Thursday evening was just like any other evening, not particularly significant or action packed; I remember a mellow and pleasurable night of watching Sons of Anarchy with my folks, having a beer (yes, only one), and a small amount of that magical substance so often associated with California, Vancouver, Holland, etc. On all accounts, it was not at all profoundly stressful or overly indulgent. I said my goodnights, sometime around 11pm, and walked down the dirt road to where my dwelling resides.
Conforming to my usual routine, I did a little drawing, and wrote few ramblings in my bedside notebook, prior to passing out. Still, nothing out of the ordinary. …and this is where normalcy ends.
Friday morning I awoke at my usual time. Without an alarm, I normally arise between 7:30 and 8:30; I believe it was 8 o’clock. Laying on my back, I felt a little stiff, but didn’t think much of it. I threw the covers off with my left hand, as I normally do, but when I tried to sit up I fell off the bed. Note, my brain was telling me that I could feel my right arm and leg, and even told me that I was moving them, but when I looked, I realized they were completely flaccid. I also realized that I’d lost control of my bladder, and was urinating all over myself and the floor. I cried out “Oh god!” …and it was here that it became apparent that I was not speaking in my normal voice. The best way I can describe it is that I sounded almost exactly like Peter Boyle, in “Young Frankenstein;” everything from the high pitch squeal, to the completely slurred and unintelligible wording. By this point I was completely panicking, and was pretty sure that I’d had a stroke. I wondered if I was experiencing the last few moments of my life, and realized that if I stayed there on the floor and did nothing, that this most likely would be the case. There is no phone in my quarters, and it is too insulated and too far away for anyone to hear me on the outside. My desire to live, to survive, took over; because my entire right side was paralyzed, I had no equilibrium, so it was impossible to stay upright, much less to even be able to stand on the one leg I had. Every time that I flung myself up with my left side, I’d flop back over. Reaching around me from the floor, I grabbed at everything that I could, stools fell down around me, boxes, clothes, etc.; I was desperately trying to drag myself over to the door. I reached into the pocket of my urine soaked pants, that were lying on the floor from when I’d undressed the night before, and grabbed my keys (keep in mind, I am lying on my side, naked, in a panic, this entire time). My place, unfortunately, locks from the inside with a key, and I always keep it locked when I’m asleep. This was a difficult and trying process, multiple times during which I collapsed and almost gave in to the idea that was going to die. I propped my head against the door, and reached up to insert the key, after failing and falling back over flat, innumerable times, I finally managed to get the key into the lock, as well as to turn it. I opened the door as quickly as I could manage, and flopped out onto the mud and pine needle covered stairs (we’d had a week of storms, and everything in the woods had been covered in dirt and debris from the trees). I grabbed onto the doorway with my left hand, propping my head against it, trying to use the weight of my head and the strength of my hand to stay upright. I screamed in my “Young Frankenstein” voice: “Help!!! Somebody please help!!! I think I’ve had a stroke!!” This was repeated over and over, as loud as I could manage.
My folks’ house is fairly buttoned up with thick insulation and multi-paned windows, so no one could hear me up in the main house. By sheer luck, it happened to be Spring Break for my niece and nephew, but not for my sister (who is a High School English Teacher); so, she had been dropping the kids off in the morning all week, before work, so they could spend vacation at their grandparents’ house. I believe they were up at the main house, making breakfast, when my nephew Asher decided to wander out on the porch for a moment (in some ways, one could say that I owe a debt of gratitude to my young nephew, for hearing and helping to save me), I‘d probably been screaming for close to twenty minutes, perhaps even half an hour. He didn’t realize that it was me, the voice I was using was completely alien, but he knew something was wrong, and went back inside to tell my parents that he’d heard a strange noise. My mother came out onto the porch, and even she didn’t recognize the voice at first; yelling down into the valley “Ethan, is that you??”
“Yes!” I replied, slurring and unintelligible.. . “Oh god, please come quickly…”
This sent everyone into emergency mode. They didn’t know what had happened, but were on their way, and ready for the worst. Upon reaching the bottom, my mother didn’t see me at first, and I squealed at her. She turned, finally to see me at the top of my steps, covered in dirt and abrasions (from my struggle to get out through the door). “Oh no!” she exclaimed. She immediately grabbed a quilt from my bed inside, and wrapped it around me, calling 911 with the phone that she’d brought with her. My father kept the children up top, so as not to traumatize them.
