Chapter One – It Was an Ordinary Day…
“Mom, I think I’ve had a stroke.”
With one look, I could see something was terribly wrong with my nineteen-year-old son, Grant. Sagging left eye, slurred speech, off balance and crooked gait. This is not how I had left my grounded son who, not only wasn’t feeling well, but was compounding it with his usual profound remorse after having screwed up and been caught again. I don’t know why he insisted on fighting the system. He was one of those kids that always got caught. But a stroke? I had only been gone an hour or two.
This had gone sideways so quickly.
He and his friend Alex had been Googling stroke symptoms. I couldn’t argue with his assessment. We bundled Grant into the car and headed to the ER. We had already been there once this week. Wednesday, he had to have fluids for dehydration from flu.
But now this had taken a drastic wrong turn.
There was a look on the ER doc’s face that spoke volumes. There was something he wasn’t telling me. Working in the medical field, I’ve seen a lot of doctor expressions - grimaces, puzzlement, concentration. This wasn’t any of those. There was a sick feeling building in the pit of my stomach.
“Mrs. Galvin, we’re going to have to admit him.”
“What’s going on?”
“We don’t know. We need to do a CAT Scan, an MRI and some blood work.”
Oh shit. But that wasn’t what came out.
“C’mon Alex, let’s get organized.”
Alex was no stranger to this. He had spent time in the hospital when he was younger after a fireworks accident burned his chest into a patchwork of mangled skin and scars. The fear on his face for Grant was heartbreaking and I hustled him out of there as quickly as I could. Alex could keep him company while I called Grant’s father to meet us at the hospital for the second time that week.
I missed the days when taking them for ice cream cured everything.
“So, what are they saying?” asked his father, Ray.
We had been divorced for three years and he was battling changes in the freight industry which kept him from finding the right fit for his knowledge and experience of thirty years. He was working in a new field and living an hour away, which made spending time with Grant difficult.
“They don’t know what is going on. They’re saying it’s probably a lingual cyst. They’ll put him on antibiotics, observe him for a day or so and we should be home in time for football on Sunday.”
I had never been more wrong.
The ear, nose and throat doctor came Saturday morning to examine the cyst. He said not to worry. These issues usually had simple fixes. That eased our minds. At least until he poked, prodded and cleared his own throat so many times I thought he’d cough it up.
“That’s a paralyzed vocal cord,” he said. “On the right side. So, you Googled your own symptoms, son?”
Grant nodded. He was already a pasty, skinny white kid. All the color draining from his face didn’t help. He was starving and the food he had eaten earlier could be lodged in his windpipe due to the paralysis. It was the last solid food he would have for the rest of his life.
Taking him home for football on Sunday became a distant memory.
This was a whole new ballgame. And Sunday football had nothing to do with it.
A welcome diversion came Saturday night when my boyfriend Mark and I attended a Russian Vodka party while my ex-husband spent time with Grant. We assured my son we’d be back soon. We gathered clothes after the party, and I settled in on the hospital “futon” for the night. Grant was enveloped in the mounds of pillows and bedsheets. He looked small and scared and was tight-lipped.
“What’s on your mind?” I asked. “Because I know you’re processing over there, so tell me.”
“Every wrong move I’ve made over the past year has landed me here.”
The sadness in his voice was a vice around my heart. Things a mother wants to fix but can’t. When a child makes such a statement, the next words out of your own mouth better be good. ‘I told you so’ doesn’t cut it. It’s not that he was wrong; he had had a tough year with poor decisions, brushes with the law and disrespectful behavior that did not leave me beaming with maternal pride.
“Those things are past, Grant,” I said softly. “This is not the time to dwell on them. Take this opportunity to get a second chance to make things right and move forward in a better direction.”
“Yes, but I’ve caused you so much trouble.”
The vice squeezed tighter. He was worrying about me rather than himself.
