Chapter 4: The Boy Who Wouldn’t Wake Up

Chapter 4: The Boy Who Wouldn’t Wake Up October 11, 2020

I survived the accident and the next thing I can remember is waking up in an ambulance and seeing my grandma. Then I blacked out and there are several incidents where I remember something — then blackout. But that’s how it was. I suppose that’s because I kept coming out of my coma. -David

“Picking Wings Off Butterflies Chapter 4” / Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

I don’t recall how I got to the hospital after landing in Frankfurt, but I’ll never forget standing before the seemingly impenetrable swinging doors leading to the intensive care unit of Universitätsklinikum. The doors to the university hospital’s ICU had a yellowing, maple patina, and looked as if they would give a middle linebacker a challenge to push through. David had survived, this much I knew, yet the pain he might’ve been enduring petrified me. My imagination had also kept me sleepless on the long flight over as I considered all of the possible ways his injuries would affect his future. Assuming the possible scenarios had been futile. I needed to face David, confront what he was up against, and pushing through those doors was the only way to obtain my answers.

As the doors swung shut behind me with an echoing thump, thump, thump, I peered down the long, poorly lit corridor ahead. Indistinguishable noises and voices bounced out of several doors and across the shiny tile floor toward me. The stench of hospital assaulted my nostrils. I feared the suspense would be prolonged by having to make my way to each door and then peer into every room to find my son. Suddenly, a nurse popped out through one of the doors and walked my way. I told her who I was, then followed her tentatively as she led me through the first door on the right.

He looked like a mummy

From a distance David looked like a miniature, white mummy. A soft blanket covered him from his toes all the way up across his chest. His head was bound by a maze of gauze. An oxygen mask, fogged with condensation, covered his mouth and nose. His head was enormous, like the head of a snowman, completely disproportionate to the rest of his tiny frame. For a moment I thought they’d wrapped his head with too much gauze, but as I got closer, it was apparent his head, eyelids, cheeks, and nose were severely swollen. The only recognizable feature that indicated to me that this was my son were his eyes — closed and bulging as they were — but the eyes were David’s.

The nurse and I were soon joined by one of the physicians who had been treating David. His English was poor and offered with a thick German accent.

“David has bad head trauma,” the doctor said. He pointed to the back of David’s head where it rested against the pillow, but he didn’t turn David’s head so I could get a better view. “Right now, David is in a coma. When he arrived, he was unconscious. We keep him in the coma to help him heal.”

I was skeptical. People spend years in comas and don’t wake up. Putting a person into a coma didn’t sound logical. This was the first time I’d heard about the practice as an appropriate medical procedure. I hadn’t been impressed with the condition of the hospital since I arrived. Just to the left of the swinging doors to the unit there was a kitchen, of all things. What kind of a hospital has a kitchen in its intensive care unit? David’s room was lit like a mortuary, and the surroundings resembled a bedroom rather than a high-tech medical facility. In fact, the entire hospital didn’t look like an American hospital, and it didn’t smell like one either. His physician could barely speak English, and he was pronouncing David’s name wrong. He pronounced it “Dahveed,” overemphasizing the ee sound. The doctor’s terrible elocution made him sound stupid. He also sported a wild goatee and uncombed hair. I wished Gena were with me. As a nurse, she would’ve known the right questions to ask. About all I could do was nod my head and look convinced.

“Why is he in a coma?” I pressed.

“The coma is for David to rest. We do not want agitation or David to be uncomfortable. This can cause pain and the pressure in his brain to rise,” he said.

I peered quizzically at a tiny paper cup taped to the top of David’s head. A thick, white electrical wire snaked out from under the cup and connected to a monitor above the bed. There were numbers on the monitor that were rising and falling by fractions of degrees. “What’s this for?” I asked him, pointing to the cup.

“We have drilled a hole in David’s skull and inserted a special instrument. This measures the pressure in David’s brain. The wire is plugged into the monitor, and the numbers tell us when the pressure in his brain is rising or falling.”

I lifted the edge of the cup and peered at the instrument protruding out of David’s skull. It resembled a steel bolt. The hole around the bolt was soaked in iodine and dried blood. The cup seemed a crude device, considering its purpose was to protect the bolt from getting jostled or dislodged from David’s skull.

