if i had a nickel for every tube hooked up to me during those early days, i’d be a rich man. more precisely, i would have $0.90 because at it’s peak, the assortment of tubes coming from my body totaled eighteen. i was YouTube personified. as my recovery continued, i could visually gauge my progress by the number of tubes left. forcefully removing tubes, as i vaguely recall, however, did not speed my recovery. one day in early may, despite major weakness and limited movement, i pulled out the feeding tube that was inserted in my nose.
“jay, you didn’t do that on purpose did you? that was an accident, right?” asked the nurse.
a nurse should know better than to ask drugged-up head injury patients confusing double questions. unable to speak, i shook my head, “no”. whether i was responding to the first or second question hasn’t been determined, but my actions seemed to speak for themselves.
some time later, i pulled the feeding tube out again, oblivious to how much time and effort it took for nurses to reinsert the tube. i have no recollection of pulling the tube out these two times, but a few weeks after doing so, i was told how much it frustrated the staff. i didn’t want to anger the nurses, but one night i couldn’t handle it anymore. the tube had rubbed my nostril raw and i could barely move without a sharp pain that felt like paper cuts inside my nose.
“that’s it,” i thought, “apparently i’ve pulled this thing out twice before, so i should be able to do it again.”
i didn’t realize the tube was thirty inches long and went all the way down to my stomach. i just knew my nose was killing me and that this tube was the reason why. i reached up and gave it a gentle tug.
“that’s not too bad, there is some resistance though, must be the tape holding it to my nose.”
i prepared to give it another shot, thinking a quick pull would dislodge it and give me some relief. i gave it a hard, sharp tug.
pain shot through my nasal cavity, like someone using a pressure washer to wash broken shards of glass out of my nose. i let go of the tube, along with any intentions of relieving the pain in my nostril. suddenly that irritation seemed much more bearable.
around this time i was able to remain conscious and coherent for increasingly longer periods of time. the use of painkillers was steadily decreasing, and this is where solid memories pick up again. this was actually pretty convenient for me because my two month hospital stay instead felt like three and a half weeks. by the time i was aware of the accident and my multiple brushes with death, i was already out of the woods and in the clear. not only was it evident i would survive, but it appeared i would make a near-total recovery. the downside to this, however, was that i failed to grasp the seriousness of my situation at the time.
one day nurses came to transfer me from my usual bed to a mobile one. i propped myself up and tried to get out of bed to make the transfer go more smoothly. they immediately told me to sit still and to do nothing. my neck was still pretty fragile despite the great improvements, and any movement had to be slow and deliberate. i didn’t think it was a big deal, i just wanted to make things a little easier for them. even so, i played like deadweight and let them do their thing. my well-intentioned interference was good news to my family, however. they saw it as a sign that my personality was unchanged. my uninformed but “helpful” disposition provoked a much more dramatic response later that week.
late one night, after my mom returned to her hotel to sleep, i was lying in bed listening to the sound of papers shuffling on the nearby nurses’ station. the ICU ward was dark except for some safety lights and desk lamps on the nurses’ desk. as i waited to fall asleep, i felt a sensation i hadn’t felt since being admitted to the hospital: i had to pee.
i was unaware of this at the time, but the reason i hadn’t felt this urge for the past month and a half or so was because i was hooked up to a catheter. a catheter is used when a patient is unable to maintain bladder function independently. in some cases a catheter is used periodically, inserted and removed regularly to empty the bladder. other times the catheter is left in until the patient regains bladder control. i have to assume that in both cases, there is a messy transition period as the patient gradually takes over.
lying there holding it in, i clearly remember having this train of thought: “ok, i have to pee, but where’s the bathroom? there’s got to be one nearby. hmmm, why don’t i know where the bathroom is? i guess i haven’t needed it yet. what are the odds that i wouldn’t have to take a leak the whole time i’ve been here? that’s pretty lucky. hmmm, i’ll get a nurse to show me where the bathroom is. hey! nurse! HEY!! frick, i can’t make a sound, how i can i get their attention?”
