Coma: Paralysis and Dreams

by on October 24th, 2013
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Joe had survived the ordeal by the skin of his teeth. He had approached the edge of sanity many times after waking up without the ability to move his arms, legs, or vocal cords. He had become a quadriplegic, unable to communicate except by mouthing words. If his nurse, doctor, nurse’s aide, or relative or friend couldn’t read lips as they stood by his bedside, he was out of luck.

It struck him as funny how some people had a skill for reading his two-word sentences that were inaudible. He would mouth “change diaper” or “water” or “change channel (the TV had only two main channels)” and only three or four people would understand. Gradually, his left hand and arm came back and he was able to point to his mouth (indicating water) or to his diaper (indicating change it!). One of his few pleasures was the ability to control when he would pee. Peeing itself felt numb and tingly at the same time, but at least he could initiate it. He could do nothing else except form two-word silent sentences and slightly move his left hand and right big toe.).

But he had awoken with despair on his mind. He had two doctors who came by most often. One was a long-haired beautiful Indian woman who looked about 30. She could read his lips and did give him water. His mouth was caked with gunk and deposits from the oxygen they blew into his throat via the tracheotomy. At one point, he mouthed the words “poison me,” “let me die” to her, but she only smiled. Nevertheless, he thought she understood, but just wouldn’t comply.

Everyone who visited made sure to tell him it “was a long road ahead” or “you’ve got a lot of work ahead before you get better.” But no one had told him how he had gotten there. The last thing he remembered clearly was driving his rental car away from his dying mother’s hospital. No one told him that his paralysis and inability to talk were nearly 100 percent temporary. His girl friend, Jackie, told him that on that fateful night he had jumped into a cab and hissed “the ER” to the driver as his dry cough grew worse and worse. All he heard during the three weeks after his awakening was bits and pieces: “nursing home” “aspirated a vegetable, probably a piece of broccoli” “funeral” “it’s in his head” “what do you want sweetie. I can’t read lips” “be sure to sleep on one side or the other, your butt bedsore is horrible, we wouldn’t want to infect that would we?”

He finally could make the motions, mainly with his left hand and his mouth, that he wanted a nurse “call button.” His pneumonia was so terrible that his trach and mouth filled with saliva and secretions about twice an hour. He had been suctioned so much that the inside of his trachea was ultra-sensitive. Yet it had to be done. He heard rumors that the rehab hospital wouldn’t take him, because he had to be suctioned so much and they “weren’t in that business.” He knew he’d be drugged up at a nursing home, but decided that he would prefer that to this environment, in which no one came for hours on end, especially at 3 a.m., when he often had laid there thinking he would drown in his own saliva. He had to turn his head to the left and spit out saliva onto his pillow; he had to let the build-up of solid-like formations in his mouth nearly cover his esophagus before mustering the energy to clear his throat; he had to tell God several times “Here I come, please be merciful on a jerk like me.”

Throughout all of this, he had been “entertained,” as he called it, by “hallucinations.” These were repeated dream-like excursions into scenarios that remained crystal clear in his memory for weeks, now years, on end. They had involved nearly everyone he knew before his illness. He didn’t even attempt to interpret them, just relaxed and enjoyed them or replayed the memories in his mind.

After the ordeal, the easiest one to relay to his friends involved TV talk-show host David Letterman. In his “hallucination,” he himself was reading the local paper and upon turning a middle page found a photo of Letterman sitting at his New York Rockefeller Center office reading something about cancer. The caption in the newspaper said, “Mr. Letterman has come to grips with his impending death from cancer.” Joe saw this dream several times and thought it was true. He couldn’t discern reality from fantasy. When he finally was transferred to the rehab hospital a month later, he was shocked to find a brand-new Letterman show playing on his TV one night when he couldn’t sleep.

Another dream involved himself and a homeless man, both visiting an apartment in the upper corner of a shabby building in midtown New York. The woman was young and beautiful and Joe, in the dream, found himself competing with this beggar for her affections. Gaining access to her apartment for a date required intricate maneuvering of the metal lock. If she decided to spend the evening with either Joe or the man, she would stroll with one of them throughout the parks of New Jersey and the date would end with them climbing back up to her apartment through yards and yards of wooden hallways. Then Joe and the man would somehow get to the other corner of the building where a balcony or fire escape landing awaited them. They would then compete for her affections by diving – from 10 stories up – to the pavement below, landing on one – yes, one – finger and, somehow, propelling themselves backwards 10 stories to land on that same fire escape platform. In the dream most remembered by Joe, he bested the beggar by being slightly faster and fancier in his dives. When Joe awoke at his first hospital and later at the rehab hospital, he thought there might, indeed, be a letter or call waiting from that woman.

Some dreams he recognized as fantasy, even though they, in fact, contained an element of truth. In one, his mother and father had come out of retirement to become con men. Both worked as a team fleecing a Korean airliner at LaGuardia airport out of the meals it had prepared for its customers. In the dream, his dad, a normally diffident man, was a fast-talking con man, who helped his wife. Both were dressed as flight attendants. They then pretended to know everything about the airliner convincingly enough for the guards to let them in the back end of the airplane. There, they would serve some fliers with the meals before slipping out the back again. The meals invariably were peanuts and chicken in soy sauce. The two then would call him, Joe, and his brothers, inviting them for supper at the house they had owned in Torrington (2,000 miles away-although it was blizzarding in both Torrington and at LaGuardia) for 45 years. Only Joe would show up – always in a blinding snowstorm, having to fight his way through whipping snow and frigid temperatures. It wasn’t until he got to the rehab hospital that he found out his mother indeed had died just after he awoke from the coma.

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