Warning: the following post is not for people who get queasy reading about blood and guts. Seriously.
One year ago today marks the beginning of our annus horribilis. The day started out like any other. Mr. Food Musings got up and rushed off to his job running the creative department of a local advertising agency, while I sat in my PJs all day, researching an article on chocolate. In the evening, Mr. FM -- J -- had a work event he thought I'd enjoy, so we met up at the California Culinary Academy for the launch of some new food website. We mingled with friends over jiggling hors d'oeuvres -- aspic and forcemeat must have been the chapter at the CCA that week -- and drank a few glasses of wine. At one point in the evening we went upstairs to watch Martin Yan of Yan Can Cook have his way with a sharp knife and some vegetables. (And, yes, we got suckered into buying a knife.) Then we went home, had a third glass of wine, watched some TV and went to bed.
At about 1 in the morning I was awakened by a loud KATHUNK. It was the sound of J hitting the bedroom floor, hard. I got out of bed and found him lying on the floor, moaning. Truthfully, I wasn't overly worried. He tends toward clumsiness, and this wasn't the first time he'd gotten out of bed in the middle of the night to get a drink of water, and fallen on the way back.
"Honey, are you okay? Did you fall?" I asked.
"I think I have food poisoning," he gasped, holding his tummy. "I've been in the bathroom throwing up for the last few hours."
A quick blink at the clock made me frown. A few hours? We hadn't gone to bed more than a few hours ago. But I shooed away the funny feeling.
"Honey, can you sit up? Let's get you into bed." I tried moving him, but he refused to budge from the fetal position.
"I'm so dizzy, I can't move. I just want to lie here."
Dizzy? I thought. What does dizzy have to do with food poisoning? And not just dizzy, but too dizzy to move? A small feeling of panic stirred in my chest.
I tried a few more times to convince him to get into bed, but he refused to move. Something about him -- his mannerisms, his speech -- just seemed...funny. Not like him, but not in a way I could put my finger on. My heart beat a bit faster, and a quick blast of hot fear ran through my limbs.
"Honey, I think we should call 911. Okay? I don't like this," I told him.
"NO!" he moaned. "Don't call 911. I'm fine. I'm just sick, that's all." As he spoke, he tried to get onto his knees but all he could manage was a pitiful crouch, with his head and shoulders on the floor. I reached for the phone. As I cradled it against my neck, I grabbed some clothes from the dresser and knelt down to him, pulling a tee shirt over his head as I gave the operator our address, yanking underwear up his legs as I told them I needed an ambulance. It's funny the things you do in the middle of an emergency; he'd slept naked that night, and I wanted to protect his modesty in front of the paramedics. I also coaxed my hair into what I hoped was a semi-attractive pony tail, and slung on a pair of sweatpants, silently saying a prayer that the tank top I'd worn had a built-in bra because it saved me a step. I already knew we were going to the hospital.
The 911 operator let me know that someone was on the way, and that he'd stay on the phone with me until help arrived. "Is his airway clear?" he asked me, and followed that question with a series of others. I was trying hard to pay attention, but by then J was starting to whimper. "Hang on," I told the operator, following behind as J crawled along the floor towards the bathroom. I grabbed him under his chest and tried to help pull him forward onto the linoleum. As he vomited, I held his head. He managed to get most of it in the toilet, but a small amount splattered on the white rim of the toilet seat. It was red. Blood red. That's when I started to cry.
"Ohmygod, he's throwing up blood," I sobbed into the phone. "That's not good, is it?" I half listened to the operator's reassuring voice while trying to soothe J. "It's okay, honey, you're going to be okay, the paramedics are coming." I repeated it like a mantra for the next few minutes. In between heaving, J begged me not to call them. "I'm fine. I'm fine. Don't call 911, please don't call 911."
When the paramedics arrived, I buzzed them in. They burst through the doorway, one blue-clad figure after the next. Two of them immediately started taking J's stats, his blood pressure, his pulse, and asking him questions. "He's throwing up blood," I said to anyone who would listen. "I think he might have food poisoning but I don't know, he's acting funny."
