Durham, North Carolina 2014
Bad news travels at the speed of light. – Tracy Morgan
I’d known since the accident that something was terribly wrong. In April, the neurologist said it was possible. Today, my husband Tom and I waited to hear the specialist’s opinion at Duke University. How did I, a healthy 47-year-old woman, end up here? My body had betrayed me. Looking to Tom for support, I saw his jaw muscles tighten rhythmically, his unconscious manifestation of stress. Cutting through the expectant tension, we exchanged concerned glances and looked away. Ten months of fruitless medical tests and a thousand Internet searches would be resolved when one doctor came through the door.
Ten months prior in Westbrook, North Carolina
Tom and I were on a morning run through the neighborhood. Red maples blossomed along familiar streets. Abandoned bikes and basketballs adorned manicured lawns. Time we enjoyed together nurtured our relationship amid busy lives. We’d moved here 24 years ago when I began teaching at Westbrook High. Westbrook, a small community, nestled in lavender meadows and the Aguaquiri River, was an ideal place to raise our family.
“Pick up your feet, Janene. They’re dragging.”
Tom cautioned me. Despite the warning, with the next step, my toe caught the asphalt. My left hand broke my fall as I tucked and rolled on the street like an armadillo seeking cover. Tom ran over and knelt next to me, looking for signs of injury.
“Are you okay?” Tom caressed my arm. “Can you sit up?”
He supported my back with one hand and pulled me upright with the other.
“What the...?” I said to no one in particular and surveyed the damage by the predawn light. Shaken, I anticipated road rash and bruises. My shoulder throbbed, and my knees bled. Asphalt pebbles embedded themselves in the palm of my hand.
“I’ll be all right.”
I stood up, brushed off the dirt and embarrassment, and tried to jog the half-mile home. I gave up after a few steps, not realizing I’d never run again. Tom and I walked home as the mockingbirds sang a morning song, and the sunrise peeked over the horizon.
“Have a seat,” Tom said as he guided me to the couch. “I’ll get some ice.”
“Tylenol and coffee, too, please.”
I propped my feet on the ottoman, leaned back, and examined the palm of my hand. “Ow!” I inhaled through my teeth as I picked at the pebbles that had hitched a ride. As newlyweds, our four-bedroom house seemed like a mansion. Empty rooms awaited children, and sand-colored carpeting anticipated the tide of toys. Over time, hardwood covered the floors, and leather sofas replaced Grandma’s old davenport. A warm, Tuscan palette replaced the 90’s pastel interior, and granite countertops won over square tiles and grout. Tom, the DIY aficionado, made it happen.
“Where do you want the ice?”
“Left shoulder and across my knees.”
I sipped enough coffee to get the Tylenol down.
“That’s going to hurt for a few days,” Tom said.
“I’ll survive. Just need to shower off the sweat and street.”
I adjusted the ice bags and contemplated the start of the coming school year. I spent the end of summer vacation nursing my wounds and fretting over lesson plans. The first day back to work, I walked into the school office, trying to mask my hobbled gait. Pine scent signaled the fresh start to a new year.
“Hi, Gloria!” I smiled and waved my bandaged hand. “How’s my favorite Wolf?”
I handed Gloria an iced chai latte and a bouquet of flowering dogwood, her favorites. Gloria ran the school office, advocating for students yet enabling none. Her once silky, black ponytail turned to a silver crown since she had taken me under her wing. Wolves of every shape and size adorned her cubicle, resin statues of predators on the hunt or howling at the moon and a she-wolf protecting her pups.
One wolf, in particular, stood watch above the rest, a painting that belonged in a history museum. The valiant white wolf stood alongside a Cherokee woman. Was he a partner or protector? Fine strokes of oil paint detailed the wolf’s dense fur; silver flecks drew light to its sapphire eyes. Long copper and golden brown brush strokes traced the woman’s lean muscle. Dark eyes surveyed the landscape through ceremonial red face paint. Jet black hair appeared to wave in the breeze, framing her regal profile. What did she see? What did she feel? What did she dream about behind those obsidian eyes? I felt a spiritual connection to her, confirmed by a shiver down my spine.
