Dinner was at 6 o’clock sharp. Dinner was always at 6 o’clock sharp; my parents came from that generation where the man went to work, and the woman took care of the house and the kids. So Dad would get home from his insurance office around 5:30 in the afternoon, change his clothes and relax a while, and Mom would have dinner on the table, for all of us, promptly at 6.
It’s not like Dad insisted or anything – ‘have my dinner ready when I want it!’ – that was just the way it was, a working routine, probably passed down from the generation before theirs. Anyway, I never heard him demand and I never heard her complain. Theirs was a happy marriage, four kids later, if not terribly exciting for either of them.
I was 19 years old, the youngest child and the only one still living at home. My brother and two sisters had flown the nest, leaving the comfort and routine (and 6 o’clock dinners) of home and family for lives and adventures of their own. I was struggling through junior college, and waiting for something better to come along.
Mom called us to the table. From different parts of the house, my father and I swept in, hungry. The three of us sat down with the sound of the 6 o’clock news coming from the TV in the adjacent room. It was usually Arch Deal, the evening anchor for the local NBC station, WFLA. Channel 8. Arch’s monotone had been part of this ritual for as long as I could remember.
The meal on that Tuesday night was pork chops, thin cut, fried in a pan (no one really thought about healthy foods in those days) and spinach out of a can. There might have been a potato and a small salad. The spinach was sort of soggy, dark green and salty, with a consistency rather like finely-chopped seaweed. This was a standard weeknight dinner at our house. We always had milk to drink.
I guess it was about 15 minutes in when I noticed the headache. It was in the back of my head, on the right side. At first it was mild, just an annoyance, but after a while I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I must have told Mom and Dad about it and excused myself from the table.
I went to my room – the back bedroom in the house – to lie down in the dark. I didn’t suffer from migraines, and wasn’t prone to headaches, but I knew from experience that lying on my side, keeping still for a while, would make it go away. It was, at worst, a minor irritation.
That night, I was to drive to Indian Rocks Beach. I’d gotten involved in sea turtle conservation – well, as involved as you could get in populous Pinellas County, where there weren’t too many stretches of dark and isolated beach left for the big turtles to haul out and lay eggs in the sand.
Still, some of them ran the gauntlet of condominium and hotel lights anyway. I’d been helping Evelyn Hoezel, an older lady who lived in a little house right on the beach at Indian Rocks. She was authorized by the Florida wildlife powers-that-be to dig up turtle nests from St. Petersburg Beach, Pass-a-Grille, Treasure Island or whatever stretch of brightly-lit tourist beach, and re-bury the eggs in her back yard. We’d mark the transplanted nests with a wire cage.
That way, when the baby turtles emerged after 55 days of incubation in the hot sand, supervised, they’d get to go straight to the water when we released them, unmolested by winged predators or well-intentioned humans. Including us – we never physically touched them.
On that Tuesday night, August 29, 1978, I was due at Mrs. Hoezel’s. One of our nests had hatched out, and we were to remove the wire cage and allow the babies free access to the Gulf of Mexico.
This was my favorite part of the job, watching them crawl across the sunset sand to freedom.
I was thinking about this as I lay on my small bed, the right side of my head pressed down against my pillow. The headache had become a dull throb. In the bathroom, I lost my dinner, then went straight back to bed.
Dad was standing next to my bed, talking softly, telling me it was time to wake up. He was dressed in his standard going-to-the-office suit. It was morning. I’d never gone to the beach that night – no Mrs. Hoezel, no sea turtles, no nothing.
Apparently my parents had been trying to wake me up for some time. When I opened my eyes, they were both standing there. I tried to speak but could only mumble like someone heavily sedated. I tried to get up, but my arms and legs didn’t cooperate. It was as if they’d all fallen asleep at once; instead of blood, bone and muscle, my limbs were stuffed with sponge. Mom and Dad stood me up, holding onto my rubbery scarecrow body. They looked gauzy to me.
I remember telling them – or attempting to tell them – that they needed to call my boss. I was supposed to be at work that morning. On a scrap of paper they put in my hands, I wrote “Nora.” I saw the paper later. It looked like spider tracks in the snow. It looked like the scrawl of a 100-year-old man.
