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U -Turn

Well, I would have much rather stayed in bed, but I sat there for 10 minutes thinking, debating, playing devil’s advocate. “Do I get up, or do I cancel my hair appointment?” I had woken with a slight headache and was sore from a weekend of catching at a softball tournament in Petersburg, and part of me just wanted to roll over and go back to sleep instead of going in and getting my hair done.

Alas, something inside of me, driving me, won out. I got up, popped an Advil, got ready for the day and headed out. The morning started to look like the rain was going to take a break from the down-pour we had been beaten with for the past several days. I was beginning to feel better and after stopping at Safeway and running into a few people I knew, I reached Harbor Barber.

I was sitting there with hair color dripping down my neck, my hair all balled up on top of my head, wrapped in a clear plastic bag, and about to go under the blow dryer, when a childhood friend came in with his eight-year-old brother who needed a haircut. We talked, and they hadn’t been there long before the young brother began complaining of being hungry and bored. I suggested Sam (names are changed to protect them) take his brother down to the Pizza Mill and get something to eat, and by the time they got done and came back the hair dresser would be all theirs. My friend and his brother agreed and the eight-year-old skipped out the door happily.

The hairdresser looked at me as she put me under the dryer and said, “ I am going to go get coffee; would you like me to get you one too?” I pulled money from my purse, gave her my order, and said, “Yes, thank you. “ Then as she walked away from me, I closed my eyes and tried to drown out the sound of the blow dryer.

Some people ask me, why didn’t you run? didn’t you hear it? didn’t you feel it? I try to go back to that moment in my mind, but all I can see is me closing my eyes, wishing for the headache to go away and thinking the latte will help.

Then whoosh! I was floating. It was too late. As I opened my eyes, the image of shampoo, cream rinse, mousse bottles, and other products seemed to be flying on their own. I looked at the door and the hairdresser was holding her head and screaming. I tried to reach out to her, speak, tell her it was okay. Cold water surrounded me, a large black mass sat in my way, and I was trapped. I tried to move, but my arms were pinned between the cabinets, and I was jammed under the sink, cocooning me and trapping me at the same time. I was only able to free my right arm, and I began reaching for the phone and asking the hair dresser to calm down and hand it to me. She was spinning in circles and screaming. My head hurt and I just wanted her to stop screaming, and hand me the phone. I knew one of us had to call 911. She stopped screaming for one minute, took a look at me, and ran from the building, screaming. There are times I wished I’d had a mirror so I could see what they saw. The horror on her face was nothing I could register, or grasp at the time, because I didn’t feel anything was wrong.

A few seconds went by as I sat there alone wondering if anyone was coming; the silence was deafening. I tried to free myself and began to take stock of my situation. All I could see was rock and more rock, and the back wall where Sam and his brother had sat moments before, was gone. Then the garbage man came in with a 2x4. He took one look at me, and I saw that look of horror on his face too, feeling a little put off, and the butt of a joke, knowing I looked awful with all that hair dye in my hair, I said with sarcasm drooling from my lips, “Ya, that’s not gonna cut it.”

I again asked for the phone or that 911 be called. He said, “Hold on,” and with that look of horror, that didn’t give me that reassurance that he would call someone to help me, and like the hairdresser had, he ran out.

At that point I was thinking I must look really good with all this red hair dye running down my face and the image of Carrie flashed into my mind, and I giggled a little. Then the Burger Queen lady came in, stood at the door, and looked me square in the eyes and said, “I called 911. They are on their way; hold on.” I said, “Thank you, that’s all I needed to hear.” Then within seconds of her leaving, Rags from the fire department, who happened to be across the street working on the fire boat, came running in with his radio. He set to working on setting my arms and head free of the sink and got on the radio telling dispatch to shut off the electricity to the building and surrounding area.

