Navarro on left with half-sister Tica at Crane Beach Ann Dykiel copyright 22012
I am embarrassed. This is supposed to be a weekly blog but I haven’t posted it since my trip to Idaho. While I don’t have an excuse for May and June, I do for July. On the way back from a leisurely two-hour trail ride with my student and friend Madeleine, my beautiful Andalusian mare—my friend of fourteen years—suddenly exploded in a paroxysm of bucks. As she jettisoned me off her left side my helmeted head smacked into a tree, the force of which then propelled me down onto several of our many New England rocks. Because I had broke ribs previously I knew I had done it again, but this time in a much bigger way. The pain was acute and I was having trouble breathing.
My student gathered up Tica, now peacefully grazing a few feet away, while I punched in 911 on my cell phone. I described my location and was told to stay on the line. This was not easy--holding my phone, perched on points of unyielding granite, and repelling our three robustly friendly dogs, now happy and excited to find me suddenly at their level. With licks and attempted pawings on the chest they encouraged me to get up and play. A couple of sharp angry barks from me and my student’s dogs thought it prudent to seek out their owner, while our little Clem decided it best to lie down beside me and wait until I had come to my senses.
Almost immediately I heard sirens in the distance. I had been in the Navy and previously had read my ninth-grade mythology, so I knew about sailors enticed onto rocks. The sound of sirens (of the attractive variety, not the emergency type) should have come before I hit the granite, not after.
I gasped into the phone that I needed oxygen.
“They’re almost there. Don’t hang up ’til you see them.
And then they were there. I recognized one slightly red-faced gentleman from a previous ambulance call, not for me but one I phoned in for a jogger who had twisted his ankle on the trail. What had caused his fall? -- A rock, of course.
First sentence out of the paramedic’s mouth was, “Don’t move off those rocks!”
To make a long paragraph short, being lifted onto the stretcher and carried through the woods over fallen trees and the stone walls of our colonial farmer forefathers, hurt like hell. But now on oxygen, and with the knowledge that more care and pain relief would come, I began to relax. And the stretcher mattress was Tempur Pedic.
Once in the ambulance I was asked where I wanted to go. Hmm! In six previous ambulance rides (one for my son, one for my daughter, one for a very important younger friend, and three for myself), I'd never been given a choice.
“Emerson Hospital.” I knew people there, it just was one town over in Concord, and the morphine drip would come sooner.
Once there, my previous rib fractures made the X-rays taken too difficult to read, so it was on to a Cat Scan. All this was done quickly and with great concern for my comfort. The ER doctor materialized in front of me.
“You’ve broken seven ribs. You bruised your lung and spleen. You’re going to a trauma center. Where do you want to go?”
A choice again—wow, a menu of four-star hospitals! “Where can I go?”
“Any hospital that has a trauma center.”
“How about MGH?”
Massachusetts General Hospital, often referred to here as “Man’s Greatest Hospital,” truly is. Just this year it was ranked as the number one hospital in the world. And because the world famous hero neurosurgeon in my novel Trophies re-locates to MGH in order to be near the book’s heroine (who lives in the nearby colonial town of Groton) I have a sentimental attachment to MGH.
Available bed confirmed, I was packed off again in the same ambulance with the same group of EMTs I had come to know. One proudly told me he had a bulldog. I couldn’t resist telling him that I was sure he had picked out that breed because it resembled him—tough on the outside but a total cupcake inside. He smiled a broad affirmation
Once in the trauma center things happened quickly. I was re-hooked and re-wired to everything under the sun. I was given dilaudid, though I told a nurse at Emerson I couldn’t tolerate it. So, in my case, what went down came up—emphatically, rapidly, and unpleasantly. A resident was called in who checked my record.
“Yep, here it is--allergies, dilaudid.” (Let’s hope someone was spoken to.) So I was given an epidural--most frequently given to women in labor--and the pain abated.
And where was my family in all this? Well, Alec was in Montana studying for a degree in Physics. Marleny had been called by an Emerson staff member who was her dear friend and Marleny was already at Windflower Farm taking charge of horses, dogs, chickens, ducks, goldfish, bunny, and bird.
But Jim, my poor husband, who had witnessed more ambulance rides by those he holds dear than any man should, was temporarily absent from this “land of the bean and the cod.” He was in the land of the “Tar Heels” North Carolina for three weeks teaching at the National Humanities Center. Friday afternoon the staff at Emerson reached him on his cell phone. After his second week of intensive teaching he was taking a short hike in the Duke Forest near Durham. Lucky he had his phone turned on.
He was told it was serious, but that my head and neck seemed free of damage. He asked if he could speak with me, but I was getting more tests. A little later, Emerson called him again to say that because I’d suffered significant trauma it wasn’t prudent to keep me at Emerson. When he first spoke with me on the phone he volunteered to fly back but I said no. By that time it was clear that my lungs were not punctured (but bruised) and my spleen was not ruptured (but bruised also).
It is well known that equestrian sports rank right up there with motorcycle riding and rock climbing in the danger department. But the author of this buck explosion was Tica. Why had my ride on an older and trusted horse, and on a trail we had ridden hundreds of times, ended in such an accident? We’d often gone off-trail, so Tica was used to breaking through or pushing branches. If she found herself ensnared by vines she would simply stop, knowing that I’d dismount and clear away the impediments. Next thought--bees. When stung by an occasional ground bee, her reaction was to toss her head in agitation and stamp her foreleg. That's it. So, there would have needed to be many bees. Yet seconds after I hit the rock, I saw Tica grazing peacefully. If she’d been stung by multiple bees, she would have been in such discomfort that she'd have galloped home.
