Rereading the original draft of my book, River of January, I reviewed the back story that propelled the book’s creation. An impossible crisis pushed me to write the work, but that narrative was cut out of the main manuscript due to length. But I still believe that the story behind the published story is important to share.
The Intensive Care Unit was the largest department on the third floor of the hospital. Reflecting back I never did figure out which direction the ward faced. Was it north toward Boise’s golden foothills or south over the blue turf of the football stadium? Someone needed to open the blinds.
The floor plan in the ward ovaled around like a carpeted arena, anchored by a nurses’ station in the infield. Three quarters of the broad ring had been segmented into tiny stalls–narrow spaces housing mechanical beds. My husband’s particular nook, squeezed into a curved corner, remained either open or sealed by simply sliding a glass door and a privacy curtain. Each morning I instinctively gauged his condition by the disposition of that entrance. Coding patients were afforded some semblance of privacy.
The sparse decor inside clearly signaled “no nonsense.” Two chairs flanked the entrance, with one small footstool. I once tried pulling out that stool to attempt a nap, but sleeping was reserved for the critical only; the nursing staff’s frenzied laps around his bed made sleep impossible.
Unconscious, bloated, with a swollen torso and bulging arms, my husband lingered on the crinkly mattress. Tubes protruded from nearly every square inch of his upper body, pumping in liquid meds and below, pumping out liquid waste material. Attached monitors loudly measured his heart and pulse rates, racketing in a relentless beeping. I was afraid to ask the meaning of the numbers blinking on the monitor, the din adding to my fatigue. Eventually, I inquired what a normal cardio reading looked like, and the answer wasn’t reassuring. I froze in that nondescript chair, dazed, almost hypnotized, willing his numbers to improve. Still indifferent, that monitor shifted erratically, frequently setting off an alarm drawing in medical reinforcements.
The cocktail of fluids pumped into his arms overnight had left him bloated to the point that his nose had flattened across his full, stretched cheeks. Fingers that had earlier held my hand from the stretcher now swelled to the size of cooked kielbasa—triggering thoughts of his wedding ring and his watch. My next random reflection recalled both pieces being handed to me the night before, and hopefully safe in my purse. It was a dreamy recollection.
The worst feature of his bare torso was the ragged, opened split from his naval to his groin, sealed by a stiff grey foam substance, and a thin membrane of clear film covering the diagonal wound. I was told his body was so contaminated in septic debris that the stitches closing the incision would have healed before the toxic substances beneath had cleansed. So this vacuum packed dressing over his wound kept the area draining and that tube, too had an attached little box, stowed under the bed that beeped and flashed.
He looked too rubbery and inflated to be real, but with the aid of artificial ventilation forcing his breath, I could clearly hear his intake of air.
Clinging to these subtle signs I began the litany of phone calls that had to be made to the rest of the family. His son, my parents, his siblings . . . I hated to upset them all, but knew these relatives had to be kept in the loop. Listening quietly on the phone, my 78-year-old father finally spoke; he and my mom would pack up and come down to Boise from Spokane. I wasn’t prepared for that offer, and asked them to give me a little time. I still wasn’t convinced my husband was going to live. At that moment I had no energy for company, all my focus concentrated on watching his vital signs.
Desperation is a funny emotion. The intensity of it burns on the inside, and we fool ourselves in believing the conjured up power somehow changes reality. Maybe the instinct to inflict mental suffering on ourselves is a primal manifestation of empathy for our loved ones. He bore the physical wounds, while mine lashed and scorched my insides. Over the course of his lengthy critical care, and his slow road to recovery, I had to do something with all the bile stuffed into my psyche. Out of this pain came the healing therapy of River of January and my own recovery through writing.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the memoir River of January