for reasons unknown to me at that point, i was unable to speak. to make matters worse, i was unaware of any call light or button to alert the nurses. i had to find another way to notify them, but i could barely move. the only activity i’d done was weakly swinging my right arm at a ball in a fishnet bag hanging from the curtain rail above my bed. the ball had a picture of spiderman on it. my mom brought it to lighten the mood, and now it would be the key to lightening my bladder as well. i reached up, hooked my finger in the netting, and dragged the ball back and forth on its rail, a span of about 15 inches or so. the idea was that the noise would attract a nurse, i would motion that i had to pee (what that motion would be, i wasn’t sure), she would show me to the bathroom, and presto, disaster averted. one problem: there was no noise. the damn curtain hooks slid too nicely in the rail. i tried whipping the ball back and forth harder with my pencil-thin arm but it was futile, these were obviously high-quality curtain rails.
i ran the situation through my head again, looking for another possible solution: “ok, i have to pee but i don’t know where the bathroom is. i know there are some nurses right there, but i can’t call them since my voice doesn’t work for some reason. spiderman is no help, and there’s nothing else nearby to make noises with…”
there was only one thing to do: i would get up, walk over to the nurses’ desk and ask them where the bathroom is. i propped myself up and gingerly got out of bed. i was relatively certain i wasn’t attached to any machinery, and fortunately this proved to be correct. like bambi learning to walk, i made my way across the room. i needed the doorway to steady myself, but i tried to do so casually, in a way that said, “s’up nurses, no need for alarm, just wonderin’ where the bathroom is…”
despite my suave attempt at a casual introduction, the staff responded in a flurry of alarm and activity. like a team of ninjas, four nurses simultaneously appeared, surrounding me. with blinding efficiency, i was gathered up and put back in bed. a rigid, padded collar with two long straps was slid down over my head where it rested loosely on my shoulders, the straps were pulled taut and tied to the bed frame. in a matter of seconds i was not only back where i started, but now i was tied down too.
and i still had to pee.
“okay,” i thought, “so i guess i’m not supposed to be out of bed.” again, i went over the facts: really need to pee, tied to a bed, startled nurses outside.
i knew what i had to do.
wetting the bed as an adult is a strange and fascinating experience. we have all done it as kids and i thought the action, like riding a bike, would come back to me easily, but i couldn’t do it. i had the green light, but i couldn’t hit the gas. it was like someone had pulled the e-brake on my bladder. my body tensed with confusion. what’s going on here? you’re trying to pee in bed? all sense of right and wrong went out the window. still, there was no other choice. i had to wet the bed.
slowly the stage-fright passed. hesitantly at first, and then more confidently, i relieved myself. it felt and smelled as if i had just waded into the kiddie pool at the Rec. Center. i couldn’t tell the full extent of the mess i just made because i couldn’t lift my head. the tied-down collar restricted any head movement and i could only stare at the ceiling while my midsection marinated in urine.
well that’s that, i thought, i wonder how long i’ll have to lay here before i get clean sheets.
a nurse came in a few minutes later to make sure i wasn’t trying to get out of bed again. i could feel moisture seeping outward in every direction and i was sure ground-zero wasn’t a pretty sight. the nurse assessed the situation, and called for backup. together, three of us performed the intricate dance of changing the bedsheets without sitting me up. first, i was rolled onto my left side, and the right side of the sheets were loosed from the mattress. then i was rolled the other way to loose the other side of the sheets. the same procedure was performed in reverse to put the new sheets on.
“is that why you got out of bed, jay?”, asked the nurse, as she straightened and tucked in the clean sheets.
finally, we had an understanding. even so, she continued to go about tying me to the bed again. it seemed like overkill at the time, but i understand now why the collar was needed. patients often try to get out of bed, usually because they aren’t thinking straight due to painkillers. given my spinal injuries, it was especially important for me not to sit up, yet alone walk around, without supervision. somehow i was able to convince the nurse that i didn’t need the collar, that i wasn’t going anywhere. they removed the collar and i eventually fell asleep in a fresh gown and clean sheets. i suppose it was kind of a stupid move on my part to crawl out of bed, but since the only damage done was to the bed sheets and my pride, i have to laugh about this. no use crying over spilled pee.