Thursday, October 12, 2006
Where Is My Mind?
The First Night
"Hi. My name is Piper. I'm going to be your nurse tonight."
The voice seems to come from out of the endless darkness.
"How are you feeling?"
More than hear myself respond, I simply feel the groan bubble up from the back of my throat, creating a harsh tremor; the vibration makes my head pound harder. I'm having trouble keeping my eyes open, so I can barely bring the lithe image into focus as it glides around my bed -- careful to avoid the machines, and the tubes which hook me to them.
Once again the voice comes from nowhere.
"Are you in pain?"
I exhale and somehow manage a feeble word.
"How bad -- on a scale from one to ten?"
I have no idea how to answer that. Much worse than a bad hangover; slightly better than if I'd just been shot in the head storming the beach at Normandy. I'm not quite sure how that translates into a numerical figure.
"Seven," I say.
I open my eyes a little wider and the hazy blur sweeping around me comes into focus. I can still barely make out the features though: Short, young, possibly attractive, long hair; a girl -- the kind I'd rather not have seeing me this way. I'm not sure exactly how I look, but judging by the blasts of crimson on the neck of my gown and the crusted blood on my chin, I doubt I'm ready for the cover of GQ.
For some reason, there's an image in my head I don't understand -- a view of the 59th Street Bridge lit up at night; a view of the FDR running perpendicular to it.
I let my eyelids drift downward and allow the world to go black.
"Okay, I'm going to give you a shot of morphine," comes the voice again.
Everything seems to disappear for a moment; there's silence -- followed by a sudden thrust of liquid fire which consumes my arm from the inside out. I gasp loudly and my body jerks up from the bed, pulling the IV tubes taut. My eyes are open wide. My heart begins racing violently. I can hear the beep of the electronic monitor sounding faster and faster -- keeping time with each pulse of blood through my veins.
"What's happening?" I can barely get the words out.
Piper has her hand on my chest now, trying to push my body back down onto the bed. "You're having a reaction to the morphine. Just give it a minute."
I can't breathe; I'm trying, but I can't.
I look directly at the young nurse's face, which I can still barely make out, despite being just inches from mine. Her head is now nothing more than a black silhouette against what looks like an empty gun-metal sky. Wherever I am, there's very little light. Even with my eyes open, all I see are slightly differing shades of muted grays and blacks -- except for that view.
"Help me," I cough. "Please."
Her hand still pushes gently on my chest, as my heart-rate begins to slow -- the beeping of the monitor subsiding with each pulse. My body relaxes back onto the bed; I take a deep breath. I'm numb. The pain is gone.
"Can I ask you something?" I manage.
"Am I alive?"
The silhouette remains inches away from my face. After a moment, a sliver of gray seems to grow in the center of it; it takes me an eternity to realize that it's a smile.
"Yes, you're alive."
I close my eyes again and fall back into the blackness.
Eight Hours Earlier
My eyes flutter open; the room spins briefly, then comes into a soft focus. I hold my hand up to block out the bright light streaming in through the waiting room windows. Outside, the sun is rising over the East River and New York City is waking to what will surely be a gorgeous day. I unfortunately will be having none of it; my schedule's full for the next several hours.
I stretch slightly -- rolling my shoulders -- and turn my head to the left. The softness of my wife's hair envelops my nose and I breathe deeply, reaching my right hand around her face and running my fingers through the dark brown tousle. I can feel her breath on my arm as her head continues to rest on my shoulder. Across the room, my mother and father sit facing me; they're wearing anxious smiles.
"You were out pretty good there," my father says.
"Yeah, I suppose so."
"Can we get you anything?"
"How about a ride home?"
"Nope, can't do that son."
I lift my arm to glance at my watch and it pulls the line on the IV I'm attached to; I'd better get used to this kind of restricted movement. It's just after 10:30am; I've been waiting here along with my parents, my wife and her parents for the past four hours. My surgery was scheduled to begin just before seven. So far the only eventful things that have happened to me since my arrival involve me trading in my clothes for a flimsy hospital gown, getting hooked up to a saline drip and answering some questions about my past drug use. I fail to see how anything I did to destroy my mind and body six years ago has anything to do with why I'm here today. Then again, I was stupid enough to carpet-bomb my bloodstream with an awe-inspiring arsenal of opiates for an extended period of time; I'm obviously not very bright.
My wife nuzzles her head into my neck and turns to look up at me.
"Are you alright?"
I pause for a moment, realizing that I have a responsibility to be steadfast -- strong. "Yeah, I'm okay," I say with an easy smile -- one which I hope distracts from the terror in my eyes.
I'm having a brain tumor removed today.
