“AUNT CHRISTY!!!! RHETT’S BEEN HIT BY A CAR……”
The night before, in true snow globe fashion, the snow was falling directly out of the sky and quickly accumulating on the ground. We made a second trip to Scheels to return the one day rental boots. Again to my surprise, we didn’t rent skis. Uncle Larry decided we would stop at the rental shop near Sky Tavern in the morning because they were cheaper. Our Southern California cousins were in for a ski weekend and so elated to play in the snow, under the moonlight, as it blanketed the streets and yards.
On the busiest ski weekend of the season, our day started as the shit show you would expect getting everyone’s stuff ready to go – a lot like the start of Home Alone once the alarm goes off. We were going skiing and we had to beat the powder seekers to the mountain, so we didn’t have to hike in from 3 parking lots away. After the moonlight snowball fight, I asked the kids to put all of their wet outer layers on the laundry room floor, so it could all be dried. “Put all of your gear in the car and everything you need to wear in the hallway.” I dried coats and pants one load at a time and put the kids’ ski clothes on the kitchen chairs, so they were easy to find in the morning.
Morning came and the kids had their marching orders. “Get your breakfast made, dishes cleaned up, brush your teeth, make your beds, get dressed and let’s get going.” In the midst of kids going up and down, there was Uncle Larry standing in the hallway in a white undershirt and grey sweats, scratching the back of his head. He was rattling off a list of gear he needed because the temperatures had been so low. As kids milled around, Luke couldn’t find his coat or gloves. As a last resort, I opened the door to the garage and there they were, soaking wet lying on the garage floor. I threw them in the dryer, counted and re-counted the kids’ gear, accounting for everything we would need. What I didn’t account for was Larry… after freezing yesterday, he was on the hunt for warmer gear. We were tearing apart the ski bag looking for gloves, where I keep the extras. I’m not sure if it was dogs or kids, but I found one of the white and grey mittens in the bag and one under Tyler’s bed. As we were digging, Larry spotted and snagged a pair of (kids) goggles out of the bag. We dug through Rhett’s middle drawers and found two fleece camo bank robber style masks, one for Larry, one for Luke.
We were finally winding up the ice and snow packed roads heading to the mountain; we arrived at Mt. Rose just after 9:00 and got a surprisingly good parking spot at the top of the stairs. We got out, put boots on one at a time, hooked skis together, secured our other shoes and belongings in the car, locked the door and headed downstairs. Just as the day before, we were zipped up and clipped into our skis when Uncle Larry made yet another trip to guest services. Caden and Tyler, both experienced riders, anxiously took off to make some runs.
After skiing about 7 runs, Rhett wanted to go to the lodge to warm up. This little tidbit of course came when we were already in the lift line to go back up the mountain. “My hands are freezing because of these stupid gloves.” After losing the argument to go up once more and ski in, we pushed ourselves backwards out of the lift line and through the crowds compiling behind us and began to shuffle our way uphill toward the lodge. Once inside, I poured a hot chocolate for my frozen boy when I saw him grabbing an ice cold fizzy soda from the refrigerator. “I thought you were cold.” “Well, I don’t really like their hot chocolate.” For the love of God. We grabbed our lunch and headed to a table. We found one with two side by side, so I made Rhett sit at one while we waited on everyone else. I sent a text to Caden and Tyler. “We are having lunch now; do you want to come meet us?” Caden replies, “well, Tyler fell and he’s kind of hurt.” I call Tyler, Caden answers and explains that Tyler was on a back edge when he went over a jagged stump and fell on it. “Well, is he okay? Can he get up?” “We are with ski patrol right now.” “Oh, you’re with ski patrol?” “Yeah, they are taking him to first aid.” “Oh, so he’s in the sled? Where are you?” I threw my $12 hamburger in the garbage, quickly explained to Larry where I was going, as he and Luke we coming in. I threw on my skis and headed to the other side of the mountain. There was my kid, on a stretcher, tears in his eyes, uncontrollably shaking. Ski patrol began explaining where, what and how he had hit and that the pain was radiating from this butt to his shoulders. “We really don’t know what this is. It could be a fracture, it could be a compression injury. It could be a spinal injury we really don’t know. I am not going to tell you what to do, but if this were my kid, I would send him down in an ambulance.” As I am watching his feet shake while they remove his boots, the severity of the situation began to sink in. I tried to reign in thoughts of permanent damage, constant back pain, growth and development problems, treatment that may have to be sought just to make him feel normal. Decisions and logistics began to flash through my head. I had to get back to the other side, find everyone, wait for them, make them leave with me or leave them there and come back, or find someone to come back. Larry’s calling: “Just meet me up here and leave me your car keys.” “No. I need my car.” “Tyler, I am so sorry, but I cannot ride in the ambulance with you. I am going to grab your stuff, and get in the car. You will be there before me, but I’ll be right behind you as fast as I can. Make sure you have your phone. I’ll see you soon.” I left before he was completely loaded to save time. The powder was thicker than I like and I can’t ski as fast and stay in control, I know that. It felt painstakingly long to get to the other side. I skied straight into the lodge, no Larry, no nobody. I dialed for the “meet me at the stairs” call. Naturally, my phone dies. Larry and Caden meet me at the car as I am changing my shoes. I firmly tell Larry “I will be back to get you or I will send someone for you.” I throw my phone on the car charger and I call Trent and make arrangements for him to pick them up. I arrive at the hospital to the same scene I just left, my boy lying on a stretcher. I rub his hair all the while thinking, please don’t let this be something that will affect him for life. The nurse comes in and informs me they’ve taken X-rays. When I question the results, she sees the horror on my face as she explains that they aren’t supposed to share the results, “but I can see you are really worried, so I am going to tell you it is a broken tailbone.” Relief pours over me. The doctor shortly follows with the same news. “There is not any damage at all to his back; his tailbone is broken. Ibuprophen 3x’s a day every 6 hours.” “Tyler, this is such a relief. It’s going to hurt for awhile, but what a relief; let’s get you ready to go.”
