Back to normal
A dirty apartment, a medically induced coma,
a national tragedy and a return to order.
“Let’s do something normal today.”
My mom says this while reaching for the television remote.
I lie back in the hospital bed. Normal is a fuzzy concept.
For my mother, normal for the past month has been swapping shifts at the hospital with my father and sleeping on a couch in the ICU in Emory University Hospital.
For me it has been lying in a hospital bed in a medically induced coma.
Next to the remote is a disposable container of cranberry juice. I sip the tart liquid. There’s a juice fridge for my parents to raid. The last choice is always cranberry. The medical personnel frown on me drinking water because I need calories. The feeding tube diet has failed to do much more than keep me alive. I smirk as I sip, because why not have a ridiculous expression on my face while I sit half-naked in a sterile room trying to understand what happened to me while I was unconscious for three weeks?
My room is not perfectly sterile. The scent of dried sweat permeates the room. My last sponge bath was a couple days ago, and the previous night, I sweated through my sheets multiple times due to the crazy dreams. They are a side effect of the meds I am given to bring me out of the coma. I’m not yet stable enough to take the five steps it would require to use the shower. Being awake during normal daytime hours still takes some getting used to.
My dreams take place in a familiar setting. Lying on my back, I can see the whiteboard in front of me. In the real world, this whiteboard contains important details like the name of the nurse on charge and the occasional smiley face. In my dreams, it has different uses. Writing appears on it, put there by an unseen hand scribbling so fast my mind can’t process it. I communicate with this new unseen friend through the board, chatting back and forth telepathically because we are that close. Who else could understand what I am going through? We have a bond unlike any other relationship in my life.
The TV in my room is on a lot during these dream sessions. I watch a football game on ESPN, but when players crash into each other, body parts fly off.
One time, a nurse enters my dark room and administers a shot. Suddenly, I am paralyzed and can’t breathe. The room gets colder. She leans in and stares at me like a cat challenging me to a blinking contest. If you tell your parents, I’ll kill you, she whispers. She administers another shot and a few seconds later I can breathe again. My parents don’t understand why I am not nice to this nurse.
“Let’s do something normal today.”
My mom clicks on the television. We watch a plane fly into a building.
How did I get here?
My problems started in July 2001 on a weekend visit to South Carolina, where I stayed in the dirtiest apartment I’ve ever seen.
I was 27 years old and living in a condo in Doraville with my roommate, Carol, and her cat, Melony June. I worked as a technical writer at IBM and socialized with a group called the Atlanta Newcomers, although I’d been living in the city since the Summer Olympics in 1996. The group met once a week and hosted social events like beach volleyball and a scavenger hunt in Buckhead, back when that part of town was nothing but bars and clubs.
I had been seeing a woman named Gena for nine months. Although she lived in Atlanta, she still rented an apartment above a garage in Columbia. That’s where we stayed for a weekend while visiting her family, and it was filthy. Tumbleweeds of dust and dirt skidded across the floor. Six-month-old milk curdled in the fridge. The bed sheets hadn’t been laundered since the previous presidential administration.
I woke up one morning with a big pimple on my right hip. I forgot about the blemish until early August when my back started to hurt. At first it was minor pain, an inconvenience. But by mid-August, I was bedridden by a pain that started in my left leg and radiated up to my lower back. I knew I was in trouble when I began to have trouble breathing.
I contacted my employer and requested to go on short-term disability. The following day, Gena took me to the Emory University Hospital emergency room. My parents came down that night from Nashville. They didn’t leave until two months later.
An X-ray revealed I had pneumonia in both lungs and a blood clot had formed in my left leg. Pieces of it had lodged in my lungs. A blood test showed the presence of Staphylococcus, a bacteria that had pooled in an abscess on my spine.
I remember lying in a hospital bed, a surgery release form in front of me.
“I didn’t know it was this bad,” I said. Those were my last words before I was put into a medically induced coma.
I am the unreliable narrator. The story of what came next was told to me by friends and family who were there.
The surgeon drained and removed the abscess, and I began undergoing a regimen of antibiotics. My breathing didn’t improve so instead of being intubated, I got a tracheostomy. A hole was cut into my windpipe and I was attached to a ventilator that breathed for me. I got my nutrition through an IV. Once the infection was gone, doctors went after the blood clot with a cocktail of chemicals.
