Left for Dead

I'm walking home from the library. Then tick, in the span of a millisecond, I may never walk again. I'm carrying my book, crossing the street, watching a white Toyota in the far lane, waiting for it to pass. The Toyota is erratic, speeding over to where I'm standing. Then SMASH. THUD.

January/February 1999

Reading time min

Left for Dead

Henrik Drescher

The rest is a blur. Me: hearing a THWUNK, feeling my body crumble. The Toyota: dragging me along on its grille. Me: wondering if I left dishes in the sink, my journals out. The Toyota: swerving, speeding up, bucking me off. Me: flying off the car.


I'm in a vacuum and then, suddenly, an explosion of noise. "Honey, can you move?" "Don't move her!" "What's your name?" "What a shame, so young." "Poor thing." "Not a thing we can do without a doctor." "Help is on the way, honey -- can you hear me?"

Police faces talking to civilian faces. A hand offers my purse, but when I try to get it, my arm won't move. My face feels warm and wet, my head like a bowling ball. What's everyone staring at? The show is over, folks! I'm perfectly fine! I'm a runner and a pre-med student and a writer and a healthy 30-year-old woman who has a physics class to get to in two hours, so thanks for your help, but I have to go back to my life.

The ambulance is moving. Sirens and flashing lights. Oxygen mask, blood pressure cuff, i.v. tube. A paramedic straps me in, another speaks through a walkie-talkie. "Twenty-five-year-old female, 110 pounds, dislocated left shoulder…" "I'm 30 and 95 pounds," I interrupt, "and my shoulder's not dislocated, it's right here on my arm. See?" "Possible paralysis," the paramedic continues, but I don't correct him this time.

People are running, moving me down a hall. Doctors in scrubs talk loudly in hurried shorthand. I see their chins above me as they carry me along on a gurney, like a Jewish bride, an ancient empress in procession.

Let's move her! Be careful! On my count!

A razor blade slices off my Levi's, my panties, my bra. cbc. Chem. 7. Blood gases. Tubes in my right arm, my femoral vein, down my nose and throat and into my stomach.

"Can you feel this?" a voice asks. A man with a mustache is touching my toes. Or so he says. "How about this?" I don't feel a thing. "Here?" Nothing. Is this some kind of joke, like those trick birthday candles that won't go out no matter how hard you blow?

More doctors: pushing, poking, prodding. Drawing blood from a bleeding girl. Tubes are handed off to a runner, like batons in a relay race. The chin above me keeps moving, barking out orders. Central line. ng tube. Call Ortho. Call Neuro. Call Radiology. Call the chaplain. The chaplain? Oh, my God, I really am dying.

"We've called your parents," the chaplain says in a soft, concerned voice. Too soft, too concerned. Solemnly, as if he's giving a eulogy. I'm sprawled out like a snow angel, while strangers in blue cotton are stationed around me, working on my body parts.

"We're going to relocate your shoulder now," Ortho says. "This will hurt a lot, okay?" "Okay," I say. I've never felt pain like this before. Not when I had all four wisdom teeth removed in one sitting, not when the man I thought I might marry said, "I don't think I love you anymore," between bites of penne in spicy red sauce. This is primal pain, excruciating, an atomic assault from deep within. I'm screaming something. I don't know what or how loud or if it's even my voice anymore. The pain is overwhelming?so much so that I don't feel the poke. A needle in my right arm, directly into the muscle. Demerol or valium or morphine. I drift off, feeling nothing again. Please God, let me feel my toes.

"Do you know where you are?" a mouth asks. Neuro's mouth. Thin lips and yellow teeth. Don't you doctors know what smoking does to your body? I'm strapped to a table, surrounded by curtains, still in the ER.

"Move your big toe," Neuro orders. I try. "Can you move it at all?" I hate this game. "Okay," he says finally, disappointment in his voice. I can tell I didn't pass. "Where are you?" he asks again. "The last circle of hell," I say, but he gives me a blank stare.

Neuro leaves and returns with new questions. "Who are these people?" he wants to know. These people are my parents. They try to smile, but their pinched lips and bug eyes betray them. I wonder what they see: their daughter, strapped to a table, tubes in her nose, mouth, arms, legs and groin. Face swollen beyond recognition, wounds open, garish and raw. "Everything will be okay," Mom says, but I can tell she doesn't believe it. A teardrop falls from her chin and lands on my neck. At least I can feel my neck.