Gloria sprang to greet me, and our embrace lingered.
“What on earth happened?” Gloria asked, looking at my hand.
“It’s no big deal. I tripped during a morning run.”
“I’m sorry, dear.” Gloria furrowed her brow as she sensed my deceit. “How was your summer, Janene?”
“Hannah and I enjoyed an east coast college tour. Tom and Daniel spent most of the summer at the Hiwassee Reservoir. Tom is proud of his new fishing boat. What about you? How are your adorable grandbabies?”
Gloria smiled as her grandchildren came to mind. “We spent time together on the coast. They’re growing too fast for me. Miya will be a freshman this year, hard to believe. Get ready, sweetheart.” Gloria returned to her desk and patted a stack of folders. “The Wolves return tomorrow.”
I walked to my classroom, hoping the musty smell had abated. It smelled of dusty books and sweaty teens when I’d left it last June. I’d been walking through locker-lined hallways and up and down the worn marble stairs to Room 210 for years and never remembered it to be a burden. The burn emanating from my hips caused me to pause midway and grab the stair rail. It must have been a result of my fall. I pushed through the pain and reached classroom 210, my second home. When school started the following day, I’d begin with 11th graders in AP United States History. The north and east classroom walls depicted the life of the Cherokee people in Aguaquiri, now called the Qualla Boundary. That’s Western North Carolina before the Eastern Band of Cherokee purchased their own land from the federal government rather than be forced westward on the Trail of Tears. My remaining four classes were 11th and 12th graders in American History I. The south and west classroom walls highlighted the social, political, economic, and cultural history of America during the Civil War. I felt alive while engaging students in our history.
My chest lifted as I drew a deep breath in anticipation of seeing fresh faces in the morning. That reminded me to review my class roster flashcards. I printed out my students’ photos, taped them to index cards, and wrote their names on the back. I studied the cards and challenged myself to greet each student by name on the first day of class. I expected my students to put forth their best efforts in my class, and I wanted to show them I did my homework too. I remembered 160 of the 185 students’ names. That’s a solid B performance, so I had more work to do.
I awoke in the morning to the sound of cascading water and longed to linger in bed with my cozy 800 thread count sheets. My bedroom provided sanctuary from those in need of my constant attention. A generous row of windows framed silverbell and holly trees that grew in the backyard. Yet, the prospect of seeing my students drew me out of bed. My once strong and agile legs felt encased in concrete. I hurled them over the side of the bed and stood up. I took one step and crumpled to the floor. Tom came running from the bathroom with a towel wrapped around his middle-aged waist.
“Are you alright, honey?”
“I think so, my legs just gave out on me.” I got to my hands and knees and grabbed Tom’s hand to help me up.
“I’m worried about you. You’ve got to get this checked out.”
“I’ve been off lately, but I’ll be fine.”
What a strange feeling. My body had never failed me like this before. I tried to explain away the fatigue with the fact that teaching is exhausting work, both physically and emotionally. But it was never this exhausting and school hadn’t started. I put on my tattered, white robe, and made my way to the kitchen.
“Good morning, Hannah. Is Daniel up?”
“Yeah, I heard him in the shower.” Hannah pulled her thick brown hair across the crown of her head so it wouldn’t fall in her oatmeal.
“Have you talked to him lately?” I asked.
“A little. He’s been busy.”
“What’s been going on?”
“Just the usual, I guess.”
