It’s cold in here. Someone is next to me. She speaks in broken sentences that don’t make much sense. At first I thought it was Mum, but as my blurred vision slowly accepted light, I realised – a stranger in some kind of uniform. I couldn’t turn enough to see her face, but I felt her presence.
I asked her if my parents could come and see me. I wanted to tell them that I was OK. They were still on the other side of Australia, but it felt like I was at home. Not a home I was comfortable with. My teeth start clattering uncontrollably, preventing me from stringing a full sentence together and I felt like vomiting, but not. All my muscles were aching, the type of aching you feel after your first gym session in a long time. It took most of my energy just to stay conscious, let alone start moving muscles.
Delusional and confused, I soon realised I was still in the hospital, recovering from an operation.
Yes, this was happening and it was real.
A short time passed and I woke up in a small room. The ceiling is the first thing I see; then the equipment with all the lights and sirens. To the right I see another guy in a bed. In front of me another guy in a bed. Diagonally across from me, another guy. Each of them with their own buzzers and beepers.
Yes, this was happening and it was real.
While buzzers and beepers were singing in an off-beat rhythm, a small collection of young nurses hovered over my bed. I could only make out their general features since my vision was still jaded. A faint burst of giggles erupted from the nurses as one of them was lifting my bed sheet. Was it something I said?
I’d slip in and out of consciousness, and each time I’d discover a new tube inside my body. Some where in my arm, some in my hands, oxygen up my nose and a catheter inside my penis.
Somewhere along the line I fell asleep and then woke up. Dad was sitting besides me on a chair as I slowly gained consciousness. My vision was still blurry but I recognised his voice and his figure. A flow of relief overwhelmed me. There’s not much Dad could do, but knowing that someone familiar was next to me was comfort enough. Before I open my eyes up further and said something, I digressed as to what should be said – I didn’t know what to say. I used what little oxygen I had in my lungs to speak, but it only felt like mumbles.
My story get’s a little segmented about now. I recall periods of time in the Intensive Care Unit when time didn’t exist. I remember specific things that happened but can’t recall when or in what order, nor the things in between. I’ll share them as I thought they occurred.
The pain killers from the operation started to wear off. I was given a morphine drip with a buzzer (P.E.G.) and anytime the pain set in, I’d hit the button and get some relief. The only problem was that it was restricted to 3 minute intervals. As quick as the relief set in, it went away. Three minutes never seemed so long!
Night one and already I couldn’t handle the pain. I’d yell, scream, shout, groan, and demand the nurse to give me morphine injections (the instant stuff). I was only allowed one dose as I was already on an opiate-based line. Hammering the PEG constantly, the nurse kept reminding me it would only work every 3 minutes. “I don’t care, it hurts and I don’t know how long three minutes is!”, I would protest. There wasn’t a doctor readily available and she needed approval to give me a second injection. I carried on like a child. The pain worsened and despite my protests, no second injection. It got so bad that my shouting turned into fatigue, which then turned into helplessness, which then turned into tears. I hate to say that I gave up on life, but that’s exactly what it felt like – saying to myself “fuck it, I don’t care anymore!”.
Yes, this was happening and it was real.
I remember my work manager and work colleague being one of the first ones to visit me . My manager was only there that one time and I think he just wanted to check up and make sure that I was alive. I felt like the worlds biggest asshole then-and-there because only two days before, he told me not to break any bones while riding #irony.
“We fall off all the time, what’s the worst that could happen – a broken arm?” I recklessly replied.
There were nights I felt nothing but pain. My back, my waist, my neck and my back again. It was like someone tied a belt around my stomach and tightened it beyond physics. It also felt like I was laying on a massive blunt nail that was wedged under my back. Sharp pains, blunt pains, hot, cold and electric pains, all at once.
Doctors; pain specialists; nurses; nutritionists; therapists; blood collectors and others would come in each morning to ask me questions. I’ve never had so much attention in my life before, yet, I still felt like shit that’s been run over by a truck.
