Everything can change in an instant. On July 4th, the last day of our beach vacation in Duck, N.C., I went for a late afternoon swim. All week the water had been calm, and I had been swimming, often by myself early in the morning. I love the ocean, and often feel more at home in water than on land. I noticed that evening that there were more surfboarders out, that the ocean was choppier, but these were tangential thoughts–my real thoughts were on the Elizabeth Bowen novel Iwas reading. For me it was the thirties in London, tulips arranged in a glass vase and Lady Charlotte snooping into everyone’s business. I waded into the water and had my swim, tiring quickly. As I tried to get out, the waves that had earlier shoved us out gently crashed around me, and I couldn’t get my footing. So I decided to body surf out.
I didn’t catch the wave just right, and it felt as if a giant hand had slammed me head first onto the shore. My body followed, and as I tumbled forward I heard a distinct snap and felt my neck and back give way. I was spun head over heels several times, then landed, half reclining on the beach. The surf surged around me and I was overjoyed as I felt and moved my arms and legs, but as I tried to push myself off the sand to stand, I was struck by the most intense pain of my life. It felt as if there was a stone on my ribcage. Terrorized, unable to move, I waved to the people on the shore, but no one seemed to see me. I tried to cry out “help” but I could barely breathe. I realized that if no one saw me, the sea would drag me back in, and I would be helpless to stay afloat.
Finally, a woman about my age caught my eye. At first she started to wave back, as if I might be someone she knew, but then she must have seen the look of panic on my face. She and her mother came running into the water, and she held me up as I screamed in pain. She shouted for the lifeguard and she and her mother held onto me until the lifeguard and firefighters could stabilize me on a board. The whole time I looked into her eyes, whimpering, ‘don’t leave me.’ It was exactly like my experience of childbirth, where the one nurse, a stranger until that moment, becomes the most important person in your life. “Don’t leave me,” I cried through the pain, gripping onto her arms, and she said, soothingly, “I won’t leave you.” And she didn’t; when they put me in the ambulance she was there, crying.
In the ambulance, I couldn’t stop crying. I had never felt so alone, so out-of-control, so vulnerable. I said to the EMT, “I’m afraid I’ll be paralyzed.” I had trouble breathing, and every wave of panic made it worse. The EMT, her name was Amanda, kept reassuring me that my grip was good, my vitals good, the prognosis good. She also said she knew how painful it was; she was recovering from back surgery. She did not make me feel ashamed for my tears, for my moans of pain. I hung on her every word; she was my lifeline, my oxygen. She held my hand and looked into my eyes. When I was finally delivered to the emergency room, she came to say good bye and wish me luck and there were tears in her eyes.
I was taken by ambulance to a trauma center in Norfolk, Va. I woke up alone in the emergency room. I felt the panic rise and I couldn’t breathe. I heard someone emptying trash and called out, but no one answered. It sounded like a party was going on somewhere. I cried out again, and passed out. When I woke up, there was a young woman. “We are waiting to put you in a room,” she said. I said, “But you left me alone.” “We’ll get you there soon,” she said, and took my hand.
I was only in the hospital essentially a little over four days. The nurses were on two day twelve hour shifts. The nurse I will never forget was Emily. A black woman in her fifties, she had an incandescent smile. She made me feel cared for; she went beyond doling out pills. She straightened my bed, listened to my lungs, and wasn’t afraid to lay a hand on my head, look me in the eyes. When she heard they were going to discharge me, she was furious. “You are in no shape to be discharged!” she said. When she was leaving the last night of her shift, my brother Jon, who had driven from Raleigh, and who is always so kind, made a point of telling her how much we appreciated her care. I added that it was hard, I knew, to be a nurse these days. Her eyes filled, “It is hard to nurse the way I want to,” she said.
I will write in another blog about my experience as a patient, about the best and worst of modern medicine as I experienced it this past week. But what I want to convey is that all of these people went beyond what many would consider their responsibilities to not only come to my aid physically, but to meet me in my terror and vulnerability, to not shame me for it, and to companion me through the darkness. They entered into what Martin Buber called a relationship of “I and Thou.” Arthur Frank in The Wounded Storyteller, says “Living for others is not an act of exemplary goodness. Persons live for others because their own lives as humans require living that way. The self is understood as coming to be human in relation to others, and the self can only continue to be human by living for the Other.”
The woman in the black blouse walking on a beach in Duck, Amanda, Emily and countless others I encountered this week lived this truth and because of them, I didn’t drown, or descend into panic. Because of them I was given the courage I needed to take the next step.