The silence had to be bearable ...
because there was no choice. As I sat by my son's bedside, holding his hand, I spoke to him knowing he could not respond. He was in a coma and the doctors had no idea when, or if, he would awaken.
After the tortuous journey to New Zealand, I arrived at the Dunedin airport, South Island, New Zealand. Dunedin is the most southern town in the country - close to Antarctica; bitterly cold when the wind blows in from the south. The day I arrived, the wind was calm and the sun was shining. My ex-husband met me at the airport. As we rode the shuttle to town and the hospital, he explained that Kevin was in bad shape and he looked terrible with tubes everywhere. I sat quietly and listened and decided to reserve judgment until I arrived.
When I arrived at the hospital, I quietly rode the elevator to intensive care. I walked in and was greeted by a wee nurse with a big smile. She informed me that she was my son's nurse and he was her only patient. She escorted me to his bedside. The tubes did not distract me. I had been in the hospital enough times to know there was nothing remarkable about the machines surrounding him. All I saw was his quiet, peaceful face. He looked as though he was soundly sleeping. I went to his side and
sat there for awhile, holding his hand, talking to him, feeling he could awaken any moment. He didn't.
Soon the doctor arrived and took me aside. He informed me that my son would be a vegetable for the rest of his life and I needed to make preparations at home to care for him. I looked at the doctor in disbelief. I thought to myself, "my son will not be a vegetable for the rest of his life!" I thanked the doctor and went back to Kevin's side. I held Kevin's hand and began to speak to him again. This was Thursday morning. I sat by his side until late in the evening, when the nurse sent me away - not for Kevin, but for me to get some sleep. She promised that Kevin was in good hands. I looked at her, and knew he was.
I slept only a few hours and was back at the hospital early the next morning. I began again to hold his hand and speak to him. I would ask questions periodically, hoping he would answer. About mid-morning, he answered by squeezing my hand. I was startled by his response. I reported the response and was told that hand squeezing could be nothing more than reflexes and not a conscious response. I understood the medical skepticism but I knew Kevin was waking up, even if it was ever so slightly.
I went back to talking to Kevin and asking questions. I knew he had a talent for raising each eyebrow independently. So I gave him instructions on lifting the right eyebrow to mean yes and the left eyebrow to mean no. I asked questions that randomly would require yes and no answers. He answered. This time, I had proof that he was communicating and took that proof to the doctors. The doctors continued to be skeptical and would not believe me.
Frustrated with my refusal to accept the prognosis, the doctors showed me the results of the CT Scan. I looked at the brain picture and seeing nothing wrong, I said to the doctors that I didn't see the problem. They informed me that white was bad. I looked again - the entire image was white. The doctors explained that when bleeding occurs in and around the brain, the blood destroys brain cells and the destroyed brain cells appear white in the image. Once brain cells are destroyed, they are gone forever. I looked at the image again. Seeing only white, I understood that a lot of brain cells had been damaged forever. The doctor explained that I must prepare for Kevin being a vegetable for the rest of his life. I thanked the doctor and told the doctor that if Kevin had not changed in 2 years, I'd consider accepting the prognosis, but I was not going to concern myself with "preparing."
My routine then began. I would sit with Kevin every day, all night, sleep while holding his hand and leave for 6 hours every two days to sleep in a hotel bed. Kevin would periodically respond to my questions. Each day, he would respond a little longer. The time between responses was very long, hours, but respond he did. But he never opened his eyes. He never spoke. His communication was only lifting eyebrows and squeezing my hand. That was enough.
This was our routine for 3 weeks. At the end of 3 weeks, the Air Force arranged to bring Kevin home. He was accompanied by a doctor and a nurse during the long flight home from New Zealand to San Francisco. He was transported by ambulance from San Francisco to the Palo Alto VA Hospital Brain Rehabilitation Unit. He was placed in a room. I was told I could not return until nine the next morning when visiting hours began.
When I came to the VA Hospital at 9 AM, I was greeted by my son sitting up in a wheelchair, eyes wide open. We were only starting a decade long journey ... but he had awakened. Step One: Not a Vegetable!
TODAY'S HOW TO
Sometimes we just know things, though it's easy to ignore what we know. Although the doctors in New Zealand reached solid medical opinions based on the empirical data - the actual brain CT scan, I knew their prognosis was not the only possibility. I was personally gathering information about the brain and comparing what I learned to what I was experiencing. I don't fault the doctors; they were doing what they thought was best and operating under their understanding of medicine and the human condition. I, on the other hand, was operating under how I understood my son and the microscopic changes I saw each day, changes almost imperceptible by others. I knew Kevin was waking up slowly.
Sometimes you have to just trust yourself, against all odds.