One of the mornings, my spinal specialist debriefed me on how my spine was broken and then stabilised with rods, screws and brackets. He explained what happened to me from a clinical point of view and managed to avoid telling me the prognosis of a life with paralysis – or did my mind block that bit of information out at the time?
I had to go back under the knife for a second time. Apparently, parts of the rods and screws that were initially inserted, were in the ‘wrong place’ and would need to be removed to reduce future complications and pain. I had to make a decision, but I didn’t have any real options to chose from. I went under the knife the following day.
By about the 3rd or 4th day Mum had arrived from Perth. I remember her waking me up at night. I was in a deep sleep when I slowly opened my eyes. Thanks to the wonderful drugs I was on, I thought Mum was an extra-terrestrial that abducted me in a space ship. The curtains around me, as wavy as they were, turned into a consistent cold grey. The oxygen tube in my nose enhanced the sensation of being in an operating theatre-like environment. I was miles away from human contact – no one could save me and I feared being experimented on. This creature was right above my face and was stroking my hair while communicating in some alien language.
I snapped out of it! Mums gibberish turned into English. The curtains regained their characteristics and the room returned to normal. My fright turned into relief – Mum was here and all would be fine – I felt like a kid being cradled to sleep again.
This wouldn’t be the last time I hallucinated.
Some people call it sleep paralysis; where you wake up during sleep, your whole body physically paralysed, while vivid daemons and unknown creatures torment you. Some people just call it a fucked-up nightmare which feels so real that you can’t escape it.
Whatever you want to call it, I was the next victim.
On a particular night, I couldn’t sleep. Not because of the pain, but because a mysterious, dark figure was lurking outside the curtains around my bed. The other patients in the room were fast asleep. The buzzers and bleepers still sung. There was a slit in my curtain that was intentionally left open for the nurses to see my monitoring equipment. They were only a few meters away in their office, gently chatting, but they felt so far away and out of reach. I was on my own.
The dark figure would whisk past the gap in the curtains every time I was about to close my eyes. The only thing I could move were my eyes. My head, neck, arms and everything that I was able to move a while ago were paralysed along with my lower body. My pain, temporarily gone and replaced with overwhelming fear. I tried to call out for help, but my mouth was shut. I don’t know if it was because of the paralysis, or whether I thought it would show my weakness to the grim reaper-like creature and give it an opportunity to ‘take me away’.
It taunted me to the point where I could hear it’s thoughts. Like an eagle circling its prey, waiting for the opportunity to pounce on its meal, this predator kept disappearing and re- appearing. I couldn’t yell or reach out to the nurse buzzer. Paralysed.
I’m not sure how long this surreal battle went on for, but somewhere along the line, it went away long enough for me to sleep. My body could only fight so much.
Yes, this was happening, but was it real?
With all the bad comes the good. This also applied to the hallucinations.
I recall being carted back to my room after the second operation. Not only was I jacked up on morphine drips but also a line of Ketamine. Special K, as some would know it, is illegal on the black market. Opiate based and addictive by nature, it’s administered in hospitals under certain conditions.
This was a fun trip. While being trolleyed back to the room I could see all kinds of wild and fruitful colours buzzing around me all melting together. I thought my hospital bed was like a little hovering shuttle on a TV game show. The nurse next to me was the game show host and the others around where other contenders and audience members.
The bright colours; oranges, yellows, blues, and reds were intensifying. Each colour represented a choice I had to make for the game. Select the right colour and you win! Pick the wrong colour and you still win – My kind of game!
I remember asking the game show host next to me “Which one is it? Which colour do I chose?”. The audience was barracking for me to pick a colour quickly. Like a game of ‘The Price is Right’, I was on a mega high. Quickly – I had to chose a colour to reveal the prize! But before I could make my choice, the colours faded.
Damn. I’m still in hospital.