It's approximately the size of a pinball and has rested itself directly atop my pituitary gland, where it's begun destroying the nerve-center which controls my body's hormone output. My entire physical being has essentially been going haywire since it moved in and decided to do to my head what The Who used to do to their hotel rooms.
I became aware of the unwanted guest in my brain about three weeks ago; that was when the headache began. It was manageable at first -- although unusual because a full-night's sleep did nothing to make it subside. I took Advil. I went to work. I tried to ignore it. And then it got worse -- much worse.
By just after noon, I could barely move; it felt as if someone were hitting me in the face with a sledgehammer each time blood pumped into my brain. I slowly shuffled over to my supervisor's office and explained the situation to him -- that I was in excruciating pain. I told him that I was going home.
The following eighteen hours were indescribable. The headache continued to get worse, no matter how many Advil I took or how much I tried to relax. By the time the sun went down and my bedroom was submerged in darkness, the pain was so bad that it felt like my sinuses were being eaten by bacteria from the inside out. I truly assumed that at some point I would reach up and find a new hole in my face -- the escape route for whatever was devouring my flesh.
I moaned loudly during the night, unable to sleep and instead counting off the hours to sunrise -- when I could drag my racked body into Lower Manhattan to see my doctor. I had convinced myself that a trip to the emergency room for a headache would simply end with a six-hour stay in a busy waiting room; it would do far more harm than good.
As it turned out, my doctor did little to help me; she gave me a prescription for a codeine painkiller and ordered a CT scan for the following day.
When I got back home from her office, I downed six of the pills and drifted off -- the pain ebbing only slightly.
The next day, the suffering continued. The CT scan showed nothing.
It was the day after that -- the fouth day of extraordinary agony -- that I was sent in for an MRI.
It was then that I finally found out what was happening to me.
"Well, I can tell you what's wrong with you," the technician said.
I just stared at him -- my eyes opening and closing in slow-motion. I seemed to be fading in and out of consciousness as my body tried to shut itself down to escape the perpetual torture.
"You've got a brain tumor," he continued. "And it's hemorrhaging into your head."
"Am I going to die?" I asked.
"No. It doesn't look to be cancerous."
Two hours later, my wife and I were at New York Presbyterian/Cornell Medical Center on the Upper East Side. She was in tears; I was being prepped for surgery. It was only at the last minute that a young doctor in a smart suit pulled aside the curtain to my little room, took a look at my MRI and brought everything to a grinding halt. He said that I was a perfect candidate for a minimally-invasive tumor removal technique which would involve neurosurgeons entering my head through my nose rather than cutting open my skull. He ordered me put on blood-platelets to stop the hemorrhage, Vicodin to kill the pain, and steroids to shrink the tumor as much as possible. He scheduled me for surgery in three weeks.
In the far corner of the waiting room there's a young Orthodox Jew and his mother, sitting and filling out paperwork. Moments ago, she was casually brushing off his shoulders as he rocked in his seat -- reading the Torah, probably for the twentieth time this week. He tried to pull away from her, but she refused to relent -- no doubt wanting him to be clean and presentable, should he wind up face to face with Yahweh in a few hours. It was the kind of stereotype which is always associated with New York City, but which is hard to believe actually exists.
My parents and Jayne's parents seem to be enjoying the surreal distraction.
It's then that the doors open, and the nurse walks in and calls my name.
My wife begins to cry as I stand up. My family walks toward me and, one-at-a-time, gives me what I can only hope will not be one last hug. I pull away and shuffle toward the door, my wife holding my hand. She turns my head toward her face a final time and allows me a parting look at her smile -- the view I'll take with me into oblivion. She looks like she's about to collapse, so I put my arms around her, once again pulling the IV line, and hold her tightly.
"I love you. Don't worry; I'll see you in a few hours."
She runs her hand down my face. "Come back to me," she says.
I squeeze her hand one last time, wave at my family, and allow the door to the waiting room to close behind me. I follow the nurse down the long hall -- concentrating on the little swishing sounds my hospital-provided footies are making on the tile floor. I try to think of my wife. My heart is beginning to pound. I take deep breaths.
"Don't I get a gurney or something?"
The nurse glances over her shoulder. "No, we need to keep you awake and alert to go over the final paperwork; you need to sign it before we can get underway."
"Lovely," I say. "So I guess a shot of liquid Valium is pretty much out of the question then?"
"We'll get you something as soon as we get you into the O.R."
WE'RE not the ones who are about to have a fucking brain tumor cut out of OUR head lady.