When the ambulance arrived, they asked me to smile/show my teeth, displaying the fact that the right side of my mouth was drooping. Luckily, the paramedics were three very in shape and fairly good sized men; being that I am 6’6” and weigh 230 lbs, this could have been a factor of my survival, had a more petite paramedic team been on staff that morning. Without too much difficulty, one of them grabbed me from behind, bracing my elbows with hands, and another grabbed me by the legs, while the third immediately unfolded and brought over the gurney. They buckled me in with about six seat-belt like straps, so that I wouldn’t flop over, slid me into the ambulance, and sped off in a siren soaked, high octane huff. While in the ambulance, when they were inserting the I.V, checking my vision, and administering a variety of tests (perhaps even some meds, I can’t remember for sure), I kept looking at my right arm (my PAINTING arm/hand). I grabbed it with my left hand, and tried propping it up on my belly, no such luck; it immediately slid down again, just laying their, completely unresponsive and useless. By this point, I wasn’t so sure that I was going to die, but was definitely having dark thoughts about being paralyzed for the rest of my life, and whether or not it would be worth it for me to go on without the use of my painting arm. I was not expressing this verbally, of course, on the outside I was trying to maintain a show of bravery(why, I have no idea).
Upon reaching the emergency room, they administered more reaction tests, pupil dilation, etc.; I still can’t remember if I was given any drugs at this point. They then rushed to the MRI, which was rather surreal, because this particular emergency facility, had their MRI station in a trailer, in the back lot of the hospital. So here I am on a gurney, watching the ceiling of the hospital go by, and then the next thing I know, I’m outside! Then down a little path, and up into a side lift, that brought me into a very cramped trailer. They packed in cushioning, to keep my head and neck from moving, then slid me in to the very coffin-like tube. The MRI was to last for an hour. I tried using my meditation training, breathing in through the nose for four seconds, holding it for a second, and the exhaling for four seconds, all the while trying to maintain a clear and calm state of mind. This lasted for about twenty minutes, and then the panic took over again, and I couldn’t help but start moving my head. They had to pull me out and administer ativan, in order to calm me down. Luckily it worked, although the tube still felt unnervingly like a coffin; not the best of spaces to be in when you are thinking that you are permanently paralyzed, and perhaps might even be about to die. Soon realizing that they were not well equipped enough to handle my situation, they opted to send me to the California Pacifica Medical Center, Davies Campus, Neurology ICU. This involved an hour long ride in an ambulance, with the EMTs, and a nurse from the hospital, who tagged along to watch over me. She helped keep me at ease, and explained straight-forwardly, what the possible outcomes could be; some of which were terrifying, but I was glad that she was being honest.
I should add that, by this point, I was starting to have some movement in my right shoulder; not a lot, but it gave me hope that perhaps the paralysis was temporary. By the time I arrived at CPMC ICU, I had gained back some very clumsy, but nonetheless promising, movement in my right leg and arm. More tests followed. They then kept me on close observation for that entire evening, waking me up every hour, and testing my pupil dilation, movement, strength, coordination, etc. I was still terrified that I would never be able to paint again.
That next morning, I had gained back even more movement, but still could not fully open or close my hand, or hold my arm aloft for any length of time. I spent that Saturday, having a full battery of tests run; PET Scan, CT Scan, and another MRI (luckily, the MRI station at CPMC is about 12 inches wider in diameter, is inside the hospital, AND, CPMC really cares about the psychological status of their patients, so they cover their ceilings in nature scenes, as if you are looking up through the trees; I know it sounds silly, but I cannot tell you how much this helped put me at ease (art really does help, during times of panic/distress, etc.)). No ativan was required during these tests, the staff at CPMC made me feel as comfortable as was possible.
