Life Changes in a Second
by Jackie Laneteig
Step on a skrim of ice and your life goes upside down. Ankle broken, the crack audible though no one is near––is this like the tree falling in the forest? No, I am here, panting with pain and heard it clear as a bat hitting a ball. The EMTs arrive and put my leg in a temporary splint box. “Do you want something for the pain?” they asked. “But oh it’s gone,” I say, driven away by the white light of agony.
My ER room is like a cave narrow and deep. I arrive on a stretcher, flowing under bright ceilings. They cut off my pants and splinted my leg, injury unknown at the time. Leaving the ER to go to my room meant more pain and more ceilings. Brandy is the only name I remember. Sad and crazy girls seem to like me in spite of cleaning up after me. They do the most personal things. I’m like a baby, cleaned and powdered and given a bib at mealtimes.
A small woman of extreme age bounces in on my second day and says, “Lawrence Welk will be on at 5:00 on PBS,” and left with this hanging in the air. I thought this was the break-something ward not the lose-something ward!
On this white mountain of sheets, I am a bird fallen in a windstorm. Soft hands help me with my hygiene, warm voices encourage me to move my feet in a rhythm like walking. I have pain, little nibbles of it, like fireflies, around the doctor’s temporary surgery. His voice still stays in my head reminding me of not putting this foot down––down where, I wonder.
My right shoulder is as painful as my ankle. I can’t lift my arm. I’d tried to catch myself––I failed and now it is my rotator cuff again. The bland pain pills help but don’t get me dizzy or dreaming bands of color or oceans of blood red wine. I could use a Vicodin; with my painful foot, I am helpless to fly. Today a second surgery removed the metal rods and gave me a steel plate and screws. My ankle is broken in four places; bad news. The surgeon’s name is Jason, a special specialist, and I am lucky he was the ER that day.
“What about this tattoo of the lily pad with my name on it,” he asks me—a woman in a drugged stupor?
“Jason was my son—he died,” I tell him. I mumble something of my sorrow and loss of Jason.
“I’m terribly sorry,” he pats my tattoo. Even in my hazy anesthetized state I feel his empathy.
I am classified as non-weight-bearing. It means I can’t put any weight on my left leg. I’ve been fitted with a heavy, blue canvas boot to protect my ankle. It is still possible to step down on my foot but I am warned not to. To my embarrassment and because my regular clothes won’t work with the boot, I am given a hospital gown with my backside visible to all. I decide to order some shorts and sweatpants. Just one more thing someone else will have to help me with.
After eight days in the hospital, I’m transported by van to the most confusing place I’ve ever seen. Corridor after corridor opens in front of me like a labyrinth. Finally we arrive at my room.
“Hi, hi, hi,” from three women waiting to help me into the bed. I am given a packet of papers with my rights and the facility’s rights. I can’t concentrate on the words. This is St. Mary’s Care Center.
We don’t see any docs here; I have to go out for appointments using a transport service—Fred visits every other day and sometimes shares my meal. Tonight it’s baked fish with Panko and parmesan. It’s delicious but I see him eyeing it . . .“Want some, I’m full. Here have the rest.” I could have eaten the whole thing, which was a rare communion for me and fish. I like most of the food but if the day’s special does’t appeal to me, there are a myriad of other choices. It’s like being in a restaurant.
“Are there Alzheimer’s patients here,” I ask my aide, Gail later. “People with memory problems are downstairs,” she said. I cringe a little as I repeat, Downstairs? I imagine a dark, dank place without windows and big bars to keep the Alzheimer's people from running outside and freezing to death in the snow. But if the downstairs is as posh as the upstairs, and if there are windows, I won’t worry about it. It’s just the term. . . downstairs . . .. It made me think Frankenstein and Igor down there doing their dastardly deeds, or sane Olivia de Haviland in the movie, Snake Pit, caught there with all the people who have lost their minds.
The old man in the room next to me is hard of hearing, so people shout at him. I think he is crazy too. Yesterday he went up to the nurse and asked her to call him a cab. The nurse, Victoria, answered with an accent that was hard to understand. She’d asked him over and over if he was all right. He couldn’t hear or understand her, and they went back and forth. A woman named Alice has been here longer than I have. She crochets or knits afghans and small coverlets for the chairs. I haven’t spoken with her for some reason. We seem to have developed an antipathy toward each other. I’ve smiled at her occasionally with no response.
Lunch time today was one of the heavy ones: potato soup, ham, mashed potatoes, creamed cauliflower, and scoop cake—my favorite kind of meal. The deaf guy is choking, and Gail joined other aides in the hall to go to his aid.
Linda is the hairdresser. I know her life story, and she knows mine. She says we have so much in common. She chatters questions but gives me no opportunity to answer. I fell asleep after lunch and almost missed my appointment, but Linda came after me; walked in the room talking and didn’t stop until she wheeled me back—all beautiful and blown dry.
The walker stares at me from the corner, day-glow green tennis balls on its back legs. Innocent looking but oh how hard to learn the leg swing I need to ambulate. Willie, another one of the aides, comes in to help me with my bathroom needs.
“Come on, Missus,” he croons in a Jamaican lilt.
“Do I have to,” I say—part of our game, but he is here to help me onto my port-a-potty, square with arms that hold me when he lets go even though he holds the belt like always. They don't leave me alone long enough for privacy—I am very fragile—a new-born weighing over 230 pounds. The bed has bells and whistles: foot up, head up, bed up and down. The wheelchair will be my next challenge. I will be hoisted up in front of the chair, gently dropped into it and helped to maneuver around the room. The most important thing to remember is to always lock the wheels before trying to transfer back to the bed.
I call Eric as soon as I’m settled. I need some things to get by this ordeal.
“Bring me my printer, please.”
“Your printer—how am I supposed to carry that?” he asks.
“You’ll figure it out, but don’t forget the cords—all of them: my printer cord and USB plug, the chargers for both my MAC and I-Phone.
“Wait,” he interrupts.
“Get a pen and write a list,” I say, reading from my quick notes.
I add other things I need: “paper for the printer, ink packet, several folders of poems, the taxes—don’t forget the mail.”He continues his groaning—“my makeup, my photo book in the bedroom closet next to the jewelry box.” I give him a minute to write and add: “Food—cookies, candy and finally some old shorts and tops for when I can put on more than this damn open-air dress.”
Another Jason is my physical therapist. That makes three. My surgeon, PT, and my special Jason’s memory.
Samantha, my occupational therapist, said I need to be wrapped in bubble wrap so nothing else can happen to me. My good arm is swelling now, probably the rotator cuff injury when I fell—it didn’t stop me from falling anyway. I’m doing well with my transfers but I need my right arm to do them. I have OT in the mornings and PT in the afternoons. Sam hooks me up to a machine, puts three electrodes on my shoulder and turns on the current, increasing it until I say Stop! I feel it down my lower arm, a buzzing and humming that almost tickles (not enough) then zipped through (just right). We keep that up for fifteen minutes. The techs are nice and only have me do what I comfortably can. Eventually the machine stopped helping––because of my almost-accident with the wheelchair skating out behind me when I tried to transfer from it to the bed. I have to learn to lock those wheels.
This Tuesday morning I exchange my morning session for afternoon—my poetry group is coming. Poetry will soothe my soul. I’ve been feeling a little down. It is my month to host the group, so they came to me. I dress in passably correct clothes, and it is great to see everyone.
My leg hurts like a bitch. A comfortable spot is impossible and I can’t sleep as well as before. The PT people, Jason and another women whose name escapes me, put me through a vigorous, routine. It seems the days are getting longer and not just the length of winter to spring. Noise bothers me now—yesterday someone’s kids or grandkids were right outside my room laughing and playing. I began coughing, the pain pulling my body this way and that and giving me a headache along with leg and back pain. A nurse enters the room with “The Nebulizer “and orders:
“This mask fits over your nose and mouth.” She straps it behind my head (I add nonverbally, partially over my left eye too”) and turns on the machine. Mist from some kind of fluid goes into my lungs and steam comes out the sides.
“Leave this on until it stops misting,” Nurse Nicole says.
“How long?” I ask around the mask.
“It’s lasts about ten minutes; don’t take it off before it stops.” That was the longest ten minutes I ever sat through, but finally the treatment was over. I was not gentle when I took it off.
Today they did two chest x-rays. First one didn’t work so they have to do a second after lunch. They bring a big machine into my room and give me a vest with film in it to strap to my chest. I hope it’s clear; I am afraid of pneumonia; that’s how you become a nursing home statistic.
After six weeks of sponge baths by various aides, I have a real bath. The tub is shaped like an old fashioned bathtub from Western movies. Scooped out in the front with a raised back, there are spigots placed around the tub and a shower hose to reach all parts of my body. I slide in from my wheelchair, and the water flows—warm soft draughts. Aide Angel even washes my hair. I am wrapped in warmed blankets with Angel ready to pat me dry. What a luxury—no wonder they call it the SPA.
