One Day at a Time: Living with Prolonged Trauma

One Day at a Time: Living with Prolonged Trauma October 24, 2023

Calendar (part of a set); British, London; Calendar; Metalwork-Gilt Bronze; 1851; Creative Commons.

This post is about the importance of taking one day at a time when living with prolonged trauma.

Saturday evening was rough. I had just arrived at my adult son Christopher’s room in his care facility following a two-day leadership retreat I helped lead. As soon as I walked into Christopher’s room, his CNA urged me to get him to the hospital. She is the most amazing caregiver. She treats Christopher as if he were her brother. Christopher looked miserable in his minimally conscious state. His lip was a mess from his incessant biting of it. He had a low-grade fever.

I shared with Christopher’s CNA that we were awaiting test results on a chest x-ray and blood tests. I was reluctant to request ambulance transport until I knew what was going on in his system. Among other things, he could be lying on a gurney for hours in the emergency room with no hydration, no change and reposition, no respiratory care, just me at his bedside requesting help. If Christopher was miserable in his own bed at the care facility where people know him and assist on a recurring basis, just think how he would be in the emergency room.

So, I called Dr. Potter, a retired palliative care specialist and medical ethicist. This retired, though not retiring, physician must have a red phone in his study that glows red whenever I call, just like the Bat-Phone on Batman. He picked up the phone Saturday evening and started brainstorming with me as to what I might do. He concurred that it was premature to request ambulance transport to the hospital.

I spoke with the nurse on the floor with Dr. Potter listening on my iPhone speaker. Then, one of the administrators came down the hall. She is a nurse by training, too, but is rarely there on weekends. I asked her to speak with Dr. Potter with whom she has conversed many times in the past. They problem-solved and sprung to action with the nurse and nurse practitioner on call to get an antibiotic administered ASAP, even while waiting for the test results. The antibiotic could always be changed upon new information.

My wife Mariko visited Christopher on Sunday. He was still tense, still biting his lip, and struggling with lots of secretions. But at least his fever was gone.

Monday was a new day. Christopher was totally different. Our son was relaxed, his eyes were bright and cheerful. His teeth were visible (it was like he was faintly smiling), probably the whole time Mariko was there. His facial expression was a happy one. He seemed to enjoy his mother’s presence and there was a nonverbal connection between them. It was obvious that the antibiotic was working. The nurse on duty said that he was doing really well on the antibiotic, Augmentin. She said that the chest x-ray was negative and there was no issue with his respiratory system. They are still waiting for the results of the wound culture on the lip. They are treating his lip with magic mouthwash and Vaseline. What a difference a day can make.

Each day has its own set of opportunities and obstacles, thrills, and threats. Sometimes more of the one than the other. Even so, it’s important to take one day at a time, knowing the next day can be different. What a difference a day can make. It also makes a difference taking one day at a time rather than lumping them all together.

It was timely that last night, I finished watching Things We Lost in the Fire (2007), starring Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro. Berry plays the part of a wife named Audrey whose husband was killed. She and her children are devastated, as is his best friend Jerry, played by Del Toro. Audrey finds it difficult to keep going, as does Jerry, who struggles with a drug addiction.

The movie closes with Del Toro sharing that he has been clean 89 days. He shares a recurring dream at a group therapy session.  In the dream, he goes looking to get his next fix, but he can’t find anyone who will sell him the drug he craves. Dread sets in. Then panic. He fears he’s having a seizure. Then suddenly, he finds a balloon in his suitcase. The next sensation is absolute peace. Jerry wakes up. He concludes with these words: “One day at a time.”

We’ve lost many things in the figurative fire that took so much of our life away with Christopher’s traumatic brain injury and the ensuing damage caused by the degree of swelling and the brain shifting following surgery in January 2021. When I stop to think how many more stressful nights like Saturday evening will occur, how many phone calls I will need to make, how many emails and letters to write, how many pressing guardianship matters Mariko and I will need to address over the days, months, and years ahead, it gets overwhelming. Dread sets in. Panic. Seizure-like sensations emerge in my imagination. I’ve got to come clean: it can be like living with a throbbing hangover in a daily nightmare when dealing with prolonged trauma.

But I can’t stop there. I need to keep looking, need to keep coping, need to keep hoping. Looking for the next balloon to appear when I open the next day’s suitcase. Waiting to find Christopher return to a state of absolute peace and progress toward recovery: “One day at a time. One day at a time.”

Jerry’s best friend, who had died, never gave up on Jerry, no matter the state of his addiction. While initially cynical, Audrey later held out hope and paid for Jerry to become a resident at a treatment and recovery center. His condition slowly, painstakingly improved.

Dr. Potter has never given up on Christopher, nor have we. As Dr. Potter said this morning about the initial medical assessments of Christopher’s prospects: “We have demonstrated since time went on that their initial prognosis was erroneous.” I look forward to opening tomorrow’s suitcase, and the next day’s suitcase, on and on and on. Until then, then tomorrow, and after tomorrow, we will make the calls, write the letters, and advocate, advocate, advocate. We will take “one day at a time. One day at a time.”

“Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” –Jesus

About Paul Louis Metzger
Paul Louis Metzger, Ph.D., is Professor of Theology & Culture, Multnomah University & Seminary; Director of The Institute for Cultural Engagement: New Wine, New Wineskins; and Author and Editor of numerous works, including More Than Things: A Personalist Ethics for a Throwaway Culture (IVP Academic, 2023). You can read more about the author here.
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