|Neuro ICU, Tampa General Hospital
It happened during his annual camping trip to Sebring Raceway. He wasn’t feeling well. He asked a friend to stop the car, took a few steps and collapsed. Doctors later blamed food poisoning and dehydration. He fell backwards, hitting his head on the concrete. His skull cracked on the left side. Blood ran out of his ear. He turned gray, stopped breathing. His friend Don admitted, “I thought he was gone.”
My brother-in-law was the one who called me. “Graeme’s being airlifted to Tampa” sounded like a stupid joke, even for these guys. “I’m not kidding,” Craig said, and I could hear the panic in his voice. “Alaine’s on her way to pick you up.” Fifteen minutes later, my sister and I were speeding down the highway toward the ER.
When we tell the story in the future, the confusion over hospitals will probably become a minor detail. At the time, it was terrifying. We drove across the state toward Tampa. Halfway there, one of Graeme’s friends reported that his helicopter was headed for the closer hospital in Lakeland, a level-two trauma center. GPS recalculating. As it turned out, the Lakeland helipad was busy that night with another accident. Graeme was rerouted back to Tampa, a level-one trauma center. As I juggled calls, trying to find out where he was, my phone rang again. It was the president of Sebring Raceway, asking what he could do to help. I’d never been more scared in my life.
Long story short, Graeme spent eight days in two different hospitals. The impact of his fall caused a brain bleed and seizures. He was in critical condition for a while. When he finally woke up, his short-term memory was gone. He remembered everything and everybody pre-fall, just nothing we’d talked about five minutes earlier. It’s funny now—we told him the helicopter story at least twenty times, and he was always impressed—but what did it mean for his career? His phone filled up with anxious messages. Alaine and I scrambled to do his work and ours between hospital shifts.
|Graeme and his sister, Gayle
Speaking of driving, let’s go back to the president of Sebring Raceway. Wayne Estes called that first night and every day after to check on Graeme. I asked if we could leave our van at the track—it was locked, full of camping gear, and the keys were in Graeme’s pocket—until we figured out how to get it home. Wayne said not to worry. The next morning, his wife appeared at the hospital with a gift bag full of snacks and treats. (It fed us for weeks.) Rita held out her hand and asked for the key. Then, she drove back to Sebring, and she and her husband brought the van north, where Craig and Alaine picked it up. That’s eight hours of driving by people we’d never met. I’m still in awe of their kindness.
So many people to thank. Highland County EMS. The Aeromed pilot and crew who kept Graeme alive on the way to Tampa. The staff at TGH, one of the best trauma centers in the country. The neurology team at ORMC. Thanks also to my cousin-in-law Ellen, a former EMT, who gave us some invaluable advice, along with chocolates, puzzles, and a book on traumatic brain injury. At first, I hid it from Graeme, not wanting to traumatize him with the TBI label, but now, he reads a little every night. It helps, he says, to understand his new normal. Headaches. Dizziness. Fatigue. Insomnia. Bouts of fog and frustration. He wants to be better yesterday. He’s learning patience. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that pain means you’re still breathing.
My cousin Laurie and her husband Wallace have made three trips from Jacksonville to cheer Graeme up. They come, deliver hugs and lunch, and leave. That’s my definition of love. Graeme’s friends have been here from the start, although he doesn’t remember the first time Don, John, or Loredana visited him in the hospital. I took pictures, just to be safe.
|Staff Meeting with Alaine, Graeme and Cato
Thank you to everyone for the flowers, fruit, cheese, crackers, cookies, candy and Whoopie Pies. Glucose is fuel for brain recovery, so sugar is exactly what Graeme needed. There will be personal thank-you notes when life settles down (did I mention tax season?) but in the meantime, please know that we’ve been blown away by your thoughtfulness and prayers.
One last thing. Thank you to the stranger in the elevator of the parking garage at two in the morning, who leaned over and whispered, “Don’t you worry, honey. Everything’s going to be fine.”