I was totally dependent on others. There were countless doctors, nurses and hospital staff who tended to me. My parents camped out in the room next to the ICU. Friends and family filtered in and out.
In September, three weeks later, it was time for me to wake up.
Getting me out of the coma might have been more difficult than putting me under. It took several days to wean me from the Ativan that kept me unconscious. Eventually I got to resume a normal diet and was moved into a regular hospital room.
My best friend from college visited and promised that when he got married in April, I’d dance at his wedding.
‘You’ve endured the worst’
These days, I tend to keep emotions buttoned up inside. I have to work at loosening up and reacting appropriately to the ebb and flow of daily life. I think it’s a reaction to my trauma, when my emotions were out of my control.
I first noticed it in the hospital when I discovered the portable CD player in a nightstand drawer, right below the stash of Boost I was supposed to drink to increase my calorie intake. It tasted like liquid chalk.
The singer was Jim Cuddy, a Canadian folk artist who has my favorite male singing voice of all time. As I heard the first few chords of the opening song of his debut album, “Second Son,” I lost control.
I cried like all the pain and sorrow of my life was a giant wave crashing over me.
I’d cry when I heard music in a commercial. I woke up from nightmares with tear-streaked cheeks. I cried when I got another container of cranberry juice (not really, but I wanted to).
When the first building crashes to the ground, I don’t think, “I’m watching a lot of people die.” It’s like I feel it. I sense a psychic connection to all that life as it’s lost. I ask my dad to turn off the television.
Appointments at Emory University Hospital go as planned that day, national tragedy or no. The first appointment is for my pill, a blood thinner called Coumadin.
Then an orderly pushes my wheelchair to the radiology department. He is the talkative sort. As we traverse the hallways of the hospital, he talks excitedly about planes flying over from Europe that are going to be shot down. I’m glad I’m kind out of it.
Radiology is cold. Whoever came up with the warm blankets for that room is a certified genius. I am as comfortable as I can be for someone about to get a catheter inserted into my heart.
We listen to the radio. The hosts discuss school closings and the dawn of a new world. I can’t control what’s happening in the world any more than I can control what’s happening to my body, so I say encouraging words to the people trying to help me get better. In my corner of the world, people are a little nicer to each other that day as we feel dread and foreboding for tomorrow.
Who remembers Sept. 12, 2001? I do. It’s the first time I go outdoors in four weeks.
I head outside on the sunny campus of Emory University, where students do what students do, albeit one day after a shared national trauma. We note the lack of air traffic.
My friend Don Funk pushes the wheelchair. Don is part of my fantasy football league. During my hospitalization, my friends bring the championship trophy I earned the previous football season into my room to cheer me up. I receive a constant crush of friends and family. Someone brings in a composition book and keeps it for people to write in while I am out of it. The name on the book is “Get Well, Zach!” and the school is “Your ICU Fan Club.”
The notes my friends and family wrote do the job in cheering me up.
“What’s up with you missing football? Ditka would play with a ventilator, what’s your problem?” — Paul,
“I am still working on the Funk Fest beer supply and hoping you show up and help me finish it.” — Don
“Today is Daddy’s birthday. He’s happy because you are getting better. They are reducing the sedatives that have kept you in dream land for the last 2.5 weeks. Now you move around and open your eyes, but you’re not quite awake. I know you hear our voice, but you probably will not remember any of this. We love you.” — Mom
“You were the first patient that I ever saw at Emory Hospital as a physician. It was about 5 a.m. and I was told by my colleague that I should see you first because you were ‘a little unstable.’ It has been one of the most gratifying experiences to watch you recover from a semi-comatose state where a machine took every breath for you. Monitoring your progress has been very rewarding. Also, I enjoyed greatly developing such a deep bond with your family and friends. You have surrounded yourself with wonderful people and that makes all the difference. Zach, I know that there are many times you will be scared over the next several months. But just remember that you’ve endured the worst and your perspective can make you a better, more compassionate person. Take care of yourself.” — Dr. David Huneycutt
What’s it like to be born again? Well, it’s not like being washed clean of my sins or any other such notion. In the futuristic novel “Walkaway” by Cory Doctorow, technology allows people to get their personalities uploaded into a computer before they die, which kind of gives them immortality. Kind of. The computer personality isn’t exactly the same person who lived as flesh and blood. It is an approximation, and this new version of the person has no memory of his or her physical death.
