The Battle in Baltimore; trauma ward reflections
Updated: Jan 11
I walked onto the plane headed for Washington, DC on Friday May 24, 2019 excited for the Memorial Day long weekend. I was on my way to join my girlfriend Anne at her shore house in Maryland. A weekend of friends, laughs, activities and good times laid ahead. Summer was starting!
As I boarded the plane, Anne texted me a picture of her friends playing volleyball. A few minutes later, as the plane was taxiing down the runway, Dana, a friend of a friend of Anne’s called me. I answered figuring she needed driving instructions.
“Sam…” I heard in a shaky voice over the phone. “It’s Dana. Anne has been in a jet ski accident….she broke her femur. There’s a lot of blood.”
How is this possible? Was my immediate thought. She was just playing volleyball. How is it that in the time I walked down the gangway and boarded the plane all of that could have happened?
I tried to reconcile two conflicting facts; playing volleyball and the jet ski accident. It was hard to make sense of what I had just been told. It didn’t fit.
“Well, is she okay?” I asked after a long pause.
“Hmm I think” Dana responded. “She is being taken to a hospital in Baltimore”
“Are the paramedics concerned with how much blood she has lost?” I asked attempting to grasp the gravity of the situation. “No” responded Dana. I thought to myself she broke her leg but crisis averted. With the plane about to take off, I had to end our brief call.
Mid air I helplessly pondered how Anne could have broken her femur. I landed 90 minutes later in DC. Anne’s friend, Jo, had accompanied her to the hospital. Jo notified me which hospital to go to. I sent a text to Anne telling her I was on my way to comfort and help her and to hang tight.
On the drive I called Jo, who put me on to Anne. I flippantly made a comment about Anne getting a big bruise on her leg. Anne couldn’t speak. I could hear shrieks of agony and tears of pain through the phone. Jo took the phone back and told me “just get here as soon as you can.”
The severity of the situation had just dawned on me.
I arrived at the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore, Maryland, Friday evening an hour after Anne had been admitted. Before I saw Anne, I waited around the corner from Anne’s gurney as doctors forced her femur back in place. I heard her screams of agony. I recognized her voice. But I had never heard it like that before.
Once the curtains were pulled away I saw her short spiked platinum blond hair. But her face looked hollow. Although she had no damage to her face, she had lost all color. Her eyes rolled to the back of her head as she was overwhelmed by bouts of acute pain. The doctors had just put her leg in traction, which means piercing a rod through her shin. Attaching the rod to a horseshoe like clamp, which is attached to a rope that cantilevers to a pulley mounted at the end of the bed and a 15 pound weight on the other end of the rope dangling a few inches off the floor. This medieval looking contraption serves to pull the leg apart and realign the broken femur.
I held her hand. Kissed her forehead. Whispered in her ear. Anything I could do to alleviate the pain. But I felt helpless. Other friends gathered to console her. Anne was shot full of morphine to ease the pain. Friends shared their account of the accident.
Anne, visibly shook, could barely muster that she couldn’t believe what had happened. She vividly replayed in her mind what had transpired. Her leaving the dock on her jet ski with her friend not far behind her on his own jet ski. Anne stopping to adjust her hat and them wham! The other jet ski collided with her. The tip of the other jet ski striking Anne’s thigh shattering her femur and leaving a giant open wound. Anne then toppling over the jet ski that collided with her. Anne’s jet ski was totaled on impact. The steering column and passenger bench completely sheared off. Flung into the water, Anne managed to grab hold of the floating wreckage to save herself from drowning. She sent her friend for help. Shortly thereafter, friends and neighbors came to her rescue. She made it back to shore where paramedics awaited her and informed her that they may not be able to save her leg. She was then airlifted to Baltimore and the gurney at the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center that I had just found her in.
I spent the first night with Anne in a shared hospital room sleeping in an armchair by her bedside. This wasn’t so bad I thought. My Google informed medical assessment determined that Anne would have a surgery to repair her broken femur and that we’d be out of the hospital in two or three days.
However, what ensued was ten intense challenging days in the hospital. Three surgeries in five days. There was no easy fix. There was one complication after another. One doctor’s assessment contradicted by another. Sleep was constantly interrupted to take a dose of paralyzing pain killers and to check her vitals. I thought I could take this time to read a book I had been putting off. I didn’t read a single word during the ten days. My initial assessment was gravely wrong. It was full on and non-stop.
Why do these accidents happen? By their very nature, they are unintentional random mistakes. Did we do something to deserve it? Why are we spared sometimes and narrowly avoid grave danger? Was Anne unlucky to have been crushed by a jet ski on that day in May or lucky not to have died?
Trauma repeatedly surfaces those questions. The brain is in shock from a distressing event. Sometimes the stresses exceeds one’s ability to cope, or integrate the emotions involved with that experience. In those trying moments, or in our case, that ten day period, there is no place to hide. Peoples’ character reveal themselves. Experiences are forged. Learning why it happened isn’t the lesson; that won’t change the outcome. Rather, discovering new perspectives was the lesson this experience afforded me.
