Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Comparing--there's often more than meets the eye

(Warning: this is super long and a wee bit graphic, medically-speaking.)

In the Sunday edition of our local paper, there was a story about a young man who was finally graduating college two years after a horrible accident. He was a senior when he was hit by a car as a pedestrian. That's the same thing that happened to my husband (minus the senior in college part, he was 27).

The article listed his physical injuries in minimal detail--two punctured lungs, a punctured bladder, a ruptured spleen, broken bones, etc. The writer chose to focus more on the fact that the young man suffered a traumatic brain injury, which made it that much harder to pass the few courses he had left in order to graduate, rather than the other physical damage that he suffered or how it was treated. He was completing his studies online, from home, as his hometown was a few hours away from the college, which made it even that much more difficult. (Note: I'm not downplaying the fact that the writer didn't get into the gory details, you'll see where I'm going in a second.)

As I read the article, of course, my mind flew back to 2004, when my not-then husband was in a similar situation as this young man. They were both sedated into comas, they both had parts of them that needed to be constantly reopened and washed out. The young man in the story had such horrible issues with his lungs, the doctors used Velcro to hold him together, but be able to open him up when the organs needed cleaning. Guess who else had Velcro, but much later? And he was conscious during that experience. It's not pleasant when a fabric notion is holding your body together, by the way. Guess how they attach it to you? With the glue of 1,000 BandAids. God help you when it's time to change the dressing. Especially if you have any body hair in that area.

Back to the story. There were pictures to accompany it, naturally. There you see a 24 year old young man, in what looks like prime physical condition. Six pack abs that The Situation would be proud of. Sure, the scars are visible, but there is no mention as to what this guy needed done. Did he have an ostomy for that bladder puncture? Does he have weakened chest muscles from the open cavity? How are those broken bones? There's mention of how he studies martial arts to help him with his balance and coordination. One might be quick to say "Whoa, this guy had all of that happen to him???? Look at him! He looks great!!!"

But we're not his parents, we're not his girlfriend (who stuck by his side during all of this; I would love to talk with her), we're not his friends. We're not him either. Remember, when you have a traumatic brain injury, sometimes you're not the same person you were before the accident. Sometimes your emotions have changed, the little things bother you more than they ever did. Often times, what you used to know or do isn't there anymore. People go from amazing doctors to being the patients. From being an award-winning teacher to learning to have to do every life skill over again.

This young man had to go to intensive rehab after he was medically stable. Walking, talking, etc. had to be learned all over again. He still doesn't drive.

I finished the article with mixed thoughts. My first thought was that he was indeed so lucky to be alive and as well as he appears to be. Then I thought, what was that article NOT saying? What are his real hurdles? What can't he do now, what will he never be able to do again? All of my thoughts came from someone who was as close to a similar situation as one can be without being the sick and injured one. Because I know that someone can be "all better" and not be all better.

And then I thought something else. I was going to save the article to show my husband for when he got down about his body, his pain, his life that has changed now that he was hit by a car as a pedestrian. In a "hey, look at this guy!" kind of way. To make him look at worse situations out there, because THANK GOD, his brain was not harmed at all in his accident (mental anguish aside, that is). He does get down about things a lot; his entire life changed after the accident, right down to the clothes he wears, the exercise he can do, and the jobs that he can work at in the future, especially after one long-term layoff and another layoff looming. It changed the dynamic of our little family unit.

Then I thought better. How can I diminish the pain and the suffering (oh, how cliche) that he went through? I can't. I will neverbe able to. Even though I was right there by his side, coming to the ICU daily for three weeks straight, I will never fully understand what goes on in his mind. Showing him someone who, objectively speaking, probably did have it worse won't help him with what he went through. What each of us experience is subjective. It's our story, belonging to no one else. As I've just pointed out, even two people who went through the same thing still have their own feelings and thoughts. If I showed my husband the newspaper story, it wouldn't erase the past 7 years. It wouldn't take away the comments from ignorant people who 1) either don't know him at all [yes, total stranger have made lovely jabs at him] or 2) don't know the situation fully, and it's really none of their business. It wouldn't change how he was treated when he went back to work, practically demoted, then laid off when it seemed "convenient." (He was hurt on the job) It wouldn't erase the truth of what he faces every day--and it's not just the scar that divides his abdomen or the scar tissue that has distorted his belly.

Even though they look completely different with their shirts off, both my husband and this young man have scars that no one will ever see, and thoughts that no one will possibly ever be able to fully understand. Sure, I (and the girlfriend) can empathize, can be supportive, can be as loving as possible, and we'll never be at the same place as these men. And this is why it is dangerous to compare. Or to use someone's story as a benchmark for your reactions to your story.

Our stories are what make up our lives. The way we react to life events is appropriate, because it is ours. If we cannot control what happens in our lives, the most we can hope for is the ability to react in the way we want. If people try to get you to think differently, or to look at another person's situation, does it really help? Maybe for a short time, but not indefinitely.

I'm a little embarrassed that I was going to show that to my husband. The intent was good, but I do need to remember that I have no idea about what it is like to be him, and I shouldn't press things upon him. The same goes for everyone else, from family to friends to coworkers to strangers. I have no idea what their lives are truly like, and vice versa.

What can we do? Listen. Offer support. Don't push for details. Don't rush to solve the problem (or attempt to). I have to remember these things too--I am far from perfect. Hopefully no one reading this will ever be in similar situations as Turtle & I were, or this young man and his family were, but maybe my story can help during smaller, less severe crises.

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