MY DARK­EST DAYS

JUNE HOO’s life changed for­ever af­ter a hor­rific car ac­ci­dent in the U.S. She re­counts how she pulled through the dif­fi­cult time in in­ten­sive care

Simply Her (Singapore) - - Love Your Body - SH

In 1996, I was liv­ing and work­ing in the United States when the car I was driv­ing som­er­saulted three times be­fore land­ing on its roof. The se­ri­ous in­juries I sus­tained in that in­ci­dent turned me into a quad­ri­plegic. I was 34 at the time and mar­ried with two chil­dren aged three and one. In the Michi­gan hos­pi­tal where the paramedics sent my bro­ken body, I al­most died – twice – but was re­vived by the med­i­cal team.

Long Weeks

The four weeks I spent in in­ten­sive care were the dark­est pe­riod in my life. I had frac­tured my neck ver­te­brae, re­sult­ing in paral­y­sis – ini­tially, I couldn’t move my arms and legs, but later re­cov­ered the use of my arms and right hand. (I now have sen­sa­tion in my torso and limbs, but can­not tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween hot and cold in my lower ex­trem­i­ties.)

To sta­bilise my spine and pre­vent fur­ther neu­ro­log­i­cal dam­age, my doc­tors fit­ted me with a halo – a black graphite ring at­tached to my head with pins drilled into the skull, and held up by four ver­ti­cal graphite rods fas­tened to a body vest. They also used some frag­ments from my bro­ken pelvic bone to sup­port my frac­tured neck ver­te­brae.

I had no idea what lay ahead. I didn’t know if I was go­ing to be able to re­turn to work or whether the job would even be there for me. I wasn’t sure how I was go­ing to care for my chil­dren when I my­self needed oth­ers to care for me. But I knew that fret­ting about my con­di­tion wouldn’t help.

Strug­gling to Breathe

Dur­ing my first week in hos­pi­tal, doc­tors cre­ated an open­ing in the front of my neck and in­serted a tra­cheostomy tube into my wind­pipe to help me breathe. The

“I couldn’t swal­low with a tube in my

neck, and this caused fluid to build up in my throat. I con­stantly felt like I

was drown­ing in my own saliva.”

tube was con­nected to a res­pi­ra­tor. I couldn’t swal­low with the tube in my neck, and this caused fluid to build up in my throat and wind­pipe. I con­stantly felt like I was drown­ing in my own saliva.

I found tem­po­rary relief when­ever nurses drained the fluid build-up with a suc­tion pump. I wished they would stop by more of­ten as the fluid pooled quickly, caus­ing me im­mense mis­ery.

The tube in my wind­pipe pre­vented me from speak­ing and call­ing out to the nurses to let them know I needed another suc­tion. My paral­y­sis meant I could not even move my arms – let alone wave them – to flag their at­ten­tion.

I re­lied on mem­bers of my fam­ily to call for a nurse when they were with me. They could tell from the ex­pres­sion on my face when the fluid build-up be­came un­bear­able. When I was on my own, I had no choice but to bear with the ex­treme dis­com­fort in my chest – some­times for hours! – un­til some­one stopped by my room

Day af­ter day, my wak­ing hours were con­sumed with get­ting relief from the next suc­tion. I des­per­ately wanted to be rid of the tra­cheostomy tube and the res­pi­ra­tor. I prayed ev­ery morn­ing to pass the test that my doc­tors did to gauge the depth and strength of my breaths. Again and again, I was dis­ap­pointed.

About two weeks af­ter my tra­cheostomy surgery, I was over­joyed to be freed from the tube and the res­pi­ra­tor. But my new­found free­dom was short-lived.

Another Close Shave

Early one morn­ing, a few days af­ter I was taken off the res­pi­ra­tor, I was roused from what I thought was a deep slum­ber by a room­ful of med­i­cal staff work­ing fever­ishly to re­vive me. They had to use the open­ing in my neck to re­con­nect me to the res­pi­ra­tor af­ter my blood pres­sure dipped and my heart rate slowed. The night nurse who had raised the alarm told me later that the med­i­cal team had nearly lost me that morn­ing.

