Friday, December 21, 2012


My mother was in a car accident last night. I’ll skip ahead and spare you any worry—she has three breaks in two bones in her right arm, which is her non-dominant arm, as she’s left-handed. She most likely will require surgery in order for it to heal properly; she has an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon tomorrow for evaluation. Her car most likely is totaled. There were no major injuries to anyone in the other car. The accident was the fault of the other driver, who failed to yield before making a left hand turn. In theory, Mom won’t suffer financially because of this accident—she won’t even miss work, technically, since she already was scheduled to be off until the first of the year. Not exactly the holiday she’d planned, but all things considered, not too bad.

I was running the water for Alexa’s bath when I heard Jeff’s phone ring. I vaguely registered that his voice grew tense, and then he came into the bathroom and told me to leave the bath water, leave Alexa, and go call my sister. (She didn’t have my temporary phone number immediately accessible, so she had called Jeff’s sister to pass a message.) He told me that my mother had been in a car accident while on her way to church. He proceeded with the next breath to tell me that her arm was broken, but in the moment between his breaths … I’m amazed at how quickly our minds can generate horrible possibilities. In that small moment, I saw my mother lying dead in the morgue, or covered with blood due to horrific injuries. Then, in an instant, my fears were relieved. A broken arm, we can deal with. It’s painful for her, and I’m sympathetic, but the tunnel vision receded and my calm, rational side kicked in. I called my sister and left a message when it went to voice mail. Upon Jeff’s advice, I went ahead and bathed Alexa while waiting for her to call back.

My sister called while I was bathing Alexa and spoke to Jeff. After I finished, we loaded up to make the 30-minute drive to the hospital in my hometown. (We’re on vacation in the States right now, staying at a hotel halfway between my hometown and the town where Jeff’s sister and father live. We arrived the night before last and had dinner with my mom, my brother, and his wife, but we hadn’t even seen my sister and her family yet.) On the way to the hospital, I posted a status on Facebook explaining the situation, then scrolled through looking at others’ statuses and photos. Right after I clicked “like” on a photo of a friend’s baby parked in a stroller beside Platform 9 ¾, I looked up at Jeff and asked, “Am I a bad daughter because I’m not frantic?” He pointed out that after what I went through in Egypt during the Revolution, this situation is not cause for frantic. Upon further consideration, I decided that he’s right.

Frantic is being told by security officers to lock yourself and your infant daughter in a room and hope that the bad guys, who are only a block away, either bypass your building altogether or are content to take your stuff and not take you, since the security guys don’t have the means to defend you and you’ve been forbidden the means to defend yourself. (Yes, I severely regretted the Department of State’s policy on guns for home defense that night, as I thought longingly of my husband’s Glocks and my Springfield XD that we’d left in storage in the States.)

Frantic is driving from your mother’s house on your way to church and coming across your mother’s totaled car just moments after the accident happened, or maybe even seeing it happen, and not knowing what you’re going to find inside that car, which is what my sister experienced last night. When I saw her at the hospital an hour after the accident, she was still showing residual effects of the adrenaline.

Frantic is receiving a call from your sister before things have had a chance to settle, and knowing only that your mother was injured in an accident and is on her way to the hospital, and you’re 30 minutes away but you make the drive in 15 because you don’t know what’s waiting for you at the hospital. That’s what my brother experienced last night—at least I hope that he didn’t make that unsafe drive knowing that Mom was okay, because if he did, then he risked putting our family through two accidents last night for no reason.

Frantic is not being told in one breath that your mother was in an accident and in the next that her most severe injury is a broken arm. That situation prompts concern, and sympathy, and prayers, and of course you go to her and help in any way you can, but frantic doesn’t enter in to the picture.

When we arrived at the hospital, I saw my brother standing outside the emergency room, talking on the phone. A quick glance through the windows showed no trace of my mother, my sister, or anyone else I knew, so I grabbed Alexa and made a beeline for my brother. Along the way, some concerned members of my mother’s church tried to dissuade me from taking Alexa inside, as the emergency room had received several patients with flu-like symptoms. I think I was polite—I tried to be polite—but I had laser focus, and I made the briefest of replies while not even slowing down as I approached my brother and we went into the emergency room together. He told me what he knew, which wasn’t much more than I’d already been told.