The doctor shifted to the foot of the bed. He carefully lifted the blanket covering David’s left leg. Three steel rods nearly a quarter inch in diameter pierced straight through his thigh. No bandages covered the holes where the rods punctured the skin. The rods were hooked to cables extending toward his feet. The cables circled around a wheel- like contraption mounted to the foot of the bed, and then were secured by weights hanging near the floor. Nausea overwhelmed me as I looked up at David’s face, searching for signs of discomfort. He was completely unaware that his leg was shattered.

The doctor continued his synopsis. “We cannot operate on David’s leg until he is stable. The weights will keep the bones at the fracture point separated until we can realign his leg.”

My mind wandered for a moment . . . I imagined the grille of a car snapping David’s leg at the thigh, instantly folding him across the hood of the car and ricocheting him through the air.

I asked the most important question I could think of, which, in retrospect, probably sounded stupid. “Can he feel anything?”

Monitoring the hospital monitors

“If David was awake, he would be very uncomfortable. The pain would cause the pressure in his brain to increase, and we must prevent this from happening. A normal reading on the monitor is 60.0. Any amount over this number is registering abnormally high pressure, which could cause brain damage.”

I stared at the monitor that was now reading in the lower 90s, afraid to ask exactly how much damage was occurring.

The monitor wasn’t the only lifeline David was attached to. He was on a ventilator to help him breathe. He had two IVs. The first IV pumped nutritional fluids into his right foot, and the second pumped medications into his right hand. Different-colored wires were attached to an electrocardiogram and fell like spaghetti noodles over his pillow, around his head, and underneath the blanket. I pulled the blanket back and found the ends of the wires attached to gummy-like circular fasteners, which were stuck all over his chest. The lines on the electrocardiogram zigzagged up and down, representing his erratic heart rate. I could only think the worst . . .

Later that evening, after spending hours by his side, a nurse escorted me to a room at the far end of the hall, where I collapsed on a foam mattress on the floor. I didn’t leave the hospital for several days. The kitchen would come in handy to store and eat all the food my fellow soldiers were starting to bring me. I was beginning to understand why the intensive care unit resembled a home more than a hospital. Children who are a breath away from death need the comfort of family and friends by their side. They recuperate faster when the aromas of home-cooked meals are wafting down the hallway.

I spent those first days at David’s bedside or walking the cold, empty hallways of the hospital. When by his side, I spoke words of comfort to him, but he was deaf to my entreaties. Mostly, I just looked intently at his engorged head and wallowed in my gloomy thoughts.

I glanced at the intracranial pressure monitor after what seemed to be every other breath I saw him inhale. If water doesn’t boil when you’re glaring at the pot, neither does the pressure in a brain disappear when you most want it to. Like electrified blood, the numbers the ICP monitor displayed registered in digitized red digits. The numbers were a guiding light of hope when they dropped but signaled a flare of despair when they rose. On occasion, David would stir and tug at his fractured leg. Sometimes he would manage a barely audible moan. These events triggered the ICP to shoot up into the high 90s, prompting the alarm to scream bleep, bleep, bleep! The nurses would rush in, swarm around his jerking torso, and work their magic until he settled comfortably back into his coma.

April second, nineteen eighty-three, at sometime during the day I came into existence. I was born in what is now a laundry room on the campus of a Seventh-day Adventist university, where my parents went to school and were married and soon had me. My dad was studying to be a pastor, my mom a nurse, but my dad enlisted in the army. – David

David, a few years after the accident. / Family photo

David was born in a self-service laundry facility — actually, it was previously an apartment at the end of a row of five apartments where Gena and I once lived while in college, but the apartment was later converted into a laundry after we graduated.

When Gena was pregnant with David, we were in our sophomore year. We barely had enough to eat, much less the extra cash for first-rate prenatal care done by a real physician at a hospital. I remember at one point we had nothing more to eat than milk and an old pumpkin caving in on itself in the fridge. Another time, we ate nothing but beans, popcorn, and Indian fry bread for weeks on end, with no decent meal to look forward to except the weekly church potluck. I learned way back that if you’re eating pumpkin rinds, you’re starving, and how that gnawing feeling in your stomach can motivate a person to finish getting a decent education. Anyway, we used a midwife for David’s birth instead, which back then was a popular and inexpensive alternative to bringing a child into the world. Besides, Gena and I were determined and looking forward to having David at home in a more natural setting. We just didn’t anticipate at the time that his infamous birthplace would later be filled with coin-operated washers, dryers, and snowflakes made of floating lint.

