A Prisoner in my Own Body

“Sorry Mr. and Mrs. Brooks, your son has crushed his C5 & C6 vertebrae and is paralyzed from the neck down...”

As I slowly opened my eyes, from what I thought was a nightmare, I asked myself, “Did I just hear confirmation that I really did break my neck”? Now completely awake, I laid stiff in a small hospital bed, with railings on both sides, facing the door. There were medical machines behind me, a countertop to my left, two chairs to my right, and my parents standing a few feet away from the foot of my bed. Trying to move and call out to my parents, who were only steps away standing at the sliding glass doors to my room speaking with a team of doctors, I burst into tears.

Still in disbelief, I tried harder and harder to move and call out to my parents. “Please someone turn around, why can’t you hear me? Mom…dad, please...I need you,” I cried out! NOTHING, NO SOUND, as I mouthed the words repeatedly.  

With tears flowing from eyes like a waterfall, I laid there as a prisoner in my own body. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t feel, I had a tracheostomy tube, as well as more tubes in my nose, and mouth. I couldn’t even breathe on my own and relied on a medical ventilator. “What am I going to do now,” I thought to myself? “I’m only 16!”

Unaware of how much time passed, the next time I was alert, my condition had gotten worse. Let’s now add pneumonia in my lungs, a bowel infection that required surgery, and a gastrostomy tube (feeding tube) to the mix. “What does this even mean,” I thought to myself? With so many questions, but no voice to ask them, I cried myself back to sleep.  

The next day I went in for my surgery to remove the infection from my bowel. Post-surgery, I awakened to a gaping incision down my abdomen, which couldn’t be stitched closed due to the severe swelling. “Is this what my life is going to be? If so, I don’t want it.” I said.

After a nap, but still heavily sedated, I could hearing a bunch of talking in my room. After struggling to open my eyes, I was surprised to see one of my older sisters bedside with my parents. She doesn’t know this, but I looked up to her very much. Having her there was exactly what I needed. It lifted my spirits tremendously and I didn’t want it to end. This may have been the first time since my injury that I smiled and was happy. Trying to fight off the medication so I could enjoy this moment a little longer, I eventually succumbed to their side effects.  

Later waking up in the middle of the night to a dark room, the only light that was shining came from the flickering television and the various machines I was connected to. The room curtain, which stayed open so that I could see the nurse’s station, was also closed. I was alone for the first time. “Where is everyone,” I said franticly as I scanned the room with my eyes. A couple hours ago, I was just smiling ear to ear. Now I was TERRORFIED! One of my parents was always there with me. Confused by the sudden change, “Had this become too much for them? Are they coming back? I can’t do this! Why me God? I need my parents!” were the tormenting questions and thoughts that raced through my mind. As my body reacted to the stress, my machines started alarming. In came a nurse, followed by my mother. Relief!

Eventually, I would build a relationship with a night shift nurse that would make me extremely comfortable. Her presence would allow both of my parents to go home at night and sleep in their own bed instead of the uncomfortable hospital recliner chair.  Every time this nurse was on shift, she took excellent care of me. She would wash my matted hair, and rub Johnson and Johnson, lavender scent, baby oil gel on my body to remove the layers of dead skin that accumulated. She was one of a few nurses that I felt actually cared about me.

When she wasn’t working, I hated my life. The other nurses showed a lack of genuine care. Adding to the discomfort, due to the pneumonia, multiple times throughout the day I would need secretion extracted from my lungs. This procedure consisted of me being rolled onto one side then the other so that the nurse could literally drum on my body, with both of her hands, to break up the mucus in my lungs. “Why is she handling me like a rag doll?” “This isn’t necessary,” I thought as she beat away. After about 5-10 minutes of pounding on both of my sides, the secretion would be removed by a hard plastic tube being shoved down the tracheostomy hole in my neck and vacuumed. To complicate things, if done carelessly, the hard plastic tube would scrap the inside of my throat causing discomfort and bleeding. Choking, which was of no concern to the nurse, I would pray “please stop.” 

Due to my injury, I also always had a high fever. This required me to lay on a cold bed (mattress filled with cold water) and have ice packs in my arm pits, neck, and groin areas to keep my body temperature down. Despite the benefits of the bed, the downside was that it frequently burst. Every time this occurred, I would be freezing and couldn’t get the attention of anyone to inform them.

Due to this, I learned to mentally teleport to another location. On multiple occasions through the day I would have to envision myself laying on a hot sunny beach. “Boy this is nice”, I would say as I laid in a beach chair. Snapping back to reality each time, I eventually taught myself how to compartmentalize everything. As a result, I reached a point that no matter what I was going through physically, it no longer had an effect on me.

It was during this time that I began noticing the emotional toll it had on my parents. “They are a wreck”, I thought frequently. My mom did her best to hide her emotions but I could tell when she had been crying. Majority of the time, I would only see my dad at night, when he was clearly exhausted. My mother had taken leave from work so she could be with me, which forced him to work overtime to care for our household. “How does he do it?” “I hate that my parents are suffering so much because of me”, I thought.