They loaded me into the back seat of Dad’s car. I lay there, face down and eyes open, full of fear and dread, but relieved that we were going to the hospital, where somebody would be able to fix this thing. I stared at the little embroidered pillow that had fallen on the floor. That’s a very clear memory.
This all sounds like some sort of overdose, doesn’t it? The sad final act of an idiot teenager’s life? I did not use drugs. The fact was I’d smoked a bit of pot in my life, but even that made me uncomfortable. I was a pretty well-adjusted kid, reasonably intelligent, and putting chemicals in my body, for fun, to be cool, or to numb some sort of subconscious pain, was something I’d just never been tempted by.
My sister Patty met our car at St. Anthony’s. Inside the emergency room, somebody wearing white muttered to someone else, ‘Looks like drugs.’ I was tall and bone-thin, with long, black hair and a scruffy beard; a reasonable assumption, I suppose. I heard Patty say to them ‘My brother doesn’t do drugs,’ and I smiled somewhere down inside.
Next, I heard ‘We’ll do a lumbar tap.’ I knew this was a painful procedure, involving a long needle in the spine, because I’d recently read a Rolling Stone interview with Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac, who said as much (he’d had one done). That was actually what went through my mind as I lay there, helpless and terrified, on the cold steel table.
They did the spinal tap. I never felt a thing. I think that scared me even more than the anticipation. I heard the guy say there was blood in my spinal fluid, which I understood was not good.
I lay there, unattended, for what seemed like a long time. Very sleepy. I started to close my eyes, thinking how easy it would be just to drift off. I suppose that’s what it feels like when you’re freezing to death – just close your eyes, and let go.
I made myself open my eyes again.
Now, on the books of some local Baptist church I was a member of the congregation. This was a holdover from a girlfriend I’d had in high school; I joined her family’s church to make her happy. And, I suppose, to make her skeptical parents think I was after more than good old teenage sex. I had them pretty well conned.
Anyway, after we broke up – acrimoniously and not a moment too soon, as it turned out – I forgot all about the church thing. A year had gone by.
My last recollection of the ER was the appearance, in the doorway, of the pastor of that church. Somehow, he’d heard that something had happened (I’ll never know how he found out, and so quickly) and had appeared to “comfort” me.
I saw him standing there, and here’s what went through my mind: He’s here for my last rites. I used the last of my strength to scream “Get out!” He got out.
And then I went down the rabbit hole.
About a year before she passed away, in 2014, my mother gave me a little diary she kept during those awful first days. I treasure this book. There’s her handwriting, which I know so well, and it’s emotional for me to read her thoughts – I can hear them, in her voice.
When we arrived at the hospital Bill was given immediate attention. Dr. Babcock was with him in 20 minutes. Ten minutes later Dr. Babcock came to us with the most horrendous news parents can receive: “Your child is in critical condition + his chances are not good. It’s possibly an aneurism but until tests are taken we can’t be sure. Bill will be in intensive care + we’ll take it from there.”
Not our Bill, our tall lanky long haired Bill, this is a nightmare, we’ll wake up I know we will.
The neurosurgeon’s full name was R. Hurston Babcock, which made me think of Thurston Howell III from Gilligan’s Island. Still does. Later I found out that R. Hurston was Grand Admiral, or whatever, of the St. Petersburg Yacht Club. There was a framed portrait of him there, serious and proud, wearing a blue blazer and an official –looking blue-and-white yachting cap. So he really kind of was Thurston Howell III.
He was also a nice man, and fortunately for us, a good and caring physician. Within a few hours of my arrival, his test results showed that I’d suffered something called a subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH), a form of cerebral aneurysm.
It’s defined as bleeding in the area between your brain and the surrounding membrane. Because there’s a webby series of tiny, spidery blood vessels, science calls it the subarachnoid space.
Head trauma, smoking, cocaine use and congenital defects are the known major causes; I hadn’t fallen or been knocked in the head by vicious thugs (to the best of my knowledge, anyway), I didn’t smoke and, as I’ve explained, drugs were anathema to me.