No prizes, no winners, no audience members – just a cold room of pain with injured bodies.
Again, I’m not sure what day it was since my injury, but somewhere in week 1, I was forced to sit up in a chair despite the gash down my back which was only held together by dozens of sutures and some bandages.
Since I couldn’t do it myself at the time, I had to be assisted by a mechanical hoist, Physio’s and nursing assistants. It was a very physical and complicated process. While laying in bed, a harness had to be rolled underneath my lower body. The back of the bed was then elevated to have me in a more upright position. Pee bags, blood drains, oxygen pipes and IV drips had to be shuffled around like a game of Tetris to avoid being entangled in the transfer.
This took a good 5 or so minutes. The biggest delay was due to pain. I had to be moved around like a 60kg piece of thin china-wear. Once I was upright on the bed, the hoist was wheeled over to the bed. The sling/harness was clipped onto the hoists cables and I was slowly lifted, shifted and lowered into a bulky wheelchair.
There was never a pleasant transfer with the hoist. Each time as painful as the other, if not, worse. Each step of the way I wanted to be placed back down and left alone. Each step of the way I would protest with pain as my ammunition. But, the physio’s would transfer me either way. I would sit up-right for the sake of blood circulation and a sense of normality.
Barley able to sit up for more than a few minutes at a time, I would do anything to get my mind off the pain – but nothing would work. My head, my back, my chest, my breath was all in despair – it was hard enough trying to stay upright.
On a particular ‘sitting’ during the day, I was so close to passing out that I could barely keep my eyes open and my head up. A nurse came in to tell me that I had visitors from work. I told her to tell them to come back later. I was in no shape to have visitors. The nurse argued that they travelled a distance to see me and that it was rude of me to reject them.
I finally gave in and allowed my work colleagues to see me. It took every remaining calorie of energy to stay relatively coherent and reasonable. I forced a few smiles when I was presented with gifts to help cheer me up. As selfish as it may seem, I didn’t want gifts (despite asking for some reading material) then and there. I just wanted to be put back down and the pain to go away.
They stayed a few minutes. I don’t recall what we spoke about but in a way it did cheer me up a little. The cheering up didn’t last very long. As soon as they left I was done.
There was a particular night where I felt abandoned and overly vulnerable. Pain was the only thing on my mind and all I wanted was human contact. Everyone, bar a couple nurses, had left for the night and the other patients in the room were fast asleep. I struggled to close my eyes from fear of waking up in excruciating pain – waking up in the middle of the night was more painful than other times because I wasn’t constantly topping myself up with pain killers.
I called over one of the nurses. Her name was Jo. A warm person, seemingly more experienced than others and gentle by appearance, she caressed the outside of my left palm with one hand as my hand rest palm-in-palm with her other had. Jo replied in a quiet, almost whispering, voice as I questioned her as to why I could feel so much pain and was unable to sleep.
“Can you stay with me a little longer? Please don’t go”. I knew she couldn’t stay with me all night, but to have someone holding me during a scary time was comfort enough for me to sleep.
I was moved to the other corner of the ICU room to make way for a girl, who I suspected was in a serious car accident. It was during the evening. She was screaming, sobbing and crying hysterically – afraid. Nurses and doctors were all around her. I wanted her to stop – stop being in pain.
For the first time during my stay in this room, I thought about how someone else was feeling. I don’t know the horror she was dealing with, but everyone in the room had lost something and I just wanted it to go away – for all of us.
When she came in, my train of thought stopped. I thought she might have lost someone in a car accident. Maybe she just felt really bad because she fucked up. Whatever happened, I just wanted to touch her and tell her it was OK – but it wasn’t.
Sleep was a difficult task. Partly to the hallucinations and pain, but also partly to my body/mind reliving the impact of my accident. For the first two weeks my body with physically jolt every time my eyes were shutting. I could hear and feel the thud of landing on the ground when I came off my bike. As fatigued and desperate for sleep I was, the split seconds of impact at the bike trail was now a part of me.
