TITLE: Independence Day
By Phyllis Stokes
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It’s July 3, 2009. At once chills and tingles exhilarate my spine at the sight of him standing up for the first time in eleven months. After looking down at my son in an ICU hospital bed for so long, tubes and IV’s coming from every orifice in his body, I have longed to look up at his six feet, two inch frame towering over me again.
Almost a year ago, August 8, 2008 the phone startled me awake. Reaching over to answer, eyes still half shut, I noticed the New York area code and the time—5:38 a.m. This can’t be good news this early in the morning. Calm down, don’t jump to conclusions. Bracing myself, I whispered a micro-second prayer and answered in the same breath. The voice on the other end was near hysteria, "I’m so, so sorry Ms. Stokes. Michael has been in a fire and they don’t think he is going to make it."
Traci, Michael’s girlfriend worked the overnight shift at the hospital. Her shift was almost over when the paramedics rushed him into the emergency room. During the night, Michael’s apartment caught fire. By the time he awoke from sleep, he was already overcome by smoke. The fireman found him collapsed and unresponsive by the door. The small upstate hospital, they did what they could to resuscitate him, but decided they were not equipped to handle his situation.
By the time Traci called, they were waiting for a helicopter to transport Michael to University Hospital. Soon my flight from Missouri to New York was scheduled. I threw a few things into a suitcase and headed out the door for the 6-hour flight. Oh Lord please, don’t let me be too late.
The last time Michael and I had spoken, we talked about him moving closer to home. For the first time it sounded like he might consider it—I surely had complained enough about him being so far away. His answer had always been the same, "I’m alright, momma. I can take care of myself—But I love you."
"I know….son… I love you too. But remember just because you’re grown doesn’t mean you don’t need your family. No man is an island."
"I just don’t want to have to depend on anybody, momma. I got some things I want to work out first." Seems he always had something to prove.
"Uh huh. You just scared I can still beat you at wrestling." We both laughed.
Wrestling is a strange sport for a mom and son but we liked it so we wrestled. We did it up through his teen years. I was eighteen when Michael was born. At times, we were like big ole’ kids growing up together. I would put on my old sweat pants and sneak up behind him to catch him off guard.
Trying to hold him down got pretty hard but it was fun trying. The best part was the laughing. Besides, it was cheaper than a gym membership. When he was younger, I would let him win to build his confidence. As he got older, I have a feeling he reciprocated.
I think single mommas just have a different bond with their kids from the beginning. At four or five years old, Michael would run around the house in his underwear jumping off the sofa and playing his favorite episode of GI Joe. Being an only child, I was just thankful he was so content entertaining himself for hours at a time. I‘d wolf whistle at his cute little boy legs, embarrassing him as only a mother can.
Secretly, he loved it. He’d giggle and run into the bathroom to hide, insisting I throw in a pair of pants. It wouldn’t be a couple minutes before he was out, smiling from ear to ear and playing again.
Twenty five years later, he is awake from a two-month drug-induced coma to discover he is missing some parts-- one of his beautiful boy legs and one foot has been amputated. But at least he is awake. The doctors thought he would not live. "And if he does live," more than one doctor predicted, "he will be a vegetable totally dependent on others the rest of his life." Yet after severe smoke inhalation, brain damage, a heart attack, lung collapse, kidney failure, and sepsis he is awake and recovering.
"He must be a fighter" the doctor says each morning, shaking his head, surprised he has made it through another night. Although it has taken seven surgeries, overcoming a series of ugly, unrelenting infections and too many other complications to mention, the one remaining toeless foot is finally stable. Today, he will try out the prosthetic leg and foot for the first time.
Back in ICU, it had been four months before he was stable enough to move to the rehabilitation floor with a new team of doctors and start intensive therapy. The therapist worked to strengthen the residual leg in hopes that Michael would walk again. Reluctant at first to approve Michael for a prosthetic, his group of doctors implied I was just an unrealistic mother under the influence of wishful thinking. "There is a concern that with the amount of brain damage your son has sustained, it is doubtful that he will know what to do with a prosthetic. Getting the handle on using a prosthetic can be challenging even for those without brain injury."
I often wondered if some of the doctors knew how to be positive about anything at all. But Michael’s primary, Dr. Ward was kind; a woman probably in her late thirties with a pleasing bed-side manner. When she came by for rounds each morning, underneath those square frame glasses and tightly wrapped, midnight-black hair, I could sense her genuine compassion. She would place her hand gently on my shoulder as she spoke. Even so, her responsibility was to make the recommendation agreed upon by her team of colleagues. Still, I objected.
"But how will we know if we don’t try" I argued. "What would you do if it were your son?"
Pausing to weigh my question for a moment, she responded. "I still don’t know that under the circumstances, it will be approved, but I will write the order to have one made."
The process would take several weeks. In the meantime, Michael continued doing therapy to strengthen his body and legs. Four weeks passed before Dr. Ward had any information about the approval. When she came in with the news, she fidgeted, searching for a tactful way to say it. The brief moment of pause felt like an hour. I thought I would reach in and pull the words out of her mouth if she didn’t say something quick.
Finally her mouth opened. "I’ve got good news and well… sorta bad news too".
"Okay." Just tell me what it is. Say it, say it!
"The prosthetic has been approved."
"Thank God, that’s great!" What’s the rest?
"Michael’s insurance for therapy has met its limit. Unfortunately, he is going to have to leave the hospital."
"But he isn’t well enough to come home, where would he go?"
"You will have to decide on a long term care facility for him. There are a couple of nursing homes in the area you might want to look into."
Nursing home? "He is 31-years old!" The thought was not to be considered as far as I was concerned. "I don’t want him in a place where he is going to just exist, I want him to be someplace where he will get the aggressive treatments he needs to continue to get better." My mind reeled trying to understand how they could just put him out of the hospital. "If I put him in a nursing home, he won’t make it."
She looked at me wishing she had a better offer. " I don’t know of any other options."
"Then I will just have to find one. We have come too far to settle now."
Refusing to put him in the nursing home, I begin to look for options that would allow for continued efforts to be made toward Michael’s recovery. I remembered a woman I had met several months before passing out her business card for the facility she represented. At the time, Michael was still in ICU, his life hanging in the balance. We were living life in the moment, simply thankful for next. The little I heard her say about the facility sounded interesting so I tucked her card in my wallet and forgot about it.
While searching the internet for a suitable option to a nursing home, I came across a facility that specialized in brain injuries for people of all ages. The name sounded familiar, but I wondered how that could be since I knew nothing about the area. Suddenly it dawned on me this was the same place the woman I met months ago had told me about. I searched my wallet hoping I still had her card. The card was there.
After a few phone calls, interviews and endless paperwork, they agreed to take Michael’s case. They would let me know when a bed could be ready. In a few weeks we were headed for the North East Center for Special Care. After several more months of making proposals, waiting for approvals, meetings with the prosthetist, fittings, trial and error, the prosthetic was ready…
… and the day has come for Michael to try it out. The physical therapist has told me that at this point, all she wants to do is see if he can stand.
As we leave Michael’s room and head for the gym, the long, wide, decorated halls seem especially bright. We encounter the usual activity. Some of the neighbors, as they call the residents, are making a beeline to the back patio for their morning smoke. A couple guys are bartering for cigarettes in the corner. Others are headed to the laundry room to do a load of laundry before all the machines are filled. Only the "higher- functioning" neighbors get to do their own laundry but lately there have been more people than usual. Conversation is lively, everybody has somewhere to go. An employee rushes past us to diffuse a situation between two neighbors yelling at the top of their lungs down by the elevator.
We can’t be distracted. Michael is still healing cognitively and I am not sure how much he grasps the full magnitude of being able to stand again. But he senses something. Lately he has been unmotivated; today, he has a fresh spark of enthusiasm. Although he has asked me three times since we left the room, where we are going, he isn’t waiting for me to push him down the hall. He is using his arms to propel his wheelchair on his own. We arrive for the appointment on time.
Without delay, Michael is rolled up to the parallel bars in the large therapy room. Edna, the physical therapist and her assistant place safety belts around his waist to help steady him. Edna is on his left side, the assistant on his right. I’m standing off to the side trying to stay collected, my video camera in hand. Edna first explains to Michael how to grip the bars and how to position his body. She tells him to stand only as long as he can and then sit, assuring him that if he doesn’t go all the way up, it’s okay. "Just do as much as you can, try to hold it if you can, and sit back down."
Because of the brain injury, Michael needs some help remembering the steps, so she repeats them one by one allowing him to follow as she goes along. He puts his hand on the bar, and begins to push himself forward. He goes up a short distance from the chair and sits back
down immediately. Edna checks for positioning, the belts, the handrail, the prosthetic leg, the chair. She asks Michael if he feels any pain. "I’m alright." Still his answer for everything.
"Can you try it again, son?" I ask. Without answering he reaches for the bars and soon he is coming out of the chair, going higher, and higher until he is fully standing. I look up at him and smile, releasing a sigh of relief. He is standing and we are clapping and rejoicing. Several other therapists with their patients on the other side of the room turn to see what all the commotion is about. Some of them start to applaud too.
Michael is still standing, the therapist says, "Do you think you could take a couple steps?" Without hesitation, tightly strapped into the support belt around his waist and gripping the handrails for dear life, he staggers one foot forward. My heart is literally racing! From the time he slowly lifts his leg to the time he places it on the floor feels like eternity.
His whole body, every muscle is engaged, awakening from its slumbered state. He takes another step, and another—and then, ANOTHER STEP! Everyone is silent, suspended in time. I don’t think we’re breathing. His lips clinched, Michael’s face is filled with determination. Drops of perspiration are starting to form on his face. His chest rises as he takes a well-deserved deep breath. He’s off again, one methodical step after another until his tall narrow frame, a fraction of his former size, is completely at the end of the parallel bars.
"Fifteen steps." Edna announces as if she has walked the bars herself. We all begin to applaud again and congratulate Michael on his accomplishment. Edna looks around at me and grins. "I would have been happy with just a step. This is great!" Michael has exceeded her expectations. I recall the scripture that says, God does exceedingly, abundantly above all we can ask or think.
This is an "exceedingly, abundantly above" moment. Adrenaline is rushing through every fiber of my being and it must be contagious because before he can sit down, Edna says. "Well…you want to sit or do you want to try it again?" This was his first time walking in almost a year, and he is noticeably exhausted so I am shocked at her question. Still I remain quiet on the side lines waiting for his response—which is the biggest shock of all. Evidently, the adrenaline has gotten to him too.
His voice barely above a whisper, "Do it again."
They wheel him back to the front of the parallel bars, let him sit down for a minute, and up he goes. After a few wobbles to gets his balance and a second wind, he slowly raises his foot and methodically places it in position. The extra weight of the prosthetic leg is cumbersome.
Every step takes all the strength he can muster. Soon he is at the end of the bars again—a total of thirty steps. The whole room explodes with applause. Now I'm thinking about how much in life we take for granted.
All he’s ever wanted was not to be dependent on anyone for anything—to be his own man.
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