- Real Estate
- Paris Flash
(EDITOR’S NOTE: In a 10-part series for eParisExtra readers, Paris City Manager John Godwin, who received a new heart on July 2, shares a series of short stories/character sketches about his transplant experiences – “doctors, nurses, drugs, my wife, a trainee priest, the night I got the new heart.” He returned to work on Aug. 19 for the first time since a near-fatal heart episode on June 14. Godwin, who has written three historical novels (Hope, 2004; Talisman, 2005; and Of Blood & Faith, 2010), wrote the 10 stories in July and August “while home bored with a laptop.”)
Part VIII: Delirious
I first meet Holly while serving as President of the United States Ulysses S. Grant. I am told we had a very lively discussion. I later visit with her during the early 1900s when I am a wealthy archaeologist working somewhere near the Nile River. I am wheelchair bound, stuck in a seat on a miniature train, and having trouble using a bed pan. We visit for hours at a Middle Eastern bazaar, which later turns into a modern-day doctor’s office. There we discuss leadership, local government, politics, and history. She is an excellent doctor it turns out, though later I find out she’s a nurse, and I was never U.S. Grant. In fact, of course, I eventually realize none of this is real. My addled brain, in a drug and coma-induced stupor, has created it all.
My hallucinations do not end there. I believe the IV tree has a hidden camera in it. I see bugs and rats, and even flocks of birds in my ICU room. I am held hostage and tortured in an underground concrete bunker. I find myself in El Paso eating Mexican food at a favorite restaurant, and argue with my nurse when she tries to tell me I am still in a Dallas hospital. Later I go on a spy mission with my son-in-law the army captain, ending up in my hometown of Marshall, where I eat lunch and have a line surgically installed in my shoulder. My nurse did not believe that story either, but it is probably just as well. Spies are not supposed to let on that they are spies.
One sleepless night, a family of freeloaders refuses to leave the hospital and keeps everyone awake and on edge. Some sort of argument about a coffee maker and snacks the family has been providing to the hospital staff while their son – who does not have an actual body, but has converted himself into a bunch of CDs and photos – awaits a transplant. The staff will not call the police to have them removed, for fear of bad press, so the family sticks around for days. They eventually have their kids take turns pretending to be sick, and secure a lawyer from England to help them get free room and board at the hospital.
Shockingly I see what I presume to be a suicide attempt across the hallway in another ICU room. A woman ends up with a rope around her neck and though her sick husband is with her, she is too fat for him to help her. Fortunately, nurses and technicians get there in time. I am told she will be all right. They say it is an accident, but I doubt she really just tripped and fell into the pull string on the window blinds and accidentally hanged herself.
I am given a heart-shaped pillow after my first surgery. Patients are taught to clutch them tightly when they cough or move about. I do something to mine and get a replacement. The new one is compliments of a group of city managers from the Ukraine that has also donated a large quantity of medicine in my name. That reminds me of a childhood story about a mining town in Iceland, in which large numbers of children are stricken with a rare heart disease. A Scots engineer creates a machine that keeps the kids alive, but they can never leave their hometown. At some point, I actually become a little boy with a heart condition living in Iceland. My Icelandic mother looks suspiciously like my nurse, and the next-door neighbors look just like the technicians who help her take care of me. It turns out Iceland is a very nice place.
A nurse takes me to a large upstairs room to wash my hair, but there is an odd LSU fan in the room next door, staring through the plate glass window at me. I think it must be someone I know trying to play a trick on me. But I become so annoyed the nurse investigates and says there is no one there. Yet I am looking right at him! I think there is something wrong with this nurse. That becomes even more apparent when she tells me I have not even left my room, yet I know good and well I have been all over the hospital and even out of the city at least twice. In fact, she tries to tell me I have not left this room or my bed for over two weeks. The worst thing is when I finally become clear-headed enough to realize she is right. Everything, it seems, that I experience is unreal, mere figments of my out-of-control imagination. I have been living in an ethereal world, going from one crazed fantasy to another. In between I fight severe paranoia and am constantly afraid of the night. And through all this mad world, a final hallucination – a happy, friendly, bald-headed doctor in a tiny wheelchair races about, supervising the staff and checking on the patients, all the while almost running everyone down in his wheelchair. Rather like the mad hatter in Alice in Wonderland.