Dressing is hard. Gail does her best, pushing the sweats up and over my boot. But finally, I put my foot into the pant leg myself and pushed and pushed and more, past my boot an inch at a time, pulling on the front then the back, pulling the soft cloth from the velcro on the boot until it finally cleared the heel of the boot and Voila, I’d put my pants on without help, independent for the first time. I can get ready for the day and whatever it throws at me.
My eighth week I saw Dr. Sansone and he took my stitches out and I became weight-bearing. PT ramped up my therapy. It was difficult at first. I get up on my good foot by holding the parallel bars and see how long I can stand there. This week we practiced a hop, at which I fail miserably. I can do the air-marches and leg lifts, the squeezing of the ball and pulling on the elastic bands but not hopping—not yet. My foot pains, and I wonder if it wants to slant to the left and walking tries to keep it straight. Jason or an aide always comes after me as though I’d escape if given the chance. But I won’t––I know getting out of here is dependent on what these folks think and chart of my performance. Everything bothers me—like a tick under my sock—nibble, nibble, nibble. I know I’d feel better if I were home, but then again maybe I wouldn’t. I get a fair amount of attention here at the Care Center—at home, probably little—I’ll definitely need to walk with the walker, or I’ll be locked into my chair. Even with a warm kitty or two on my lap, it doesn’t sound so hot.
Finally, a shoe on my left foot. Hurray! What a relief to be without the boot, but it’s baby steps––each one tremulous shaking and holding on to the walker while Gail hangs on to me with the belt. The pain is intense—like stepping on glass. Worse at first, then settling in as my foot gets used to moving up and down, back and forth. When the pain got even worse, I knew it was time to start back. I’d begun the trip from my room to the exit sign, about five yards, and now I have to walk back. Each step is an agony. Push, Push, lean harder on the walker. Back in the room, belt removed and walker put back in the bathroom, I am grateful for my bed. I lift my foot, which now feels like a hot, mushy potato. I adjust the bed until it reclines and lie back and breathe.
While being patient for almost three months, huge snow storms have rocked the state. Each magic snowflake resembles a crocheted circle tossed on a mahogany table top. I am cosy in my room and enjoy its beauty, the sparkling jewels in the drifts. I used to get very tired of snow when I’d had to scrape my windows and freeze while waiting for the heater to warm up—like I did when I worked and lived without a garage.
Finally the day for my home evaluation arrives. I manage to get into Fred’s car from the wheelchair, and take my first car ride since the morning of the accident. I am apprehensive about what I will find at home––it was a mess almost three months ago, what would it be like now. A team accompanies me to see if I can be safe there. I try to not be nervous but I can’t help it. I have to get home; the Care Center is beginning to drive me crazy. I’ve been here for three months (10 weeks, 2 days), and I miss my kitties. I need to get past everything in the laundry room pushing the walker.
I manage the laundry room, which is narrow, and then the entire condo appears to me. The group appraises the living room, hall, and bathroom from my point of view. Revisions are needed in the bathroom; cat-gate needs to come down. It takes about half an hour and I am ready to go back to my safe room at the Care Center. I know I will hurt later.
The red sign out my window yells STOP, and I liken it to this weather and its changing day after day from cold to warm, sunny to overcast, hopeful to depressing. One day it was twenty-nine degrees in the morning; the day before warmer into the forties but wind to blow your socks off. It is April and spring is supposed to be in the air, but winter keeps rearing its ugly head.
My plan is to go home next week, and there is plenty to do. Fred offered to help and Eric would be there 24/7.
Last days are so complicated. There is my home with its kitty friends and familiar chairs and piles of clothes. Then there is the sadness of leaving the place that had begun to feel like home. I’ll miss the nurses and aides, Gail, Jason and Sam, and even the old men who constantly cleared their throats, the new people, disabled with unknown recovery possibilities. I take a last walk with Gail behind, ready to grab my belt if I tip one way or the other. I went a bit farther so I could feel good about myself.
There are last minute hugs, promises to return all healed, and the uncomfortable silence before moving back into the room to gather the rest of my things. Eric grabs the suitcase. Gail pushes me to the front door and that hiccup is over.
Jackie Langetieg is an award-winning poet and writer. She is a Jade Ring/Bard’s Chair winner and has published three chapbooks, White Shoulders and Just What in Hell Is a Stage of Grief, Letter to my Daughter (2019), two collections of her poems, Confetti in a Silent City and A Terrible Tenderness, and a recent memoir, Filling the Cracks with Gold. She is a member of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets. She is retired from State Government and lives in Verona with her son and two cats. You can read more at: jackiella.Wordpress.com.