I missed an anniversary a few weeks ago. No, don’t feel bad; it’s the kind of anniversary that’s best gone unnoticed, at least until it’s well passed. See, June 7, 2006 was the day my beloved daughter (whom I call “Ladybug” here) almost died in a car accident at the age of 14.
Every good mother is proud of her children, and I am no exception. I love all my urchins. Ladybug has quite a legacy. She is the only girl among three children, as was I, as was my mother, as was my grandmother. Also, all four of us throughout the generations had the same middle name (only my grandmother used that name, though).
Anyway, Hubby and I reluctantly gave permission that afternoon for my oldest son, my daughter, and her best friend to go to a pool party sponsored by the youth group at the church we were attending. We had seen some very disturbing behavior on the part of the youth minister at the time (not “sleaze stuff”, just “forming a personality cult” stuff). We had brought it up to the pastor and the head of the Deacon board (who was our Sunday School teacher), but found them unwilling to accept evidence, much less take other action. We were trying to distance ourselves from that congregation.
Still, the kids were begging, and we finally broke down. We gave the car keys to our 18-year-old son, told him they should be back around 8:30 (since swim practice was at 7:00 the next morning), and they were off to a house way out in the country, on the northern border of our county (we live smack-dab in the middle of the county). Hubby got on-line to look for jobs (he was looking to get out of a bad position), and at the time, all that was offered where we lived was dial-up, so the line was busy. About 8:30, Hubby asked when the kids were coming home. I had barely said “Any minute now” when there was a frantic banging on the door. Dad was there, cordless phone in his outstretched hand, saying “There’s been an accident.”
My heart and stomach went through the soles of my feet. I took the phone; it was the youth pastor’s wife. She said that my oldest seemed to be unhurt, the friend seemed to have a broken arm, but Ladybug was in bad shape, having landed on her head when the car overturned. Somehow, my brain formed a picture of my daughter strapped in the front seat of the Jeep, upside down, resting on the ceiling. I couldn’t imagine anything else. Little had I known that the windows had been down (all the better to blast the radio), and that Ladybug had unbuckled herself an instant before the crash to move to another seat. She had been thrown from the Jeep, which had rolled onto her head. My college-educated, analytically-trained mind just couldn’t grasp that fact for several hours yet. She couldn’t be that badly hurt. She just couldn’t.
We left my dad in charge of my younger son “Bear,” who was 8 at the time, and jumped into the car to go to the wreck site, which was a good 30-minute drive away. Life Flight was coming for Ladybug, and they wanted us there. Ten minutes into our journey, the youth pastor’s wife called again. Life Flight had her ready to go, but needed our permission. Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to ask if I was able to give permission via phone. They accepted it, and told us not to go to the crash scene, but instead go to Memorial Hermann Hospital at the Texas Medical Center in Houston.
This was the first time I became aware of the hand of God in this ordeal, for we were exactly at the intersection where we would have turned left to go to the crash scene, but right to go to Houston. They told us not to delay, for she might not arrive at the hospital alive. The 90 minutes it took us to get to Hermann were the slowest, most agonizing in my life. Hubby drove as quickly and carefully as he possibly could, and fortunately, at that time on a weekday evening, traffic was light. While he drove, I scrolled down my contact list in my cell phone, calling everyone whom I knew was active in a faith–I didn’t care which. Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Episcopalians, Methodists, Jews–if they had access to a prayer chain, I called.
I also fielded several calls from Ladybug’s teachers, who had already heard–news travels fast in a small town. She is popular in school–an “A” student, who at the time was a 3-sport athelete (Cross-Country, Track and Field, and Swimming). In fact, her TAKS test results had arrived in the mail that day. Eighth graders in Texas take a battery of four tests–Reading and Math (which all grades take every year), plus Science and Social Studies, which had not been tested since Elementary school (since she had not lived in Texas in her Elementary years, Ladybug had never taken those particular tests). In the entire battery of tests, Ladybug had missed a sum total of seven questions. The test results had been accompanied by her final report card–straight A’s.
This occupied my thoughts as reality began to set in. My thoughts wandered to a student at the Junior High where I had once taught. This kid had a huge, angry scar zagging throughout the side of his buzz-cut hairstyle. Apparently, he had suffered a head injury as a toddler, and as a result had an IQ just a couple of points inside the “normal” range. “Please, God,” I prayed over and over, “I can handle a damaged body, but please, PLEASE leave her mind intact!”
When the agonizing drive to Hermann was over, we raced through the rat-maze labrynth of construction to the ER. Only one of us would be allowed in at a time; I let Hubby go. I sat down in the waiting area and called home to let Mom and Dad know that we had arrived safely. After some time (it may have been 10 minutes, it may have been 30), Hubby came out and I was allowed to be with her. She had the swollen-shut “raccoon eyes,” bruised from brow to under-eye and everywhere in between, that indicate to EMT’s that a head injury has occurred. Her face was puffy and swollen, there were still trickles of dried blood along her ears and mouth, but her body looked remarkably untouched! Later examinations revealed that the only injury to her body anywhere below her collarbone was a nickel-sized bruise on the side of one knee.