“I’m not concerned with it and you shouldn’t be either. To get better, you need to have a good attitude. Worrying is only going to slow down your recovery. Try not to think about any of that and get some rest. It’s probably going to be a big day tomorrow.”
An inadequate word for what was about to happen.
I woke to muted voices and the cadence of instructions. The neurologist was moving Grant through a series of exercises to determine what the impacts were and how we would move forward.
“It’s either a stroke, MS or a tumor. If it’s a tumor, there’s nothing we can do.
There’s nothing we can do.
It’s like I never heard it. Or didn’t want to.
The neurologist’s mouth kept moving.
“We can’t see anything there, but then there’s a bleed from the stroke blocking our view of a portion of the area.”
Stroke was the only thing I could see and hear, and the only thing that offered any hope.
Over the next few days, a flurry of doctors, specialists, rehab therapists and social workers paraded through the room assuring us that everything would be fine. We would move forward with a stroke protocol to get Grant accepted to the rehab program at Tampa General Hospital, more casually known as TGH. He would begin work there on his deficiencies to get back to normal, back on his skateboard and back to school. The week of prep went smoothly; his friends visited, my boyfriend and ex-husband picked up dinners together, Grant had a tiff with his girlfriend, and we discussed the news.
“Mom! David Bowie died. Damn, that sucks.”
I had tried to keep it from him, but he picked up his phone and found out anyway.
But the next thing he said froze me when I heard it.
“Mom, when are we going to the rehab center?”
He slurred it to the point that I could barely understand him.
“Mom, why are you smiling at me like that?”
He was frowning and scowling at me as I stared. I didn’t want to seem alarmed. He was angry and I knew he saw through me and was afraid for himself. I was afraid he’d had another stroke, but I kept my mouth shut. What do I know? Friday afternoon the nurses wheeled him out to our car giving him compliments and ruffling his curly mop.
We had been there exactly one week.
“Take care of that beautiful hair. I know it drives all the girls wild.”
Grant forced a smile and said little as his father drove to the rehab center. I took it as him reflecting on what had happened and what was about to happen.
The Tampa General Hospital Rehabilitation Center is attached to the 1927 former Tampa Municipal Hospital. TGH is a teaching hospital and nationally ranked trauma center. Legend has it, the hospital was constructed at the tip of Davis Islands by David Davis, on land he had deeded to the city. This decision was reached in a bunker at the Palma Ceia Country Club by drawing a map in the sand.
Grant was in a corner of a fourth-floor U-shaped room with a bright view of the Hillsborough river with the sun streaming in from all directions. I left to get him plenty of clothes to start his new journey back to wellness. When I returned, they were doing an assessment with a full cart and a team.
“This is good,” I thought. “They’ll know what to start with and get him up and running quickly.”
But that wasn’t what was happening.
My heart dropped as I watched with confusion while they took blood pressure, heart rate and gave him Tylenol and other meds. Ray tried to explain to me what had happened. Grant wasn’t having an assessment for stroke deficiencies, he was having a heart attack and was headed for ICU stat. Ray said that after I left, Grant’s chest was hurting, and his pulse was pounding. Ray swore he could see his heart coming out of his chest. Our son’s head hurt, and he was having trouble breathing. Ray called for a
doctor and with one look, a team and a cart were there in the proverbial heartbeat. The head of the team was a doctor named John. I remember him even today.
“Not to worry, Grant,” he said smiling. “You’re in good hands, my hands.”
I never even knew to panic because Dr. John was so calm. It renewed my faith when he continued to check on Grant throughout his hospital stay. What flashed through my head as they sped the cart out of the room was that I couldn’t believe we had driven him here on our own. What if his heart attack had happened in the car? My ears were ringing, and my shoes felt like they were filled with lead. We were crossing the glass-enclosed bridge to the main hospital, a place I was hoping we wouldn’t ever need to see.
“When will this nightmare end?” asked Ray.
“I don’t know.”
But at that moment, the nightmare was only beginning.