When you’re 23, you don’t expect life to throw you many unexpected curve balls. There are some you might anticipate, like losing your job or your car breaking down. But you don’t expect a big one.
At the ripe age of 23, however, I can tell you this: Nothing in life quite prepares you for the inevitable moments when you’re startled awake to jarring news that your brain isn’t awake enough to process. I say inevitable, because I will have more of these moments, and you will too—that’s the nature of life as we know it.
On Halloween, I had one for the first time.
“Your sister said you need to call your mom right now, it’s an emergency.” My 8 a.m. brain doesn’t work on a normal day half the time, let alone on a weekend. But several thoughts ran through my head:
Oh, god. Did my brother do something stupid? Did he drink too much like many college kids do their first year? Is it Grandma?
I can tell you what didn’t cross my mind:
“Daddy had an accident. He fell in the middle of the night and hit his head. He’s in the emergency room downtown. He’s in a medically induced coma.”
I knew, logically, what my mom was saying. But nothing happens to my dad. My dad takes the world by storm, checking project after project off his to do list, commands business meetings with a combination of respect and camaraderie, and he definitely doesn’t get sick (or go to the doctor, ever).
Then the train of thought shifts:
What if he doesn’t wake up? What if he does wake up, but he’s not the same? Oh, god, what if he doesn’t remember who mom is? What if he doesn’t remember his stupid nicknames for us? I allowed myself to think these thoughts, but only once, while still in shock. Then I shelved them for later, refusing to jump to “what if’s” until we knew more.
I would later learn more details. He actually fell three times, because the first fall was disorienting, and he kept getting up and falling again. He had a traumatic brain injury, was bleeding on both sides of his brain, and was in and out of sedation for most of the first week. During that time, they really couldn’t tell us a whole lot. This is the part where you learn that waiting on medical news is almost as unbearable as the initial shock.
I imagine that one of the hardest things I have ever, and will ever do, is walk into a hospital room and see my invincible dad in a neck brace, hooked up to a ventilator, unconscious. Never in my life has he seemed so out of place.
The second hardest was attempting to relay the news to my 18 year old, unsuspecting brother, who was headed home for a weekend break from college on the day he fell. He had no idea what he was arriving home to. How do you look your baby brother in the eye and tell him that kind of news? Through a lot of tears, it turns out. I wanted him to have a kind, gentle, reassuring conversation like I had with our grandmas, but it’s harder to share sad news face to face.
Navigating the unknown
As it turns out, doctors don’t know a whole lot about the brain, or bleeding in the brain. It’s all a wait and see, and they can’t tell you how long you’ll be waiting and seeing. The amount of time it takes for swelling to go down varies a lot (if it goes down at all, which they will make sure to point out to you).
They will try to prepare you for the worst: That he might not ever wake up, that the swelling may never go down, that the recovery process is long, that many people recover, but no two patients are alike. This is the part where you hope for a scientific miracle.
You will wonder how they can possibly know any of that a week or two in. I concluded that they couldn’t, and refused to even think about the worst until I knew whether I had to. Luckily, the worst never came.
I didn’t really believe in miracles, until my Dad squeezed my Mom’s hand when we were slowly bringing him out of sedation at the start of week two, and again when he told her he loved her. I didn’t truly believe in them until the day I called my Mom later that week and heard him say in the background, “Is that Alfonz Di Tomato?” a nickname I have never understood, but hoped beyond my wildest dreams that I would hear again.
Thanksgiving came and was bittersweet. Gas station pizza in a small hospital meeting room is not exactly a picture perfect turkey dinner. We’d hoped he’d be home for the real deal (an unrealistic dream), but my Dad was doing well and we were all together, and that was all that mattered.
You get by with a lot of help from your friends
The outpouring of support we received from family, friends, neighbors and coworkers was immediate and incredible. Maybe it’s a Midwest, Iowa charm thing, or maybe it’s just what happens when you’re surrounded by really great people, but everyone wanted to feed us, help rake leaves and mow the lawn, make sure we had snow removal if winter hit, grab us groceries, buy us gas. Naturally, Dad already had someone lined up to do our leaves and grass for the rest of the season. But the rest of the offers were overwhelming in a good way– the kind of support you need when a tragedy seems like it is unfolding.
You will need your co-workers when you barely have the energy to get through a full day of work, but somehow manage to scrape by, because it helps you keep your mind off the man in the hospital three blocks away.
You will need your boyfriend when you’re tired of being strong for everyone else, and need to fall apart just for a minute, too. You’ll need your best friends for this as well.
You will need your big sister to cry with, to help look after your Mom, and to navigate the most unfathomable situation that has somehow become your reality. It won’t matter who is older; you’ll both learn how to pick each other up.
You will need your neighbors when you can barely remember how you drove to the hospital and back, let alone to feed yourself.
And you will need patience and a little bit of grace to accept the unknown while you hope for a miraculous, swift recovery, even though everyone tells you it will most likely be months, if not longer.
We busted him out of the hospital the first week of December, and he’s been thriving ever since. The doctors he visited at Mayo Clinic literally told him he was a miracle (which has gone straight to his head. He used to call himself “the king” and “grillmaster,” so none of us are particularly surprised). They truly are amazed that he’s as “with it” as he is, so quickly. We’ll take it.
He had some short term memory problems for awhile, but they faded. Some may turn up in the future, but otherwise he can do everything he could do before (except drink a beer, for now). He had two rounds of cardiac and neurological tests at Mayo Clinic. All showed that his brain is fine, and he’s in near-perfect health. As for why he fell, they think he fainted– one of those freak, one time things, and luckily nothing more than that.
This is the part where you learn to let go
On February 1, his doctors at Mayo Clinic officially cleared him to go back to work after his final tests. Many people who suffer a traumatic brain injury make a full recovery, but rarely does it happen as swiftly as his did. It truly does feel miraculous when I think back to day one versus where we are now.
The months in between now and then were some of the longest I’ve ever lived. But I am stronger and more grateful for everyone and everything in my life because of it. I have learned to appreciate every single second I am given with my loved ones. You really never know when they might be your last, and I won’t lose sight of that.
If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, I’ll leave you with perhaps the most important thing I learned: Find your rock and let them anchor you to the real world. Don’t pretend like you can be this person for yourself, and don’t shoulder everyone’s burden on top of your own. You have to take time to live some semblance of a normal life, because you may or may not be in this for the long haul. Don’t be afraid to let someone close to you push you to do just that.
Resources on brain injuries: