The next day, staples removed, two young paramedics placed me on a gurney and pushed me through the hallways of the tenth floor and into an elevator. They said they were taking me to Alvarado Hospital’s rehabilitation institute in the College Area.
Once inside the institute’s lobby, they transferred me from the gurney to a wheelchair. Aimee walked alongside as a heavyset nurse pushed me through the hallways. I wore a maroon helmet for protection. I had no idea what I needed protection from. The hospital reminded me of the asylum in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It looked old and dilapidated. When we arrived at my room, the nurse helped me onto the bed. I felt dizzy each time I moved. I barely had the strength to lift my arm.
Although I’d been taken off the morphine and sedatives, the drugs were still in my system. I believed I was working on assignment, undercover. I told the nurse that the exposé focused on the bureaucracy of healthcare. She laughed. After she left the room, Aimee, my mom, and my older brother stood near my bedside. They looked tired. They stared at me with glossy eyes. I thought they were overreacting.
Later that day, I rose from my bed and shuffled toward the bathroom. I placed my palms on the walls for support. My legs and right arm trembled.
I took off my helmet in front of the mirror. It was the first time I’d seen my reflection since the fall. The right side of my head was missing. Scraggly brown hair covered the left side. I had no hair on the right, just a large crater and a dark red scar running along the crater’s edge, from the top of my forehead, back above my ear, and then toward my face. A large pocket of fluid and tendon, cut during the surgery, bulged through the skin in front of my ear. My beard and mustache hairs were long, wiry, and out of control. I looked at my throat and at the blue plastic pipe stuck inside. It looked as if a kazoo were lodged in my neck. I was oblivious to what had happened. I stood there and stared, detached and devoid of emotion.
On the second day, I met my doctor. He was an arrogant, smug man in his 50s. He had long, slicked-back gray hair. I hated him at first sight. I hated the new shiny black shoes he wore. I hated that he looked at me as some long-haired, tatted-up skate punk, as if I deserved to be in the condition I was in.
He told me I needed to see the throat specialist. Two hours later, Aimee wheeled me up to the specialist’s office on the fifth floor. We waited inside for 15 minutes. I stared at the posters inside the examination room. They featured drawings of tubes inside throats. Then a doctor in his early 40s entered the room. His gray and black hair was long and wavy, tucked behind both ears. He asked about my accident. We talked about skateboarding and surfing. I saw his hand reach toward my throat as he talked. He grasped the blue pipe without giving me notice. I felt it shift inside my neck, and as he pulled the trach tube out, it felt like a slug crawling up my trachea. The tube was white and perhaps eight inches long. Brown and white phlegm coated its sides. I felt cold air enter the open hole. The doctor bandaged the hole and told me to put two fingers over it when I spoke. He told me it would close in two days. The next two nights, I would wake up gasping for breath. When I inhaled, I could hear air escape, a whistling through my neck. I had dreams that the opening never closed and I had to clean it with Q-tips and alcohol for the rest of my life.
I started physical therapy the following day. My therapist, fresh out of college, was a short, amiable Asian-American male. On our way to the hospital gym, he walked by my side.
“Did you always walk like this, crossing one foot in front of the other?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I answered. “I used to be a runway model.”
During that first session, I realized my balance was gone. I couldn’t walk in a straight line. I couldn’t balance on one leg. The therapist did not tell me why. I didn’t find out for two weeks that my vestibular system, the part of the brain that controls balance, had been damaged in the fall.
An hour later, I had occupational therapy. A therapist scattered plastic objects of different shapes in front of me next to a game board that had cutouts of the same shapes. She asked me to fit the pieces into the matching slots. Despite a little tremble in my right arm, I was able to do this. My therapist looked surprised, and then she seemed unsure of the next task. I began to get the impression that the staff didn’t know anything about brain injuries. I slowly realized that they had no way to know how badly my brain was damaged. My doctors and therapists were playing the waiting game to see what symptoms might arise.
Every other day, my doctor dropped by my room for minute-long checkups. He said nothing about my condition, nothing about my strengths and weaknesses. My disdain for him intensified. He never told me what to expect. I started a blog and wrote about him.
“This isn’t just about my middle-aged doctor, who seems to be too busy battling his midlife crisis by gelling his hair and looking for new slick black leather shoes,” I wrote in my blog, six days after waking from the coma. “This is about being a number, a policy number. This is about being nothing more than a bed-filler at night. Since admittance, I have not been properly evaluated, nor have I been given information on my injury, a prognosis, nothing. Money and insurance rule this place. So much so, the patient is only an obstacle, and a nag. I guess that’s what I am.”