So Dr. Babcock and his team decided that I must’ve had a congenital flaw in a tiny subarachnoid capillary, and it burst at that particular moment for no particular reason, leaking less than a teaspoon of blood into the soft cocoon around my brain. Even though it’s a tiny bit of blood, it causes pressure, which can lead to … well, some bad stuff.
I looked this up recently. According to an online physician site called Medscape.com,
An estimated 15-30% of patients with aneurysmal SAH die before reaching the hospital, and approximately 25% of patients die within 24 hours, with or without medical attention. Mortality at the end of 1 week approaches 40%. Half of all patients die in the first 6 months, and only half of the patients who make it to the hospital return to their previous level of functioning.
Back to Mom’s diary:
At a little before 3 Ed + I walk down to see Bill, something is wrong, the curtains are drawn + Dr. Babcock is being paged. Dr. Babcock came to us + told us Bill had another hemorrhage + things were as bad as they could get, he didn’t hold out much hope. They had put Bill on the ventilator to help him breathe as he also had pneumonia.
This was 1978, and the percentages aren’t nearly what they are today. Mom and Dad were told, after this second episode, I had a five percent chance of survival. My sister Karen was in Central America, a journalist covering the bloody Nicaraguan revolution. When they called to tell her what had happened, she was informed that I would most likely be dead before she could get a plane back to Florida.
How does a family deal with that?
It came out of nowhere, with zero warning. I had never really been sick in my life. I loved my family and I loved my friends. I played bass and guitar with them, in a little band we’d put together for the beer clubs out on the beaches. That’s usually where I was Friday and Saturday nights, working.
Well, I guess you could call it working. I lived for it. The other four band members were older than me by a decade. It had been their project; I joined after they’d played out a few times, and I convinced them they needed someone to handle bass and sing the high harmony parts. The integration was seamless. I started adding guitar parts and singing some leads, too. We were never going to be rich or famous, and there would always be bands that were better than ours. Didn’t matter. We were having a great time. I enjoyed belonging to a gang. I was the kid, but I was one of them.
I had a job in a record store – there, I was in my element – and a girlfriend I was crazy about. I attended my junior college classes infrequently.
I had no idea where I was headed in life. Honestly, I was happy not thinking about it. The only things that interested me were music, turtles and girls. And not always in that order.
There’d be plenty of time to work out a plan for the future. Wouldn’t there?
Keith Moon was dead. The enigmatic drummer for the Who lived a life of grand excess, and had famously battled alcoholism for years. The band had only weeks before issued a new album, Who Are You, and on the cover Moon looked seriously overweight and out of shape. It was obvious something wasn’t right. On September 3, he went bloated-belly-up in a London flat, the result of combining his weight-reduction pills with medication prescribed to help him stay off the sauce.
I loved the Who, and for me Keith’s manic, jackhammer playing was a big part of why they were such a great rock ‘n’ roll band. I had Who Are You on cassette in my car.
In the Intensive Care Unit of St. Anthony’s Hospital, there was no day and there was no night. The lights were either on – fluorescent and obnoxiously bright – or off. The big room had no windows.
There was a huge, round white clock on the wall, centrally located where I – and presumably, the other ICU patients – could see it and have some sense that we were still in the real world. It was just like the clocks they had in schoolrooms, the clocks I had been staring at since I was a little kid waiting for the bell to ring so I could get out of there. Otherwise, I didn’t know where I was or who I was, much less the time of day.
And there was always a radio playing. Over and over, I heard the Top 40 hits of the day (“Hot Child in the City” or “Boogie Oogie Oogie”) and the hourly news report. I didn’t understand most of the newscaster jabber, but when I heard “Rock drummer Keith Moon of the Who has died in London,” I perked up. That’s how I found out.
My brother, Ed, came in to visit that afternoon. I told him Keith had died. It was probably the most complete sentence I’d spoken in the four days I’d been in the hospital. He stared down at me. “How did you know that?” he said.
Dr. Babcock told me much later that they’d been close to performing cranial surgery, to relieve the pressure on my brain. I don’t remember the reason, but they never did it. I was never drilled. Once they were sure the bleeding had stopped, it was decided that the best course of action was to keep me comfortable and just see what happened.
