that whole incident, the late night stroll, the ninja nurses, the nostalgic bed-wetting, wouldn’t have occurred if i were able to speak. as it was, i could only nod my head for “yes”, scrunch my face for “no”, and shrug my shoulders for “i don’t know”. this limited and primitive communication was significant for two reasons. firstly, it enabled the staff to care for me more efficiently and effectively. secondly, answering questions and obeying commands indicated that a foundational level of cognition was still in tact.
about a week later, i was experimenting with written communication. i’m left-handed but my left arm was immobile at this point, a result of nerve damage and atrophied muscle tissue. instead, i was scribbling with my right hand while lying flat on my back, staring at the ceiling. unlike the Sistine Chapel, which was created in a similar manner, my notes were no such works of art. they looked more like the kind of first-grader scribbles that get displayed on the fridge. the first thing i asked my dad was why i was at the hospital. he explained to me that i was in a bad car accident. my next question was if the car accident was my fault. this encouraged my parents who were relieved to see that i was able to piece things together on a deeper level. even so, they wisely refrained from giving me too much information about the accident.
some other examples of what i wrote:
1. i want to puke.
2. i want to go home
3. my cathe (catheter) want come out
interesting how i made it sound like it was the catheter’s desire to be removed, and not mine, is if to say “ i’m pretty cool with it right now, but the catheter wants to come out.” perhaps i thought i would have more success with my requests if they didn’t seem to come from me. in between the steady stream of questions about my predicament, i was able to provide details of how i was feeling. hot or cold, in pain or comfortable, and at one point simply that, “i wish i were better.” according to my brother, about ninety-percent of what i wrote was spelled correctly and made perfect sense. the other ten-percent was weird gibberish, like the time i wrote “i hate soccer,” and then a short while later, “i still hate soccer.” the truth is i don’t mind soccer at all, so i don’t know where this came from. this was a little unnerving for my family, but not as bad as when i wrote “where should i park my airplane?” weird, sure, but i think this is still pretty awesome. keep in mind i’m doing this with my weak hand without even looking at the paper! the fact that i could write was encouraging, but the content did occasionally raise some eyebrows. the hope was that i was hallucinating off of the drugs, and that these bizarre remarks weren’t the result of cognitive impairment.
after a week of getting by with my primary-level penmanship, a nurse had the grand idea of printing the alphabet onto a piece of paper. clipping this onto a clipboard and holding it in front of me allowed me to point at letters and effectively “type” what i wanted to say. this was much easier than writing and i was able to hold conversations more effectively. i remember “talking” to my brother and he told me a lot of people were surprised i was walking around already (in the middle of may). i didn’t understand why that was such a surprise.
“was the accident that bad?” i asked him via my letter-board.
“it really was,” he said, and proceeded to tell me how the jaws of life were needed to tear my car apart and get me out. i’ve always thought the jaws of life was an awesome tool. the idea of easily tearing things apart appeals to the part of me that, as a kid, prompted me to put gas in my squirt gun to make a flame thrower.
“T-H-A-T-’S C-O-O-L,” i replied, and we had a good laugh.
this increased level of communication had an calming effect on me, like Chicken Soup for the ICU Patient’s Soul. i could finally release the thoughts and questions that were piling up in my mind but trapped behind my silent mouth. frequent conversations with friends and family made me increasingly efficient at tap-typing on my letterboard. the faster i got, the more i could express myself, and the more i wanted to “talk”.
the problem with my letterboard, great as it was, was that there was no space bar or apostrophe to tap when needed. without the space bar, my audience was left to insert breaks themselves, creating words based on context. without the apostrophe, contractions were used sparingly. for example, if i tapped out “yourelatetoday”, i could be saying “you’re late today,” or “you relate to day,” (which doesn’t make sense, of course, but given my head injury and the drugs i was on, anything was a possibility). fortunately, discussions never required me to type “therapist”, which could be alarmingly mistaken for “the rapist”. i don’t know what my words-per-minute rate was for tap/pointing but it was high enough to confuse people who, much to my chagrin, would often say, “too fast, start over and go slower.” such is the trouble with learning letterboardese-as-a-second language. despite these hiccups, it became evident that my general personality was unchanged. this included my propensity for what my aunt calls “smart-ass” comments.
one day my friends amy and teresa (trees) were chatting in my room of the ICU. the three of us, along with another friend, tanis, lived together in a townhouse during the previous school year. the four of us were always quick to laugh and the way our personalities meshed meant we were laughing often. amy and i, in particular, enjoyed the regular battles of wit that marked much of our communication. puns, friendly criticisms, and hilariously apt descriptions of anything involving the other was how we related, much to the shock of others.
i remember walking across campus with anya, whom i was just getting to know at the time. amy was chatting with a group of people and as we approached, she stepped out of the circle slightly to address me. knowing the others were watching, she stood there like a disappointed mother and exclaimed indignantly, “jay! watch your language!!”
without breaking stride and before i even finished the thought, i responded equally indignantly, “amy! watch your figure!!”
anya was shocked at this heartless vulgarity, but as we continued walking i could hear amy laughing hysterically. these jabs were never fueled by hurtful intentions, but a mutual admiration for the perfect blend of wit and delivery that could leave the other speechless. there are many jokes and anecdotes from our time in Unit 32, and our reckless banter remains the source of many memorable punch-lines.
one of these ongoing punch-lines is how nauseous amy gets at the sight of blood and needles. she’d be the first to tell you that she can’t look at a glass of red wine without getting queasy, and i would add that even pine needles make her light-headed. as we chatted that day with trees, it was revealed that during an earlier visit, amy passed out right beside my bed. there was a little blood where nurses had inserted the IV line into my hand. it wasn’t gushing or anything, just a little drip from the initial penetration. but that was all it took.