"Are you awake, Miss Gottlieb? Miss Gottlieb, can you hear me?" "She can't hear you, Bill." "They said she could hear." "Well, she can't."

I can't sleep with all this chatter. I open my eyes and see blue? not cotton but polyester. Police blue and metal badges and notepads and turkey chins. Too many donuts can give you a turkey chin.

Officer Bill wants names of disgruntled boyfriends or co-workers or peers. He tells me that witnesses report the accident looked like a hit, an attempted murder, the way the driver dragged me half a block on his car, knowing I was hurt, trying to knock me off. The witnesses think it was intentional, that it must be someone I know.

I tell Bill that the man described by the witnesses couldn't possibly be anyone I know. It was a hit-and-run, I say, but Officer Bill still wants suspects. "The point of impact is crucial," Bill says firmly, and I stare back, incredulous.

There is no point to this impact.

There are 257 tiles and five silver fire sprinklers on the ceiling between my room and the elevator. I'm on a gurney that's being wheeled to the MRI area. Careful. Go slowly. Lift her over the bump. Two black chins: MRI transport. I'm in a hospital gown, a blue and white plaid minidress, too mini, exposing my bruises and abrasions and matted pubic hair, out of which runs a catheter. Like a ragdoll, I let them lift me up, put me down, inject a dye and roll me into the MRI machine. It's a narrow cylinder, a space so small as to make healthy people feel paralyzed. They give me ear plugs because the noise is deafening, the noise of giant magnets making images of my brain and spine.

The machine sounds like a construction site hammering on my brain. I vow that if I ever get better, if I ever recover, I will have more perspective, I won't get upset about things like wet newspapers or warm iced tea. Really, I promise! I'm bargaining with God. Let's make a deal: I'll trade you Legs for Perspective! Going once, twice, three times… Sold, to the lady in the MRI machine!

The machine bleats through my skull, and I remember the knock, the thwack, the point of impact, as Officer Bill likes to call it. I think about the driver who hit me and how he left me for dead in the street, how I would stop if I hit an animal, a tiny bird even, but a human being. Where is this guy's humanity? Did he see me in his rear-view mirror, lying immobile in a pool of blood? THWACK! BLEEP! KNOCK! I wonder what he's doing now, if he's sleeping soundly or screwing his wife and having an orgasm. SLAM, BAM, THWACK! I wonder if I'll ever have another orgasm, if I'll ever scream from pleasure instead of pain again. THWAAAACK! "The test is over, Miss Gottlieb. We'll have your results tomorrow."

Just after dawn, Dr. Attending comes back with his team, the Red Team, dressed in crisp white coats. They march single file, military-style, into formation around my bed. I'm a very lucky girl, Attending says. You get hit in the thoracic spine region, you could be fine. You get hit in the cervical spine region, you're paralyzed or dead. My fractures are T-spine, not C-spine. Ah, the difference a letter makes! It's Wheel of Fortune!

"Are you listening, Miss Gottlieb?" Attending interrupts. He's giving me the rundown, head to toe, reading from my chart without once examining me. cat scan of brain: looks good, considering. Concussion: monitor closely, takes time. Double vision: ophthalmology consult. Broken nose: may need surgery, Demerol for pain. Mouth and teeth: dental consult. Fractured left jaw: wait and see, maybe surgery. Chin wound: risk of infection, sew up soon; Plastics is busy, lots of people chopping off their fingers today. Spinal fractures: body brace, stationary, morphine. Fractured humerus and dislocated left shoulder: relocated, keep immobilized six to eight weeks, physical therapy. Torn ligaments in leg: not to worry, can't walk yet anyway. Full extent of recovery: not sure. Maybe 90 percent, maybe better, maybe not. Gotta go.

Wait! What might not recover? My spine, my brain, my legs, my arm, my face, my jaw, my eyes? "Leave everything to us," Attending smiles condescendingly. He leads his team toward the door, but I stop them again. "What can I expect?" I yell across the room. Do I drop my writing commitments or not? Do I drop my physics class? Do I drop out of life?

"You ask too many questions," Attending sighs, then he glances at his students, as if to say, "What a case this lady is!" "All I can tell you,"Attending says, "is that it's going to be a long haul, but you should make a near-complete recovery," and the Red Team is out the door.

