“Code Blue! Code Blue!”
The hallway outside the family waiting room erupted as a strident alarm and flashing lights accompanied the urgent summons over the loudspeaker. Paramedics, doctors and staff rushed by...in the direction my forty-two year old husband Wade had gone a few minutes before.
My body knew before my mind did. My heart began to race, my stomach churned and the magazine I had been reading slipped forgotten to the floor. Inside, I started to pray harder than I ever had before. “God, please don’t let it be Wade...”
Thirty minutes later I got an answer, but not the one I desperately wanted. The surgeon came and told me haltingly that they had been working on Wade. “Your husband’s heart stopped six times and we had to shock him repeatedly. He had no spontaneous pulse for approximately thirty minutes.”
I almost blacked out, but managed to ask “Is he still alive?”
“Yes. He was rushed to the ICU Critical Care floor at the downtown facility.”
It is a miracle that I drove the thirteen long blocks without an accident. Everything was a blur of tears as I tried to fathom what could have happened. I was to learn that even the doctors couldn’t tell me that, during the long summer of 2003.
Wade was young for needing hip replacement surgery, but doctors had confirmed that both hips were basically disintegrated from a congenital birth defect. He was born with his hips slightly out of line, and the constant rubbing of bone against bone wore his hips down to nothing. The last five years had been a constant struggle to work despite the pain. In February, Wade’s surgeon had ordered him to quit his grueling ten-hour-a-day shipping job, putting it in no uncertain terms. “Unless you want to be in a wheelchair the rest of your life, you will quit.”
So the morning of June 23, 2003 Wade and I arrived at the clinic for the first hip replacement surgery. The surgeons never even got started. Five minutes into the anesthesia, Wade’s heart stopped.
There was another long wait at the Emergency Room at the other hospital. The room was designed to soothe, with soft pastels and upholstered chairs. Yet my nerves still jangled with tension and fear. Finally I was able to see Wade for a few minutes.
His green eyes stared through me, unresponsive. His skin was unnaturally white and clammy. There was the beginning of a huge bruise on his chest that later darkened to purple, then green and a sickish yellow. Tubes ran in and out of his arms and chest.
The room started to spin and I said, “I need to sit down.” A nurse hustled me out of the room and it was four hours before I saw Wade again. When a loved one is critically injured, most of your time is spent in waiting rooms. Consequently, I became close with several families facing a similar ordeal. It humbled me to realize that every day tragedy strikes, and there is no guarantee that it won’t affect your family. Your lives can be changed in an instant, with devastating results.
When I was finally allowed to see Wade again, he was hooked up to a ventilator and a monitoring machine. I saw at least ten tubes snaking in and out of his inert body. The doctors were optimistic. Wade was young, with no prior history of heart damage, so they expected him to wake up at any moment.
I sat there remembering the last glimpse I’d had of Wade. His saucy wave, familiar smile and the twinkle in his eyes haunted me as I lay sleepless. Would I ever see that spark of love in his eyes again? Was I doomed to sleep alone in the bed we’d shared through twelve years of loving marriage?
The next morning brought devastating news. Wade still hadn’t woken up and a team of neurologists declared he had suffered severe, permanent brain damage to a crucial part of the brain. The medical term is anoxia, a lack of oxygen to the brain.
It was too early to tell the severity of the injury, but the prognosis was grim. Wade was in a coma, a coma that lasted six agonizing days.
The doctors predicted many bleak scenarios. One advised me to start thinking about “pulling the plug”, his words, not mine. Another said Wade might never regain consciousness, or that he might remain in a vegetative state for the rest of his life. One offered the possibility that he might wake up, but not remember me or our children, Erica and Alex.
I held on to his hand and willed Wade to wake up, to wake up and prove them all wrong. Eventually he did, but it was not like in the movies where the halleluiah choir sings and triumphant music swells to a teary crescendo.
His eyes were very unfocused and weak. The doctors said he could only see shadows. I took it as a good sign, however, and increased my efforts to talk to him, to plead with him to come back to us, to fight with all of his strength.
When Wade first squeezed my hand, I cried. I saw the tears well up in his beautiful eyes when I told him I loved him. I reassured him when he began to understand what had happened to him. I calmed him down when he began fighting the breathing and feeding tubes. I protested when doctors wanted to be cautious and wait longer to take the tubes out.
I’d secretly hoped that once the tubes were out of the way, Wade would be able to talk. That wasn’t to be. He had to relearn how to breathe on his own, eat solid foods, speak and move on his own.
Each step was a difficult struggle, both for Wade and for me. It was torture to watch a loved one go through so much discomfort and confusion and not be able to do much except offer love and encouragement. Many, many times I forced a smile through my tears.
The hardest day was July 2nd, Wade’s forty-third birthday. Wade was still in the Critical Care Unit, hooked up to the machines. He looked at me with his green eyes, and there was nothing there. No recognition at all. That’s when I despaired of getting my husband back, the whole man, the person I had married.
The main area of his brain that was affected was his memory, so much of our past history together is lost, all the sad, funny, happy or silly moments that make up a relationship.
The first day the children were allowed to visit is etched in my memory. The joy in Wade’s eyes lit up his face when he saw Erica. He smiled and said “pretty.” He called Alex his “big guy” and hugged them both close. After that, their daily visits spurred him on to keep working at his therapies so he could go home.