"Sir, how much have you had to drink?" one of them asked. J kept insisting he was fine, that they should leave. I stood in the still-dark hallway filling another one in on the night's history -- his name and age, how much I thought he'd had to drink (3 glasses of wine over the course of 4 hours), what drugs he was taking (none) and on and on, trying to keep my eye on J all the while. The paramedics kept asking him how much he'd had to drink, if he regularly drinks a lot, if there were any other drugs in his system.
I finally realized that they thought he was loaded, either on drink, drugs, or both.
I pushed past the man with the paperwork. "No, no, we don't take drugs, we barely drank anything tonight. He's sick and he's dizzy and he's been throwing up blood," I said. "See, right there." I pointed to the toilet seat.
"That's not blood, ma'am, that's just the red wine." My heart slowed a bit when I heard that. That seemed like good news. Then I realized, if he's not throwing up blood, what the hell is wrong with him?
After they determined he was stable, they wrangled him into a metal stair chair since our building didn't have an elevator. As they maneuvered him out the door and into the hallway, I dashed through the apartment, grabbing wallets, a bottle of water, pants and a sweatshirt for J, our cell phones. I remember being aware of how odd it was that I was thinking so clearly. I also remember worrying it meant I wasn't taking this seriously enough. Why wasn't I consumed with fear, with worry?
On the way down the stairs J continued to insist that he was fine, and they should take him back upstairs. The paramedics finally got stern with him. "Mr. S, we cannot leave you here. Your wife has called us because she thinks there is something wrong with you, and we have to take you to the hospital." As they spoke, he started to heave again and they thrust a plastic container underneath his mouth.
They loaded him into the ambulance and asked if I wanted to go with them or drive myself. I didn't know where they were going and I didn't want to waste time parking so I got in the ambulance's front seat. I sat there as they hooked him up to an IV. It was 2 a.m. and I was scared and alone. J wasn't making any sense, and I knew something was bad wrong. I just didn't know what.
When we got to the hospital, the doctors asked him a barrage of questions. "Do you know what your name is?"
"Yes, it's J." My heart started to slow down and the knot in my stomach began to unclench.
"Do you know where you are?"
"I'm at the hospital." I felt safer, now that we were around People Who Knew What to Do.
"Do you know what year it is?"
"1986." I glanced over at the doctors and my heart sped up. "No wait," J said, "That's not right." It slowed back down. "It's 1996." boom-boom-boom-boom. I barked a sharp laugh, even though it wasn't funny.
Pretty soon they gave him something to ease the nausea and told us they needed to take him for a CT scan. They'd quizzed us both on everything that had happened so far, and I didn't know what to say except what he had told me: that he thought he had food poisoning and had been sick for hours, that when he came back to bed he fell, that he was dizzy and didn't seem like himself. I asked to go with him to the CT scan, and they said I could. I dragged all our things along with us, stashing his sweatshirt in a corner of the gurney, a bag on either shoulder. I grasped the little plastic half-moon tightly in my hand in case he needed to throw up again. Outside the scan room was a small waiting area, and the technician asked me to wait there. "We'll be about 20 minutes," he said.
I sat down on an ugly blue chair, scanning the out of date magazines, and tried to collect my thoughts. I took a few deep breaths. Then I called my mom. It was nearly 5 a.m. on the East Coast, and I knew she'd be up.
"Hello? Are you okay?" she answered.
"No, J's in the hospital. They don't know what's wrong." I explained, half sobbing, what had happened, where we were, what they were doing. She calmed me down a bit, asked how to reach me. Before I knew it J was being wheeled back. "I have to go," I said. "I'll call you as soon as I know more."
We spent the next few hours in the ER, where J threw up every few minutes. Doctors and nurses came in and out, asking questions, administering drug after drug in an attempt to stanch the constant vomiting, restarting a new IV to help hydrate him. I called my mom every so often with updates, nothing definitive. "We're waiting for them to read the CT scan," I explained.
Finally, about 3:30 in the morning, they came by with the results.