"The doctor has ordered this," a nurse says, walking into my room. "For pain." She hands me a gizmo to press, which will deliver more morphine on demand. I press it a lot, a rat with a lever. I see my parents come in and out, shadowy figures, visitors I vaguely recognize. Press, press, press. I'm nauseated and dizzy and up on a gurney in a vertical position and about to fall down and break every bone in my body when a nurse walks in on the ceiling and down the wall and takes my morphine lever away.

The Red Team comes back. Five white coats. Day six, Neuro says, and by the way, it's September. Dr. Spine has decreed that I can get out of bed, with the body brace. Follow procedure. Log roll. Watch the I.V. Stay in a straight line. Deep breaths. Watch the sling. Let us push you, pull you, lift you. On our count. One… two….

Sold to the lady in the MRI machine! I'm cashing in on my bargain with God. My head is spinning, my stomach feels like a shake in a blender, my nose drips spots of blood, but so what? I'm up! I want to cross the entire country on foot, like Forrest Gump. But the doctors make me sit down again. Two steps. Enough for today. Okay, Neuro says, you can have a commode now. No more bedpan. I drew a T, not a C! I fall asleep and dream in letters.

I wake up and find two turkey chins above me. Turns out Officer Bill won't investigate further. Won't even bother searching for the driver who left me for dead. Bill won't look at me when he talks, just keeps wobbling his fleshy neck and running down the facts. Called the DMV. Found 100 Toyotas in L.A. County with license plates starting with 2XYJ. Not enough manpower. "I'm sorry," Officer Bill says, "I know it's not fair, but that's how the system works. We do the best we can."

Attending comes back the next morning with his supercilious smile and obedient students. The students are more sure of themselves. They say "Hmm" and squint their eyes a lot. They watch Attending as he explains that I can be discharged soon, once they're certain I can walk without tingling, eat solid food and get to a toilet. He mumbles something about physical therapy and daily home-nursing care and outpatient doctors. The nurse will fill me in on the details. The students say "Hmm," squint and follow him out.

Late afternoon, time for my walk. Out in the hallway, I see life again: people in business clothes, street clothes, workout clothes. Phones ring, children carry balloons, custodians laugh, doctors eat, nurses flirt -- there's a whole world out here! The walls spin, I see spots, but who cares? I chat with the nurses about vacation days, agree how unfair their schedules are, insist that they work much too hard. I'm making conversation, trying to laugh, trying to empathize, trying to concentrate, trying to stay upright. A wave of nausea sweeps over me. I'm riding a roller coaster without a seat belt, and I'm stuck upside-down in the loop. "I think I'm gonna faint," I blurt out, even though I've never fainted before and I've only seen it happen in the movies. "I really think…"

"It's the mystery patient," I hear, opening my eyes in the morning. A cardiologist stands above me, tan and dressed in tennis whites, his hair long like Andre Agassi's. In order to figure out why I fainted, he says, they'll need to give me a tilt-table test, the purpose of which is to make me dizzy and convulse while they monitor me with electrodes.

Transport picks me up for the test. It takes two men and several minutes to move me from bed to gurney. I count the tiles on the ceiling between my room and the elevator, but there are only 251 this time, not 257, even though I'm directly above the MED-SURGE floor, where I did my previous count. Maybe this building is asymmetrical, I think. Maybe the architect has made a mistake. I'm only 30. This is all a big mistake!

Over the bump, into an elevator, upstairs to Cardiology. I turn my head to the side, see a gurney next to mine. On top is a curly-headed kid, about 8 or 9, staring up at the ceiling. "I'm only 9 years old!" I imagine him thinking. Whenever it happens, whenever your body fails you, it always seems unfair.

At midnight, pain wakes me from a fitful sleep, a dream in which I'm lying on a bed of nails like a magician, like Houdini, except I've botched the trick. The nails cut through my back, through my kidneys, through my stomach and spleen and heart, and I'm screaming but no one hears me. The nurses' station is too far away. "Call for help," the white board says, but you're actually supposed to push for help. Push the button! Get morphine! I press and press, but no morphine comes out. Instead I get Dennis, who, according to the white board, is tonight's RN.

