Imagine that you’re twenty-three years old, physically fit and in perfect health, you’ve recently graduated college with a promising new career at a CPA firm and just won the bench press at a local gym. Life is good.
Now imagine waking up from a coma three weeks later in a hospital bed and realizing that you’re connected to three life support machines, unable to eat or speak and the entire left side of your body is paralyzed. Imagine seven months stuck in three hospitals and unable to go home. Five months without the ability to walk. Four months without the capacity to speak or shower. Three months without being able to eat real food.
This was the situation I found myself in after my car was broadsided by a stolen vehicle traveling at eighty mph. I suffered a traumatic brain injury and my heart stopped three times on the way to the hospital.
The prognosis for my recovery was not good. The doctor told my family, “His body and head has suffered massive trauma. I’m sorry to say this but, he’ll be lucky to survive the next forty-eight hours.”
As distressed as my family was at the news of the accident—and the sight of my mangled body—the one thing that had been holding them together was hope. The hope that with the proper medical attention, I could and would recover from this catastrophe. The doctor’s prognosis hit them like a sledgehammer, demolishing any hope. The reality of my condition and probable death touched each of them deeply. They conveyed to me how their lives from that point on was never the same.
My family was my rock and, unbeknownst to me at the time, the single most important reason for my survival.
They surrounded my bed. There I was, lying before them, completely motionless and in a coma. The bandages that covered my now shaved head had one small opening with a narrow tube coming out of it. The respirator had another long tube attached to my neck, where the doctors had performed a tracheotomy. The IV was in my arm to give me fluids and medicine. Finally, there was a tube that ran through my nose into my stomach and connected to a third machine that held liquid nutrients.
For the next two days, my parents and siblings kept vigil outside my room. They were in a daze and could barely eat or sleep. It was a torturous time for them. The doctor’s declaration of my impending demise weighed heavy on their hearts. Yet, with each passing hour they became slightly more hopeful that my chances of survival were a little bit better. After the dreaded forty-eight hours passed, and I was still clinging to life, they felt somewhat relieved. Maybe the doctor had made a mistake. After all, doctors aren’t infallible. Bit by bit, hope began to return to them. But they still had no idea what the future held for me.
The neurologist met with them to give his prognosis. “Joseph has suffered a traumatic brain injury and is in what I consider to be a light coma,” he explained. “His chances of coming out of the coma are pretty good, but I doubt he will ever make a full recovery. He will have many severe limitations.”
I was in a coma for three weeks and stuck in bed for over three months.
I remember waking up in the hospital and being so confused. I didn’t know where I was, why I was there, how long I had been there, or even what was wrong with me.
I kept trying to ask my brother Michael, “What happened? Where am I”, but no words came out because of the tracheotomy, so I mouthed the words. He would begin to explain, “You were in a car accident.” Then he would add, “It wasn’t your fault, you were hit by a man speeding in a stolen car.” I nodded. I understood for the moment. But the next day I would once again want to know what had happened. Michael would patiently begin the story again. “You were in a car accident…” Sometimes I would ask him an hour later, “What happened to me?” Michael repeated it until it sunk in. My head was in a fog and my memory was failing me due to the trauma of the head injury as well as the medications I was on.
During my entire hospital stay, I was faced with many challenges:
– Neglect in the first hospital which caused infected bed sores, advanced pneumonia, being over medicated and losing over fifty lbs. I only weighed about 150 lbs prior to the accident so this was very alarming.
– I was never properly diagnosed with an inability to swallow food which led to aspirating or inhaling my food directly into my lungs causing a severe infection.
– ENT doctors telling me I’ll never talk again. That was a devastating diagnosis for someone who was fond of communicating and very social.
– Neglectful, incompetent nurses and careless doctors.
– The biggest challenge-feeling sorry for myself.
At one point, I couldn’t help it and I started asking myself that dreaded question, “Why me?” Not so long before, I was vital, healthy, and independent. Now, I couldn’t even speak for myself. Being in such a helpless vulnerable position at a point where you’re so young and unprepared for these challenges was emotionally traumatic.
I didn’t ask my family and friends that were by my side because I knew they wouldn’t have an answer. Plus, I wasn’t even able to speak at that point. I was using a letter board and pointing to one letter at a time to get my point across. I knew if I painstakingly had to spell out the words “Why me” on the letter board, that would only underline the reason I was feeling such anguish.
