Sunday, May 26, 2013

Surviving a Stroke

In May, with the flowers of spring and the sunny days, my mother would spend time tending her garden and feeding the humming birds out back. While visiting my brother’s family in Portland she had a major stroke. She started acting drunk and stumbling, insisting nothing was wrong with her. Peggy, my sister-in-law, recognized the symptoms immediately and called paramedics, who got there within ten minutes. They loaded her into the ambulance as the right side of her body started freezing up and dragging. “She looked pretty bad,” my brother said to me later.
     Providence Medical Center was only a mile away, and was one of the best hospitals in the country for treating stroke victims. The doctors were ready for her when she arrived. She was given the highest priority among the patients and hustled into an emergency room. Doctors had to do a CAT scan to find the location of the blockage. After a thorough, yet swift diagnosis, they injected her with a clot-busting drug to open the blocked artery deep inside her brain before the lack of blood caused the affected area to die. It was quite amazing actually what they did for her. Within less than thirty minutes of her initial signs, she had been treated. Response time is crucial for surviving a stroke without any long term paralyses or brain damage, so my dear mother was extremely lucky. Not only had she been a mile from the right hospital, but she had been around people who got her prompt treatment.
     But the drug didn’t get the entire clot, so doctors had to go into her brain and remove it. They stuck a catheter into an artery in her groin and went all the way up with a device I think was called a Merci Retriever. The artery had caved in, creating an occlusion, which was causing the clot to build up behind it. They shored up her artery with a temporary stint and then pulled out the clot the same way they had gone in. Twenty years ago, patients with this kind of stroke would have died or become a vegetable, but my mother, at seventy-two, had a strong heart and blood vessels from walking and eating oatmeal for breakfast every day. They were surprised to find out that she had only been taking one prescribed pill a day when most people her age were taking all sorts of medications. She was the strongest patient on the floor nurses said.
     I dropped everything when I got the call and drove there from Cottage Grove. My father and two brothers were in the waiting room looking somber when I arrived, waiting for her to come out of surgery. We were scared as hell. “Should know something soon,” my brother said. My third brother was on his way down from Seattle. We didn’t know quite what to expect. We knew her situation was critical, but we didn’t know that much about the surgery, just that they had to go all the way up an artery, find a tiny clot in her brain, and drag it back out. I had a bad stereotype fixed in my mind about stoke victims. I envisioned people who had lost the ability to move half their bodies, had droopy faces and slurred speech, or died from complications. In my mind, stroke victims just didn’t live a normal life, and I felt horrible for my mother, a saintly woman if ever there was one. She was always giving and happy.
    My mother and father had been married for over fifty years and had lived in Roseburg, Oregon pretty much all that time, in the same house where I was born. Two of my brothers were born in Roseburg. My parents raised us right on Chinaberry Street when there were only a few neighbors. We played outside for hours, in the fields, on the hills, and in the creek. My mother would call us in just after dark. We always had dinner to look forward to when we were tired and hungry. My mother was the corner stone of our existence. She worried about us and watched over us. Now we were worrying about her.
     The operation was a success. When we went back to see her, she was coherent and moving all her limbs. She was joking and laughing, like the carefree optimist she had always been. My mother would say things like, look at my new puzzle, isn’t this a neat plant, or I won a thousand dollars at Seven Feathers. My mother was a complete optimist among a family of five pessimistic males, and she stood out among us because of this light she had. It was she who allowed us to see the bright side of things, and now it was no different. Except she was lying in a bed and we were standing around feeling gloomy and sarcastic. She hadn’t remembered the surgery or even that she had had a stroke. She still thought she was getting prepared for surgery, but she didn’t seem that afraid, like she knew things would turn out okay. She was always that way. “You already had it,” my brother said.
    “I did. I thought I still had to go in,” she said.
    “They went into your brain,” my brother said, cringing a little. “All the way up your artery.”
    “But now you’re fine,” I said trying to reassure her a little. “Everything was fixed, nothing to it.” Once she heard from the doctor that the prognosis was really good, she got even more positive and happy, smiling and sticking out her tongue – loving life.
     She survived without any long term paralysis or brain injury. Dodged a bullet the doctors said. My other sister-in-law, who passed away over a year ago said she would always take care of my mother when she got old. She had just been offered a high-paying job at Providence before she died, and my mother said, “Maybe she was watching over me like she said she would.”
     My mother returned to Roseburg about ten days after her accident. She was worried about her garden and her dog. When she saw her doctor in Roseburg he told her if this stroke would have happened in Roseburg there wouldn’t have been anyone able to perform the procedure they did in Portland. Luck, or maybe some other higher calling was on my mother's side. It wasn’t her time yet.

Edge of Old Crow Flats

I’m really in it now with no turning back, that’s for sure. The god forsaken brush only gets worse. I have to keep stepping it up a notch when I think I’m already at my limit. It’s like I’m being sucked into an infinite labyrinthine of some lost world from our prehistoric pass, and I don’t try to get out of it because I have to pass through it to get to the present; to get home. The shortest distance to civilization now is to hike directly to Old Crow.
     Still fully confident that I can make it, I refuse to send a message for help on my beacon. I cross a high, exposed pass and get caught in a downpour where there’s no forest to seek shelter, just a few stunted trees clumped together out on the tundra at the base of a mountain. I put on my rain gear, drape my tarp over me and my pack, and wait it out so I can keep hiking when it lets up. Will curls up below my feet, at the base of a two-foot high sodden ledge, where he stays pretty dry because the wind is blowing the rain sideways over him. Following a more southerly route along the border, Spike Mountain is visible about thirty miles southwest, a perfect landmark if I want to hike south to the Porcupine River, or back west to the Coleen River, but it’s shorter to keep going to Old Crow. Besides, I have food waiting that I mailed to myself before I left Oregon, and I plan on gorging myself for two days when I get there.
     After the rain lets up, I haul myself around this mountain on the edge of Old Crow Flats, clawing my way for every inch of ground. The thousands of lakes out there look like light, shimmering patches and the land looks dark and featureless everywhere else. It’s so far across that it gives me the chills thinking what would happen if I got into the middle of that. I have to keep out of there. It’s not of this world.
     I enter another ravine and hike up the other side to get the high ground where there should be less brush. The brush is killing me. Little by little, it’s picking me apart. Will bolts off chasing a moose back the way we came. He crosses the ravine six times faster than I just hiked it, in ten minutes, howling the entire time like the hunting dog he is. He’s a hunter to the bone, bred through the ages for tracking and killing. I watch both him and the moose from my vantage point, the moose trotting and plowing through brush to keep about fifty yards ahead of Will the entire time, like he’s measuring his effort or teasing Will. The moose picks the brushiest terrain to run through so he can throw off the dog, like he’d do if a wolf were chasing him. Will used to run with Jimmy like this when he was alive, and the two of them together charged each other up so much, that it seemed as if they believed they could do anything.
     Soon the moose and Will are too far out of sight, tiny dots and then lost in the twisting foliage and gray expanse of taiga. Soon his howling trails off in the great northern silence and then I’m alone to sit on a grassy hillock, waiting for him to come back. I hope he comes back, because it’s too big of a place to be alone.