I was about three days out of the hospital when complications called me back. My stroke wasn’t finished with me yet. On Day 2 of my triumphant homecoming, my right arm flat-out died. Couldn’t lift it without my left. A strenuous walk through the cemetery the day before had given my body strange ideas. My right leg weakened. I could climb out of bed, but walking became problematic. I moved like John Cleese’s Minister of Silly Walks as a syphilitic pirate. I’d propel ahead and my right foot would clomp before me louder than a typewriter slamming letters onto paper. Sometimes it wouldn’t land straight, but on its side, and twice, in my bedroom and kitchen, I fell flat on my face, literally onto my face, because my right arm couldn’t hinder my momentum. I was a biped with an exclamation point. Because of that, for the first time since childhood, I regarded my shower with apprehension. My body was no longer trustworthy and if I slipped in there, it was over. Nevertheless, I chalked it up to growing pains in my newest form.
Then Day 3 hit. I had a doctor’s appointment that morning, and I got up in plenty of time to bathe and dress. I needed it, because donning pants had mysteriously grown exhausting, an ordeal of shoving my right foot and leg through a tight, tiny cylinder. Shirts were even worse. I had to help my right arm through its sleeve and work to pull it past my chest because it would clump tightly around my right shoulder, refusing to budge. Despite my stroke, these were new problems. My right sock was damn near impossible to pull across my right foot; my fingers would not cooperate. The process was inordinately slow. But I managed to step over my tub edge, shower with minimal incident and dress as well as I could in clothes that would become my only outside clothes, unlaundered and smashed into a plastic bag, for the next four weeks.
I sat at my kitchen table and caught a quick nap. I still had a half-hour before my ride, former Albany Democrat-Herald managing editor and mensch supreme Graham Kislingbury, stopped to pick me up. When I awoke, however, it was not Graham gently prodding me but the forceful arm of a paramedic. Confused, I tried to ask him what he was doing; I was fine. But all I could produce was an impenetrable, thick, monosyllabic croak. “What? What are you saying?” the paramedic asked. I slurred out something that resembled a word and my own mind cut through the muddle with the horrific realization that I knew what I wanted to say but could not speak. Suddenly there were three paramedics pulling me to my rubbery feet and pouring me onto a gurney. Graham stood near my front door, worry twisted into his countenance. “I tried waking him up,” he told them. “But he wasn’t making any sense.” By this point I somehow had grown more coherent. I said something they understood, but I don’t recall what it was other than it required some effort to release. In any case, I was declared conscious and alert, then loaded into an ambulance. Again. And driven the several yards to Albany General. Again.
I did not want to return to Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center in Corvallis. I’d been released from that joint with a clean bill of health, well wishes and prescriptions only days earlier. But after getting my clothes peeled off and my head run through another brain scan (it revealed no new damage, thankfully), doctors determined that I had no choice. So back I went onto a Corvallis-bound ambulance and got the same tour of that hospital’s ceilings to the elevator to the second floor, only feet away from my previous room a week earlier, although this time I was worse off. Previously, I nimbly danced out of the building. This time I could barely sit up without help.
I lasted in that room, with a roommate, for a few days. I couldn’t leave the bed. Nurses responded to my rushed requests for bedpans, a quite-disgusting first for me. The other need required a quart container, and I filled those endlessly while lying on my back. Sleep came fitfully; and I annoyed at least one nurse by inquiring strangely about a nonexistent Oregon State University medical student who had died earlier in the evening. I slept, when sleep came, to live Pink Floyd in their psychedelic period, where they noodled on “Echoes” for an hour before a long-gone crowd of future grandparents in acid-baked youthful bliss. Meanwhile, machines registered my troubling blood pressure by the hour, an IV needle in my left arm, as it slowly dropped from 200 to something more preferable, like a dangerous 170.
On my third morning, I whiled away the predawn hours by daring to sit up for the first time in weeks. I needed it. If I sat up, I was that much closer to walking, and walking the hell right out of that building forever. I grabbed the bed railing with my left hand and somehow, using all my power, pulled my body into a sitting position and kept from tipping over by using my left arm as leverage. (My right arm still maintained the limp consistency of soup.) Success! But it felt like I’d scaled Annapurna. My breath came in spurts and I was sweating, winded. It felt so good, though. I logged it as a muscle memory, dropped to my back and practiced a few more times until it required less effort. Then I sprang it on the morning nurse for my own amusement when breakfast arrived.
Later that day, I moved via wheelchair to a third-floor room, my own room: 3112 (1,000 off my favorite Rush LP), the number I barked multiple times a day to a room service representative who then said, without fail, “I’m sorry, but that puts you over your sodium.” My own window and view of a parking lot, my own bathroom, and no patter or television noise from an adjacent bed. It became my joint. As the coronavirus ran rampant throughout the world and the Willamette Valley, closing schools, stores and restaurants and reducing a population to potential virus conveyors, I sat above it all in the cleanest environment possible. It was just a harrowing newspaper item to me, Facebook videos of a president over his head. It affected me only by reducing me to zero visitors via new hospital restrictions, which sucked because it cut me off from the people I loved and left me only medical personnel and therapists with whom to communicate face to face — and even they wore protective masks over their mouths. I nevertheless amassed books and magazines and the new Pearl Jam album through friends and family, who could only go so far as the first-floor admissions desk. Even my CPAP specialist and doctors wanted to talk books and brought me some of their favorites, including Dr. Jill Bolte-Taylor’s memoir, “My Stroke of Insight,” which, as a stroke survivor myself (though hers was worse; she lost the ability to speak for a time), I devoured as a shared adventure. I eventually acquired enough ephemera to stock a separate apartment. Needless to say, I read a lot and listened to a metric ton of music.
But I also began writing again, first in wearying longhand spurts and then on my laptop, using my left hand exclusively. (My right hand isn’t quite ready to join the fray.) That narrative, chronicling my improvement from bedridden schnook to mobile raconteur in near-real-time, follows next week.
Cory Frye is the city editor of the Albany Democrat-Herald and Corvallis Gazette-Times.
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