I waited with my brother, Jeff, and Alexa. I saw my niece, nephew, and brother-in-law for the first time in over a year—not exactly the reunion we would have preferred, but it was what it was. Then my sister came out and motioned for my brother and me to come back to see Mom.

Mom was lying in a hospital bed, propped up to a semi-reclining position. Her shirt had a little blood on it, but not much. Her arm was positioned so that the part that didn’t look injured was up, although I could see the edges of bruises and bloody cuts. She obviously was in pain, but she gritted her teeth and bore it—a hallmark of strength. It was hot, and a nurse aide brought some Sprites and some cups of ice to keep us all cool as the emergency room technician—maybe he was a nurse, I’m not sure—set and bandaged Mom’s arm.

My sister, as I mentioned before, was showing the effects of the adrenaline. Her eyes were red and puffy. She seemed to be shaking a little, and she was talking and moving more quickly than usual. She was reactive enough to Mom’s pain that I worried a little for her, but it turned out that she didn’t need my concern. She and my brother both were fine.

I was not.

When the nurse lifted my mother’s arm and put the wire things on her fingers to hold them in the air, forcing her bones to straighten, and my mother gritted her teeth in pain … I’m not sure what was going through my mind. Maybe an overactive imagination, thinking about what was happening inside her body and how it must feel. Maybe not any conscious thought at all; I don’t remember any. But I became aware of how the skin of my face felt, and I recognized the feeling. I was growing pale, and if it continued, I would pass out.

I looked away from my mother’s arm, tried to deafen myself to her quiet indications of pain, and tried to think of something—anything!—else. It didn’t help. I started experiencing some tunnel vision, and I knew I had to sit down or better yet, lie down. So I squeezed past my sister and went into the hallway, dodging left so my mother wouldn’t see me sit down in the floor. That didn’t help either, so I lay down right where I was. There was a gurney right beside me, but I avoided it for two reasons: I wanted to leave it available in case anyone had a real need for it, and it was positioned right in my mother’s line of sight. The last thing I needed was for her to be worried about me (although in retrospect, she probably noticed my abrupt departure and guessed the reason for it).

A hospital employee noticed me and told me to lie down on the gurney. I declined, indicating that I didn’t want my mother to see me. She moved the gurney a few inches down the hall and said “She can’t see, now get on!” I complied. My sister—about whom I had been concerned so recently—stepped out of Mom’s room to ask me if I was ok, if I needed a Sprite, if I needed a bucket. I lied through my teeth—“I’m fine, don’t need anything, just a minute.” After a short battle with faintness and nausea, I felt better. I sat up slowly, staying on the gurney for another moment. When I realized that I was much improved and getting better, I went back into Mom’s room, pretended like nothing had happened, drank my sister’s unopened Sprite, and was able to make it through the rest of the procedure without additional problems. Of course I’d missed the worst of it, for which I am both grateful and a bit embarrassed.

I’ve always been a little sensitive to the sight—even the thought—of serious injuries and their treatment. But I never imagined that I would be incapacitated by that sensitivity. I don’t believe in being incapacitated by anything but the most severe trauma; I never considered it an option. My philosophy always has been that whatever life brings my way, I just have to get through it and do what has to be done. When it comes down to it, there really isn’t any other choice but to give up and let life beat you, and what kind of option is that? I always assumed that if I were incapacitated by anything, it would be by physical reality—some injury that my body simply couldn’t overcome, like my mom couldn’t lift her broken arm—or by psychological trauma so severe that death would start looking like a viable option. I never imagined it would be something as simple as me not being able to tolerate the sights, sounds, and thoughts generated by watching a friendly emergency room employee set my mother’s broken arm.