I swished my ski pants all through the hospital and back to the car. I drove around to valet where a nurse met me with Tyler in a wheelchair. I could so vividly remember that same aching, sickening feeling when I had that same injury from my first (and only) snowboarding attempt. I got Tyler home, being far more conscious of every bump in the road, a courtesy not extended to me hopping over the speed bumps in the Harrah’s parking lot after coming down from Heavenly 9+ years ago.
In true Northern Nevada fashion, the snow had melted in town and the sun was shining. I jumped in the shower and actually got started drying my hair. I hadn’t made it much beyond that. All of the boys were out front on their bikes, with the exception of Tyler. He was in my bed sleeping. Larry and I were debating what to have for dinner. Caden came flying in the house yelling the words that keep me up at night “AUNT CHRISTY!!! RHETT’S BEEN HIT BY A CAR…” I jumped up and ran out the front door. The horror overwhelmed me when I saw his little body. “CALL 911!!!” His head was in the gutter and his body toward the street, perpendicular to the curb, in front of the neighbor’s house. It is as though time slows and allows you to snapshot details that are then imprinted; his little shoes lying above, his bright orange bike near the mailbox. He was actually wearing the black Fox jacket I told him to put on. Underneath, I could see his little chest slowly going up and down. His little dark curly lashes were halfway open over his pure blue eyes that were rolled in the back of his head. Smacking his face softly, “come on baby wake up. Come on baby wake up for mommy.” “Go get my shoes and my purse!!!” Larry was there “he’s breathing… he’s breathing.” As he went to scoop under his neck, I cried out “don’t touch him.” Trent relayed the 911 instructions as they came. Time stood absolutely still. Caden ran out with a pair of my shoes, my purse and a blanket to put on Rhett. Two doors down from our house there was a dark grey Toyota Camry parked on the sidewalk with a thin built elderly woman standing near the trunk. She eventually sauntered over. Leaning over me, I heard “oh what a cute little guy.” ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME? I kept the words to myself and focused on Rhett. The hot tears began to stream down my face. I hear another “he’s so cute” comment coming from over my shoulder. My head whips back again to see her leaning in with glasses that reminded me of my grandparent’s post eye doctor appointments. You’ve just hit a child on a bicycle and this is what you say? You aren’t upset, you aren’t remorseful, you are emotionless and you act like you’re looking into a nursery room window. What in the hell is the matter with you? I can’t give her any of my attention.
Those couple minutes from 911 to arrival felt like 20. Lights and sirens of all types descended upon us. Guys dressed in that signature dark blue, first responder, uniform were jumping out of vehicles. Amongst one, a familiar face… “ZAK!!!” They ran right for him and surrounded Rhett. Unlike me, they knew exactly what to do. An officer from Sparks PD stood in front of me as they worked him. What does this mean? Is there something worse than I saw? Does he know something I don’t? He starts asking me for I.D. I fish through my purse and hand it to him. He clips it to his right uniform pocket. I continue my effort to look around him. He blocks me. He tries to keep me occupied with questions, of which I can’t recall even one. “Zak, what is happening?” I hear them give the ready and he’s on the backboard. I ask for my I.D. and I run to the passenger side and make the big step into the ambulance, take a seat up front, secure the belt and try to fight back the tears that are coming in steady stream. Tucking my leg underneath me, I push upward and fight to look in the back as the seatbelt restrains me. We head down the street and I get a text from Susan “are you okay?” I furiously text back that Rhett had been hit by a car and I was freaking out. She asked what she could do and I asked her to get ahold of Fritz at work. His iPhone had stopped working. The new one had been sent to my work that Saturday and he didn’t pick it up at FedEx because he was going on shift and knew he wouldn’t need it. Storey County Fire pops up on my phone and I knew he knew. “What is going on?” The question catches me off guard. I assumed he now knew. I start to sob as I choke out the words “Rhett’s been hit by a car.” “WHAT?” “WHAT?” I vaguely remember trying to relay the details of his condition. Shortly after, I hear a small cry. He’s coming to, I think to myself. I ask the medics in the back. They contradict what I want to hear. “No, he’s not awake.” A couple more burst of small cries come from the back. This is good, I tell myself, but it seems I was the only one that thought so.