Then, Ladybug spoke! Oh! What a glorious sound! I gently took her hand and told her I was there. She said three things in rapid order: “Where am I?” “What happened?” and “My jaw hurts.” I responded to each, but she repeated those three sentences, over and over; she either couldn’t remember our conversation or couldn’t comprehend my responses. While it was my turn to be with the Ladybug, the ER doc came in. She had a line-fracture of her skull above her left ear, had broken every single bone in her face (her jaw in two places), had lost a tooth, and had shattered her right eye socket, but showed no signs of body fractures or internal/abdominal bleeding. He said that a preliminary CAT scan had miraculously shown no signs of brain swelling, but not to celebrate for she wouldn’t be out of the woods for at least 18 hours. She would be transferred to the Shock/Trauma ICU (a unit whose acronym is appropriately pronounced “Stick You”), as the nature of her injuries and her age made that location more appropriate than Pediatric ICU. I went out to let Hubby know, and allow him to be with her again.
Ladybug spent the next four days in S/TICU. There are no chairs there other than at the nurses’ station; long visits are not encouraged. Still, Ladybug’s helplessness, coupled with her obvious beauty (even under the bruises), and our quietness and determination to be cooperative made inroads with the nurses. On Ladybug’s next-to-last day in the S/TICU, some 20 members of the youth group came in a van to visit her. The nurses, God love them, allowed the youths to come up three at a time and spend 5 minutes with her. Later, the nurses told us how impressed they had been with the politeness of the kids and their willingness to go along with the restrictions placed upon them. It did so much for everyone–since Ladybug’s location and injuries prevented communication by phone, the “face time” did wonders in healing everyone affected–her, them, and us.
The day after the accident, we met the first of Ladybug’s two surgeons, both on the faculty of the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB), whose campus is the Texas Medical Center. Dr. Arun Gadre was the lead surgeon, an Ear, Nose, and Throat surgeon who specialized in facial reconstruction. He showed us photographs, x-rays and MRI’s that helped us to understand what he had to do and how he was going to do it. The facial reconstruction would be two separate operations–the first to set her jaw, wire it, and put plates on her fractured cheekbones, and the second to reconstruct her shattered eye socket (to be done by an opthalmic surgeon, Dr. Richard Urso) and repair her sinus cavity. Dr. Gadre told me that the first operation would take 6-8 hours to complete and the second one (scheduled four days after the first) could take up to 12 hours. He also looked me directly in the eye, made sure I was paying close attention, then said “I want you to understand that I cannot put her back together the way God made her.” At that point, I was just so relieved that the CAT scans for swelling were still coming back negative that I had no problem with that statement. In fact, I appreciated his honesty.
The day of the surgery came, and my daughter was wheeled down early in the morning. By the time all the setting up was done, it was 10:00 when the operation began. The waiting room staff told us to check in every two hours and gave us one of those coaster-pagers (like you see in the restaurants) in case the doctor wanted to communicate with us sooner. We took off, alternating between the stupid morning talk shows on the local affiliates being shown in the waiting area and the overpriced merchandise in the gift shop.
At noon, we checked in–everything was going as planned, no problems, go and get yourselves some lunch. We told them we would be in the hospital cafeteria (they have excellent food there at reasonable prices, BTW). We had just paid for our trays and sat down when the receptionist from the OR waiting room arrived, breathless. It turned out that the cafeteria (as always, in the basement) was in a “dead zone” for signals from the pager. Dr. Gadre wanted to talk to us and would meet us at the cafeteria. Hubby and I looked at each other, having suddenly lost our appetites. The surgeon looking for us, just three hours into a 6-8 hour operation and minutes after having checked-in with us could not possibly be good news. Dr. Gadre met us, still in scrubs with the face mask about his neck. Did Ladybug possibly have an overbite? I had to laugh; I hadn’t thought about her upper jaw since she was eight! At that age, she had to wear a jaw spreader for six months because her secondary bicuspids were coming in at a 90-degree angle due to a too-small upper jaw. When the spreader was removed, the orthodontist in Florida had told us that her overbite would need correction, but not until she had more permanent teeth in–probably when she was a teenager. Hubby had made the 3-hour round trip back home in the wee hours of the morning after the accident (he was gone from 1-6 am) to get all of Ladybug’s most recent photos (including 8×10 school photos from the spring and from the summer swim team, which had just come in) to include in Dr. Gadre’s charts to get an idea of how Ladybug had looked before the accident. Never, though, did I think of her overbite!
We were all laughing with relief as Dr. Gadre had relayed how he had spent the better part of an hour matching up the fractures to see that the teeth didn’t meet, then matching up the teeth only to find that the fractures didn’t meet! Armed with this new knowledge, he returned to the OR, and we returned to our lunch. By 2:00, Ladybug was in the recovery room–the surgery had only taken 4 hours, even with the “snipe hunt” caused by the unreported overbite. Ladybug came back just fine, (although she looked like something out of The Mummy, what with her head completely wrapped in gauze except her poor, swollen face) but now communication would be even more challenging due to her jaw being wired shut and the necessity of a tracheostomy tube that prevented speech. We knew that this would happen, for the facial fractures prevented both the use of a surgical mask and a nasal tube. We were prepared with a small white board and set of markers. The nurses said that if she made it through the next 24 hours without incident, she could be moved out of S/TICU and into the Pediatric ward. We looked forward to our daughter’s transfer to the ward; we were ready to sit!
Next time–Pediatrics: text messaging, “AJ lips”, and THE BOOK