My daughter Hannah, being three years older, acted as a second mom to her brother, Daniel. I adored them both, yet lately, I couldn’t connect with Daniel as I had in the past. Teenage angst interfered. He spent time with his phone and friends as typical 14-year-old kids do. Hannah was an amiable daughter and did well in school. She knew early on that she wanted to be an archaeologist or anthropologist. I’d like to think that I have influenced her with my passion for peoples of the past. My thoughts wandered back to my physical mystery. I’d prefer to press on and get through this without a doctor. But to honor Tom’s request, I decided to make an appointment with my nurse practitioner.
I grabbed a banana and returned to my bedroom to get ready for work. Tom was dressed in a t-shirt and shorts, prepared for the commute to his home office down the hall.
“I’ve got a meeting this morning. Have a good day.”
Tom kissed me on the forehead and left the bedroom, coffee in hand. I stepped into the shower and visualized the hot water, washing away my concerns. I perused my wardrobe, looking for something comfortable to wear. A Wolfpack gray and blue blouse and stretch jeans worked for me. I walked to the garage and noticed that Tom’s boat, Ruby Tuesday, was covered, a sign of the season’s end. I slid into my blue Camry, a familiar comfort. A new three-ring binder, titled Engaging Today’s Youth, lay on the passenger seat. I needed to add this to my bookshelf of unused professional development binders. I gathered empty coffee cups and protein bar wrappers, a symbolic clean start to a new school year, and an illusion that I’m in control.
Without warning, my back muscles seized, and I sank into the driver’s seat. Like a rogue wave, panic rushed through me from head to toe. I gulped for air as my throat constricted. Was it a panic attack? Breathe. Breathe. Just breathe. My mind perseverated -- Daniel playing football, Hannah driving, my students learning, the potholes destroying Main Street, the duration of red lights. Breathe.
A similar feeling surfaced from my distant memory. A car crashing through my bedroom window haunted my childhood dreams. I survived, but my dollhouse family lay broken in pieces, immutable faces staring at me. I fell to my knees and gathered their scattered body parts, bloodied torsos, arms, and legs. I frantically tried and failed to put the dolls back together. The eyes, painted on bodiless heads, stared with disappointment and disdain. I held the body parts in clenched fists and awoke to the sound of my own scream.
I shook my head to brush off the craziness. I can do this. Start the car. Focus. I backed the car onto the street and began the familiar drive to school. I drove down Riparian Way and thought about my neighbors as I passed by their homes. I wondered how Lisa was recovering from her mastectomy. I needed to bring her dinner. What about Nancy’s son, my former student Justin? I heard he is home from Afghanistan. I’d been a terrible neighbor lately and made a mental note to check in on my friends. I pulled onto Main Street with a renewed sense of determination. I can handle this. It’s just my legs being wonky. This too, shall pass. I attempted to rein in my thoughts. Cars parked in Olsen’s used car lot reflected the morning sun. Customers stood in line at Woody’s Donuts. The maple bars were worth the wait.
The stoplight ahead shone red, and my leg was supposed to move to the brake pedal without a thought. Instead, it stiffened into a painful spasm and hit the gas pedal. My world went into slow motion as I swerved to avoid ramming into the UPS truck in front of me. I felt my cheeks bounce, and my body flail like a rag doll as my car jumped the curb. The sounds of screeching metal and shattering glass succumbed to silence.
I awoke to the sounds of mechanical whirring and buzzing. I flirted with consciousness in an aura of claustrophobia and attempted to look around to make sense of my surroundings. An unfamiliar voice boomed over a speaker.
“Mrs. Branch, please hold still, or we will have to begin the CT scan again. Hang in there; we’re almost done.”
Blurry gray and white images faded until I was out again. I had visions of falling while family and friends reached out to save me. I’d grab someone’s hand and slip away. I felt as though no one could reach me, no matter how hard they tried. I grew weaker as I fell. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t scream. I had no air to breathe. I regained consciousness, unable to see past the bright light. The clamor of the CT subsided, and I felt a familiar hand on mine.
“Tom? Is that you?”
“Yes, honey. I’m here.”
“Where am I?”
“You’re in the hospital. You’re going to be okay.”