In ad­di­tion to be­ing teth­ered to the res­pi­ra­tor again, I also had to con­tend with be­ing weighed down by the halo at­tached to my head. I ended up spend­ing most of my time con­fined to the bed al­though I couldn’t lie down prop­erly. Poor blood cir­cu­la­tion from my in­jury and the lack of mo­bil­ity re­sulted in mul­ti­ple pres­sure sores in my but­tocks that be­came badly in­fected – a com­mon con­di­tion among peo­ple who are im­mo­bile.

The in­fec­tion man­i­fested it­self in the form of shiv­ers and chills. Ev­ery af­ter­noon, I would shiver for hours un­til my body warmed up un­der the bed­sheet and blan­kets piled atop me by the nurses.

I was given mor­phine shots daily for pain man­age­ment. But I didn’t need the shots as I had less sen­sa­tion due to my in­juries. The drug made me rest­less and anx­ious, com­pound­ing my dis­com­fort from the heavy halo around my head and be­ing hooked up to the res­pi­ra­tor.

I be­gan to hal­lu­ci­nate as a side ef­fect of the mor­phine. Ev­ery time I closed my eyes, I saw my­self con­tin­u­ously zip­ping around among bounc­ing red cubes. I begged the doc­tors to stop the mor­phine.

Small Joys

I made it through that long, dark pe­riod by tak­ing it a day at a time and fo­cus­ing on the high­lights of each day – vis­its by fam­ily mem­bers, the leg mas­sages my brother and sis­terin-law gave me dur­ing their two-week stay, the hour-long ses­sions with the phys­i­cal ther­a­pist on al­ter­nate days, and the sham­poo and bed bath I got twice a week. Sur­prise vis­its by friends and cards from well-wish­ers were bonuses.

Three weeks af­ter the ac­ci­dent, my con­di­tion sta­bilised, and the doc­tors be­gan dis­cussing my re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion. They rec­om­mended a fa­cil­ity in Michi­gan, as well as the renowned Craig Hos­pi­tal in Colorado. I pon­dered over it with my hus­band and fi­nally de­cided on Colorado, which was a two-hour drive away for him.

First Step to­wards In­de­pen­dence

I was then moved to another room in the in­ten­sive-care unit that was not within sight of the nurses’ sta­tion. They ar­ranged for me to have a call­ing de­vice in the shape of a small rub­ber ball that was sus­pended 15cm above my face. By then, I had re­cov­ered move­ment in my arms and was able to hit the ball to call for help. This was my first step to­wards in­de­pen­dence from roundthe-clock care.

I hadn’t seen my two kids since the day of the ac­ci­dent, al­though I had been ask­ing for them. The weekend be­fore my trans­fer to Colorado, they came to see me in the hos­pi­tal – I hadn’t set eyes on them for four weeks.

My hus­band lifted them into my bed. They were both scared to see their strange-look­ing mum with a halo and asked to be car­ried off the bed. Af­ter much prod­ding, my one-yearold son Jonathan fi­nally planted a wet kiss on my cheek. I was so happy to see them, but sad that I could no longer pick them up and hug them like I used to.

The Next Chap­ter

Fi­nally, the day of my dis­charge ar­rived. Ar­range­ments had been made for an air am­bu­lance to fly me to Colorado. Early that morn­ing, a doc­tor re­moved the sta­ples that closed the in­ci­sion down my neck and back when the med­i­cal team worked to sta­bilise my frac­tured spine. The pain from hav­ing the sta­ples pulled out from my flesh ban­ished all thoughts of sleep.

As I lay awake wait­ing for day­break, I ap­plauded my­self for hav­ing suc­ceeded in stay­ing alive for my chil­dren’s sake. I was relieved that those dark days in in­ten­sive care were be­hind me. I re­alised I had a long way to go be­fore I could be home with my chil­dren, but mov­ing on to re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion was a huge step for­ward. It saddened me that I wouldn’t be see­ing my fam­ily for an ex­tended pe­riod, but I steeled my­self to fo­cus on the next step of my re­cov­ery. Look out for the next in­stal­ment of June’s story of sur­vival in Sim­ply Her’s March is­sue, where she shares more about her ex­tra­or­di­nary strug­gle.

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