I was on-call this weekend at Brooke Army Medical Center covering the Radiology Department. A woman bicyclist had been brought in to the ER after being hit by a car. She was in her late 30’s… an athlete, you could say… good physical condition prior to being hit… but this was no minor “accident.” The severity of her injuries were such that she could have easily died before making it to the operating room to have her internal injuries repaired. I have thought of her often since seeing her lay helplessly in the CT scanner… alone.
Early the next morning (Sunday) I went down to the cafeteria to get something to eat. The cafeteria was essentially empty with the exception of a few lone hospital workers eating some breakfast. In one quick glance you could guess the total number in the dining area as less than 10, but there was a cluster sitting at one of the tables. A group of adults sitting at a table talking…eating breakfast… but not really eating. Clearly, they were civilians by their attire. Family members of someone who was now a patient at the hospital… I presumed. It was early in the morning, but this group had not just awakened. These were vigil watchers. While I do not know who they were there worrying about… praying for… crying for… I imagined that they were the family members of the bicyclist that I had seen come in the evening before. I imagined them receiving the call…”your loved one was just hit by a car… You need to get here immediately… They may not survive.”
Your heart sinks as you think of receiving the call. Your stomach feels empty and sick. “I wish that I could vomit… if it would only help with the void and helplessness that I now feel.” As I walked by them I was quickly reminded of the first hours/days/weeks that were spent in the hospital with the extended Lopez/Southerington family… Ava’s Army. I remember that pain very well.
This story is not too dissimilar from Ava. One person with the promise of a lifetime… doing the right things… taking care of themselves… and in a fraction of an instant… it all changes.
But this story reminds me of something else… as I walk by this family my mind plays a trick on me… it makes me feel like I am back at University Hospital that night… I am again peering through the back of an ambulance watching my friend tremble as he tries to breathe life into his daughter… I see Traci sitting on the curb with blood smeared across her leg and arm… my stomach feels weak for a moment at the thought of it. The psychology of it all is curious. Why are we this way? Is our mind trying to protect us by not letting us forget how these things felt? Is it trying to make sure that we steer clear of the “danger?” Perhaps.
Interesting… and I am a guy… a typical guy… not overly sensitive… analytical… “rational.” I am even somewhat removed from it all. It wasn’t even my child. I didn’t even witness the event. Yet, I am affected by it, nonetheless. My thoughts take me to others… women… who tend to be more compassionate and empathetic than us insensate men.
I think about Jennifer, who witnessed the Lopez family being run-down in their yard… I know that she has not forgotten how that felt.
I think about the Lopez/Southerington families… I know that they have not forgotten how they felt.
I think about Manny… I KNOW that he has NOT forgotten how he felt.
I think about Traci… I KNOW THAT SHE HAS NOT FORGOTTEN HOW SHE FELT…
Nor will she… anytime soon.
The “void/emptiness/sickness” that you feel in your gut when something like this happens is called a “visceral reaction.” Your mind makes your body feel it. Traci’s mom nearly falling as she saw her daughter for the first time following being hit, is a “visceral reaction.” I got sick once after eating at Chili’s restaurant when I was going through chemotherapy. I have not eaten there since and still feel a twinge of queasiness whenever I drive by it. I see soldiers everyday whom have been burned and busted by the atrocities of war. What psychological demons they must face in their sleep every night.
PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) is a term that we are all quite familiar with, but many do not know that it is a spectrum of disease… mild to severe. It is not limited to soldiers at war and can occur after any “stressful” event. Our bodies heal long before the brain forgets. We must remember that psychological wounds hurt too. They can be hard to see… and they can take very long to heal.
Similarly, the Lopez family continues to heal from physical wounds at an exceptional rate. It has been less than three months since Ava was nearly killed (23Apr09). Her physical recovery has been meteoric to this point, but the wound to the Lopez family from the psychological trauma was deep… and it will take much longer to heal.
There was an encounter a few days ago…
The message was an uncompassionate… “get over it.” (in summary).
For those who share such sentiment I want to remind them that no one is making you participate in any way. The people who are participating in this community event do so out of the goodness in their heart… and they will be repaid in kind in the future… maybe not by this group… maybe not in this life… but one day they will need help… and they will receive it from the goodness of others… because they have been recognized as “being good.”
When Ava, Isa, and Traci were “injured,” those of us who care about them committed ourselves to them for the duration of their healing…
“For the duration of their healing.” What does this mean? When the bandages come off my responsibility is done? No.
Healing comes in many forms… physical and psychological. They are our friends. We have committed ourselves to them. We have committed to support them until they are whole again… in every way.
While Ava’s physical condition has improved dramatically, she is not yet whole… and neither is the Lopez family. And even when Ava is walking and running again, the psychological wound will remain… and so will their friends.
Just as I would not enter the bicyclist’s hospital room tomorrow and tell her to “get over” her extensive physical wounds, we cannot expect psychological wounds to heal just because we think that they should have healed by now. They will heal when they heal… and not any sooner than that.
Do not be angry and petty that this family has received so much attention and support. Be happy that their remains such goodness in this difficult world. Extend yourself to those who need it… It will pay dividends later… in this life… or the next.
Ava, the party waits for you.