"Mrs. S," they said -- I'd let them believe I was his wife so I could make the medical decisions without any hassle -- "your husband has suffered a bad concussion. When he fell, he fractured his skull in two places. That explains the dizziness and the vomiting." They also found evidence of drugs in his urine, and they asked me again what he had prescriptions for, what drugs we had in the house that might explain the presence of a drug I'd never heard of. Within the hour, they moved him into a private room for constant observation. Every so often, he would moan and sit up while I grabbed for the closest plastic bowl and thrust it underneath his chin. The nurse gave me a plastic pitcher for him to pee into because he couldn't get out of bed, and when he had to relieve himself, I would lift up his gown, hold the pitcher up to him, wipe him off and then save the output for the nurse to measure later.
By 7 a.m. the doctors had started rounds, and I met his resident. She explained that a neurosurgeon had been called and he'd be stopping by later that day. That morning was a flurry of doctors, nurses, more scans, MRIs, vomiting, phone calls. Surgery was ruled out, but a neurologist came by and asked him to follow her pencil with his eyes, and touch his fingertips to his chin. A psychiatrist came by to ensure he hadn't tried to overdose on whatever drug they found in his system. (He hadn't, and they chalked that up to erroneous test results.) Friends came by, bringing me a change of clothes, a notebook, a phone card so I could use the hospital phones to call long-distance. I asked them to cancel my interviews that day, and to let the office know J wouldn't be coming in.
In the afternoon he was moved into a permanent room on another floor. I kept in touch with my mom and called J's parents, who live in Silicon Valley, but told them not to come, that we'd would be getting out that afternoon or evening, or the next morning. In the end, we were there for 6 days. His parents came up every afternoon for a visit and brought us fruit, snacks, water, books. While they stayed with him, I dashed the 3 blocks home. The first day I slept for a few hours, since I hadn't slept at all the night before, but later I stayed just long enough to shower, pack food for myself to eat the next day, get a change of underwear for J. One day I left and J looked up at me, a bit broken. "Are you coming back?"
"Yes, honey, soon, in less than an hour, I just need to get a few things from the house." I ran all the way home and all the way back.
Throughout that week, I slept in the chair next to his bed, getting up to hold his head when he was sick, or to help him pee into the pitcher. I wrote down all his medications, and reminded the nurses when it was time for another painkiller or antiemitic. For the first 3 days all he did was sleep unless the doctors woke him to ask questions. By the 4th day, he was awake for some of the day and able to sit up a bit, and I gave him some yogurt and a sponge bath. By that afternoon, his nurse had him on his feet, and the physical therapist came by to take him for a walk. By the next day he was asking when he could go home, pushing for it to be soon. The doctors looked at us, grave. He was still dizzy and throwing up nearly everything he ate. He could barely walk more than 30 steps without collapsing from exhaustion, and he was so unsteady someone had to hold on to both hips while he did. "He can't be left alone," they warned. "He'll need help walking until his balance improves, and he has to be able to eat on his own, without getting his nutrition from an IV." I explained that he had started to eat, and I worked at home, I could do whatever he needed. We just needed to get home.
On day 6, they released him. His parents drove us home, and he walked upstairs, one step at a time. The two flights took us 20 minutes. His parents ran to Walgreens to fill his many prescriptions -- one for nausea, one for vertigo, one for pain, another for sleeping, another for the migraines -- while I got him comfortable on the sofa. We talked about how he would need to be out of work for a little while. "I'll stay out all this week," he said. I looked at him hard. "You might want to be thinking two weeks instead," I warned. Neither of us had a clue.