The more he spoke, the more he began to sound exasperated and annoyed, and what I made out was that it was because they didn’t know which switch to flip. I remember him raising his voice, and at the same time trying to remain calm, say, “I don’t care what you do! If you have to shut down the whole damn town, just do it, and do it now!” It was with these words that I realized that swinging, venomous like angry snakes, hissing was of live electric wires hovering over me, waiting for a connection with the few inches of water I was sitting in. Course all I was thinking about was that I was really glad Sam and his brother hadn’t stayed and waited. Then as my usual mind works I thought, “Thank god, I wasn’t in the bathroom, using the facilities.” I mean really, that would have been embarrassing, don’t you think.

The third thing that went through my mind was tomorrow was Mom’s birthday, and my birthday was in three days, and this was going to ruin my plans. I used to celebrate my birthday, so this was an annoying set back, but I still didn’t realize it was going to be a lot worse than a few stitches or a broken bone. Course today, I like my birthday, but at the same time I have my anniversary to my claim to fame, “Ketchikan’s Worst Hair Day.” The day I became the poster child of bad hair days, so my birthday is a little darker than before, and for the most part, it dredges up too many feelings, too many memories, and pain.

The firemen came, and just so you understand, I was born and raised here, my family was born and raised here, going back to Harriet Hunt, so most of those men and women were friends I went to grade school with, worked with, played softball with. So a ton of emotion entered that building that day, but they landed and began to work removing that rock, and working out what to do. They didn’t have much to work with, but house jacks. Glen, the paramedic, began prepping me with IVs for pain meds and blood transfusions, but with all that was going on, I couldn’t ignore the looks on their faces. Even under the helmets and gear, I could see the fear. Hell, I could smell it, and I knew I was in trouble.

As they worked, I cussed like a sailor, fisherman and logger rolled into one, and at the same time asked that someone take the dye out of my hair. Then in another moment I apologized profusely. Glen just told me to keep it up, keep cussing, keep talking, talk to me. I know I was cussing good, because someone pointed it out who had a scanner at home and told my grandmother I had a very foul mouth that day. That, by the way, was the first time I got an exemption from paying the purple pig. If you knew my grandmother, you knew cussing was a no, no and cost you a quarter to the purple pig, piggy bank she had. Well, she told that lady, “My granddaughter had every right to cuss that day and if you didn’t like hearing it maybe you should have turned off your scanner.” She was a little angry, and isn’t a fan of nosey people with scanners. She never had one and didn’t think anyone else should either. Forty minutes went by and Glen said, “Jan, we may have to amputate your leg here.” I said snarkly and a little drugged up, “Who has the chain saw?” I giggled in pain, and of course, it wasn’t funny then but it sure is much funnier now years later.

Course we didn’t have to cut my leg off; the gang got the rock lifted enough to begin pulling me out. As they began pulling me out, I could feel the pulling on my leg. I said, “Stop! my leg is stuck.” They realized that my leg was still attached, and so they began slowly spatulating my leg off the cement floor like a pancake stuck to the grill. They never thought I would leave the place with my leg attached or my foot undamaged. The rock had pinched off my main artery so until they removed the rock, I hadn’t lost any blood. I immediately did, and because they had me hooked up to blood and transfusions, I survived. I went through seven pints of blood just getting from the tunnel to the hospital.

I sit here years later listening to my kids giggle and carefree; they have no idea. Don’t get me wrong, I hope they never have an experience that reminds them daily how quickly a life can end or change. I don’t really remember the ride from the barber shop to the hospital but I do remember a moment.

I could hear my aunt and grandmother in the distance; they were talking about who was going to go with me. Maybe they were even arguing; I just remember the urgency of the conversation. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t open my eyes, I couldn’t get my lips to move. I can remember forcing my mouth to move and feeling like I was frozen. My mouth felt like cement, and I must have made a sound or moved because my grandmother put her hand on my forehead and said, “We’re here; what can we do?” I know I said something because my grandmother confirmed it, and with all my strength and deliberation I forced out, “I want my Mommie!” After that it was like a dream. Next thing I remember is being wheeled past a ton of people and all of them smiling and saying that I was going to be fine. Then this tall heavy-set woman stepped up to me; she was so familiar, like I knew her. She was dressed all in black, old turn of the century clothing, as if she was an interrupted cast member in My Fair Lady or Doctor Dolittle. I was so confused because it was as if I knew her, but I didn’t know her. She put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Young Lady, it is not your time. You are strong, and you still have so much to do.” I was so annoyed with all these people; I wasn’t in the mood to have people telling me how strong I was or what I had to do. I didn’t want visitors or anyone seeing me like this. I was angry they were parading me through the airport like this, but I couldn’t speak or move to voice my objection. It was as if the whole town had come out to see me off. I was like, what the hell, I look and feel like shit and you all decide that this is a great time to come and see me.