Over the second week in ICU these relived experiences would slowly lessen and spread apart. I was starting to get some form of sleep without the trips.
The final day or two in the ICU, I recall an elderly gentleman on my right side. His wife sat besides him and huddled him closely. The man was tripping – moaning in a delusional state of mind while still being conscious enough to speak with his wife. “What’s the matter, what’s wrong?”, she repeated.
“I see things. Bad things.” he pleaded.
“What? What do you see, dear”
“Bad things, you don’t want to know – you don’t want to know”.
At this point my pain had become bearable (or had my pain threshold increased?). I was transferred to the Acute Spinal Ward where I would commence my rehabilitation. It consisted of learning how to roll over to one side and push myself up into a sitting position.
Having been able to stand up and jump around only a couple weeks before, to not being able to roll over was a mind-fuck. Throw in uncontrollable pain and bad bowel movements, this was not a pleasant experience. However, with the encouragement and help of my physiotherapist, I learnt how to roll over and pick myself up after two sessions.
From there I had to learn how to stay sitting up – a balancing act. I felt like a massive, top-heavy lolly pop with the stick stuck into a bucket of jelly.
A temporary wheelchair was supplied to me so that I could learn how to transfer from bed to chair and back again. Once I got to the point of pushing around, there was no stopping me. It felt liberating to be able to take myself from one place to another. I learnt how to pop-wheelies after one session, push over small curbs, throw light balls around and lift my own dumbbells in a span of about 10 days.
To this point, I wasn’t told the prognosis of my injury. What did it mean and was there any hope in returning to my ‘normal’ life?
One of the resident doctors came to see me and explained to me what exactly had happened to my spine and spinal cord. Doctors don’t like to predict the future nor give false hopes, so I was left with very little to go on. The fact was, my damage was severe with little to no chance of recovery. I remember her telling me that sometimes feelings, sensations and function return within the first two years post-injury. This didn’t mean much to me because I was paralysed, here and now.
After a few days in acute ward, I was transferred down the hallway to the regular rooms. I remember meeting a young teenager across from me who came off his skateboard at a skating park and landed flat on his back. He had a great family and girlfriend that were constantly around him with photos, posters, and all the whiz-bang decorations you could ask for – I had flowers and balloons. Towards the end of my stay, he started to gain movement in a couple of his toes. As happy as I was for him, I still felt there was little hope for me – so I slowly learnt to accept my situation for what it was.
I managed to get to the work office to pack the few things I had, ready to go back to Perth, my place of comfort. Despite the support of all my work colleagues, I couldn’t help but feel a little bad that I was leaving my responsibilities behind.
25th December 2008, Christmas Day was spent back at my apartment with my flat mate and other friends who would regularly visit me in hospital. It was good to get out of the hospital, but a struggle at the same time. We managed to negotiate 3 steps and a bunch of curbs to get in and once we were in, I felt a level of comfortable again. Part of the home visit was to organise my stuff for packing. Things that I valued before were now just things. I had far less emotional attachment to my stuff, which made it a bit easier to pack everything that was only unpacked 5 months earlier.
I remember the day of my flight back to Perth. I had a nurse with me making sure I was well medicated, as pain-free as possible and that my urine back was emptied when necessary. I packed a handful of pills just before we boarded and struggled to swallow them all. I don’t remember anything about the actual flight (maybe because I have flown so much), but I guess there weren’t any complications.
We arrived at the airport and I was sent with my nurse via hospital transport to Royal Perth Hospital at Shenton Park. We arrived outside of working hours, so we had to wait for security to escort us to the correct ward. I remember resting on a side rail at the entrance, just wanting to lay down and sleep. I could barely push myself – shattered. We were eventually attended to.
I might have been at home with family and relatives close by, but the hardest part of rehab and regaining some resemblance of normality to my life was yet to come…
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