Dennis is about 6-feet-6-inches tall, with brown skin and a green buzz cut, like Dennis Rodman's before it went purple and then orange. I wonder if I'm hallucinating again. Could this tree of a man conceivably be my nurse? If I were walking on a dark street and saw this formidable creature strolling toward me, I'd cross to the other side, the side with the bright street lights and heavy foot traffic. But here, since I can't walk, I simply say I need some morphine, the Vicodin isn't strong enough, I will die without some morphine. But Dennis says he must page the doctor, I must wait. Wait? You try being Houdini on a bed of nails.

"Try to relax," Dennis says, his voice deep and strong, even when he whispers. He turns out the lights, and I squeeze my eyes closed because the sliver of light from the hallway scorches my retinas. Even in the darkness, I sense Dennis's presence, his green hair buzzing with electricity. Then I feel something on my temples going round and round on my pulsing pressure points. For some reason, the sensation makes me say, "I was just crossing the street, and this guy hit me and dragged me half a block and left, just left me like this." "I know," Dennis answers. "I know, pretty one, I know." Then Dennis is Houdini and I'm floating above the nails, levitating, resting on a bed of air. "I know, pretty one," he keeps repeating, an incantation to prolong the trick.

In the morning, my parents bring mail to the hospital -- cards and flowers and bills that are due. I put it aside and ask for a mirror. Could I still be pretty? My parents hesitate. They say: Wait. They say: It takes time to heal. They say: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

"I want the mirror," I insist, and reluctantly, my mom goes fishing in her purse. I don't look right away, but after my parents leave, I can't stop staring at the wreckage, mesmerized by my reflection. I look to see if I'm still here.

"The blood on your brain is stable," my doctor says three days later. "It's time to get you up again." I hesitate, terrified of blacking out, of losing even more contact with the outside world. He says the longer I wait, the worse the fear will be. He explains how survivors of plane crashes need to board another plane as quickly as possible, people who fall off horses need to get back in the saddle right away. What about Christopher Reeve? He fell off a horse and he'll never be able to get back in the saddle!

Suddenly I realize how frightened I've become, not only of death, but of life. I understand now why everyone who visited said, "There must be a reason this happened." Why everyone had to be a philosopher -- to give a senseless act of violence and lack of human conscience some meaning -- all so we could feel that life isn't as unpredictable or fragile or uncontrollable as it really is. So we could believe there is a point. The doctor summons a nurse, and they help me out of bed. Gently. Log roll. Deep breaths. Blood pressure's low, let's wait. Have some juice. Sit here for a while. Tell us when you're ready.

I'm sitting on the edge of the bed, looking at the lights in the windows across the way. I imagine that I'm in a chic loft in New York, a voyeur in a Griffin Dunne movie. A young woman attached to an I.V. pole paces her room, walks to her window and gazes up at mine. I walk to the window and watch pedestrians cross at the white-bordered crosswalk below. I feel the blood drain from my head, and the doctor sits me down again.

"Stay away from the window for now," he says, but I can't imagine ever feeling safe enough to watch people cross the street or to cross a street again myself. I know, though, that one day I will, one day I'll step off another curb and pray that the car stops when it's supposed to. I'll step off many curbs in the course of my life, and every time, I'll just have to hope for the best.

I'm being wheeled out for discharge, underneath the white tiles and the fire sprinklers, almost three weeks after I was first wheeled in. I see my doctor on his rounds, and he says goodbye, see you soon, follow the orders, be patient. He bends over to sign some papers, and a quarter falls from his coat pocket. It rolls a few feet down the hallway, over to where an old man with an I.V. pole is standing. My doctor retrieves the quarter, hands it to me. "Here, you'll need this to pay your bills," he says, his eyes dancing with laughter. Doctors, you really should get out more! The nurse turns my wheelchair around and starts to push me away.

The old man with the I.V. pole is wearing socks pulled up to his knees, like those men in Florida who wear knee socks with plaid Bermuda shorts on golf courses. He's a walking oxymoron -- bald with very hairy legs -- and is using his I.V. pole like a cane. I know that we're in the pre-op area, that this man will probably have bypass or kidney or prostate surgery in the morning. "Goodbye, dear," he says, as I'm wheeled by. "Stay well." I smile back and watch him fade, his face wrinkling in on itself like a dried-out apple. "Only come back to visit," I hear, but I'm near the elevators now and can't turn around. His life will change tomorrow, and he knows it. Each of our lives may change tomorrow, and somewhere deep down, we know it, too.

Lori Gottlieb, '89, is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.

© Stanford University. Stanford, California 94305.