Updated: Mar 24, 2022
In October 2004, my physical body lay in a hospital bed, still, quiet; machines keeping my heart beating, my lungs expanding and contracting with oxygen--comatose after a catastrophic car wreck.
My spirit, however, kept busy.
In May 2007, one iris bloomed. Though I planted several rhizomes five years earlier, when none had yet bloomed, I assumed a squirrel dug up the rhizomes and hid them. Much had occurred however, under the surface, activity invisible to my eye. The clustered, purposeful roots of the rhizome nurtured the iris to maturity. Dormant, not dead, the iris bloomed at last.
And like the iris, I now lay dormant, under the surface of consciousness, while physicians and friends and family hoped I could awaken.
When I did begin to emerge, my physiatrist asked me to describe the first thing I remembered. I said, "Do you mean here or before?" He assumed "here" meant the hospital and "before" meant before the wreck, but, I was referring to "here" as in this world versus "there" as in the other world in which I had been living. While comatose, the level of my consciousness continued, not below-- subconscious, but above--supra-conscious, existing and functioning above conscious, rational, or logical thought. There are medical scans and many ways of assessing different states of consciousness below ours, but none to determine states above ours. And yet that state is where I had been. An explanation of this state of consciousness has taken me more than a decade, and an adequate description still eludes me. My coma resulted from a head-on collision on October 13, 2004. I suffered multiple injuries including a diffuse, traumatic brain injury when my 8.5-foot Ford Explorer met a 54-foot truck winding uphill on a narrow, two-lane, residential road during heavy rain. Traveling downhill, I rounded a blind curve to the right and was struck before even registering the danger. Instinctively, my right foot moved from accelerator to brake and so bore most of the immediate trauma: a compound fracture of the tibia and a crushed heel. The force from the impact continued up my body, snapping my pelvis in front and in back, cracking the vertebrae in my neck in two places, and bouncing my brain against my skull like a water balloon against a wall.
Some months after the wreck and my completion of physical rehabilitation for broken bones, I had residual trauma to the left side of my body. With all the orthopedic and neurological issues I faced since regaining consciousness, hypertonia seemed less critical until I could bear weight on my broken leg. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, hypertonia is a condition of muscle tone so that arms or legs, for example, are stiff and difficult to move. From the time I entered the hospital, I showed signs of hypertonia on my left side. This bodily expression indicates damage to the central nervous system and immediately alerts doctors to serious brain injury.
While I still lay in a coma, doctors instructed my family to keep my left arm extended as much as possible. With my left hand tucked and my elbow bent, like a bird with a broken wing, family and nurses worked to straighten my arm and wrist. At times, it required a person's entire body weight to push my arm down to my side. I quote from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website:
Muscle tone is regulated by signals that travel from the brain to the nerves and tell the muscle to contract. Hypertonia happens when the regions of the brain or spinal cord that control these signals are damaged. This can occur for many reasons, such as a blow to the head, stroke, brain tumors, toxins that affect the brain, neurodegenerative processes such as in multiple sclerosis or Parkinson's disease, or neurodevelopmental abnormalities such as in cerebral palsy. Hypertonia often limits how easily the joints can move. If it affects the legs, walking can become stiff and people may fall because it is difficult for the body to react quickly enough to regain balance. If hypertonia is severe, it can cause a joint to become "frozen," which doctors call a joint contracture. Spasticity is a term that is often used interchangeably with hypertonia. Hypertonia Information Page: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). Web. 08 Mar. 2016.
Trying to walk with a cane (holding it in my left hand as instructed, because the break was on my right) proved impossible. My left side was uncontrollable. I could not control a cane, even one with a wide base. There were no visible scars on my left side, no brace, cast, or sling. The invisible trauma to my central nervous system was buried deep inside my brain and manifested as spasticity.
The medical team was kept busy trying to keep me alive. I suffered extensive trauma to my right leg and fought pneumonia and MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) infections for weeks. But, rather than remain in a wheelchair, I decided to switch the cane to my right hand. Most of the therapists’ expertise went into getting me standing and then shuffling behind a walker--in time to meet my expectations and the insurer’s requirements for discharge. Any difficulty with my left side waited until bones healed and scars faded. Because my son, age six, and my daughter, age ten, awaited me, returning home became my single objective.