Fall Guy

By March 30 I was doing well enough that talk of discharge from the hospital seemed realistic. During the previous six days I'd been admitted via the ER after experiencing a range of bizarre symptoms. An MRI revealed a lemon-sized malignant brain tumor, which had been surgically removed. By all accounts, this procedure had been a success. Unfortunately, surgery had left me with worse physical symptoms and new cognitive symptoms. Either kind of disability by itself would have been a lot to deal with. But as I was about to find out, patients whose symptoms affect both thinking and doing face many more challenges than those with just one or the other.

I'd been considering leaving the hospital for some time. Although I appreciated the care I'd received, I would have much rather not needed any of it in the first place. Thanks to physical therapy, I was able to stand, walk, and use the restroom with the help of a walker. Even so, I'd been able to do all of this, without a walker, at the time of my admission. Since my admission things had gotten worse.

All of this is only clear today, with hindsight. At the time, I only partially realized the extent to which my mind and body had degraded.

What was crystal clear that afternoon was that I was fed up with being dependent on others for even the tiniest of needs. I'd had a meal with two guests, who had just left my room and would be returning in a few minutes. I needed to use the restroom. Up until this point, I'd been calling a nurse to help me do the deed. But why? Why not try it by yourself?

Why not, indeed. I was seated at a small table, with the walker to my side. I reached for it, stood up, and used the restroom. It was awesome. Drunk with victory, I thought it might be nice to clean the place up a little while I was at it. This was, of course, a big mistake.

It may not seem like it, but walkers can be devious contraptions. They tend to seize up at the slightest provocation: hitting the corner of a table; snagging on a drawer protruding two centimeters two far; catching on a piece of stray clothing. The one I found most annoying was when one of my feet kicked the walker. I'm not sure which of these factors caused the walker to go rogue on me, but within seconds I knew there'd be trouble involving my body, gravity, and the floor.

The floor in my room had a hardwood finish. Unlike my previous fall at home, there would be no carpet to cushion the impact. As I fell, my only thought was to somehow protect my head. Fortunately, I landed on my left side, sparing my head from the worst. Unfortunately, while lying on the floor my neck relaxed just enough to allow the back of my head to strike that hardwood finish.

BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP … An electronic alarm blared. I'd later learn that it was warning the nursing staff of "sinus tachycardia." My heart was beating faster than normal. No kidding.

I tried to get up. It was much harder than seemed reasonable. Everything was weak. With great effort, I was able to raise my arm high enough to push the button that would silence the alarm. I'd just had a minor fall and everything was fine. There was no need to mobilize the entire floor. Although I somehow managed to hit the right button, I wasn't able to remain standing. I landed myself as gently as I could back on the floor.

Within seconds the door to my room burst open. Three nurses rushed in, their eyes locking on me.

"Holy Shit!" It was the first time until this point I'd heard a nurse say these words. I hope I never will again. When a nurse speaks like that, you know you've surprised them. And surprising a nurse is never a good thing.

The nurses examined my head and tested for neurological function. I explained what had happened.

Whatever did happen raised enough concern that Dr. Surgery Resident was paged. Shortly after their arrival I was laid onto a gurney, wheeled out of my room, down the hall, and into to the elevator. The conversations of the doctors around me suggested that a CT scan was imminent.

I looked up and saw the face of Dr. Surgery Resident. His phone rang and he picked up. Apparently Dr. Assistant Surgeon was on the line. I thought about what he had told me about the delicate nature of the operation, and in particular his use of titanium hardware to reconstruct my skull. I wondered how much force the hardware could take. I wondered the same thing about my skull given that a large piece of it had been cut out and was being held in place mechanically.

As soon as the call ended, my gurney and its entourage of doctors reversed course. I was soon back in my room. I'd later learn that any damage I may have sustained appeared to be minor. My neurological responses were unchanged.

I appeared to have dodged a bullet, but my misguided attempt to feel more like the person I was just one week prior had set in motion a chain of events I'd come to regret. The first indication that things had changed was a yellow bracelet I now wore. The second indication was a sign placed in the window of my room. Both bore the same words: "Fall Risk."