My wife Pat’s birthday is May 5, (We call it Cinco de Patty) and we’re going to do something nice. Not sure what, yet, but nice nonetheless. We’ll probably meet friends and family at a Northglenn bar and grill called The Glenn, and celebrate the fact that she’s still here. Literally. I was searching on the computer last night for a few lines I’d written a couple of years ago pertaining to a book I’m finishing, and ran across a missive I wrote in 2005 on the first anniversary of Pat’s catastrophic ruptured brain aneurysm. Sometime in 2006 or 2007, I was asked by Dr. Kooken, a neurological psychologist who chaired the meetings of the Colorado chapter of the Brain Aneurysm Foundation if I’d ever written about Pat’s near-death experience from my perspective, and I said I had. I sent it to him, and he published the following on a wiki-site for survivors and care takers. But other than that I’ve never shared it. Seems like a good time to do so on this birthday, since the whole story turned out so well….
December 1, 2005
At five minutes past eight o’clock in the morning one year ago today, Pat walked into our bedroom from her office, said something seemed wrong, and began forgetting the next three weeks. She had just suffered a hemorrhage in a blood vessel situated directly above the roof of her mouth and behind the bridge of her nose, and approximately 10cc’s of blood was fast spreading out, beginning to bathe the lower reaches of her brain. A caustic irritant outside the vessels, the blood caused excruciating pain and placed her in a category that included death and permanent disability as statistical probabilities. As the blood filled what I would learn was the subarachnoid space between her brain and its first outer membrane, the brain itself went into survival mode and neglected to make memories.
I made enough for both of us. I see her lying on the bathroom floor, unresponsive. I see the paramedics carrying her down our stairs in a makeshift sling to the waiting ambulance. I see her in the emergency room at St. Anthony’s North hospital in Westminster, Colorado, sluggish and pain wracked, as she’s carted in for a CT scan. I see the Flight for Life medics readying her for a helicopter ride she would not remember. I see her in the Surgical Intensive Care Unit at St. Anthony’s Central Hospital in Denver, wires and tubing everywhere. I see the radiologist explaining the concept of a “subarachnoid bleed” to me in a small room off to the side of the angiogram area. I see the resident doctor explaining a course of treatment to me and our sons Ben and Tyler, using the term “exquisite blood pressure management” time and time again, and I see the obnoxious woman standing a few feet away chatting on her cell phone and morbidly trying to eavesdrop on our conversation. I see the neurosurgeon explaining to us that Pat is critically ill, that fifty percent of those who’ve endured what Pat has will not make it, and the majority of the rest will have long term disabilities.
I see that first day, December 1, 2004, as the most awful day of our lives.
I’m thankful for her amnesia. Her suffering was beyond the pale. For three weeks I watched her eyebrows screw up in constant, unbearable pain, and helped nurses rub her down with alcohol to help lower her rampant fever. I watched her slowly answer the doctors’ cognitive questions, and watched her nod off in the middle of sentences from the powerful sedatives she was given. I watched as doctors and nurses micromanaged her blood pressure to minimize the possibility of spasms, and thus stroke, in the nest of tiny vessels where the rupture had taken place, and I watched her muscle tone disappear. I held her hand and rubbed her shoulders because there was nothing more for me to do. I tried to mentally picture the escaped blood succumbing to gravity and migrating down her spinal cord as her body tried to absorb it, and I tried to comfort her each time new pain appeared in her back or legs. I met with hoards of health care professionals and shook my head in both amazement and irritation at the Hispanic fiestas that appeared each evening in the ICU waiting room. I watched her heart rate and blood pressure readings for hours upon hours, and I sat in the hospital’s darkened chapel in the evenings after visitors had left. I was astonished and touched at the professionalism and dedication of the nursing staff. I received and placed over $1,000 worth of calls on my cell phone, and forgot to pay bills. I watched her try to comprehend what was happening, and I tried to comprehend it myself.
Of course, at the beginning I had no idea what a “brain aneurysm” was, or that the ill-used term generally refers to the rupture of such an aneurysm. I’d heard about people having them, and thought it was probably a stroke. Blood in the brain. Stroke. It must be the same thing. It wasn’t.
I’d seen her like this before, when she suffered a minor stroke a few years before; unsure, confused, retreating into herself to manage the pain and fear. (That’s one thing I’ve learned from the two times Pat’s brain has rebelled. You either can’t or don’t reach out for help. You flow -for lack of a better term – inward and lock yourself in some place that’s all smooth steel or stone – impenetrable. It’s a very liquidprocess, it seems, like trickles of water flowing downward through porous earth to a protective cistern. There is a fundamental aspect of humanity, and perhaps life itself, that has never been adequately explained or understood; how personality differs from mundane consciousness, how mere living meat houses awareness. It’s often called spirituality, and perhaps that’s so. Philosophers, theologians, film makers, writers, seers and prophets have all sought to explain it, disagreeing on what “it” is. But I have realized something I feel is profound: Fighting to live goes beyond definitions. It’s what we do. It is our essence.)
I look back in frustration at the decision by the neurological team to forego surgery based on what they felt was unsure data from Pat’s CTA scans and MRIs. The lead neurosurgeon was impressive and competent, yet talking with other physicians who are friends gave me pause to question the treatment.