“Rest, Janene. We can talk more when you get settled in your room. We’re headed there now.”
The sound of Tom’s voice soothed me, my partner. We could get through anything together. Men in light blue scrubs pulled me from the gurney to my hospital bed. It was then that I felt the weight hanging from my lower legs, two casts.
“You swerved off the road and crashed into the front window of Bruce’s Hardware. The store wasn’t open, and you missed hitting anyone on the sidewalk. You totaled your car. But, no one else was hurt.”
I felt relieved that I didn’t injure anyone else.
“X-rays revealed two broken tibias. The CT scan found no internal injuries. You’re banged up and bruised, and more beautiful than the day I met you.”
Tom leaned in and brought my hand to his chest. I shut my eyes and drifted off to sleep. Nurses with pain meds interrupted my slumber. A man in a white coat shined a penlight in my eyes. Another needle poked my arm. The blood pressure cuff squeeze woke me again. I just wanted to sleep. I opened my eyes when I heard Hannah and Tom talking.
“That’s a tough start to the new school year.”
“She’s going to bounce back,” Tom said.
“Come here, sweetheart,” I said, extending my arms to Hannah.
“I was so worried, Mom. What happened?”
“I’m not sure. The last thing I remember is my car accelerating toward a truck.”
“The only thing that matters is that you’re okay.” Hannah reached for a tote bag that was sitting on the bedside dresser. “Here, I brought you an overnight bag. Do you want to put on comfy pajamas?”
“Yes, please. You know me well.”
Dr. Frankle, a hospitalist who looked like an undergrad, came to my room two days later.
“Hello, Mrs. Branch. How are you feeling?”
“I’ve been better.”
“We think you may have had a seizure, Do you have a history of seizures?”
“We’ve ruled out most everything else, and you appear to be healing well. Except for the injuries sustained in the car accident, you appear fine. I’ll discharge you tomorrow.”
I looked away, sending the message that I was done with the conversation. I fixed my gaze on the lemon yellow hospital wall and contemplated my throbbing and twitching legs.
“You’ll go to Westbrook Rehab before going home. I’ll arrange medical transport for tomorrow. You can go home when you are ambulatory with a walker.”
The next morning, I heard a knock on my door.
Two young EMTs wearing navy blue uniforms walked into my room, rolling a gurney.
“Hello. Are you ready?”
“Yes. Please grab my bag from the dresser.”
They loaded me on their gurney and strapped me down.
“Geesh. Are you afraid I’m going to escape?”
“Hey! I know you, Mrs. Branch. Sorry, we don’t want to drop you in the parking lot.”
I glanced at his ID badge, Malcolm Bateman. I thought he looked familiar, a scruffy young man with an arduous past.
“Malcolm! Look at you.”
“This is Mrs. Branch,” Malcolm told his partner. “Best dang teacher I ever had.”
“It’s good to see you. You’ve done well for yourself.”
“Yes, ma’am. You always believed I would make good.”
“I knew there was something special about you.” Students like Malcolm brought me joy. Some students arrive at school, ready to learn. Others, like Malcolm, come to school seeking love and stability not found at home. I loved Malcolm even as he rejected my confidence. He began to trust me when he realized I wouldn’t give up on him. I hoped he would see himself as I did, a capable young man who could succeed in spite of poverty and a history of self-destructive behavior.
Malcolm and his partner drove three blocks to my new home at the rehab center. I was grateful for the straps that held me on the gurney as we bounced along. They rolled me into the lobby. I’d never paid attention to ceilings before, a new perspective lying flat on my back with rows of fluorescent lights and ceiling tiles above me.
“Let’s sit you up, Mrs. Branch.”
Malcolm raised the gurney affording me a more comfortable view. His partner handed my paperwork to the receptionist, a slight woman behind the counter. She tucked her short, curly hair behind her ears and pushed up the middle of her glasses with an index finger before reaching for the envelope.