I suspect that I was pumped full of some drug or other, because the 16 days in ICU are etched into my memory. When I slept, I had hideous nightmares, and when I was awake, I had little or no idea what was going on. I knew what had happened and I knew where I was – well, sort of. The people in white, flitting in and out of the darkened room, were conspiring to kill me. Every so often, a nurse – male or female – would appear and mercifully drop a couple of ice chips into my Sahara Desert mouth. Best of all were the periodic sips of sugary Gatorade.
Sometimes, though, they didn’t come, for what felt like hours. I could not raise my head, so I listened – to the distant radio, to the moans of patients in nearby beds, and to the sound of the ICU attendants’ chatty conversations on the far side of the room.
They mocked me. They ignored me. I knew they were talking about me … and so I started to scream to get their attention, and to let them know I knew what they were up to. I really just wanted more ice chips and Gatorade. But in my mind, the screaming only made them hate me more.
According to Patty, the one time she came into the ICU to look in on her brother, I screamed at her to ‘get out.’ I don’t have any memory of this, but it makes sense with the rest of the narrative.
Periodically, my body would twitch and jerk, my arms and legs flailing about like worms on a hotplate. It was totally involuntary, and probably a reaction to the drugs in my system. The kicking got so bad that they had to tie my legs to the metal bars on the side of the hospital bed.
My family members would come in, one or two at a time, to stand there in the dark and talk quietly to me. I remember being embarrassed that I was strapped to the bed.
I was transferred to a gurney and wheeled out into the hall. Everything seemed so bright and so loud. We went up in an elevator, and my gurney was parked alongside a wall outside whatever room we were going to. I lay there for a very long time before they came back and retrieved me. People were moving back and forth, walking past me. Ignoring the long-haired, skinny kid on the bed. I felt like a piece of furniture. I caught windy bits of conversation and understood nothing.
Then my bed was rolled into the room. Now, the years gone by have blurred this particular memory somewhat, but here’s the way I see it in my mind’s eye: I’m rolled into the center and left under a single very bright light, a hot lamp. A doctor and about a dozen medical students, all dressed in scrubs and surgical masks, gather around the bed, which is now some sort of observation table. It’s what they call an operating theatre.
I am a disembodied head in the center of the table, mute, looking up helplessly as this guy pokes and prods, answering his students’ questions about this test subject. My eyes blink but I am mute. I am propped up on a little stand, part of my spinal cord trailing down from the back like a raccoon tail pinned to Davy Crockett’s yellow skull.
Sixteen days after my arrival at St. Anthony’s, I was released from ICU and moved to a private room (my parents insisted, even though it cost a little extra. I’ve always been grateful for that). The kicking and screaming had ceased, as had the nightmares, and it was decided, there being nothing else medically to be done, to return me to some semblance of normalcy.
Over the next two weeks I was visited by every member of my family, and by many close friends. I guess none of the latter knew what to expect, because they hadn’t seen me for so long. I was gaunt (being fed intravenously will do that to you), I had double vision (which was also the name of a stupid song by Foreigner, playing over and over again in the ICU), and everything was blurry, so I imagine I looked at my visitors rather cockeyed. Most significantly, my left hand was clenched in a fist. I could not uncurl my fingers, and I could barely move my left arm. I was stiff and I was weak. I spoke slowly and deliberately, like a stroke victim.
Even so, it was so wonderful to have visitors, to finally, completely understand that I was still around. I remember them all, the gifts they brought, the music they knew I loved, the jokes, the tentative questions about my prognosis, and about my future.
That was the big mystery. Would my speech return? Could I stand up? Walk? Drive a car? Feed myself?
Would I be able to play the guitar, the only thing I really knew how to do, again?
Dr. Babcock said there wasn’t any way of knowing how much damage had been done – certainly, the hemorrhage had only affected the part of the brain that controls physical activity, and only on the left side of my body. Oh, my mental faculties might be in shambles – I was a weepy, emotional wreck – but from all indications, they were still intact.
Only half of the patients who make it to the hospital return to their previous level of functioning.
The doctor advised us to take a “wait and see” attitude.
My parents took me home after 31 days of hospitalization. And we waited.
And we saw.
Read Part 2 here