This weighed as heavily on my psyche as the breaks and bruises did on my body. There has not been an outburst by one of my horses that I have not understood; a fawn in repose suddenly exploding out of tall brush, a tree falling, a mountain biker at a fast clip around a corner, or my failure to complete a certain area of training. This was a horse that I had allowed my advanced beginners—some of them children—to ride on the trail! This could not happen again, but how could I ensure it did not happen again if I couldn’t finger the cause? I could have died that day--or worse-- and still I had no idea why.
Healing, however, was the immediate task at hand. For two days I was in the trauma unit, frequently checked by nurses, residents, and attending physicians to ensure that I remained stable. Apparently a great number of things can go wrong when one receives such a whack. On the third day, I was pronounced stable enough to be moved away from the constant surveillance and immediate proximity of the nurses’ station. I remained on the same ward but further down, and I’d gained a roommate.
Because of the medication and the pain I remember only snippets of what happened in the trauma unit, who said what, who did what to me and why. But soon sleeping more and being monitored less, I became reasonably alert and could recall much more of what was happening. My roommate, who was post-operative, slept most of the time. One night, I was wakened to the melody of the sweet voice of a child singing. I couldn’t understand the lyrics. I could barely determine that they were, in fact, words. Nor was the music familiar. My roommate--well into her seventies, now smiling slightly in her musical dream--was the singer.
The next day, returning from my first unaccompanied walk-about, I found her gone. She’d been transferred to a rehab unit. That’s what a nurse told me. Three hours later she was replaced by a high school biology teacher just back from surgery with ten inches of intestine removed. She also slept a lot.
The medical care I received was, by-and-large, superb. If I was in distress and it was too early for my meds, the Pain Management team was summoned and immediately something was done to make me at least a modicum more comfortable. The nurses were wonderful—they clearly loved their work and we had a lot of pleasant, sometimes downright funny conversations.
However, there was one dolt (not a nurse), completely lacking in social skills, who handled all calls, whether they came from a patient on the floor or a caller outside. She huffed impatiently at my daughter because she called the number I assigned me before I was moved down the hall to another room. She huffed again when my daughter asked her to repeat the new number. She was pissy and abrupt when I called for nurse. So what did I do? I became pissy and abrupt. I summoned a nurse via my little emergency bell and handed her a note for the phone lady. I told Nurse Kathy--I really liked her--that she could read it, too. I already knew she had “issues” with this woman. “You are extremely rude to my roommate and me and to relatives who speak with you. I suggest you stop at McDonald’s on your way home and have yourself a ‘Happy Meal!’ In fact, have two!!”
That was not my last encounter with bad manners. MGH is a teaching hospital so I’d been accustomed to seeing a number of doctors, always in pairs. Sometimes I took notice of their name tags, sometimes not. On one occasion a doctor I hadn’t recalled seeing--however, he might have seen me that first blurry day or two--arrived at the foot of my bed with a female doctor at his side.
“Hi sweetie, how are you doing?” he said.
This was an immediate call to arms. I put down my Kindle and raised myself up as I high as my broken bones would allow.
“Well, Dr. Sweetie, I’ll let you know when you stop calling me sweetie.”
There was a pause. This was his chance to call me Mrs., Miss or Ms (I'm not fussy) Brennan, my legal name. He just smiled pleasantly. Behind him, the face of the Resident doctor, junior to him, was expressionless except for widening eyes.
A few more seconds and I spoke.
“I’m better, but not great. When am I going home?”
He told me my lungs weren't clear enough and that I wasn’t going anywhere until they’d improved. He nodded to the little plastic air machine on my bed--a spirometer. I had to breathe into its resistance. Something no one with cracked ribs wants to do.
“That’s your ticket out of here.” Then he was gone.
I glanced over at my roommate, afraid my somewhat animated voice had disturbed her. Her eyes were closed but her arm hung over the bed rail, the thumb on her hand in the ‘thumb’s up” position.
Later that evening I relayed the details of the episode to two residents and asked who Dr. Sweetie was.
“He’s your attending--one of the greatest trauma surgeons in the world.”
“He can be greater.”
A resident’s relationship to the attending physician is often that of a mortal to a god, and I think they expected a response like, “Oops, guess I blew that one.” But to me, since he is so highly trained, so well thought of, all the more reason the patient should expect a professional doctor-patient relationship, or just good manners. I don’t care whether a doctor is treating a bag woman or our Secretary of State, patients should not spoken to in such a condescending and falsely intimate manner.
Overall, however, the level of care my body and soul received was excellent. I’d never before received such attention to my comfort, or rather discomfort. I cannot say enough about the nurses.
I passed three nights and four days at MGH and was released on my birthday. My daughter Marleny and my friend and student Lindsay picked me up bearing bags of croissants and coffee drinks. The world needs more of those two ladies. Lindsay even brought a CD of my beloved Joni Mitchell for listening pleasure on the ride home. And when I walked in my front door Marleny had done some wonderful tidying up. All horses and other animals were fine, fed, and content. Lindsay went out and returned with Indian food. I was at home and in heaven.
Tica Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2012
That evening I slowly made my way to the pasture fence. Tica put herself within arm’s reach. As I stroked her I tried to figure out, for the millionth time, why she had acted out so emphatically. In a few weeks, with the help of my trainer Linda Parmenter, Dr. Liz Maloney, and X-rays, I would know. Details in the next blog.
Here is a YouTube entitled Highway’s Road Home that I completed last week. It tells the story of a “bait dog” (used for exactly that in pit bull fighting) who was found near death on the side of a Mississippi highway. The ending is happy, so please hang in and watch it through.