One day my condition looked like it was getting better, then the next day it was worse. There were two unforgettable incidents that come to mind instantly. The first incident happened in the middle of one night I was alone. Awaken by the presence of a body standing over me, I opened my eyes to a nurse that I’ve never seen before. She was standing to my left unhooking me from my ventilator, which I required for breathing. Thinking to myself, “Who is this and what the hell is she doing?” she must have seen the panic in my eyes. As I was trying to nod my head no, she said “it’s okay I’m here to give you your treatment.” “What treatment is she talking about?” I said to myself. As soon as she completely disconnected me from the oxygen source I began to panic. I thought I was going to die. As she attempted to put a mask over my mouth and nose my machines started alarming. Luckily my favorite nightshift nurse was working and came running in. “No no that’s the wrong patient.” 

The next morning, my dad arrived and instantly could tell something had happened the night before. He always had a connection to me and a keen sense of my feelings even though I couldn’t verbally or physically express them. My parents immediately left my room to inquiry about my night. We later found out that the patient next door to me was named “Dan” and the nurse had made a huge mistake. Dan was immediately moved to another floor to prevent this from happening again.

The second incident would deliver a devastating blow. One day my dad brushed against my foot and it jumped. The excitement that was on his face was priceless. It was the first time in the hospital I saw him smile. Super ecstatic, he looked at me and asked “Van, can you feel that?’ to which I nodded no. Still filled with excitement, he started yelling “Pean” (my mother’s nickname), as loud as he could. This caused EVERYONE, my mother, nurses, and doctors, to come sprinting to my room thinking something was terribly wrong. “Look, look, he moved his foot”, as he stroked it again. In response, my foot jumped again, which now excited both my mother and I. A few seconds later, that excitement came crashing down when a doctor said “those are only his natural reflexes to being tickled”. In that moment, it seemed as if ALL hope left my parents’ bodies.

After weeks of witnessing their suffering from the emotional roller coaster they were riding became too much for me to bare. “I can’t let my parents continue to suffer. My mother is constantly crying and my dad is going to kill himself working. They practically live in the hospital and every day they have to watch helplessly, unsure of what tomorrow will bring. Even if I survive, I will be a burden to them. Life doesn’t work that way. They were supposed to raise me and in return, I was to take care of them when they got old. I can’t do this. I won’t do this”, I thought to myself. “If I die all of their suffering will be over. I know they will miss me and cry but it will all be temporary.” After having that conversation with myself, I gave up on life. I lost my will to live and to fight another day. I told myself that I could not deal with witnessing the suffering I was causing my parents and the burden I would be.

Waking up after trying to end it all, my dad was bedside. My dad has never been one to show emotions so the rage and disappointment he had in his face and the tone of his voice is something I’ll never forget. I don’t remember a thing he said to me because it was the first time in my life I’ve ever seen him this upset. Starring at him scared, I thought to myself, “He has to know I tried to give up”. Still filled with rage he left the room. When he returned he was calm, which was a relief. He slowly leaned over me and said two things that would save my life!

The first thing he said was “Van, God is going to do his part, I’m going to do my part, and I NEED you to do yours” putting emphasis on the last line. The next thing he said to me was “A man isn’t defeated when he loses, he’s defeated when he gives up”. “You only have two options. To give up or not to give up. Van, don’t give up on me.” Now to me, my dad was and still is my hero and the strongest man in the world. For him to be begging me to do my part and not give up, changed me. “The first time in life, my hero needed me”, I thought. I accepted the challenge. From that point moving forward I was committed to doing everything I could to not disappoint my dad.

Determined to get better, my condition began to improve. During my stay in Shock Trauma I didn’t want visitors because I didn’t want anyone to see me that way. You can imagine my dismay when my parents entered my room and said “you have a visitor who would like to see you.” In walked this tall muscular figure with a smile that lit up the entire room. Now earlier I mentioned that I would mentally teleport myself other places, so I was thinking my mind was playing tricks on me. Squinting to be sure that it was real, I heard “Van”. It was Ray Lewis, NFL superstar middle linebacker from my favorite team, the Baltimore Ravens. Standing bedside he talked to me for a few and told me how he suffered a neck injury that almost ended his career. Despite the stories he shared, the one thing that I’ve never forgotten was him saying “God will never leave you nor forsake you” Hebrew 13:5.

With spirits lifted and making great progress, I eventually was removed from the ventilator, my surgery wound healed, all of the tubes were removed from my body, and I was cleared to leave Shock Trauma and start the next step in my journey to recovery.

The things you’ve just read have been buried within me since my injury, 14 years ago. They were extremely hard to write as I had to relive those moments. Despite that, to encourage and help others, it was important that I share these vulnerable moments that had a lasting impact on me. Feel free to send feedback, share with friends, family, colleagues, and on social media.

I hope you will return on October 25, 2018 for my next blog: “The Journey to Recovery Begins”

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