I have memories from before the hospitalization, but they feel like they belong to a different person. I didn’t experience a magical, perfect-for-a-TED-Talk kind of transformation. I’m just different.
Physically, I am changed. I can’t feel the back of my left leg from my waist to my toes. I’ll always have more muscle definition in my right leg than my left. Despite that, I started an exercise regimen shortly after leaving the hospital and still work out every day.
Emotionally, I’m a more empathetic person than I used to be. I may not feel your pain, but I know what pain feels like.
I returned to my condo on September 18. There was a giant pile of mail, including letters wishing me well and four unopened Netflix DVDs. I had a brand-new Playstation I had purchased before going into the hospital and had never played it. I finally got to sleep in my own bed.
My parents moved in to help with my recovery. A home nurse showed my mom how to mix and administer my antibiotics. I slept a lot and took slow walks around the apartment complex. I happily consumed a daily milkshake at 3 p.m. Thanks to Brusters, I gained 40 pounds in two months.
The antibiotic killed the infection, but it also killed my red blood cells. My anemia became so severe, I received a transfusion of four pints of blood, but even that didn’t do the trick. I had to undergo twice daily shots to the stomach of Epogen, the drug Tour De France cyclists used to cheat. (The nurse told me this, and it’s my story so I’m sticking with it.) It worked and I began to relax, glad that the shots to the stomach were over. But then the blood thinners I was taking failed to work. So it was back to twice-daily shots to the stomach, this time of a drug called Lovenox. For six months.
What is it like to stab yourself in the stomach? It’s pretty much what you’d think. Humans can get used to almost anything. It was a lot like my mom trying to teach me to dive into the pool for the first time. I got to regress again. After a while, it got to be like exercise: much more enjoyable once it was over.
A couple of weeks later, I was well enough to kick my parents out of my apartment.
What doesn’t kill you
Several months after leaving the hospital for the last time, I started seeing a therapist. At the time, she said there would be a day when I wouldn’t think about my ordeal, and I LOL’d. People LOL’d in 2002.
Then one day, it happened. For 24 hours I didn’t think about the nurse who came by almost every day to draw blood, the beeping sounds of the machines that kept me alive in the ICU, doctors I didn’t recognize telling me the story of my past few weeks, wondering if I was brought back from the brink just to die anyway, devastating my parents and friends as I slipped away into nothingness.
It happened, so now I know it’s true. It’s possible to get over just about anything that fails to kill you.
In April 2002, I still didn’t trust my stamina, but I walked a mile into the Grand Canyon National Park with some friends. I thought the walk back up would be harder. Instead, it was exhilarating. Later, the party moved to a resort outside of Phoenix. I had drinks by the pool and talked to friends I hadn’t seen in years, or, in some cases, friends who had seen me, but not vice versa.
My best friend stepped on the glass, and it was official. I got on stage and delivered the best man speech. I don’t remember a word of what I said, but I remember the dancing. We held up the chairs with the happy couple during the Hora. My parents were there to witness the spectacle: their son dancing at his best friend’s wedding. Just acting normal.
ABOUT THE STORY
I had met Zach Law in passing as the husband of Atlanta book publicist and podcaster Alison Law. He struck me as a nice guy who was quiet and reserved, so I was a little surprised when I heard he’d signed up for a Storytelling class at Decatur Writers Studio. I was even more surprised when his instructor, Shannon Turner, said he blew the class away with his powerful story. I had to hear more, and when I did, I knew it was a good fit for Personal Journeys. I’m happy to share his story with you today.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
ABOUT THE WRITER
Zach Law is an email creative manager at Cox Communications by day, and a writer by night at zachlawonline.com. You can follow him on Twitter at zach_law. He has been married to the amazing Alison Law for 14 years and will not shut up about his two cats, Soy Cuba and Scat Man.