“first, amy went really quiet beside me,” trees recalled, “and i thought she was praying or something, then all of a sudden, she went down backwards.”
like a bad game of jenga, amy collapsed to the floor, unconscious. all the attention in the room shifted to amy. i had escaped death, made miraculous progress, and still amy managed to steal my thunder. she regained consciousness quickly but was a little slow to rise. nurses helped her to sit up and brought her some juice. the girls relayed this all to me, much to my amusement. with amy holding my letterboard, i tapped out my response:
the two girls were already laughing this point, anticipating what would come next.
“A-R-E A W-I-M-P.”
the following laughter was probably just relief at seeing this familiar part of my personality, for this was definitely not my best work. even so, the juxtaposition of what i looked like and what i was saying proved too much for amy to respond with an adequate comeback. final score: jay – 1, amy – 0.
this kind of judgement was not limited to former roommates. as my condition improved, i began to offer my opinion of some of the medical personnel too. it seemed that the stronger i became, the more attitude i developed. besides calling one nurse a “dork” and another a “very good absent nurse”, the majority of my written correspondence focused on jeff, the physiotherapist.
i was introduced to jeff in the middle of may. his job was to get me moving again. since i couldn’t be upright without my neck braced, he also determined how much time i spent with the storm trooper. to build up my tolerance, i had to wear it for increasingly longer periods of time. the first sessions, monitored and administered by jeff, had to last twenty minutes. my weak abdominal muscles made it difficult to sit upright, and initially the storm trooper supported most of my weight. this made the bottom of the chest plate push down on my stomach, and the chin piece push up against my jaw. the whole thing just rubbed me the wrong way, and i wasn’t about to take it lying down, so to speak. i watched the clock like a hawk and as soon as twenty minutes passed, i was on my letterboard, tapping letters like a patient scorned.
“where is jeff,” i’d tap forcefully. if the letterboard had punctuation marks, i would have followed this with “?!?!”. actually, with punctuation marks the question would have come out more like this, “where the *$%@! is jeff?!?”. it seemed jeff had an uncanny ability to get caught up with another patient just as my twenty minutes expired. perhaps this was his style of tough love, but i sensed a conspiracy. i wasn’t about to let his delay tactics get the better of me either. my tap-typed messages reflected my growing impatience. like the hospital equivalent of “are we there yet?”, my parents tolerated the steady questioning while trying to take my mind off of the storm trooper’s discomfort
“he’s busy jay, just wait a minute.”
“interrupt him.” i got my point across by tapping the letterboard harder, with exaggerated motions. literally a few minutes would pass and i would be back at it, yelling with my letterboard, “where’s jeff.”
“i don’t know, jay.”
“call him.” at this point i was violently stabbing the letterboard.
“we can’t do that, we don’t know where he is.” if jeff thought he could get off that easy by simply hiding for a while, he had another thought coming. i knew how things worked in a hospital.
“page him.” by this time the letterboard was disintegrating into sawdust, as if i were tapping letters with a chainsaw. jeff’s tardiness may have been for my own good, but that didn’t mean i liked him. it didn’t help that he was so damn cheery while strapping the evil storm trooper on me either. when jeff was out of the room one day, i told dad what i thought of my physiotherapist.
“J-E-F-F I-S A W-E-E-N-I-E.”
at first i was limited to sitting and wearing the storm trooper, so i was relieved to finally graduate to using a walker. taking the storm trooper for a piggy-back rides around the ward was less painful, but incredibly tiring. jeff set me up with a chest-high walker that had wheels and armrests so that i could support my weight with my elbows until my legs were stronger. my first walk was to the end of the nurse’s desk six meters from my room, and back. i thought this short stroll would be easy, but i could barely stay upright, yet alone put one foot in front of the other.
some people say that i had to “learn how to walk again.” this may be splitting hairs, but i didn’t have to learn how to walk again. i already knew how to walk, i just lacked the strength to do it. granted, at the GF Strong Rehabilitation Center later on, i did have to adjust the mechanics of my walk. maybe that is “learning to walk” in a technical sense, but the phrase implies cognitive deficits that were never there. “training to walk” is a more accurate description. in any case, the regiment worked. after a couple weeks of that weenie’s tough love, i was walking well enough that i didn’t need his services. this was a nice change because it meant less letterboarding about hospital life, and eventually more letterboarding about my love life.