A nurse mentions surgery as my consciousness quickly fades. Most of the next week or so is blurred by a morphine haze. I wake up in a neck brace, and realize I have absolutely no feeling below my armpits. The muscles in my neck are on fire with pain. I have a feeding tube in each nostril and my arms are littered with over a dozen intravenous lines. A machine is breathing for me. Is this really happening? This must be a dream.
Suddenly the memories come flooding back. A ski jump. A sled ride. A helicopter. A hospital visitor plays with my hair and brushes over a thick scab. Shortness of breath. A clamp screwed into my skull. A doctor trying to "realign" my spine. Nothing but horrifying snapshots of chaos, confusion and pain. Many of these memories will go on to haunt my dreams forever.
Of the eighteen nights I spend in the intensive care unit, I sleep only one. This is mainly because the countless monitors I am attached to sound off relentlessly throughout the night. The nursing staff tells me that these monitors are networked to every patient on the floor, so when it beeps three times, it’s me… twice, it’s someone in another room. I suffer endless anxiety attacks, because every time I hear a beep, I can never remember if it was the second or the third.
Adding insult to injury, the ventilator tubes in my trachea block any air from passing over my vocal chords, leaving me without a voice. I mouth words to people, most of which they cannot decipher, and I must resort to spelling words out letter by letter. Having no voice makes my nights even more unbearable. I’m left alone for just minutes, but it feels like hours. Panic sets in after losing count of the monitor beeps, and I know I need drugs to combat it. Problem is, I have no way to call for help. All I can do is I stare out the door and watch as my nurse passes by a number of times. Completely helpless, I begin to cry.
Teams of doctors invade my room with SWAT-like efficiency all hours of the day, barking orders back and forth. They never look at me, talk to me, or even say my name. I’m referred to only by my condition: C3-C4 complete quadriplegic. They disappear as fast as they came in, leaving me, my family and the nursing staff without a clue as to what transpired. When we finally corner one of them, he callously informs us that I will never move again, and there is a high probability that I will never breathe again on my own either. More tears.
One morning, a doctor wrongly informs me that I am being sent home because there’s simply nothing left they can do for me. Two days later, another doctor comes in and tells me they’re moving me to a hospital more than two hours away from my home for rehab. Another false statement. Finally, after two and a half weeks of what seems like an eternity in hell, I’m finally transferred to a rehab facility close to home. Little do I know, my struggles have only just begun.
Just a few weeks into rehab, I find out that the short-term health insurance policy I purchased after graduating college does not cover medical equipment for the home, forcing me to go through Washington State’s Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) in order to pay for these necessities. This means that every single piece of equipment I need requires lengthy letters of justification from both a doctor and a therapist before the DSHS will even consider covering my medical expenses. I’m warned that nearly every request is denied the first few times, calling for further explanation as to why each item is absolutely vital. My request for a wheelchair is turned down at first because DSHS doesn’t think I need footrests.
Suddenly I’m face-to-face with my government’s absurd health-care system. Prior to my accident, I viewed politics as nothing more than semantics. "Why should I vote? It’s not like any of this will ever affect me directly." I can’t help but recognize the irony. The system I once paid absolutely no attention to is now the very system I must rely upon. A system that lacks compassion and even logic at times.
After developing a deep pressure sore on my tailbone, I become painfully aware just how backwards the system is. One of my physical therapists informs me that skin breakdown is one of the biggest causes of compromised health for quadriplegics and paraplegics. I learn that pressure ulcers can lead to life-threatening blood infections, which can ultimately lead to amputations. Because of my limited mobility, I will have to be extremely careful with my positioning for the rest of my life. I find out that sleeping on an air mattress will greatly reduce the risk of skin breakdown. In the next breath, I am told that unfortunately, this is one of the items DSHS refuses to pay for. In the event that I develop a pressure sore at home (downright inevitable on a normal mattress), an air mattress will be rented for me until it heals, and taken away afterwards.
Financially, this makes no sense. Instead of spending a few thousand dollars on a piece of equipment that almost single-handedly prevents skin breakdown, the state will rent me an air mattress indefinitely, only to take it away for a few months until I develop another problem? Apparently so. For some reason, they would much rather pay tens of thousands of dollars on amputations, repetitive reconstructive surgeries and extended hospital stays than make a relatively small one-time investment that would not only save taxpayers money, but also prevent me further pain and mental anguish.
Soon, the term "health-care" begins to feel like an oxymoron. All I see is an industry overridden with redundant stipulations that has become so sterile and heartless it makes people feel more like burdens than patients. I begin to experience the miles of red tape that have caused rehab facilities to forget that "rehab" is short for rehabilitation. The focus is solely on getting a patient physically ready to survive outside the hospital without much consideration for the huge emotional adjustment that is needed as well. Though my therapists object to my discharge, they are forced to let me go because the only thing that truly matters to the state is that I worked my way off the ventilator. When I leave the hospital, I’m in no way prepared for life as a quadriplegic.
Now, I realize that it might be hard for DSHS committees to fully understand my plight, considering most of them have never found themselves in direct need of these benefits, but it’s still no excuse. I find myself almost wishing some of these men and women would see someone close to them end up in a position like mine, as sadistic as it sounds. But if that’s the only way they will understand the devastating effects of their decisions, perhaps it’s necessary. If nothing else, they can expect a continuous stream of letters and e-mails from me until changes are made. Because as it stands now, my life as a state dependent quadriplegic will be unnecessarily difficult due to a system lacking perspective and compassion, a system that seems to be working against the very people it was designed to protect.
I knew the second I woke up on that mountain that I was paralyzed. I had no idea, however, how far my struggles with both my body and my government would take me. I’m currently gathering as much information as I can to present a strong case to my local congressman because, while there is nothing I can do to change my physical situation, I can try to change my political one. All I can do now is stay informed, make my voice heard, and hope it doesn’t take such extreme measures for the rest of the politically apathetic members of my generation to reconsider their obligations as citizens. Because as you can see, it’s a harsh reality to face; finding out that the health-care system you unknowingly put into place by your lack of participation doesn’t really care at all.