Our Children’s First Visit

While holding Mark’s hand and telling him about Western Rehab I felt him lightly squeeze my hand. Shocked and elated at his first movement in over six weeks I asked, “Did you just squeeze my hand?” I felt him squeeze it again. I grabbed the first nurse I saw and told her the good news. Skeptically she came into the room, took Mark’s hand and asked him to squeeze it. He did not. She looked at me and said sympathetically, it must have been a reflex without purpose. I knew differently.

When Dr. Hinchey did his morning rounds he said, “There is no change in Mark’s prognosis. He is still one point from being brain-dead and that point comes from his eye movement.”

“How can you say that? He just squeezed my hand.”

“If he can’t do it on command, it’s a reflex without purpose.”

Thinking, I’ve got to get Mark out of this negative environment, I asked, “Now that Mark’s red and white cell counts are getting in the normal range, how soon can we move him to Western Rehab?”

“I don’t know. We need to finish the treatment for his liver infection,” Dr. Hinchey said.

“Our children are out of school now and it’s hard to be this far from home. They ask me daily when they get to see their dad. When will that be possible?”

“They can come, but they will have to wear a mask over their mouth and wash up thoroughly before they come in the room because any infection would be deadly for Mark.”

It had been a long six weeks for me, but for a young seven and eight-year old child, it seemed like forever since they’d seen their dad.  They were anxious, but I was worried how their young minds would interpret the sight of their dad with all the tubes and equipment which kept him alive. I talked to the social worker about how I could prepare our children for their first visit.

“I can take them on a tour of the hospital first,” he said. “This will get them familiar with the sights, sounds and smells of the hospital. I can also show and tell them about the equipment which is helping their dad right now.”

That night I told the kids they would get a tour of the hospital and be able to see their dad tomorrow. They were excited, even though they knew he was hurt and he wouldn’t be able to talk to them. I talked to them about his special bed and equipment, but nothing could really prepare them for what they’d never seen before.

I’m sure the tour of the hospital helped, but Christopher and Katie were stunned when they walked into the room where their dad lay unconscious. At the first sight of him they stopped in their tracks and with unbelieving, widened eyes looked at him. The surgical masks they were required to wear in his room hid their opened mouths. Afraid to get any closer, they stayed just inside the doorway, speechless.

Katie recalls in her article written on June 17, 2014, Dad Creating Beauty After Tragedy, “My excitement shattered when I walked into his room. The man I once saw smash his finger with a hammer without shedding a tear lay helplessly unconscious. Tubes connected his lifeless body to machines. He was dependent on technology and the care of others. It was my first time seeing him vulnerable. I was scared. I recognized his face, but how could he be my dad? My dad was strong enough to lift me onto his shoulders so I could see parades over large crowds. My dad did sit-ups every night with his toes tucked under the couch as I sat on it and counted his sit-ups aloud. My dad killed spiders for me and read bedtime stories to me. I didn’t want to go near the lifeless body in the hospital bed.”

June 1991, first picture after the accident with the kids.

July 1991, first picture with the kids after the accident.

With all my heart and soul I wanted to make this better for Christopher and Katie. I knew they needed to see him to understand how hurt he really was and why he wasn’t home, but I disparately wanted to protect them from the worry.They were so innocent and I knew they’d be disappointed.

It was a Friday and my turn to stay overnight at the hospital, so my mom took the kids to spend the night at her house. I was constantly torn between Mark and the kids. I wanted and needed to be with each one, but it was impossible. No matter who I was with I was worrying about the other. I could hardly bear that we weren’t together as a family and had sixty miles separating us.

The small Ronald McDonald house which was close by the hospital parking lot became my home away from home. It had two bedrooms, one bath and living room complete with a couch, and reclining chair. The kitchen had a fridge, stove, a few dishes and utensils. In the beginning, I was in the basement of this home, but there was a plumbing issue so I had to move upstairs with the Call family who were from Idaho. Donna and Wayne Call were a little older than my parent’s and they had six kids with their youngest being close to my age. Wayne had a heart attack and after surgery he didn’t regain consciousness and was transferred to McKay Dee Hospital. Donna and I became close, despite our age difference. She was always at the hospital and her kids took turns bringing her needed items and staying overnight with her. I was given one bedroom and the Call family had the other. Each bedroom had a double bed plus a bunk bed in it, but with my broken collarbone I was more comfortable sleeping in the reclining chair. Sometimes my parents stayed there with me and on weeknights my brothers were there. The Call’s also had several family members coming and going and once in awhile it was such a full house they used sleeping bags on the floor in the living room. We got to know each other well over a seven week period of time. The Call’s made me feel part of their family. They would come to Mark’s room late at night to get me and to make sure I made it to the McDonald home safely. They were kind and thoughtful. I appreciated their friendship and we had a lot in common with our loved ones in critical condition. I was grateful for the comfort of this home which became a safe haven from the upset of the hospital. Amongst the turmoil and worrying about Mark as well as missing my own home and family I received the blessing of new friends and resilient children who quickly overcame their fear of seeing their dad.

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