt, relieved hug. I showed him my arm and told him I thought I was really OK. Just kind of shook up. I think seeing me ambulatory offered him instant relief - that and the fact that my next words to him were, "Daddy, could you see if you can find a cafeteria and get me an iced tea?" He smiled, and set about on his mission. I guess he figured if I was thinking of iced tea, I couldn't be too bad off.

He asked me to call my Mom on the cell phone and let her know I was OK and I happily made that call. By now, I felt more in control of myself and I wanted to ease her angst. "I'm OK, Mom. Just a little banged up.". She asked me if she could tell Justin and I said, "Sure - but tell him I'm OK.".

Within about fifteen minutes, I saw my son and his girlfriend walking toward me and he enveloped me in a big hug. He had stopped at Smithfield's on the way to the hospital and brought me a very large sweet iced tea. I was so appreciative and realized that this kid knows me pretty well. I started gulping it down with no thought to the directive not to take anything by mouth until I was seen by a doctor.

Justin asked me if I needed for him to call Katie or anyone else. I told him he could call Katie. Justin went outside and rang up Katie who, in a moment of deductive reasoning, told her co-worker, Eric, that she knew something had happened because her brother never called her before noon and that whatever it was, must be serious.

I was seen by a triage nurse and she, too, frowned at my pulse rate which was now a much more reasonable 156, and after I told her it had been 170, she didn't think 156 was so bad after all. I was directed to the waiting area and told that I would be called when it was my turn. I breathed a huge sigh of relief because I figured if they were willing to let me wait among the masses, I couldn't be too seriously hurt. I was happy to be told to wait and didn't bother giving any grief to the clerk who came over and clasped a hospital bracelet around my wrist. Even I know you have to pick your battles.

A few minutes went by and a serious looking State Trooper came over and handed me my driver's license, which I had given to him at the scene of the crash. I started to tell him that it wasn't my fault - I had waited until the light changed to green before making my turn, but he immediately told me that the other driver had been cited and that she had been lost and "wasn't from around here". He gave me a slip of paper with her insurance information, driver's license number and name and address, so we could turn it into our insurance rep. He went on to tell me that my car was considered totaled and that my medical bills would be covered by her insurance company. He gave us a card with the name of the towing company and that I could call and make arrangements to go and retrieve my belongings out of my car. He wound up our talk by saying he hoped I felt better and that everything would be OK.

Whew! It was nice to get the official notice that I was in the clear. I'm sure my pulse was probably reduced by 20 beats following that short conversation. It's nice to be on the good side of "the law".

Justin and Stephanie sat and waited with my Dad and me for about an hour, and then Justin left to take Stephanie to work, secure in the knowledge that I really was OK. As I sat there between my Dad and Justin, I felt so much better and safe and protected. Two of my favorite guys were propping me up with their care and concern and I began to realize just how fortunate I was to be loved by my family.

Soon enough, my name was called.

We were directed to an examination room and a nurse walked in and asked me the same questions that the triage nurse had posed. Did they imagine I might answer differently or use an "alias"? Were these trick questions? Again, I dutifully answered

The PA came in and gave me a thorough going over. He performed basic neurological tests that at least confirmed the presence of a brain, surveyed my body for bruises and bumps, checked my reflexes and studied the open wound on my arm. He told me that he didn't think my arm was broken, but that he wanted an x-ray to confirm that, and he also told me I would be getting a tetanus shot, given that I couldn't remember the last time I had one. Overall, though he told me I would be sore for the next few days from the impact of the crash, I had much to be thankful for and had sustained very little damage.

Sure enough, the x-rays confirmed that no bones were broken and before long, a very sweet nurse walked in bearing syringes and a sling. "Hi there, here we just met me and I have to start off giving you an injection. I'm sorry we have to start off this way." I agreed that it probably wasn't the best way for us to begin a relationship but, given the setting and the circumstance, I totally understood the position she was in. She proceeded to inoculate me against tetanus.

A bit later, she came in and started demonstrating the finer points of wearing a sling. She shared how her three year old had been required to wear one a couple of years ago and how she basically didn't comply with doctor's orders. I asked her if she honestly expected me to behave any differently and she laughed and said that she didn't figure I'd spend much time in it but pleaded and said, "Work with me. At least wear it out of the ER so it will look like I did my job.". I liked her immediately and promised her I'd look obedient at least until I got safely off hospital property.

In addition to the sling, she handed me two prescriptions for the expected aches and pain. The soreness was already setting in and I was more than ready to head home.

When we arrived, my Mom met me the door and she gave me a very long, warm hug and told me how happy she was to see that I was OK. I know she was relieved to see for herself what she had been told over the phone. I felt so blessed to be able to walk into her warm embrace - it doesn't matter how old you may be, there are some days when nothing feels as wonderful as being taken care of by your Mom. This was one of those days and I felt so happy to be around to cause her further exasperation - something I've done for over 47 years.

My dad returned with my medication and by now, I was really feeling some pain and no longer had to be cajoled into laying down. I settled into bed with a bowl of chicken soup and I was ready for it - having not eaten all day. As I ate this wonderful creation, I returned to reading "Maiden Voyage", by Tania Abei.

