Get This Car Off My Head
I-70, Kansas, Well West of Hays
There was a scream just as I woke up. There was just that split second, barely long enough to register the scream. Then everything was black but for a diffuse glow: no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no color, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch… but there was mind, a calm mind. It was peaceful, comfortable. But there was a question. Nobody asked it. The question was just there, the way being awake was just there. Oh, something for me to decide… Die? Live? But no word, hardly a concept at all. There seemed to be a balance. It felt like a long time.
And I thought, “well, there are some things I’d like to accomplish.”
And then the pain, overwhelming, all-consuming pain. I still couldn’t see or hear. But now there was pain. There seemed to be only one explanation. I’d been thrown from the car and the car had flipped up onto its side and landed on my head. I don’t remember screaming, but they say I did. What I do remember is yelling for someone to get the car off my head. But to them, I was slumped over the steering wheel and there was nothing they could do.
The ambulance attendant who rode with me in back was asking me to let go of his hand. That’s all I remember of the 2½ hour ride to the County Hospital in Hays, Kansas.
County Hospital, Hays, Kansas
When we arrived, they started asking me questions. I couldn’t see, the left side of my jaw was aligned with the right side of my face, the left side of my face and tongue were completely paralyzed, and the pain was as much as I could take and remain conscious.
“What’s your name?”
“What was that?”
Several more tries, then “Dirk?’
“Jensen?” and so on, it was interminable.
So I decided not to answer any more questions. They understood, “I don’t know” rather more quickly. I was pleased.
“Where do you live?”
“How old are you?”
“Ithonnt kgnoughw,” and so forth…
Then: “Who is the President of the United States?”
Ok, I was up past my eyeballs in pain. But this was funny. I knew they were trying to find out if I was delirious. But I also realized that I really didn’t know who was president. Agnew had resigned. The Watergate Hearings had begun. And I’d been on the road three days without news. Damned if I knew who the president was. I did my best to laugh. But said, “Ithonnt kgnoughw.” And they put it in the report that I was delirious.
Naturally, my mirth was short lived. And then I wondered about the other two people in the car. This really bothered me as the wheeled me in.
The next thing I remember is being strapped down flat on my back, unable to move my head, my arms, my legs, or my back. My back hurt almost as much as my head. I just needed to change position. But they wouldn’t let me.
“Your back is broken.”
“Gno id idn . Gnnmy gvack iddntt vrooggen.”
“Yes it is.”
And damn I was thirsty. Three drops an hour. “You’ll choke.” In my broken speech, “not if I sit up.” After a few rounds, they just ignored me.
I always detested mayonnaise in any form or amount, real or fake, fresh or from a jar. My mother and sister could eat the stuff with a spoon. But if I even smelled it, I lost my appetite. Same thing with that nasty, bright yellow excrement they label “mustard.” But about an hour before the crash, the kindly woman who picked us up hitchhiking offered us bologna and American cheese sandwiches slathered in mayonnaise and “mustard.” More from gratitude and courtesy than from hunger (though I hadn’t eaten in a couple of days), I ate one of them.
Now, for the next three days, strapped to a table in intensive care, I tasted both of them every time I regained consciousness. And every time I tasted them, I worried about what happened to her and my friend.
Finally, they thought me stable enough to x-ray and (surprise, surprise) found that my back wasn’t broken.
Can You See Me?
At some point they moved me to a regular room. I’m not sure how long I was there when a doctor came in and took the bandages off my eyes. He asked, “Can you see me?” I said something along the lines of, “yes.” He said, “Oh, good, we were worried about the other eye.” In other words, they knew I would be blind in my left eye, but they weren’t sure about my right eye.
Well, it was nice to be able to see.
The Good Doctor
My main doctor there was an ear, nose, throat specialist. I’m not sure exactly how often, but possibly daily, he pulled dried CNS fluid out of my left ear, which relieved discomfort every time. He told me that the CNS fluid would probably continue to leak out of my ear for a while, most likely weeks, possibly months. But he said removing it helped reduce the risk of meningitis.
He also encouraged me to sit up as much as possible and to try to stand and even walk as much as I could. I don’t even know the doctor’s name, but I have always been grateful to him for the superior care he provided me. He was one of the few very good doctors it’s been my privilege to meet. I wish I could tell you his name.
Sigh of Relief
By the time a Kansas Highway Patrol officer came to my room to serve me a ticket for reckless driving, I was able to stand fairly well albeit shakily, and even plod forward while holding on to something. The officer seemed to feel embarrassed about the ticket, but I didn’t resent it. Until now, nobody had been able to tell me what happened to the other people in the car. The officer told me that they were treated for minor injuries and released and that was all he knew.
The news was a tremendous relief. If one of them had died or been badly injured, it would have been difficult to live with myself.
Los Robles Hospital, Thousand Oaks, California
After three weeks, my mother came from Thousand Oaks, California, and brought me home on an airplane — in a wheelchair, and from the plane straight to Los Robles Hospital, but it felt like I was going home. And I felt so grateful to my mother for coming to get me. She certainly couldn’t afford the trip. Fortunately, I was still covered by my father’s IBM Blue Cross insurance.
But my experience at the County hospital in Hays, Kansas, was far superior to my experience in the private Los Robles hospital. On the morning after admission, I was sitting up in bed and some asshole walked into my room and barked, “I didn’t tell you that you could sit up!”
I barked back in broken speech, “who are you???”
“I’m your doctor.”
“Not anymore, you’re not. Get out of my room!!!!” I don’t remember his replacement — except to note that he was inferior to the Kansas doc.
And then there was the neurologist. After that experience, I came to believe that “neurologist” was a kind of shorthand for “failed doctor.” Presidential politics hasn’t convinced me otherwise.
The ophthalmologist just came in every day and shined bright lights and stuck pieces of paper in my eyes and wrote things in his notebook. He had nothing to say to me except, “when it hurts, tape it shut with this” (surgical tape) “and put these drops in it.” In other words, he did nothing. But he was handsomely paid.
Dr. Michael Brown, GP
And on to my GP, the guy who put my team together. Honestly, I hate to say it, but I felt that Dr. Michael Brown was at best a mediocre doctor. Yet, he is the man who really saved my life. On my last day in the hospital before my release (they wanted to keep me longer, but I was 19 and 6 weeks in hospital was more than I could tolerate), he came into my room and said something like, “There is nothing that medical science can do to help you. We are completely at a loss. Your damage is severe. It’s rare for anyone to live through such trauma, so we don’t have any experience with trying to repair it.”
“Yeah, I kinda got that impression.”
“But I do know of something non-medical that might help you if you’re willing to give it a try.”
Hell. What did I have to lose? I could barely talk or think. Staying awake at all was a chore, and the pain was constant.
While in the hospital, I watched and understood what was going on in the Watergate Hearings, and I read Heinlein’s I Will Fear No Evil, about a brain transplant, and Grapes of Wrath, in which Tom Joad tells a guy who’s blind in one eye that he should use it as an advantage to get women to like him instead of moping around feeling sorry for himself. But I could still barely talk, even though they finally took an x ray and discovered what I had told them all along: that my jaw wasn’t broken. And when I could form intelligible speech with my mouth and tongue, I often lost contact with the words. “Divine aphasia” I believe Lucky calls it in Waiting for Godot.
Dr. Brown kindly offered to drive me to some “meetings” where they did a “practice” that might help me. And, oddly for me, I accepted.
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