Tom’s barrel chest jerked up, then down at regular intervals, following the dictates of the hospital ventilator. Attached to the machine, he seemed all torso, his lower half an afterthought, like the straw-haired Resusci Annies that he’d haul around the high school gym during CPR units. That was long ago, when he was the coach and Helen was the music teacher and they were, improbably perhaps, in love.
—-Elisabeth Dahl, Lobsters
Crystal Beach, Texas
Today’s short story has a setting that, unfortunately, a good number of us are probably going to be experiencing soon… sitting in a hospital room with a loved one (or, technically, an ex-loved one) on a respirator.
In the opening paragraph of the story, quoted above, is a reference to Resusci Annies. From the context, I assumed this was a CPR mannequin, but I wasn’t sure. I looked it up and sure enough, that’s what it meant. But, as often happens with this internet thing and all its rabbit holes – I found a story as interesting, if not more, that the short story itself. The face of a mysterious French girl who drowned in the Seine in the 19th century ended up saving millions of lives.
One small part of the story:
The lyric “Annie, are you OK?” from the Michael Jackson song “Smooth Criminal” actually stems from American CPR training, in which students practice speaking to their unresponsive plastic patient, CPR Annie.
I’d like to say that I’ve simply been busy with other things and decided to take a break for no real reason. I’d like to say that… but it wouldn’t be true. It’s a long and complicated story and some of it I’m going to keep under wraps – a lot of it isn’t just my story – but here’s the ten cent version. It may not be completely accurate – my memory is hazy.
Every year I look forward to the writing marathon in New Orleans. But this year, I thought about skipping. First, Candy had some surgery and wasn’t really up and around completely. She assured me that it would be cool if I went. As the day approached I realized I didn’t feel very good. Among other symptoms I was weak and tired all the time.
It took me a few minutes to realize this originally said “art changed my life” — French Quarter NewOrleans.
Checking into what it would take to cancel I realized everything (two hotels, parking, the conference fee etc.) was already paid for and non-refundable. A week of vacation was scheduled and my work arranged. So I decided to go.
The drive to New Orleans wasn’t too bad – I’ve made that trip more than a few times. To make the trip easier I had a hotel in Gonzales – most of the way. I could sleep there, get up fresh and drive the last few miles. There was no hurry, but I had a hell of a time getting out of bed. Eventually I hauled myself into the car and drove on into the Big Easy… and checked into my French Quarter Hotel. It was a beautiful piece of luxurious historical lodging and I was excited… though a bit worn out.
The first evening reception of the Writing Marathon was great. This was the third year I had attended and there were a lot of familiar faces and old stories going around. I was excited for the week of walking around and writing.
The only problem was, everybody kept saying the same thing, “Bill, you don’t look too good.” And I felt really weak. I begged off going out to eat and live music and went back to my hotel.
And proceeded to get really, really sick.
One scary thing is that I remember spending one day in that room but it turns out I might have been there for three. I must have been unconscious/delirious and unaware of the passage of time. I do remember looking around my hotel room and seeing things as they were, but when I’d close my eyes I would see someplace else – some kind of seaside scene. Back home, Candy and Nick were upset because they couldn’t find me (I wasn’t answering my cell phone). Lee was on his way back to New Orleans from the Galapagos Islands.
Finally, I realized how much trouble I was in and called the front desk. The kicker is that I couldn’t breathe. It felt like a panic attack – but I realized that there is a big difference between not being able to breathe because you are having a panic attack and having a panic attack because you can’t breathe. I was able to stagger to the front desk and they put me in a cab that was always at the step and sent me to an urgent care center.
The cab driver, a grizzled old veteran of the French Quarter said, “Hey, you look like you’re having congestive heart failure. The last guy I had like that was dead in three days.”
The urgent care center took one look at me and realized I was too far gone for them and stuck me in an ambulance. At that time, Lee had come back from the airport and called the hotel. They said they sent me to an urgent care center, but didn’t know which one.
Lee lives car-less in downtown New Orleans so he looked up urgent care on his phone and rented a bike. Later, he told me that it was a good thing – that he could get around in the quarter faster on the bike than in a car. The first two places he checked were wrong and then he rode up to the place I was at as they were loading me into the ambulance. He said I didn’t look too good. They wouldn’t tell him anything until he begged and they said they were taking me to the Tulane Medical Center.
So, what happened? It turns out that it started with a urinary tract infection that then spread to my bloodstream and set off a serious attack of Diabetic Ketoacidosis. I don’t want to sound too dramatic, but alone I probably would have been dead in about six hours. However, they knew immediately what was wrong and with treatment, I improved quickly.
I spent a couple days in intensive care. Going through my mind constantly was the Dorothy Parker quote, “What fresh hell is this?” The worst was the fact I had eight (yes, I counted ‘em – including one triple on my right arm) IV tubes and needles stuck in both arms and one foot. Whenever I would move it would set an alarm off and I would lay there listening to that awful BEEP BEEP until someone would come by and reset the machines.
It was a lot better when I was moved into a regular hospital bed and after a few days I was released. Lee’s apartment was only a few blocks away and I felt like I could walk there. But the minute I hit the pavement and the Louisiana summer heat I realized that I didn’t have the strength, sat down on a bench and waited for a ride.
That turned into a theme as I stayed at Lee’s place for almost a week until I regained enough strength to make it back to Dallas. If I rested I would feel OK, but as soon as I actually moved it would take all my energy. Simply taking a shower was about all I could muster.
The view from my son Lee’s apartment – New Orleans, Louisiana
One day, while Lee was at work I decided I could walk to the grocery store, Rouses. I made it to the store, bought some food, then realized I wasn’t going to be able to walk back (only two blocks or so). I waited outside until Lee came by after work – and was able to shuffle back with him carrying the bags.
Even after returning home, regaining my strength was a slow process. I did go back to work as soon as I could – walking across the parking lot the first day back was a serious effort.
Then I found myself having not ridden a bicycle in two months. That first day I climbed on and rode two miles. After that short distance, I felt like I had finished the Tour de France. So I made up a chart and some goals and have been working on building up my mileage since – up to ten miles per day – I was able to ride 300 miles total in September and am almost getting to where I need to be.
There has been this personal journey to put my life back together. One last thing is my writing – and I’m about there. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to write here every day, there are a lot of other things going on, but I promise I won’t have another gap like that if I can help it.