I could console myself with the thought that my body got away from me because I was just watching—there was nothing that I had to do, but if there had been, I would have been able to do it. I could say that if my brother and sister hadn’t been there, and I’d been needed to help the medic lift and reposition various objects like he had them doing, I’d have been able to keep control of myself enough to help him, or if it had been Alexa who was injured, and she needed to see her Mama there by her side, that I could have done that. But the reality is that I can’t quite convince myself that that’s true. There’s a real possibility that I would have had to leave the room even if I were needed, and the only way I’ll ever know for sure is to be in a similar situation in which I’m needed. I’d just as soon never know for sure.

I could console myself—and have consoled myself, somewhat—with the knowledge that at least I recognized what was happening and removed myself from the situation, doing everything I could not to distract those who were doing what needed to be done. At least I didn’t give that medic more work to do. This knowledge is a comfort, but it’s still just a consolation prize.

So I’m left with this conundrum. I am a person who believes in doing what needs to be done. I am a person who believes that obstacles that must be overcome can be overcome. And I am a person who has run into an obstacle that one day may be a must-overcome obstacle … yet who has real doubts about her ability to overcome it. And I’m wondering what to do about that.

Should I take a first aid course? I had a friend who took one, years ago, and I looked through her workbook and recoiled in horror at the illustrations. But if I could make it through the course, then I’d be at least a little desensitized, and even better, I may be able to help someone one day instead of standing around calling for someone else to help. I’m having a hard time thinking of other options to overcome this, but I don’t even know if I’ll be able to find a first aid course in English in either Cambodia or Kosovo.

So tell me: what do you think? Should I try a first aid course? Can you think of any other options to help me overcome this … problem? (Yeah, I know I titled this post “Weakness,” but I still can’t force myself to use that word in relation to myself … apparently I need to write a post entitled “Pride.”) I need to do something, but I'm not sure what. I welcome your suggestions!


  1. While body parts out of place makes me weak in the knees, I've always prided myself on mentally detaching myself from situations in a crisis. However, when Zack's dad was in a bad motorcycle accident and it was my turn to go into the ER and see him, I Everything was covered with a sheet except his head, and he held my hand, but he was shaking and not talking, and I completely freaked out, jumped up and left. I think when it's people you care about, you can't always detach. You may be good at the scene of an accident in which you don't know people. I've heard this is why doctors never operate on their own family members. So, I wouldn't worry about it too terribly much - I think it's rare that you'll encounter these situations with those you love. On the other hand, a first air course is always a good idea.

  2. One thought I had was that you held on to your "frantic" until you had confirmation that everything was generally ok (hope you know what I mean with that, I am sorry for your mom's injuries). You heard about it on the phone, went about your business, took care of your daughter, and got to the hospital. You kept it together until it was safe to let it out. Once you saw your mother and your family, then you felt safe enough to actually feel the experience. It sounds like your mother will recover but our parents in pain or brushing ever so slightly against mortality is a particularly scary thing for us as adult children to face. I can't imagine what you went through when in Egypt that you referenced, although from your post, you held it together when you needed. Organized yourself, got food around, gathered cats, took care of Alexa, talked to Jeff, etc. I guess what I'm trying to say is that you did stay detached from both experiences, until it was ok to let it out. Maybe you didn't choose when your frantic came out this time but it didn't come out at a time when you really needed to keep it in. Hope what I'm trying to say is coming through ok, I don't know if I'm explaining it very well.

  3. Thanks to both of you, and sorry for the long delay in response! I'm feeling a bit better about my reaction, mostly because I think I am beginning to accept that I was in a situation where there was nothing I *needed* to do. I'm choosing to believe that if calm, rational action by me was required, I would have been able to do it. Plus, I think I'm reacting against several of my family members who seemed to enjoy rubbing it in that I reacted that way ... so I'm becoming more convinced that when push comes to shove, I really can do anything I have to do in a crisis. But I also am hoping to find a good, English first aid course once we get to Kosovo--partly for desensitization, but also because I have realized that I have no idea what to do in medical emergencies without a 911 system in place (although the embassy has their best equivalent, it still takes longer to get emergency medical attention overseas), and it's kind of hard to do what's necessary if you have no idea what that is.


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