It started before I even knew it started. When I was still deep in a medically induced coma, surrounded by intimidatingly competent surgeons and attentively fascinated interns and reassuringly capable nurses, they came, in a steady stream: my family. While the medical professionals were at their most pessimistic and the array of monitors attached to my body was at its most numerous and chaotic, my loved ones came and and refused to give up on me.
They massaged my hands, from fingertip to wrist, because before I went under I had begged, desperately, for nurses, family, janitors, anyone, to rub my fingers, “like a tube of toothpaste.” The night I spent in the ICU in Salem, before they airlifted me to Boston and I lost the next nine days, I lay in bed and sobbed, staring at my hands. They had started to swell sometime during the prior afternoon, and by the time I awoke from the first surgery, they were so swollen I couldn’t tell where my knuckles were supposed to be. I was hooked up to IVs on both arms, and the leads were too short for me to reach my hands together, so I laid there and watched them. I was terrified, and certain, that they were simply going to swell up until they burst open. I remember begging Willem, as the Medflight crew was preparing me for transfer, “Don’t let them take my hands. Whatever they have to do to me, please try to save my hands.”
So even after I was unconscious, and the swelling had decreased a little, my family continued to sit with me and rub my hands, because that’s what I had asked them to do.
They talked to me, telling me stories about their home lives or keeping me up-to-date on the news. They sat in silence and prayed. They cried. They were just there, sitting with me, because they were not going to let me wake up alone and confused and scared. The alternative was never considered; they weren’t sitting there so that I wouldn’t die alone, because they never allowed death to be an option.
Mass General has a rule, in their Surgical ICU, that only family members are allowed to visit. Gretchen, Jenny and Carolyn came, listened respectfully to that rule, and calmly disregarded it. Suddenly instead of having two sisters, I had five. My biological sisters came, too, as well as my mother, my father and stepmother, and of course Willem. No matter how far away I was, I was never alone. During the latter half of the coma, when the doctors started to ease up on the Propofol to let me start to surface again, my blood pressure and heart rate would respond when they spoke to me, sometimes dangerously so, and I would have to be remedicated and left in silence. But I was responding, and the hope that they stubbornly refused to abandon would burn just a little brighter.
And there were more, who weren’t able to be in that room with me. Who, due to geography or other commitments or health reasons, couldn’t physically enter the SICU. They were there nonetheless, awaiting Willem’s next text update, sending out prayers and vibes and well-wishes, waiting until the circumstances changed to allow them to come sit with me in person.
They never left, not all the way. Even now, they’re still with me, asking how I’m doing, bullying me into getting out of the house – or, at least, out of bed – when I’d rather just burrow in and hide, steadfastly refusing to believe the worst. That’s why I can’t quit, why I can’t just throw in the towel. I’m not exactly sure how one quits altogether anyway, but the continuing presence of my friends and family makes it impossible for me to even try. How unfair is that?