Katie called me and was relieved to hear that I truly was OK. She'd been very uneasy since hearing I'd been in a car wreck, and I was so touched by her concern. She wanted to hear the whole story and she agreed she would have had to skip on the whole stretcher/heart monitor part, and totally understood how acquiescing would have made her feel more vulnerable. We're cut from the same cloth, Katie and me.

My family took great care of me and I will never, ever forget how kind and understanding each of them were and what a blessed, crazy blond I truly am.

Yesterday, in the heat of the day, my parents found the place where my car had been towed and cleaned out my possessions. Everything was present, undamaged and accounted for - my camera, iPod, clothes, books and phone charger. I have to say I was pretty impressed with how safe the PT Cruiser was and the built-in safety features worked perfectly, considering how severe the impact was. I'm going to miss that little car, and goodness knows I've spent a great deal of time in it this summer, trekking between Wilmington, Oriental and Raleigh. It served me very well in the short time I've had it.

While my parents were cleaning out my car on Saturday Afternoon, Justin took me to the bank and graciously drove to Smithfield's so that I could order a large iced tea and chicken wings which I felt I'd kind of "earned". It may not be terribly healthy, but it's southern comfort food and I knew it would make me feel better.

So that's how my post-accident weekend went down.

What I noticed from having had this unexpected experience on Friday, in the moments after the crash, was how immediately my true priorities came into focus. The things that count and matter most, almost instantly come to the fore of one's thoughts when facing a situation that feels intensely threatening.

My first thoughts were of my family and all I wanted was to see each of them, to have these amazing people present with me and tell me it was all going to be OK. And there they were - right there, right when I needed them. The minutiae and small irritations of life evaporate when you come to the realization that life can change on a dime - in an instant - and the preciousness of the people closest to me flooded my thoughts. When life becomes shaken and stirred, "things" don't seem to factor into one's consciousness. Thoughts are definitely distilled and when hit out of the blue, it seems to all come down to, "who you know" - the people you hold closest to your heart - the special ones who "loved you into being", as Fred Rogers used to say.

The minor annoyances, the silliness of simple, everyday static, and silly self-centered irritations fall completely and wholly by the way side when life is reduced to its most basic and essential elements. Cars, houses, boats and money don't compete for attention when we find ourselves confronted by the fragility of our existence. The intrinsic magic of loving and being loved - that seems to be where it's at. Pretty powerful stuff!

What does all this mean? Good question! Wouldn't it be cool to have the epiphany of a potentially life-altering crisis without actually, you know, having to go through the whole experience? Wouldn't it be brilliant if you could just separate the lessons of such challenges from the nerve-fraying prospect of actually being required to live through the moment? I'm just sitting here imaging the ad campaign a company like Pfizer might launch if they could create a pill or serum - it would be heavy on the violins, and Yo-Yo Ma would probably play his cello - the scenery would resemble a travelogue and at the end of the commercial, there would be this beautiful, Gap-clad family, holding hands, exchanging spotless smiles with each other, secure in the knowledge of what matters most in life. We'd all have to pop a Dramamine just to get the taste out of our mouth and it would no doubt be the "designer drug of the century". Just think of it - a "get your priorities straight" pill. Divorce rates would tank, lawsuits would suffer a sharp decline and those of us taking it would walk down the streets exchanging "knowing" glances because we all "get it". Who knows, insurance companies might even cover it because something as powerful as that would probably be shown to boost one's immune system in a way that Vitamin C can't touch.

The reality is, that at least for the time being, you have to glean those insights the "hard way", and you can expect to get bruised, scratched and occasionally even knocked out in the process (if your luck doesn't hold as mine did and you suffer that minor concussion). And the really unfortunate thing about the whole "life-altering" experience is that its lessons have an unfortunately brief shelf-life. It's not unreasonable to imagine that one or more of my "inner circle", the loved ones who's face shone in my hour of reckoning, will probably get on my nerves in the very near future and they'll probably find that I'm just as annoying after the car wreck as I was before. It's really too bad we can't sustain the effects for longer than a few days. It seems as if by the time the soreness goes away, and we're feeling back to normal - our behavior is also back to normal and thus our trusty, reliable "built-in forgetter" works as well as it always did, except when it comes to cutting people a break and forgetting their past sins and mistakes. I'm great and letting go of my garbage, but I find I hold onto the sins of others far longer than I'd ever hold onto mine.

And I guess that's why every now and then, we stumble into circumstances that offer us instant reality checks and this past Friday, I suppose it was my turn. I'm going to try and hold onto what I discovered and felt, but I also know the fact that I'm a card-carrying, full-fledged human being will dictate that, with time, I'll lose the lessons until something else occurs in my life and brings me back to my knees. Don't you just know we must be extremely frustrating for God? Well, I'm sure He finds me exasperating.

And so...it goes.

I have to say it's been a busy summer so far - a tropical storm and a car wreck. No shortage of excitement this year! It reminded me of what Antoine St.-Exupery eloquently expressed so many years ago, "It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. That which is essential, is invisible to the eye..."

A heartfelt thank you to my Mom, Dad, Katie and Justin for being my family and loving me.