Pat was released without surgery on December 23, and frankly was in terrible shape. Christmas was a chore, with our family’s traditional Christmas Eve gathering at our house being held at my brother’s home instead. She couldn’t exercise for fear of raising her blood pressure and causing a re-rupture. It was a godsend when Dr. Lloyd Mobley attended one of my holiday performances. His father-in-law, Bill Patterson introduced us, and he offered to have the doctors in his practice look at Pat’s films. I waited for nearly two weeks, and couldn’t take Pat’s pain, lethargy, dejection, depression and general malaise any longer. I asked for Pat’s films from the group of neurosurgeons that was treating her and delivered them to Dr. Mobley. He took the films to a staff meeting where they were reviewed by Dr. Paul Elliot. His office called immediately with a request to see us at Swedish Hospital. When we arrived, he explained that her ruptured aneurysm was quite visible and should be addressed immediately. She was admitted on the spot. Two days later, January 12, Dr. Elliot performed a craniotomy on Pat and “clipped” the aneurysm, actually repairing the affected artery with a titanium clip. Following her five hour surgery, I walked into the recovery area. She opened her eyes and smiled, and despite her assurances that we were at her family farmhouse in Nebraska that had been demolished 30 years prior, I immediately knew she was better. I was exhilarated.
Pat’s never-ending recovery has been remarkable. She told me recently she never once thought she would die, which I feel is the only thing that really kept her alive…pure will. She returned to real estate – too soon, I believe – and is trying desperately to be “normal.” Despite the aches and pains associated with major surgery, she has only intermittent bouts of short-term memory loss, and we’re both learning to deal with the condition. She’s back to her exercise program, and is looking forward to Christmas Eve at our house. Her blood pressure fluctuates wildly, often tanking until she feels faint and must hydrate herself to bring it up.
I’m not as kind or understanding to Pat as I should be, and grow frustrated too easily when she calls my name from upstairs for the tenth time in an hour. I apologize often, but just as often fail to control my irritation. It makes me feel small and petty, yet I know I’m just trying to absorb and understand all that’s happened. It doesn’t help my confusion when I ruminate that I was nearly killed last December 6 when a punk in a stolen car rear-ended me at over 70 mph while I sat at a stoplight on Federal Boulevard. Pat’s brother Rob and I were on our way home from spending the day and evening with Pat, when it happened. Our new car was totaled, and I somehow walked away with a small bump on my head. Rob was unharmed, and became somewhat of a TV star on the local news for the next couple of days. The punk rolled the stolen car several times and somehow got out and ran. When the police caught him, handcuffed him and put him in the back seat of a cruiser, I walked over and looked at him. His eyes were no different than those of a caged Pit Bull. Our sons were almost orphaned twice in the same week.
Things have changed around here in the past year. Ben found that true love is an oxymoron for most. A girl broke his heart and I’m proud of him for not hiding what happened. He seems to have an understanding of what his mother has endured and accomplished, and makes an attempt to treat her with more respect. He’s still cavalier with his own life, and can be difficult. If he decides to sell yachts instead of widgets, he’ll be rich.
Tyler has withdrawn somewhat from us, at the same time trying to accomplish or extend some sort of adolescent rebellion. He smokes and refuses to finish a 3-hour class that would allow him to receive his degree from CSU. He spends most of his time with a sweet, pretty girl we like very much and seems to be trying to find a balance. He was terribly hurt by Pat’s attack, and questions why she doesn’t appear more thankful for her recovery. He is searching for his way.
I’m more fatalistic. I’m sad and angry, and sometimes elated. I haven’t had a night’s sleep in memory. I pray more than I have since I was a child, careful never to ask for anything, but rather to just open a line of communication. I’m different. Pat’s different. We’re all different. I hope we can become better. I think we will become better.
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In the five and a half years since I wrote the passage, Pat’s recovery has been miraculous. Her occasional bouts with short term memory loss are no worse than anyone else our age, and she works as hard and effectively as ever. She’s been a realtor for over ten years now. She’s really good at it, and her clients are lucky find her.
We’ve learned from the Brain Aneurysm Foundation Group that the term “recovery” is relative, and is pretty much a lifelong process. The things that continue to bother Pat – those tiny things that only she can feel – she tries to work on and master. At times, she tends to get frustrated, as well. Tyler had a point…sometimes she doesn’t seem as thankful as you would expect, but with the event being over six years ago now…well, time changes everything.
A little over four years ago, we moved to a new home and continue to host our family’s Christmas Eve celebrations.
Our sons have become men not only in age but in actions. Ben’s experience with lost love became the best thing that ever happened to him, as he’s found a marvelous girl he’s about to marry in a few weeks. Her name is Savannah.
Tyler quickly found his balance and got his degree shortly after I wrote my missive. Best of all, the sweet girl turned out to be more than just sweet. Last September, they were married in a beautiful ceremony in the foothills above Lyons, Colorado. Her name is Amanda, and she will, in September, become the mother of the most anticipated baby boy in history. Well, ours, at least.
I’m no longer as fatalistic, but I’m still pretty manic in my emotions. And although I’m not as good a person as I’d hoped to be by this time in my life, I keep trying. Pat’s always had what Lou Grant called “spunk” and that will never change. She tries to bring order to the universe, attempting to set straight even the uncontrollable, and worries too much. Our expanding family is a joy, and as always, I think we will become better.
Happy birthday, Pat. I love you.