By mid-day Saturday, I was opening and closing my hand, and moving my leg up and down from the bed; still very clumsily, but I was starting to see light at the end of the tunnel. I was told that the Physical Therapists would be there by Monday, but having already gained back some movement, I was not about to wait, and was determined that I would paint again, or else it was all for not. I had my folks bring in a yellow pad, and pen, I forced the pen into my right hand, and began trying to write (I knew that if I could get myself to write fluid cursive, that I would be able to paint). My writing looked like completely unreadable chicken scratch, something done by a four year old, who was pretending to write. This helped me decide that I needed to start at the beginning, like when I was a child, and began trying to write out my ABCs. Still fairly illegible, but I was making progress. I would get fatigued after a while, and would have to put the pen down, but was constantly eager to pick it back up again and get better. By Saturday night, I’d managed to write out “Every good boy does fine,” six times, in a somewhat legible manner, similar to how I wrote in the fourth grade. I went to sleep knowing that I would try even harder on Sunday.
Sunday morning, I awoke feeling significantly better; not 100%, but I could tell that I was breaking through the fog and on my way to recovery (although I still didn’t realize how quickly it was going to happen). I immediately began writing, as I listened to NPR, and watched the sunrise outside my window. The words were finally flowing again, still kind of glitchy, but nothing like before. It was like there was a slight tremor in my hand, that I had to overcome. One of the morning entries was “I have gained a good amount of my motor skills back… This handwriting still sucks!!”
I knew then that I had to try drawing from life, to help synchronize my eye to mind to hand coordination. My first few drawings were atrocious, but each one got better. I drew my coffee cup, badly. I drew a couple of profiles, equally as bad. I drew the city skyline in the same clumsy manner. At that point, my friend Lara called, and we had a heart to heart, and she told me that she wanted to visit me, to see that I was okay. When I hung up the phone, I wrote “Talked to Lara on the telephone, she will be visiting me shortly;” and then, I swear, I really did feel a click in my brain, and suddenly there was no more glitch; the connection between my thoughts and the flow of my cursive had become one, and I wrote “I think that I just felt a switch in my brain… Feeling good. Optimistic!”
I then did a drawing of my hand, not quite up to my usually delicate and detailed rendering skills, but still, nonetheless, the edge quality and proportions were that of my hand. This filled me an immense feeling of relief. For the first time, I knew that I was going to be okay (grabbing some tissues, cause this brings tears to my eyes as I type it). I turned to the skyline and drew it again, this time it had depth, the edges were fairly accurate, and my cross-hatching was coming back to me (in that my hatch marks were following along their proper borders, and not wandering off chaotically). I then wrote under the drawing “Getting better all the time! Keep going!!”
After lunch and some more tests, I picked up the pad and tried again, writing “testing, 1, 2, 3.. Am I still able to write? It seems to be improving even more!” I did another hand drawing and then decided that I needed to test my ability to write out multi-syllabic words. So, of course, I chose the big kahuna, “sesquipedalian,” …..not too shabby! “Enterprise, Ennui, Equivocation, Macrobiotic, hyperbolic,” …looking good!
I wrote out my ABCs at break neck speed, and they were perfect. I was now looking at my regular handwriting, the handwriting that I’ve had for most of my adult life (more tears of joy). More drawings of the buildings outside, this time with complicated shading, and attention to more accurate vanishing points. Completely elated.
I should also add that, by this point, I was insisting that the Nurses let me walk to the bathroom, to take care of myself on my own; something that is completely empowering, that returns a sense of control over one’s self.
When my parents and my friend Miriam visited me that day, I wanted to be sure that I was standing up when they arrived, that I wasn’t strapped to the bed with wires and tubes, so the nurses gave a mobile monitoring device. When they got there, I immediately walked up to embrace them, to let them know that I was okay, that things were going to be fine(lots of tears). Lara arrived later that evening, by which time I was almost completely normal, and we had a good talk, hugging and expressing gratitude for my miraculous recovery.
When the physical therapists arrived, they could see that I’d already taken charge and had fully recovered my faculties. They tested my balance, and helped me work out a strange sensation in my knee, that eventually went away with further walking. The next day I was strolling around the wing, I.V. drip in one hand, portable monitor in my pocket, they’d given me a pair of pants… I was ready to go home.
Of course there’s more, but I will leave it at that, for now. I’ve typed this thing straight through, without breaking and without editing (so please forgive any grammatical errors, poor phrasing, etc.). It is time for me to rest a little.