At his birth there were . . . complications. Gena went into labor on April Fools’ Day. She had dilated only two centimeters over the course of a twenty-four-hour period. The midwife was with Gena through most of these hours, but Gena’s labor was progressing so slowly that on April 2, the midwife decided to run a few errands, promising to return shortly. As soon as she left, Gena dilated from two to ten centimeters in just over an hour. As she lay writhing on the bed, she began expressing words and phrases the likes of which I’d never heard before. I was terrified! These were the days before cell phones, and I had no way of getting ahold of the midwife. With a mere ten minutes left to spare, the midwife returned and delivered our beautiful baby boy. But something was wrong. David had all his toes and fingers, he was breathing steadily, but he was too tiny! He looked like a frail old man with crinkly skin and no butt. I hastily wrapped him in a towel, laid him on the front seat of our Datsun, and rushed him to the hospital. Once there, a nurse weighed him, and he topped in at a meager three pounds eleven ounces.

The “State” decides when you can take your child home

Over the next few weeks after his birth, David had no further complications. We wanted to bring him home, but the hospital personnel were advising us that David needed to weigh five pounds before we could enjoy that privilege. We visited him as often as we could and spent many hours trying to get him to swallow the high-calorie formula the unit was supplying. His intake was measured in grams, not ounces. (I often cheated in making sure he drank more than his fill. When he was too full to drink any more I’d squeeze a bit more milk out of the bottle into the burp rag draped over my shoulder.) Day by day, the grams we were squirting into his mouth were being converted into ounces of fat, and his old-man wrinkles began to disappear into his plump skin. When he was just shy of five pounds, we decided to sign him out of the hospital anyway, which was our right to do—or so we were initially told. No sooner had we arrived at our apartment when an officer knocked on the door and convinced me that there would be serious judicial repercussions if I didn’t get David back to the hospital right away. Since neither Gena nor I could raise David while sitting in a prison cell, we drove him back to the hospital. Then we waited another week until David weighed a few more ounces and it was all right with the state of Texas for us to have our son.

A few of the faculty members at my church-run university called David a miracle baby. I shared similar sentiments at the time, but my perspective these days has long been altered. When his sister, Dana, entered the world a few years later, she weighed even less: three pounds four ounces. I suppose twenty years ago there were many complications with premature infants. Babies who were born at three pounds and survived must have seemed tiny enough to qualify as miracles. I don’t believe in miracles these days, but I was thankful for modern medicine nevertheless, because it provided both of my underweight children the care and technical expertise that permitted them to thrive despite their low birth weights.

I see David in my memories running now — flying, really — through the open front door of our apartment back at school. His feet are not even touching the sidewalk. His blond baby curls are swept backward by the wind, and he’s got a huge grin on his face. He was such a happy kid! I glance at the monitor above the hospital bed for the hundredth time that morning. Fortunately, at this moment, the numbers hover just below the point where the alarm goes off. How many brain cells will die this hour?

One day David was crawling, and the next day he was walking. He was eleven months old when he took his first step. I never saw him fall once while making the transition from crawling on all fours to walking on two feet. No kidding. He was like a newborn gazelle that just gets up and starts running from the get-go. Smart too. He knew the primary colors before his first birthday.

We had the alphabet on our refrigerator. Remember the colored letters with the magnets on the back? We were teaching David how to spell and read. I spelled out the word water for him one day with the letters, but I thought he was too young to understand the connection that letters have to the sounds that come out of his mouth. He came running toward me a few days later, screaming, “Daddy, I spilled the water on the floor!” I went into the kitchen to see what kind of mess he’d gotten himself into. He showed me where he pulled the letters off the fridge and threw them on the floor, which in his mind meant he had spilled water onto the floor!

We bought a set of The Bible Story books shortly after he was born. The series used to be popular and were in nearly every physician’s office. I sold the books along with other religious books door-to-door one summer in Arlington, Texas. I remember this well because it was the summer we couldn’t even afford a battery for my lime-green Datsun Honey Bee. I always had to park the piece of junk on a hill so I could get it rolling and then pop the clutch to get it started. So when I drove the clunker up to Arlington every day, I had to be really selective and pick the right neighborhoods that had steep hills. David loved the books and still does to this day. Now a grown man, he will find one of these books and read it just about every time he eats at the dining room table. It’s a compulsive thing he’ll probably do until his last meal.