Why me? Why me? Why me? It would run through my head like a chant. I wanted to know why. I wondered, why was I chosen for this tragedy? Did I do something wrong and somehow deserve this?
It seemed to me that for my whole life I strived to be kind and always do the right thing. On the night of the accident, I wasn’t speeding or driving recklessly. I wasn’t drunk! I was only returning a rented movie and filling my car with gas. So I began to question the entire universe, the nature of good and evil and crime and punishment. Why did this happen to me? Why was I singled out for this suffering? Was I being punished for something I had done in the past? I had plenty of time to think about it and I couldn’t come up with a single thing I had done that would warrant this kind of retribution.
As I lay there asking myself these questions and feeling absolutely miserable, it eventually dawned on me that I was not helping myself. I could cry and feel sorry for myself all day, but it wouldn’t get me my voice back. It wouldn’t get me out of bed. It wouldn’t help me regain my life. I realized I would never get an answer to the “why me” question, just as the millions of other good people who experience tragedy are given no reason. If I continued to ask myself that question, I was just wasting my time and making myself depressed and keeping myself from moving forward.
I realized I needed to immediately change my focus. After all, my desire was to get well and go home, not sit in bed feeling sorry for myself. I thought back to my life before the accident and remembered how I had always considered myself to be a mentally strong person. Everyone who knew me was aware of my strong will and even stronger drive. I went to college full time, worked a twenty-five hour week to support myself financially and still managed to work out in the gym four times a week. I felt I had a special inner strength. I realized that this accident and my recovery could be the big test I was waiting for to show the world my resilience. It was also an internal battle for me.
I wondered, am I really as strong as I think I am?
In that moment, I resolved to put all my effort into getting well so I could go home and restart my life. I needed to pull every ounce of my mental and physical fortitude together and spend valuable time thinking and planning how I could get better. I couldn’t waste any more time asking myself, “why me?” I now had a feeling that this was a test that I could pass. I knew I would have pitfalls, in addition to the ones I’d already experienced, but I would push forward with the desire to pass the most difficult test of my life. Maybe some of my male ego came into play. It was an extremely tough challenge, but my new attitude was, “I’ll show them I can beat this!” That was the turning point for me. I started asking myself what do I need to do to get better so I can go home.
This new attitude gave me new power.
I suddenly felt less like a victim and I felt more in control of my life. I started working harder in therapy, challenging my doctors with their limiting beliefs and suggesting additional ideas to the therapists. I did have a few down moments but I was on a quest to get better and go home.
I had to slowly re-build my entire body through physical and occupational therapy. Due to the head injury and the medications I was on, I couldn’t even sit upright without getting dizzy. The physical therapist would come to my room each day and raise the adjustable bed upright for a few minutes at a time. Once I conquered that task, we worked on standing, walking with a walker and eventually walking on my own. It was a long, tedious process.
Also, my vocal cords and epiglottis were paralyzed. Therefore, I was unable to speak or eat. Luckily for me, that hardship was only temporary. When they began working, albeit slowly, I was able to start eating again. I had to start with the basics, like a child. Soft foods such as pudding or yogurt and work my way up to solid food. Once my vocal cords started functioning again, I was also able to begin speech therapy, which was a monumental effort considering where I was starting from.
Throughout my journey, I endured hospital neglect, incompetence, frustrations and the feeling of wanting to give up. I kept pushing myself, all the while dreaming of the life I wanted.
Finally after seven long months I was discharged from the third hospital and although my therapy continues and is still ongoing, there is no better feeling than doing it from your own home.
It is now twenty-six years later and I’m happy to say I’m almost fully recovered. I was able to go back to my profession as a CPA, although the doctors had their doubts I would ever function at that capacity.
The one physical issue I still deal with is the pain and stiffness in my neck. I suffer from osteoarthritis which has actually improved since the accident. I attribute this to chiropractic treatments and Bikram yoga.
I truly hope no one else will ever have to go through anything similar to what I went through.
When faced with any challenges in your life, it’s important to ask yourself the right questions. @Miracleon91st (Click to Tweet!)
Joseph Parenti is the author of Miracle on 91st Street: Surviving the Impossible. His story of survival proves the power of determination and perseverance. Readers of his memoir will be encouraged to forge ahead and trust their own instincts when faced with any challenges in their life, especially physical. Joseph is committed to living a healthy lifestyle and passionate about motivating others to do the same. You can follow Joe on Twitter, Facebook, or his blog.
Image courtesy of Teddy Kelley.