April 24, 2003
I knew she was alive. I could hear her arguing with the paramedics, but I couldn’t quite make out my sister’s words.
Each time I tried to move closer to the tangled twist of metal that had been her minivan, an emergency worker would prevent me. “You have to stand back, ma’am.”
“No, I have to be with them,” I wanted to cry out.
Somehow I tamped down the scream and watched helplessly as two EMTs loaded a stretcher carrying my 78-year-old mother into the ambulance. They’d told me she was conscious; that’s all I knew. But they’d had to cut her out of the passenger side, which had taken a direct hit from a pickup traveling about 60 mph. The door was crumpled, the headlight and right front quarter panel were gone, and the wheel was bent at a 45-degree angle.
With adrenaline pumping, I observed the scene in that detached yet hyperinvolved way where time seems to expand as your brain endeavors to process too much information at once. Even with the flashing lights of emergency vehicles, the intersection was dark, and I carefully inched toward the streetlight to lean against the pole. My right foot was throbbing; I’d fallen and fractured the little toe just moments before I received word that my mother and sister had been injured on their way home from the grocery store.
Closer now, I could distinguish Laurie’s words. My sister, still in the driver’s seat, was refusing to let them place her on a back board, the rigid plastic board ambulance crews use to immobilize a person with a possible spine or neck injury before transporting them to the hospital.
“You don’t understand,” Laurie said, her voice firm even though she was crying. “My neck was like this before the wreck. It doesn’t bend.”
For several long, agonizing minutes she argued with the paramedics. She explained that she’d had rheumatoid arthritis since she was four, and that the vertebrae in her neck had fused on their own by the time she was a teenager.
Ultimately, she had to give in because they would not remove her from the car without putting her on the back board. It was on her terms, though. “Atta girl,” I thought as Laurie gave them orders about how to handle her.
I’m sure they tried to be gentle. Still, she screamed as they laid her on the board and tried to straighten her body enough to strap her down. She was just too bent to lie flat on her back. I held my breath until they finally closed the back door of the ambulance, turned on the siren, and sped away from the scene.
When I first saw Laurie in the emergency room, I gasped. As she had tried to tell them, the cervical brace would not fit, so they had placed a rolled-up towel under her neck, another one across her forehead, and then used duct tape to secure her head to the board. Her face was red and swollen from the force of the airbag when it deployed.
While I dealt with the admissions paperwork, a nurse began to take a medical history and check Laurie for injuries. Besides the neck trauma, her right elbow and one of her fingers appeared to be broken. They brought ice packs. X-rays and lab tests were ordered. Several times Laurie asked for something for pain, but the answer was always that the doctor had to see her first.
And all this time she was still lying flat on her back, still strapped to the board, muscles freezing in place, the number of broken bones yet to be determined.
After more than an hour without seeing a doctor, I became the squeaky wheel, trying to get the attention of somebody with the authority to get Laurie something for pain. It takes a lot for my sister to cry–she has a high pain threshold–and it was killing me to stand by her side, dry her tears, and watch her suffer.
Another nurse came in and began to go over the same territory we’d already covered. “On a scale of 1 to 10,” she asked Laurie, “how bad is the pain?”
Laurie lost it and began to sob. “It’s excruciating!”
Amazingly, the nurse paused just long enough to look up from her notes, then repeated the question.
“Twelve!” Laurie shouted.
Evidently a number, even though it was outside the required range, was the right answer. She left the room and went to get the doctor. I helped Laurie blow her nose and wiped her eyes.
She surprised me when she spoke again. “I shouldn’t have said ‘excruciating.’”
“Huh?” My own pain and fatigue were setting in. I’d been standing on a broken toe for a couple of hours by this time.
“It means ‘out of the cross.’” Her voice was soft, her tone reflective. “His pain was excruciating, not mine.”
Four days after Easter Sunday, while suffering intensely, my sister put her own pain in perspective by remembering the passion of Christ.
I have never understood my sister’s ability to cope with pain, other than as a gift of God’s grace. That she spoke disparagingly of broken bones and what turned out to be a bad whiplash humbled me at that moment and to this day.
The following day Laurie was on the cell phone, trying to work from her hospital bed, with me hobbling around and fussing at her. Mother had a punctured lung and more than a dozen rib fractures. Miraculously, her legs were not broken even though they had been jammed into the dashboard.
In a week they were both home from the hospital.
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.