After a few more steps, we arrive at a set of angry, steel double-doors. Yellow and black stickers warn potential interlopers that they are about to enter an operational neuro-surgical theater, and should proceed with caution. Abandon all hope ye who enter here.
I'm reading the warning when I feel something brush against my arm. I glance down and see a manila file folder open -- several thick sheets of paper visible within.
"I need you to sign where marked please."
The blood in my veins feels as if it's being pumped through a firehose; it's making my whole body shake. I'm terrified beyond words. Without paying any real attention, I numbly sign each slip of paper and hand the folder back to the nurse. She gives me a carefully rehearsed smile and turns to face me completely.
I say nothing.
With that, she spins briskly around and the steel doors open inward -- revealing a sight which causes me to immediately fight the urge to vomit. I can suddenly hear the blood thrumming in my ears as my heart pumps it at a painful rate. I begin to shake uncontrollably.
The operating theater is massive. It has a high ceiling from which hang rows of halogen spotlights. They augment the long flourescent bulbs already bathing the entire room in harsh white light. There's movement everywhere; technicians and nurses busy themselves in preparation for the procedure -- adjusting electronic machinery, placing vials of chemicals in rows and lining up trays of scalpels and knives whose blades gleam in the bright light beaming down from above.
I see the computer monitor which will be used to track the progress as the surgeon inserts the camera and micro-instruments up toward my brain. It sits at the head of the room's centerpiece: a large bed, with padded arms that extend outward so that the entire thing resembles a crucifix -- or the bed on which deathrow inmates are executed by lethal injection.
I'm shaking to the point where it's now visibly noticeable.
"We'll give you something to calm you in just a second," one of the attendants says as he brushes past me.
I'm about to collapse onto the cold floor.
I hear someone ask where my neurosurgeon is; no one seems to know.
I want to close my eyes and disappear.
A nurse seems to appear from out of nowhere on my left and touches my arm. "We need to get you up on the bed; are you ready?"
I don't answer, choosing instead to simply crawl onto the crucifix and lie down on my back like a good little martyr.
"Spread your arms please," I hear someone ask.
I do as I'm told -- taking a deep breath and somehow pulling a few small words up from deep inside of me.
"Can I please have something to calm me?" I say, barely above a whisper.
A nurse on either side of me grabs one of my arms and straps it down to the furthest end of the transom until both are secure. I can literally hear the sound of each powerful heartbeat.
Someone touches me -- straightening out the fingers of my left hand. "Take a deep breath; this is going to hurt," he says -- and then slides a needle into the soft skin of my wrist. I clench my teeth and muffle a scream. The chaos and movement continue around me, seemingly oblivious to my presence. I just want to vanish from here. I just want to sleep.
I glance over to my left again, and there's a heavy IV line protruding from the needle in my wrist; I can see the shank deep inside my vein. The person who just inserted it seems to be examining his handiwork.
He turns his face toward me.
"I'm going to give you something to relax you -- okay?"
I turn my head away from him and face forward -- toward the ceiling. The brightness from the halogen bulbs burns my eyes; I close them and think of my wife's face. I wish she were here.
I suddenly feel something cold push into my vein, beginning at the wrist and moving quickly up my arm.
I see my wife's face.
The light begins to burn my eyes once again -- only this time my eyes aren't open.
I float for a moment. The chaos and noise around me disappears. There's complete silence.
I see my wife's face.
Somewhere, the order is given for the Faster-Than-Light jump.
The world goes white in a blinding flash.
I feel the bed shake as it slams through a set of double doors. I'm coughing violently and I can't breathe through my nose. I see my wife's face, only now it's speaking to me.
"You're alright; you made it," it says. "We have to go. They say we can't stay through the night in ICU." I'm not sure who she's talking about. I have no idea where I am. She kisses me and then disappears from sight.
The bed jolts as it hits another set of double doors and enters a darkened room, coming to rest directly in front of a large floor-to-ceiling window. The view beyond is spectacular -- if it's actually real and not simply my imagination. It's a bridge, and a highway with cars streaking along it. The sun has just set, and the skeletal structure of the bridge has come alive with pinpoint lights.
I hear several voices speaking; the volume of their words rising and falling. I get only bits and pieces.
"...a history of drug use..."
"...should be alright..."
Then there's silence. I'm alone -- with only the view of the bridge and the highway, the beeping of the machines and an unmistakable song floating through my head. It's Radiohead's Lucky.
An eternity goes by.
I hear someone approach from out of my view -- feel the changes in the air.
I close my eyes.
The voice seems to come from out of the darkness.
"Hi. My name is Piper. I'm going to be your nurse tonight."
To Be Continued
Where Is My Mind? (Part 2) -- 12.26.06