The next thing I remember is waking up and seeing my grandmother sitting across the room reading. It was my birthday, and I had been asleep for three days.

I told my grandmother how I didn’t appreciate being displayed in the airport, and she looked at me with complete surprise. She said, “Janalee, we never went through the airport.” I still wonder sometimes who all those familiar faces were, and part of me knows they were my guardian angels, if you believe in those things. For those of you who do not understand what de-gloved means, it literally means in medical terminology, is an avulsion-type injury in which the skin and subcutaneous tissue of a part of the body are torn off in a glove-like fashion, leaving the musculofascial plane intact, this is the muscle layer. In other words, my skin and fat was torn from my leg leaving my muscles bare. Three reasons my leg probably survived that twenty ton boulder: one, I was a student of ballet; two, for most of my life I climbed Ketchikan hills and mountains; and three, Ketchikan, at that time, happened to have one of the most amazing trauma surgeons, a man with experience in trauma like mine, who experienced Vietnam as a medic, and said I was the worst he had ever seen. I seriously doubt that, but I will let him tell me that. I got lucky. Amazing people both in Ketchikan and at Harborview saved my life that day, and I was placed with some of the most amazing, beautiful people ever created. I was in the burn ward at Harborview and that experience alone, forever changed me. The next month I was subjected to skin grafts; my back, butt, and good thigh were skinned to make skin for my leg that was de-gloved in the accident. I don’t remember the pain from the rock but I can remember the pain from being skinned alive; o, and I have pictures. They couldn’t do it until I had been there for a week and gotten a little stronger. They explained the procedure step by step so I understood what was going to happen, which then made me realize they would be taking off my seahorse tattoo, and I was like, “Please, no, isn’t there something else you can do?” But they needed all my skin from my back and my butt. Then they said that they could take a patch from my good thigh if I didn’t mind. I was like yes, thank you! Okay, you’re wondering what does it mean when they do skin grafts, I mean really. Well I am gonna tell you, and I am not going to sugar coat it, or make it smell like rose petals either. This is the reason I don’t watch shows like ER, Chicago Hope, or Grey’s Anatomy. Okay, I do occasionally find myself watching Scrubs, but that’s funny. Anyway, so the doctors take this giant tool like a cheese slicer, you know those ones that slice cheese into thin perfect squares to put on sandwiches, that one with the little wire. Are you getting a picture yet? They run it down my back like they are slicing cheese for a sandwich, taking the top two layers of my skin from my back, butt, and then my thigh. They take the skin and punch tiny holes in it so that they can make it stretch out further, and so fluid doesn’t get trapped under the skin so it won’t heal. They use silver to help it heal and keep it damp. The holes make it look like fishnet. The idea is that the skin will grow back together on the leg that lost skin. Compression is also key here so that the skin grows flat and not bumpy. They remove the dead pig or cadaver skin they placed on my leg when I first arrived to protect my muscles and blood vessels from drying out. I am not sure which one they used on my leg, and I didn’t ask. Part of me didn’t want to know.

I have pictures. Yep, I had my mom take pictures. O be very thankful that it was two years or more before the handy dandy picture taking cell phone was invented and for that matter, Facebook, snap chat, Instagram, and the ability to get online at the hospital didn’t exist then, because you all would have had a first class ticket to my nightmare. Along with all this pain was the fact that I was so jacked up on pain medication, half the time everything that came out of my mouth was not censored. I plead the fifth, due to pain meds and sleep deprivation, which all came down to gaps in my memory, and with that all common sense goes out the window.