“Welcome to Westbrook Rehabilitation Center, Mrs. Branch. I’m Monica. I’ll be helping you get checked in today.”
Monica unfolded the paperwork and began typing on her keyboard. To my right, a stark, linoleum hallway carried the voice of an unhappy resident. Rows of ceiling lights substituted for daylight. I hoped my room had windows and that I only had to look through them for a day or two.
“Let’s see. It looks like you’re going to room 188. Right this way, please.”
Malcolm and his partner followed Monica and rolled me to my room, and transferred me onto the bed.
“Take care, Mrs. B.” My room did have one window, covered with a closed miniblind.
Tom came to see me every day after work, and the kids visited when they could. At night, I counted ceiling tiles instead of sheep. Days turned into weeks. My bones healed, but my leg muscles wasted. My shins protruded, and my thigh and hip muscles twitched like worms racing below my skin. Why had my once-healthy body betrayed me? More tests. No answers.
I binged on TV shows and emailed lesson plans to unknown teachers who had been placed in charge of my classroom. I was largely ignored by the rehab staff save for Jessica. She entered my room with a cheerful smile, cracked the window blind, and cared for me like I was her mother.
“You are a rare bird, Miss Jessica. You are my sunshine, and my only sunshine in this place.”
“Aw, thanks, Mrs. B. It’s the least I can do for my favorite resident. Are you ready to start your day?”
Jessica rolled in a patient lift and gathered a sling from my bedside drawer.
“Let’s get the bedding out of the way and get this party started.”
She stopped for a moment, held my hand, and looked into my eyes.
“It’s going to be a good day, Mrs. B.”
I found solace in Jessica’s compassion. She knew that I was a vulnerable human being and more than just a body to be moved. I felt safe and surrendered to her care. She bent my left knee, rolled my body to the right, and slipped the folded sling under me. Moving to the other side of the bed, she bent my right leg, rolled me to the left, and unfolded the sling underneath me.
“Lay back, and I’ll get you ready to transfer.”
Jessica attached four straps of the sling to the patient lift and raised me in the air like a hoist lifting an engine from a car.
“Are you ready to fly?”
I nodded yes, and the sling enveloped me like a venus flytrap catching its prey. Jessica rolled the lift and lowered me onto the bedside commode. She unhooked the sling and pushed the lift away.
“I’ll give you some time to make the magic happen. Let me know when you’re ready to shower,” Jessica said as she handed me the call button.
I sat on the commode and prayed the laxatives would work this time. Later that day, Dr. Frankle walked into my room, flipping through papers on his clipboard.
“Hello, Mrs. Branch. How are you feeling?”
“My legs don't hurt as much, but I’m not gaining strength, even with physical therapy. I’m beginning to doubt if I’m going to walk again.”
“It’s frustrating, I know. I wish I had an answer for you.”
He glanced at his clipboard again.
“The lumbar puncture showed no signs of disease, specifically no MS, and I’ve run out of diagnostic tests. Is there something more I can do for you?”
“I’d like to keep searching for an answer.”
“Yes, I would encourage you to do so. I can refer you to a neurologist.”
“I’d rather go to my nurse practitioner first. She knows me well, and we can make a plan for what’s next.”
“That sounds like an excellent plan. Do you have family members at home who can help you with your daily activities?"
“Yes, my husband and teenage children.”
“Since you have support, I can discharge you today if you feel ready to go home.”
“I am totally ready to go home. That’s the best news I’ve had all week.”
“Sounds good. I’ll write the discharge orders, and you can leave this afternoon. I wish you the very best, Mrs. Branch.”
“Thank you.” I picked up my phone and texted Tom. “Going home today! Can you pick me up after work?”
Tom texted back, “Great news. I’ll be there soon.”
I leaned back in my hospital bed and smiled at the 63 ceiling tiles that I had counted nightly. I visualized the dark cloud leaving but feared it would follow me home.