It was the first experience in my life where I was a primary caregiver. For the first time, I felt directly responsible for someone else’s life. I didn’t take that responsibility lightly. I relished at the privilege. Throughout Friday and Saturday, before Anne had her first surgery, I debated with her doctors and her friends which surgery route Anne should take. There are many variables at play in complex surgeries and different risks to weigh. Monday morning, our fourth day in hospital, Anne awoke to the news that she needed an emergency blood transfusion. Her blood levels had fallen dangerously low. By Thursday, the seventh day in hospital, the pain in her leg was finally manageable. But her body struggled to recover from three surgeries and three anesthesias in five days. She hadn’t eaten, moved or gone to the bathroom in a week. Her body was shutting down. Each time, Anne’s mother, Sonja, and I, informed Anne what was going on she drifted in and out of a lucid state due to the pain and opioids. The responsibility to look out for Anne fell on our shoulders.
Shouldering that responsibility and caring for Anne was an unexpected source of joy and fulfillment for me; a feeling I had not experienced before. Morning and night, I would help Anne brush her teeth and clean herself. I held her close and whispered her stories during hour long bouts of excruciating pain. There was nothing else to do. She had already maxed out on her pain medication. I’d follow up with the nurses and doctors to ensure they were on top of her care. In her state, it was visible how these small acts of kindness had a dramatic impact on the quality of her stay in hospital.
For the first time, I could see how I had a direct and immediate impact on someone else’s wellbeing. There was a positive feedback loop. An act of kindness, followed by appreciation and gratitude from Anne lead to happiness and fulfillment for me because I was making a difference, which felt great so I’d do it again and again. This experience made me realize that I’d like more of that in my life. There are different ways I could cultivate that, beyond caring for Anne in hospital, which isn’t sustainable for either of us. I’ll continue to prime that positive feedback loop in my relationship with Anne and in other relationships. Pursuing my entrepreneurial venture, should provide another feedback loop as I help customers and employees. Although I had not spent much time thinking about having a family, children are an obvious way to impact someone else’s life.
This experience also afforded me insight into Anne’s family life. For nearly ten days, Anne, her mother and I spent most of our waking hours together in a small hospital room. Tensions peaked. Emotions were on full display. Stakes were high. Anne will be the first to tell you she had a challenging youth. Anne had shared with me the dynamics of her family relationship, but now I was living it. It was foreign to what I was used to.
There are things in life that I just expect as so and I took for granted because of the environment I grew up in. I grew up in a loving caring family that worked hard to afford me any opportunity I could dream of. It was just expected that my parents would be there to support me, to be looking out for me, to challenge anyone who didn’t share my best intentions, to tell me I’m wrong when I crossed the line yet never be embarrassed to call me their son, to stick up for me and to pick me up when I was down. It had been that way my entire life. It’s what I came to expect and I’m incredibly grateful and fortunate for the parents I have.
I’ve had an incredibly fortunate upbringing. Although I’ve had a number of experiences throughout my child and adult life to appreciate how lucky I have been, observing and participating in Anne’s family dynamic reinforced my appreciation. Not everyone is blessed with the family nucleus I grew up with and lacking that can leave deep psychological scars. Some of those scars surfaced during our time in hospital. Anne’s mother hadn’t provided the support Anne had wanted her to until they had a private conversation airing out their grievances. To her credit, thereafter Sonja was a big help. I had been caught in the middle of decades worth of mother daughter challenges that were boiling over. Managing people — the family, the friends, the nurses and the doctors — was an unexpected challenge. It didn’t bother me. I felt privileged to be a part of their family and relied on in a time of need. But it was a new foreign dynamic.
This experience also served as a stark reminder of how precious life is. In a moment your life can change dramatically. Without your consent your life can chart a new course. One you’d never thought you’d be on. Thankfully in Anne’s case, she’ll make a full recovery and what could have been a far more tragic accident was luckily avoided. On several occasions, I have been in a similar situation as Anne. I’ve felt the frustration, anger, self-pity and helplessness that comes from a severe injury. Each time I thought about how precious life is, yet with the passage of time that lesson faded. I acted recklessly again. I stayed in relationships and jobs longer than I probably should have. I would get comfortable in my surroundings, which gave me a false sense of security and bread complacency. Wrapped in a blanket of false security, I thought I was invincible. Yet paradoxically, that same comfort hampered my ability to change my surroundings. In this state of ‘comfort’ I was more willing to be reckless in trivial pursuits, but hesitant to be audacious in life enhancing pursuits. Life is too precious to be careless. But also too precious to be cautious.
This experience strengthened Anne and my relationship. These trying situations can break or accelerate a relationship. You don’t come out the other end in the same place. For ten days we were in a small hospital room in the acute trauma ward. There was no privacy, no alone time, constant interruptions and complications. It was consuming. With the exception of a few hours a day when I stepped out of the hospital, I spent my days there. I slept in an armchair next to Anne, waking up every few hours and when she awoke in pain. There are few moments that went by that I didn’t witness. The most remarkable thing I witnessed was Anne’s courage and determination. Anne’s usual beacon of strength had been reduced to a feeble young girl. But the substance of her character was resolute. There were countless low points and setbacks. Each time Anne somehow overcame them. It was remarkable and inspiring to witness.
No one signed up for this. But I’m grateful for the experience it provided. It deepened my relationship with the woman I love.
Baltimore, Maryland, USA