Happy Birthday.


On a very cold Iowa winter day about thirteen years ago, two new clients were admitted to the rehab facility where I worked. Two beautiful teenaged girls, both from rural Iowa, both very good kids, both severely brain injured from weather related car accidents. The girls were housed in side by side rooms in the wing reserved for the most critical patients. Both girls had very low Glasgow scores, meaning they were considered to be near comatose, and they required round the clock care.
Early on, I remember being struck by how similar their cases were, how sad the circumstances were, and thinking that if something remarkable didn’t happen, they would be forever linked in my brain.
In medicine remarkable means something different than the way you and I use it. It just means different from the norm, something that would jump out from the file and make a professional take notice. It could be amazing, or it could be very unpleasant.
I remember the last time I cared for the client in Room 1. I always spoke to every client with the assumption they could hear and understand me. On more than one occasion, I was SHOCKED when I got their first groggy response after a significant length of time in a non-responsive fog. My co-worker and I pleasantly chatted with the girl as we cared for her, and I cracked a little joke. We were absolutely sure we saw a small smile in the corners of her mouth. The next time I entered the room, she was no longer breathing. We started CPR and called 911. She was pronounced dead at the hospital.
I walked into Room 2 crying. I looked at the girl that to a casual observer could have been the same patient, and wondered what her fate would be.
Then something remarkable DID start happening. Over the next few days and weeks, she started stirring, then responding. Soon doctors were able to remove the tracheotomy that helped her breathe, and later the feeding tube that kept her nourished. Don’t EVER be fooled by what you see in movies, no one just “wakes up” from a coma. It is a long, difficult process with giant leaps forward followed by heartbreaking setbacks. But the strength of this girl was incredible, she started overcoming every obstacle between her and the life she used to know. Her full teenaged girl personality started emerging, the good and the bad. We all shared in her tantrums, her crushes, her love of music and chocolate…
My heart ached for her when the state tournaments came to town. All of her friends, decked out in their cheer leading gear came to visit unexpectedly. My client was in physical therapy, trying hard to regain the body all these girls took for granted. She broke down and refused to see them. I remembered the lack of self confidence we all have at seventeen. I remembered being embarrassed running into friends from school when I didn’t have make up on, or my hair done, and I understood. She just couldn’t let them see her like that. They were living the life that she took for granted until one fateful night, and she was no longer one of them. While watching her miraculous recovery, and falling in love with who she was now, we had lost sight of who she had been before. I think in some way she had too, until it was unexpectedly there in her face.
After 231 days in a life changing rehabilitation center, she was discharged. She called me the following year to let me know she had started college. If you saw her today, you would understand that she has a disability. You would recognize the difference in her gait or her speech pattern, but you could NEVER comprehend what she’s been through. I don’t pretend to know, and I was THERE.
Today she celebrates her 31st birthday. She works, has relationships, and participates in a community that loves her very much. But I can’t call this a miracle. As thrilled as her family was, and continues to be, that she survived and thrived, this is not the life that they expected, or the life that she deserves. This is not the work of a divine power. What kind of higher power looks down on two young women with the whole world beckoning them,and takes that away? Why would a god decide one family gets to keep their child and one does not?
I have said several times that if I never do ANYTHING else good in this world, my time at that facility was enough. I was so proud to be a part of this girl’s recovery, and others like her. I remain forever linked to the families I came into contact with, and not a day goes by that I do not remember them fondly.
But again, I was THERE. These success stories are due to an incredible fighting spirit, skilled medical professionals, modern science, and people helping other people. And some other intangible factor… something that makes some of these people survive, and others with almost identical injuries die. In this crazy, complicated world we may never know what that other factor is. It creates such joy for some, and lasting heartache for others. Today I choose to celebrate the joy. I am forever grateful to have seen people helping other people heal. It changed me for the better, and helped me become the humanist I am today. Happy birthday client from Room 2. Your very existence should continue to inspire us all. Every time I come to the aid of a fellow human, I do it for you, and those like you. I don’t need a higher power to tell me it is the moral thing to do.

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