Once at the hospital, they push him through the double doors and into an open room. There were people everywhere, writing on their purple latex gloves, all in solid scrubs in an array of color. I could see them working furiously around him. Jordan, the hospital’s social worker came over with a post-it note to get information from me. When she looked over she immediately recognized me from having just been in there. I recognized a lot of the ER staff from my prior visit. As I gave her the information she asked and she translated some of what we could hear, Rhett let out a big cry and started pushing himself up from the stretcher. A small degree of hope and relief came over me. They had an x-ray machine hovering over him. To the left there was a screen where the images appeared as they were taken. There it was, a clean break through the top of his femur, the bones offset, no longer aligned with one another. I saw it as I heard the words called out “broken femur.” The fear hit me square in the chest and started to spread through me like ice. I started to shake and my teeth began to chatter. The thought of his body being this broken hadn’t previously occurred to me. If his femur was broken, what else could possibly be wrong? The black and white skeletal images continued to flash, and, as they did, one of the doctors stood in front of the screen to take pictures one by one. I stepped forward. I heard “you can’t go up there,” but I didn’t hesitate to disregard her. I stood next to the doctor examining the screen trying to see what he was seeing. I quietly uttered, “What else is wrong with him?” “Nothing we can see yet, no internal bleeding, no other breaks.” Relieved and dazed I stepped back into my space, closer to the paramedics that brought him in. I heard someone tell me “he’s breathing on his own, but we are going to intubate him to preserve the airway.” They had given him a paraledic. Just like that, he was brought past me and he was full of tubes, wires and hoses and he didn’t move at all.
I was taken to a conference room to wait. Fritz arrived and I wrapped my arms around him and buried my head into the middle of his chest, my familiar safe space, and I just started to cry. We were brought consent forms for blood transfusions and medical care. We had police reports to fill out. Trent and Jaxom arrived and joined us in the conference room. Trent filled in some of the details that I didn’t know. Trent had been heading up the street as the grey Toyota sped past him. He had turned in time to hear the hit and see the aftermath. We were all in a teary-eyed state of shock.
We walked into the PICU room 410 and there he was, our baby, our Rhettster, our little freckle-faced, funny, smiley, athletic, bull headed little boy, known now as the hospital alias Onion Thirty-Seven. His face was pale and swollen. He had breathing tubes, suction tubes and stomach tubes all held by a white head-gear device with brown pads that covered his cheeks. He had foam sticky pads all over his chest and stomach with these tiny jumper cable-looking connectors and grey wires coming off. He had two IV’s in his right hand and one in his right arm. He had had light blue, soft restraints on both hands, so he couldn’t pull at anything if he woke up. He had a catheter with wires in the tubes. I noticed big bruises and abrasions all over the insides of his legs, blood still dripping on his little fingers, now covered in the opaque tape holding the IV’s in place. He had a knot on the back of his head almost equivalent to the size of ½ a baseball. His leg was in a black immobilizer and in traction. I choked up again when I noticed the multiple white tracks down the side of his scalp where the hair is now missing from his little head. All down the left side, there are cuts, scrapes, blood and little rocks matted into his head. He is surrounded by machines and IV’s, there is a beep and a line for everything. His little finger glows red where his pulse/oxygen meter has been taped to his finger. Those are the machines we would watch for over a week. Green for his heart beat, yellow for his respiratory rate and blue for his oxygen levels. For days, we would watch everything he had eaten and his stomach contents be slowly pumped from a tube in his mouth into a jar behind him.