The next two weeks were the worst days of my life. When I woke from that procedure, I came out screaming. They had me in what they call an airbed. I had to sleep mostly on my stomach with no clothing on, which was trying because my leg didn’t like it and well you can’t spend 336 hours on your stomach without being in pain. Hell, you can’t spend a month in a bed without feeling pain.

If I sat or lay on my good side, I had to move carefully and with help of four nurses and on my own terms, so that I didn’t rip the giant scab which was my back and leg off and then have to start over. We had a system: two nurses on my leg to hold it so it didn’t bend in the wrong place. O ya, my knee tendons that hold the leg in place were no longer there, and so my leg would go crooked and not in the right way. You know sideways instead of back to front. Then I would reach up to a triangle they put up for me to lift myself and I would give them the signal. I would brace myself for the pain that would follow and slowly lift my torso with my own arms. Then turn slowly, peeling my good leg with the smaller patch of missing skin off the bed, where it had touched and got stuck. Slowly, the nurses would turn my leg following my lead. Every day we did this and I worked like hell to stay on my stomach as long as possible to allow for the missing skinned area to heal as fast as possible. Don’t have a picture yet? Have you ever had road rash? Well imagine road rash from your neck to your butt.

Every morning I would be taken down to what I called the chamber of horrors, community shower, for my morning shower of hell, for the removal of dead tissue from the damaged leg where the skin graft had been placed. This was the long grueling process of a nurse, doctor and/or intern slowly going over my leg and using a tweezer like device to pick the dead skin from my leg, and yes, a wire brush like device that resembled a tooth brush to gently debris the area, and lets not forget this isn’t a small area. It’s my whole leg from my ankle to my hip, so there was more than one person working on me.

Also they removed staples from the last three surgeries I had in Ketchikan, in Harborview the night I got in, and another one I had prior to waking up on the 3rd of June, that had decided to push their way out of my leg because my body was rejecting them. As you might have suspected, they removed those just as you would if you were removing a staple from a packet of paper, but the paper probably didn’t care as much as I did. Every morning for the whole month, our routine was the same. For those of you who do not know what debridement is, it is the mechanical, chemical or surgical removal of dead tissue that does not come off easily during the healing period, and is a task we all went under every day and was extremely painful, I chock it up there with medieval torture, like that you see on the show Game of Thrones and worse.

They would remove the bandages, clean the graft, give me a bath, and my mom would wash my hair to make me feel better. I would focus on my hair being washed for a long time because I didn’t want to focus on or see my leg or the dozens of individual doctors, nurses and interns that were there while I lay butt naked on a metal slab being debrided. It didn’t help that Seattle and Ketchikan weather was in the 90’s and I felt like I was going to melt in the plastic air bed. I was either sweating my butt off or freezing because I had to lay with my skinned back and butt exposed so that it would heal faster. So yep, I was back and butts to the air for all to see. Now for someone who didn’t like changing in the locker room at high school or the swimming pool, imagine being laid out for all to see naked and believe me some of those doctors, nurses and interns were cute. No, I wasn’t really looking, but my grandma was and boy howdy was she funny. I think she was trying to make me laugh more than looking for a suitable husband for me. After a few visits I finally told her, “You know, I am sure Grandpa won’t mind if you sink your fingers into one of these gorgeous coats and have a little fun, and then I can call you Grandma Cougar.” I won; I got the famous scowl. My first roommate in the month I would spend there was a 5-year-old girl who had been lit on fire by two young boys, ages 8 and 11, because she was Indian. Yes, they deliberately poured lighter fluid on this beautiful little girl’s head and lit her on fire. Hate and discrimination were alive and well in Seattle, WA, in 1995, and I was shocked. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it, it made me angry, and I don’t know why I had thought I had left this behavior five years ago behind me in Los Angeles, where I spent four years of my life in the hood going to college. What I learned from this little girl was something else entirely, regardless of everything she was going through. She had so much joy, love and bravery; she took the daily task of skin grafts and debridement fearlessly.