There was a lovely park with a pond across the street from our college apartment. As a family, we spent a lot of time there, especially around sunset and on the weekends. David liked to feed the resident ducks and geese.

One of the photographs I took of David with my Minolta 35mm camera is of him holding out a piece of bread to a white goose. The goose was as tall as David and was rearing up on its webbed feet with its head cocked back like it was ready to take off David’s arm. Those geese were mean. I came to David’s rescue by chasing the squawking monstrosity all the way back to the pond.

David’s not waking up …

David used to say he was going to be a weed-whacker man when he grew up. The university had a grounds crew that maintained the lawns around our apartment complex. I worked on the grounds department for a few years making less than three bucks an hour, (which explains the decaying pumpkin in the fridge). David was fascinated with the groundskeeper who used the weed whacker to trim the high grass. The groundskeeper was trimming along the sidewalk of the apartments one afternoon with the motor screaming wide open. He came around the corner and scared the hell out of David. Somehow David got it in his head that being a weed-whacker man was just what he wanted to do in life. I told David then that there were other things in life he could aspire to become, but as I waited by his bedside for him to awaken, I would’ve settled for him becoming the weed- whacker man of his dreams.

While he was still learning how to talk, David would tell a friend of mine that he’d already been to college. What he remembered was that he was certainly at a college when he was a child, but it was his parents who were actually attending. I guess he put two and two together and thought he’d already earned an education.

David’s not waking up, and I’m rambling, I realized. We’re reliving old times here, David. Wake up! Why won’t you wake up?

Then I changed my mind.

David, don’t wake up. I don’t want you to start twitching and moaning again like a mummy in a horror flick. If this happens, I’ll feel your pain and the alarm will go off and the nurses will flood into the room with that distraught look on their faces, and they’ll start prodding you and pumping oxygen into you and speaking to you with endearing tones as though you were their son and not mine.

Don’t you like the GI Joes I brought you? I’ve curled one under the fingers of your left hand. Why doesn’t your left hand work? This GI Joe is one of the new models. Don’t ask me which one, because I brought all of the new models and positioned them all over your bed. You have a whole company of soldiers manning their post and keeping an eye on you. They are here to protect you from all of the bad forces in life. One of them is even rappelling down the cable attached to your butchered leg. Know what? If you wake up, I promise to buy you every toy in the commissary. But you have to wake up.

Can you wake up for me now?

Next weekend Chapter 5: When Hope Fails

About Scott R Stahlecker
Scott Stahlecker is the author of the novel "Blind Guides and “Picking Wings Off Butterflies.” He is also a former pastor and previous owner of several hospice agencies. Thinkadelics is about discussing the benefits of being a freethinker by providing insightful tips, newsworthy posts, and in-depth features. You can read more about the author here.

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4 responses to “Chapter 4: The Boy Who Wouldn’t Wake Up”

  1. Scott, that sounds like an absolute nightmare. I can only imagine the horror of watching your child lying there so helpless and having no idea how to help them. I had always heard good things about German care and I’m sorry you couldn’t have experienced that; worrying about the quality of the doctors on top of all your other worries, and doing it by yourself.

    Additionally, do you have any idea why both your children were born premature?

  2. I was a difficult time, but a long time ago. Incidentally, today is Oct 12, the anniversary of his accident. I try and do something special on this day with him, but since he’s out of state I’ll give him a call. Thanks for following along with the book. We never found out why our kids were born so small. We suspect because we had them while going to college, which was a stressful time. We were vegetarians at the time, but didn’t have a whole lot of money for food.

  3. Scott, thank you for sharing this story. It takes such bravery to do this.

    Lack of nutrition during gestation can lead to smaller babies. I am not a doctor, so I am not making a medical pronouncement. I remember being a college student in the mid-to-late 1980s. Minimum wage was $2.33 an hour and tuition ran around $2k/semester. After tuition and books and a third of a bedroom (6 people in a 2-bedroom apartment), I had a budget of $15/week for food. That’s $2.14/day. That covered…beans and rice and the occasional bit of fruit or a hot dog. Here’s something that might bring back memories or make you laugh: one of my many part-time jobs worked at the same time while going to school was in the computer lab, which had been crammed into a little area down the hall from a conference room. We students used to regularly sneak into the conference room after a big to-do and scarf up discarded luxuries like cheese or grapes. The day an entire veggie tray (green pepper/carrot/broccoli) was left behind, it was the greatest prize ever!

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