There was a familiar face at the door, a man that gave me immediate reassurance. Dr. Morgan stepped in and started explaining traumatic brain injury. He told us that he had a bleed on the right side of the brain. He also had shearing in his brain. We didn’t know what that meant. He started to explain how critical monitoring the progress would be in the hours to come. If his brain swells, we will start with a bolt drilled into his head for further monitoring. If it progresses, a piece of his scalp will have to be removed to alleviate the swelling. This nightmare just became more grim. We would know more about the direction we were heading at the next scheduled CT scan. How could this be happening? He didn’t pull out in front of anyone. He was right by the driveway on a bright orange bike in broad daylight. I couldn’t bring myself to call my parents. I couldn’t bring myself to say the words out loud. I decided to wait until the next CT scan then I would have something more to say. We were then in this dark place where you try to make sense of medical terminology: brain bleeds, severe head trauma, brain swelling, severely concussed, critical condition, traumatic brain injury, shearing, blood transfusions and other terms I can’t pronounce. You simultaneously imagine the worst and hope for the best. Will my spunky little 7 year old ever be the same? What does this mean for us? What is the outlook? How long with this take to heal? What is the prognosis? Nobody has an answer. You just want someone to tell you what all of this means and that he will be okay and nobody will and worse, nobody can. They tell you stories of great recoveries and others that make you wish you didn’t ask. You can’t imagine your perfectly healthy athletic kid with permanent injuries that prevent him from being himself, prevent him from moving, walking, talking, learning, living the full and adventurous life he had ahead of him. You had this kid with a perfectly bright future and now you don’t know what will be and the answer may not come for months. The only thing you know is you have to believe. Believe he will be okay, be confident he can do this, be hopeful, know in your heart, so you can convince him of the same, no matter what these doctors say. Believing and pushing out the fear is so much harder than you would ever imagine, but it is a skill we got better at day by day.
At some point we noticed a woman in uniform at the door with a large camera. She was with Sparks Police Department. She looked Rhett over and took pictures of the damage, like an insurance adjuster. I didn’t want any pictures taken of him looking like this. It would take me days to take one of my own. I didn’t want this image available to anyone just as I never wanted to think of it again; God forbid this be the last photo we had of him, but what I wanted didn’t change a single thing. I saw the flash go off multiple times as she captured just the images of the damage left behind. Those pictures will never capture the painstakingly long days, the worry, the tears, the struggles, and the absolute agony that is our current situation.
We waited. You are conscious of every single click of the clock, every beep, every time the monitor turns red, every time it is recording. Time goes by so agonizingly slow. You can’t hold your baby. You can’t hug him. I can’t even kiss him because I’m not tall enough to reach over the bed rails. “You really need to call your parents.” I heard Fritz’s words and I knew he was right. I went down the hall. I make the call and sobbed my way through the dreaded words. I asked that they call everyone else. I requested they relay not to call me, I just couldn’t talk to anyone. I couldn’t repeat this story even one more time.
Around 1:30 a.m., we got the results from our second CT scan. The swelling appeared to have gone down slightly. We breathed a sigh of relief, but it was short lived. We had another one scheduled for early morning. We spent the night at his bedside trying to talk to him about how strong he is, without shaking voices, without tears, not very successfully. We sat in a chair draped over the bed rails as the minutes ticked by, one by one, at a slower pace than you could ever imagine. You just watch bottles, bags and syringes drip into his body, one drop at a time. The hours feel like days. You back aches and burns, your eyelids are swollen and hot, but you can’t move, you can’t bear to leave him. We went with him to the 3rd CT scan. We were crouched in the hallway holding onto one another waiting for Rhett to come back out. The next several hours were painstakingly long. The swelling had appeared to have gone down slightly again. “We found another brain bleed on the left side.” You can feel your adrenaline spike and your mind race. Does this mean he’s bleeding more? Is there something else wrong? “We are sure it has been there and we just didn’t see it the first time.” We were assured, because of the size, it was something that would correct itself, in time, a lot of time.
As you look over the bed rails, you’re reminded of being a parent for the first time. You have this sense of pride, but rather than being proud your baby cooed or opened his eyes, you’re thankful he’s alive, you’re thankful for the rise and fall of his little chest, even though you hear the ventilator in the background assisting every breath. Just as you are with that first baby, you excitedly wait for that next thing, a smile, a yawn, anything. For 6 agonizing days the only thing we got was some grimacing and uncontrollable kicking from the left side of his body, while the right remains completely paralyzed.
We spent the longest night of our lives bent over those bed rails. One of us on either side. You can’t eat. You can’t sleep. You have sickening knots in your stomach and a heavy ache in your heart. You just watch every monitor and the digital image of his chest moving up and down. You are so grateful this wasn’t worse while trying to reconcile how this could happen, trying not to be pissed that it did happen. How could this woman’s family, doctors and friends allow her to continue to drive? We knew immediately we had to shut her out. We can’t bring the negativity or the anger here. This is going to take the right attitude and all of the positive energy we can muster to handle this, we know that. Our journey was just beginning, right here, right now. Our little boy was alive, he survived and that gave us hope. We were going to turn that hope to faith, that’s all we had. The tears never stopped coming. They fell one after another in steady stream all night long.