Through it all, my friends and neighbors marveled at my strength - but it was not me. I prayed daily, sometimes hourly, for God to give me the courage to be strong for Wade. Without His loving embrace, I would have succumbed to despair. Tears often came unbidden; on the fifteen-minute drive to the hospital, in the grocery store, at work or talking to friends. I was an emotional wreck, but somehow God got me through the toughest moments.
Wade spent four weeks in the Critical Care Unit, gradually losing the tubes in his mouth, chest, arms and leg. When he was able to sit up and even walk a bit on is own, he transferred to the Rehabilitation Center. Wade spent another four weeks there,undergoing intense physical, occupational and speech therapy.
There were times when Wade cursed and yelled from frustration. There were times when we laughed; times when we cried together over everything we’d lost. Each step of the way was agonizing to watch, but Wade slowly but steadily improved.
When his release was imminent, the doctors, specialists, neurologists, and therapists urged me to put Wade in a nursing home.They argued that I would be overwhelmed with the tasks of caring for him by myself. They listed insomnia, confusion, nocturnal wandering and the stress of twenty-four hour care.
I told them that I’d gone into this marriage for better or for worse. I signed Wade out under my care and brought him home on August 15th, 2003.
For years, Wade was my strength, the one I could depend on when I needed comfort. He was the leader, the one who made all the financial and household decisions. He was the main breadwinner, keeping the bills paid and the money flowing enough to support us.
The change has been dramatic. Wade and I went from an equal partnership to one where he is dependent on me. Now I do the bills, juggle the decisions and discipline the children when they need it. It is a struggle to manage a household of four on my meager salary and the income we receive from Social Security Disability. The uncertainty of the future is a constant worry.
In a way the nightmare is still with us. Although Wade has made enormous strides of recovery, he is still in the early stages of a lifetime disability. Doctors are doubtful of a full recovery and unsure of what the future holds.
He’s not the man I married. I came to this realization slowly over the last few months. Wade and I just celebrated our thirteenth anniversary together, but in virtually every way he is a stranger to me.
I won’t sugarcoat it; it has been a struggle. There have been instances of extreme confusion, sleeping problems including wandering around the house at night and a lack of motivation for even the simplest tasks; all common side effects of brain injury. We coped by getting a caregiver when I have to be at work. She makes sure everything goes smoothly and reminds Wade to eat regular meals. Knowing she is there gives me peace of mind.
What has emerged over the long months of recovery is a different personality. Since Wade’s chief difficulty is memory, he doesn’t remember much about the last ten years. The years we spent building a relationship, family and life together are a blank. He takes my word for it when I talk about special memories or the things the kids did when they were younger.
I feel a huge hole that used to be filled by all those shared experiences. I miss the old, quick-witted Wade with the twinkle in his green eyes and the way we would laugh together at just a certain glance or phrase.
Yet we haven’t lost everything. Although Wade has changed, in many ways it is for the better. He is kinder and more patient. He enjoys spending time as a family and with me even more. Our rare “dates” are low-key but we still have a great time together.
The sex is different, too. At first I was glad that we still found each other attractive. Then doubts crept in. Wade really is a different person, nowhere more evident than in the bedroom.
He remembers nothing of our shared sexual history. Everything is new to him. Stuff we used to enjoy together leaves him cold. All the years we spent patiently learning each other’s quirks and special desires are erased.
When we do get together, the passion is there, but something is missing, at least for me. I miss the connection we once had. I kind of feel like I’m cheating with someone else. I won’t deny that there is a certain thrill in the idea of everything being new again. For Wade, every time is like the first time. The chemistry might have changed but the elements still add up to a pleasing concoction.
Before the medical accident, Wade rarely complimented me. Now he’s much more generous with his appreciation for my cooking, decorating or if I just look especially nice for work. I’ve also seen progress over the last few months. Wade is getting a handle on remembering the date or recalling a phone message. I’m so happy when he tells Erica he loves her or spends time playing with Alex.
I often wonder how we would have coped if our situations were reversed, if I had suffered brain damage instead of Wade. It is humbling to realize that I would not have reacted nearly as well as Wade has, and is still doing. It makes me appreciate his sweeter, new personality all the more.
I look at all that Wade has triumphed over and my hope is renewed. Once they said he may never wake up, but he did. They said he might never be able to come home, but they were wrong. They recommended putting him in a nursing home for twenty-four hour care, but I refused and took on that task myself.
Often it is a struggle to be the only wage earner. My time is torn between two part time jobs, the kids and Wade. I squeeze my one passion, my writing, into whatever spare seconds I find. Without the release of my pen I’m not sure how I could cope. The outpouring of well wishes, prayers and encouragement from friends and even strangers keeps me going in my darkest hours.
Wade is home with us now, home where he belongs. He delights in watching movies with Erica and Alex or helping them with their homework. When we go to bed we never fail to say “I love you” for we’ve learned the hard way that we don’t know what tomorrow holds.
At the beginning of the summer I thought everything had been taken away. A part of my husband was lost, perhaps forever. The other day an acquaintance told me we were lucky. She was right. We lost a lot last summer; our shared history. Yet we have the rest of our lives together to create new and happier memories.
Even though, in many ways Wade is not the man I married, we are bound together by law and by love. Together we will face the future, one precious day at a time.