Sunday, September 14, 2014

Turning Turtle -- Tribute to the EMTs

My friend and colleague Samuel Jay Keyser--Professor of Linguistics (Emeritus) at MIT--writes of a recent incident that left him severely injured and experiencing the health care system in a way he could have never imagined. He's in the midst of writing about the events and was kind to share a draft of his first chapter of a forthcoming book--Turning Turtle--with several of us.  He gave me permission to provide you with excerpts.  There are many themes even in this first chapter, but I thought you'd enjoy the one presented here.

I was like a turtle that some malicious child had turned.  My hands felt like flippers. They were slapping me in the face.  I couldn’t recognize them as belonging to me. Thank goodness Nancy was at home.  Or maybe I would’ve died. Maybe that would have been the best thing to have happened. But it didn’t. Instead Nancy came running.

She saw me floundering at the foot of the stairs where I had fallen in a disastrous attempt to exercise. I was trying to stretch my left leg. I lifted it toward the fourth step. Suddenly my right leg collapsed under me. I fell flat on my back.

"Don’t panic! Don’t panic!” Nancy said in a panicked tone of voice as she frantically dialed 911. In a matter of moments I heard a siren come to a high-pitched halt outside our house. Six black-clothed, heavy-booted first responders came stampeding up the stairs. The one in charge leaned over me. His face hovered above mine like a harvest moon.

“Can you hear me?” he bellowed.

“Yes,” I said.

“Good! Don’t move a muscle,” he commanded.

He said something to his partner. She disappeared and returned with what looked like a large valise. I heard it click open. Then some clanging of metal parts against one another. The next thing I knew my head was being screwed in place with something that felt like a vice. Nancy said the contraption made me look like Frankenstein’s monster.

They placed me on a stretcher. Although I could feel my body tipping from side to side as they navigated the landing and down the stairs, my head remained absolutely fixed. It was April 26, 2014. I was surprised at how cold the outside air felt. I heard the back of an ambulance open. The stretcher slid inside. Someone got in with me. Someone else slammed the doors shut. The ambulance started to move. I listened for the siren. I couldn’t hear it. All I could hear were noises from a game someone was playing on a cell phone. I remember staring at the ceiling wondering why the lights were so bright. Such small thoughts for so large an event. I couldn’t focus on the big picture – that is, that I might be dying and that these were my very last moments on earth, that I might never see Nancy or my children again. I concentrated on the ambulance’s suspension. The vehicle dipped and rocked at every pothole. I thought about the suspension on hearses. They were surely better than this. How odd that a vehicle carrying the living was badly sprung while a vehicle carrying the dead was not.

[After a couple of days, it was time for surgery:]

What “going under the knife” meant for me was 13 hours in the operating room. Divided into two operations weeks apart, the first lasted 9.5 hours, the second, 3.5. The condition I had was quite rare. In fact I never knew I had it. In a nutshell, my spinal column has aged faster than my body. This means that it is riddled with bone spurs. When I took the fall, the bone spurs at the top of the column hammered into my cord like tiny little hatchets. To make matters worse, my spinal column is abnormally narrow. A normal spinal column is about 15mm in diameter. Mine is about 7 or 8mm.

One doctor's report put it this way:

Patient has diffuse idiopathic spinal hypertrophy/DISH, leading to cervical stenosis, or narrowing of the cervical spinal column. Due to this, there was no room for the cord to move. This combined with minimal shock absorption from the CSF (cerebrospinal fluid) led to a cervical spinal cord injury.

After 33 days in MGH it was time for me to move on. That meant a six-week stay in a rehab hospital. I was wheeled on a stretcher to the loading dock.

“Aren’t you the driver who brought me here a month ago?” I asked. I won’t ever forget the face that hung over me like a harvest moon yelling, “Don’t move a muscle.”

“How are you doing?” he asked, nodding.

“Pretty well, considering,” I said. “These guys saved my life.”

“No, they didn’t,” he objected. “We did.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“When I saw you lying on the floor,” he explained, “I could tell from the angle of your head that you had suffered a spinal cord injury. If we hadn’t put your head in a vise, you wouldn’t be here now.”

He was right, of course. Had my head and spine not been frozen in place, those potholes en route to MGH would have chopped my spine into coleslaw. Even so, it strikes me as odd that the villagers who saved my life – the surgeons and the first responders – have never met one another.

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