The next 6 weeks are a blur. I was by his side the entire time, save for an hour when he needed a refill on his prescriptions and none of our friends could do it for us in time. If he needed to get up and walk from room to room, I got up and walked behind him with my hands on his hips, steadying him. When he got up in the night to pee, I went with him, and I stood outside the bathroom door. Eventually he got a cane. I gave him baths because he couldn't stand up to shower, and I shaved him, which inexplicably always made him throw up. For a few weeks, all he would eat was fruit, yogurt and Coke. Even that was hard to keep down. I learned to keep plastic bags in my purse and in the car for emergencies, and we stashed plastic trashcans throughout the apartment so he would always have one nearby. A good day was one when he could keep breakfast down for a few hours, long enough to get some nutrition from it. On a bad day he threw up within 5 minutes of eating, up to 5 times a day, maybe more. He lost 7 pounds in the hospital and 5 more at home. His parents went on grocery runs for us, and so did friends. Other friends sent food, ordered in Thai, mailed gift certificates for delivery services. I canceled all my projects and stopped taking new work. We took walks together once, twice, three times a day, practicing walking forwards and backwards, walking a straight line, turning corners. Sometimes he fell. Sometimes he had to lie down on the concrete outside. Strangers stopped and offered to help. People stared at the young-old man who hobbled with a cane, moving at a snail's pace.
After 6 weeks, I felt like I could leave him alone. His parents came up and sat with him while I went out for an hour by myself to meet friends for a glass of wine. After a few more weeks, I could leave him alone for an hour -- to get my nails done, or run an errand, to meet a friend for lunch, or conduct an interview. I started working again, just a little. He had 8 appointments every week: acupuncture twice, to control the nausea; physical therapy three times to help him learn how to balance and walk; at least one doctor's appointment; and therapists to treat the depression that is a common symptom of head injuries. His parents and I learned to juggle schedules. They would drive up to the city 2, 3 times a week and take him to PT or feed him lunch so I could get a few things done. I started grocery shopping again, and cooking. We invited a few friends over here and there.
Eventually we pieced together what we think happened that night. When J got up in the night to pee, he fainted. It's very common in men. When he fell, he knocked himself out on the bathroom floor. When he came to -- 2 minutes or 2 hours later, we don't know -- he was dizzy, nauseated, and disoriented. There never was any food poisoning. J remembers waking up convinced that he was alone in another apartment, one we were about to sign a lease on, and when he stumbled back to the bedroom and tumbled to the floor, he was shocked to find me there. When he hit his head, it resulted not just in two skull fractures, but also in bleeding and bruising of the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls balance and coordination, and teaches the rest of the brain new tricks. It's very rare to injure the cerebellum because of its location at the back of the skull. Doctors, we learned, don't know all that much about cerebellar injuries when it comes right down to it, and every head injury is different, so they weren't sure what to tell us to expect. At first they said to look for big improvements at 3 months, then 6 months, 9, a year. We scoffed. Three months? He'd be well by then.
In the end, J was out of work for 4 months. His office replaced him while he was gone; they had to. But they kept a job open for him, and he fought to get back to it as soon as he could. Throughout the last year he has suffered from unrelenting vertigo every waking moment. The throwing up stopped after about 6 weeks, and the nausea went away a few months later. After 6 months of physical therapy three times a week, he can walk on his own, and even go for a jog by himself. It used to be that just riding in the car for 20 minute made him sick, but now he can tolerate rides of an hour or more. In the last few weeks, he's started driving again. He gets terrible migraines, sometimes as often as every other day, but he's learning how to manage them. Over the course of his recovery, he's tried acupuncture, massage, cupping and acupressure, drugs and therapy, yoga and exercise. We sought out specialist after specialist, consulted friends of friends, mailed his medical records all over the country for second opinions, and third, and fourth and fifth ones. In the end, they have all told us the same thing. "We expect a full recovery." "These things take time." "His improvement is impressive." I can tell you, it feels like anything but. Still, when I look back a year ago, 9 months ago, 6 months or 6 weeks, I can see how far he has come. It hasn't been easy, and there have been many, many times when it seemed insurmountable, days when I cried in the shower out of fear or frustration, mornings when he looked at me with bleary eyes and told me he just couldn't take it anymore.
But here we are. One year later. A day we once thought held some sort of magic, a day when he'd wake up and be his old self again. He isn't. Not yet. But we have noticed a few small changes in the last few weeks, after months of nothing. He feels a bit better than he used to. He can bend over without getting quite as dizzy. He can do yoga without having to lie down afterwards. It's starting to feel like maybe, just maybe, the end of this is out there, somewhere, not too far beyond our grasp.