Struggling to Cope with a Long Cycle of Hope and Despair A Letter From Shock Trauma

March 29, 1992|By SUSAN SULLAM | SUSAN SULLAM,Susan Sullam is a Baltimore writer.

It's so routine. Almost every day the radio spews forth with TC report of a major traffic accident in which the victim has been flown to Shock Trauma. It's not unusual to see the beige MedEvac helicopters skimming the sky toward the Maryland Shock Trauma Center as their rotors race the onset of death.

For most people, the helicopters and radio reports are fleeting; hardly worthy of more than a momentary pause, a passing thought. Until last summer, I was the same way. Until July 4, when my father and stepmother of 32 years were in a catastrophic car accident on I-95.

It was so unexpected, which I guess is the way all tragedies happen. My family and I had been living in Hawaii for 10 months and had traveled through Thailand, China, and Japan for another six weeks. July 4th was our big family reunion.

We'd been back from our worldly travels for six days when my Dad and my stepmother, Helene, drove from their home in Washington, D.C. to have brunch with us in Baltimore.

After a leisurely meal, my father and stepmother left our house around 1:30 p.m. for the drive back. A short time later, I decided to take our two daughters to a movie. My husband, a reporter with The Sun, had left earlier to work the holiday shift, a rousing day of covering July 4th parades.

The call came when I returned with the girls from the movie. My husband had been told of the car accident by the State Police. He had spent more than an hour phoning the neighbors trying to locate me. He was quick and to the point. There'd been an accident. Helene was badly hurt and had been flown to Shock Trauma; Dad was not as seriously hurt and was at Howard County General Hospital in Columbia. It was 5 p.m.

There is a shield of unreality that goes up as soon as you get a sudden shock. For me, logistics became important. Should my husband come home and get me or should I pick him up at work? Or would it be better to go directly to Shock Trauma and just meet him there? Where should the children go? Should they take their pajamas and a tooth brushes? My brain quickly became crowded with nonsense.

Almost as soon as we arrived at Shock Trauma, a nurse led us to the emergency room. Helene was on a gurney surrounded by a cadre of nurses and doctors. At first glance, she looked surprisingly good. Her face only had one small cut above her left eye; the rest of her broken body was hidden from view under a green hospital sheet.

I bent over and stroked her short, curly hair. She looked at me with her green/gray eyes and through the oxygen mask said: "Susan, I'm so scared."

After our brief visit with her, a doctor took us aside to talk to us about her injuries. It was bad -- complicated breaks of every limb. She was very critical, he said. It was going to be a long, arduous recovery. She might not make it. Many things could go wrong: heart, lungs, kidneys, infections.

We listened and nodded our heads, but we really didn't understand. My stepsister, Polly, arrived a short time later and saw her mother alone, but she was already heavily sedated. The three of us went down to the main Shock Trauma waiting room to commandeer the phones, call relatives, and wait for more news.

Sitting in Shock Trauma's small waiting room is like being on an out-of-control roller coaster in which strangers overhear and share a kind of communal togetherness. We had no trouble discussing openly the details of Helene's condition as another -- family sat a few chairs away waiting to talk to a doctor about their loved one.

Minutes later, it was our turn to sit quietly, trying not to intrude, as a doctor detailed the total paralysis of their relative, who had shattered his spine after diving into the shallow end of a swimming pool.

In the end, we spent four weeks in and out of Shock Trauma waiting rooms, visiting Helene, talking to doctors, seeing nurses, waiting. We were told to designate one family member as the liaison between the hospital and the family. Because my husband and I are the only family members living in Baltimore, it was decided that my husband would be the one to speak to the doctors daily and disseminate the news. I was his assistant.

Every morning and night my husband called the hospital for the latest news. We spent endless hours calling relatives and keeping everyone posted on the latest developments. The respiration was down, the oxygen level was up, urine output was up. Helene had a strong will to live and she was fighting like a champ.

For my husband and me, being in the center of things made it a little easier. We had a role. It kept us busy, and we didn't have to think. For the rest of the family, it was much harder. They could only travel back and forth to Baltimore, hoping for a miracle.

Visiting Shock Trauma became part of our daily routine. There was the long walk through the corridors of University Hospital to the Shock Trauma building, the silent elevator ride to the fifth floor and, finally, the brief call from the wall phone in the waiting room to the nurse's station.

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