In that month I would meet 10 amazing young people who would show me their bravery, and that no matter how much pain they were in, they could laugh, play and hang out. There was one more thing they left me with: it was that when they left that hospital, their injuries would be there for the whole world to see. From time to time they would have to return to Harborview for more skin grafts. You see, skin grafts fail all the time, and for most people, they have to be redone over and over again, and when you only have a small area of skin to work with, multiple operations have to be done to get enough skin to cover all the areas. These kids would have to endure more than one skinning to cover all their injuries. I didn’t. I got lucky and was the first patient to ever have such a large skin graft to heal 100%. Also, my injury is in a place I can hide behind clothing, and because there is no pigment I have to keep it out of the sun or it will burn. Most of them had burns that covered 50 to 95% of their bodies, including their faces, arms, and legs. Some of them had already spent the last year in the hospital where I was. Some lost all or most of their hair.

My goal although I had missed my birthday, was to get out for my class reunion coming up on the 4th of July. I worked so hard, and told the doctors I wanted to go home for my 10 year class reunion. I pushed it, and I pushed myself hard. Every day I bit my tongue when it hurt and strived to do everything they asked to get out of that bed. I had my good days and I had my bad ones. My mother was there through it all, and I can’t imagine what it was like for her sleeping in the chair next to me just to make sure no one messed up on me. The doctors kept telling my mom that I wasn’t probably going to get to go home at the end of the month. This large of a skin graft could take a long time, and they suspected I would be here from 6 months to a year. They didn’t tell me that, and so I proved them wrong. Course over the last 22 years from day one, it was my creed to prove them wrong. On May 31st, they told my mom and family I only had a 1% chance of survival and I proved them wrong there too.

When I came home I had a ton of home health support, but I wasn’t just up against getting better and doing PT. I wasn’t allowed to walk on my leg for 6 months to a year, because I had broken my femur bone in two places and a metal rod was inserted, but I also had to let the skin heal.

I can’t begin to go into great detail of the transformation I spent the last 22 years going through to get back to something most of us call normal. After an event like this you don’t ever get normal back. Why you might ask--well you might not like what I have to say about that. You might even say I don’t know what I am talking about or I am just too angry and misguided by that anger to see clearly. Here is the thing about seeing clearly: you don’t until you wake up with a different focus. You, my friend, will never know, or at least I hope you never experience something like I have, because it changes you forever, and if you aren’t up for the task you won’t survive.

You might be asking yourself, what now, she already went through the worst of the worst, but you see the worst can’t be broken down and condensed into a 1-hour segment of ER. The worst isn’t even the pain. I live with pain every day; I don’t even really notice it anymore except when it gets out of balance.

People will disappoint you; family, friends, community, and strangers will test your resolve and leave you questioning everything you have ever believed to be true about them and yourself.

There are two parts to this: one is good news and the other is a message for everyone who thinks they are exempt from such tragedy. I got lucky in that I belong to an amazing community who came together and pulled together to help me. Some of them knew me, some of them knew my family or had no clue who I was but gave their change, or more, to a bucket sitting at every cash register in a business that put one up. We Ketchikan peeps do it all the time. I did it and still do it. You would be surprised at the number of people I know who have been diagnosed with cancer, and how many have died. I remember my first friend who was diagnosed in high school, then the second one, and the third. All three have died since then, and that is a story for another time, but maybe it is their journey and the journey I joined them in that gave me the strength for my own.

As you can see, my story has many twists and turns. There is no clear-cut course, no straight path, or paved way. It was and is a bumpy ride, and although it has been twenty-two years, it is still a journey, just a new menu. There is so much more to my story than what you see here, and since my story began, I have got married to a wonderful man and we adopted three kids. My life is not perfect by any means, but life is life. I will prevail and persevere. I have found my voice again, but still struggle with second guessing myself, and I sing. I sing, because I know that it could be much worse. I sing through the good and the bad. My purpose may have been just one tiny detail above, but it was and is a purpose, after all.

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