I have never been tempted to use drugs, and after my experience with delirium I can say unequivocably that Nancy Reagan was right when she advised young Americans to Just Say No to Drugs. In my case, I am in a semi-coma for almost five days after being under general anesthesia for 10 hours, I am taking large doses of various powerful medicines, I am given pain killers and sleeping pills, and I am suffering from severe malnutrition. It all combines to give the subconscious part of my sleep-deprived brain permission to do and think whatever it wants, and my eager brain goes on a very bad, extended “trip.”
It does not end with flights of fancy, bad memory, hallucinations, and paranoia, though. There are physical ramifications too. I try to pull out a breathing tube and do yank out a feeding tube. I convince myself that Cream of Wheat is actually coming back up into my mouth from my stomach. I bash the back of my head so hard on something that it brings blood and weeks later all the hair around the still superating wound falls out. One morning the nurse is surprised to find one of my three ID bracelets is missing. They later find it on the floor. Apparently unhappy with it, I had chewed through the heavy plastic band with my teeth. It must have taken most of the night.
Following the crazy period comes the transition period. My brain slowly comes out of its dark haze and begins to try to think clearly. At first it just spins, like a car with its rear tires stuck in the mud, spinning idly in place, trying to gain traction. Eventually I am clear-headed enough to know I am not clear-headed. And that starts a whole new sort of fear. Each time a doctor comes to see me, he or she asks a series of questions. What is your name, your birthday, the current month and year, who is president, and a few more. I get almost all of them wrong. It’s frustrating and frightening. What if my brain is stuck like this? I soon realize it’s a concern for my doctors, who have just placed me on the list for a heart transplant. I need to be physically well enough to receive a new heart, but I also need to be sane. They will not waste a heart on a crazy person. In my mind, that means if I don’t get back to normal, I might never get a new heart, and if don’t get a new heart, I will probably die. I cannot just make my brain be normal, so I decide to practice what so many unfortunate people under the influence of drugs do. I decide to deceive everyone!
I do not really know the answers to the questions the doctors ask me each day because they require me to draw from past memory, which I cannot readily access. But I do have the ability to memorize the questions and answers now, so when they ask me again, I get them all right. They think that means I am getting better. Many years ago I passed a school bus driver eye test the same way, having memorized the entire chart in advance. I just hope they do not change the order of the questions. If they do, my answers will not match up and they will be on to me.
One day I argue with my nurse Melanie. She is a graduate of the nursing school at Paris Junior College, a very fine nurse, and one of our favorites. She annoys me today, however, when she tells me I am at a hospital instead of in a mall, when I can plainly see the mall all around me. That disagreement devolves into a debate about whether or not I am also in an envelope. When she and my wife become so worried they call the doctors in to see me, I quickly tell them of course I know I am in a hospital. A mall? They must have misunderstood me. Of course I am not in a mall. I’m not crazy! Secretly, I hope maybe they think Melanie is though, thereby taking the heat off me. And when people ask if I still see spiders and rats and birds in the room, even though they are still everywhere, I know I am supposed to say my hallucinations are all gone, so I lie and tell them no, no more vermin.
When alone with my oldest daughter late one night, I tell her that although my wife and the nurses are worried about me and well-meaning, they have to help hide my insanity from the doctors. If they think I am not mentally fit, the doctors will disqualify me from getting a new heart. To be blunt, I tell her, you have to tell your mom to back off, or it could cost me my life.
I later think about the phrase recreational drug. What an oxymoron! Recreation implies relaxation, fun, pleasant activity, maybe sport. There is nothing recreational about what happened to me. Talking to my oldest brother one night, when I am finally almost completely normal (at least I think so), I tell him about the horrible dreams and hallucinations I suffered through on my very bad three-week trip. He laughs and says it is hard to believe people pay money to do drugs. I laugh too. They’re crazy, I add. Still later, when the hospital bills start rolling in, I realize no drug addict has probably ever spent as much in a lifetime as I did in 27 days on drugs.
I do get some good news, however. Several days after I get home from the hospital, my daughters and I are visiting when one of them mentions Holly the nurse. I ask if she was real. Absolutely, they answer. She took extra good care of you and was one of our favorites. The two of you talked almost all day, they tell me. I am so glad to hear it. I was never U.S. Grant (and wonder why my brain picked one of the worst of all presidents instead of my favorite, Grover Cleveland), but at least Holly is real. Then I wonder aloud if maybe that really nice doctor in the tiny wheelchair might have been real too? Yep, him too they say. But you never went to El Paso or Iceland, you were never a spy, and you really did gnaw your armband off. I don’t say it out loud, but secretly I blame those rats that no one else could see. They had really sharp teeth.
Next – Part IX: The Letter
For other “Transplant Experience” stories in the 10-part series, go to: