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Carolyn’s Story

My name is Jim Schutte.  On Friday, 24 June 2011, I found Carolyn, the love of my life, unconscious in our bathroom.  Her face was blue, her eyes open and unresponsive, and she had no pulse.  Although I feared at the time that she was already dead, I immediately called 911 and initiated CPR.  We were able to bring her back to life, but she had already suffered brain damage.  This is the saga of her recovery, and the struggle to decipher what happened in the first place.  

I am a scientist by training, a writer by profession, and a husband by the deepest committment possible.  What follows is a log of love, inquiry, discovery and recovery. 

2 July 2011.  The best way to tell a story is to begin in the middle, retrieve the past, and carry it forward.  So I'll begin with today's status report.  Today, for the first time, Carolyn began following people with her eyes.  She tried to speak, and actually made some growling sounds.  But the circuits that connect  her brain with her tongue glow brightly on the CT scan of her brain, meaning that they're gone.  Fortunately, the brain is an amazing organ, and when one circuit is broken, it can create another to take its place.  Yet the process is slow, difficult and frustrating to both the patient and the family.  It is a marathon in which progress is measured in millimeters and the goal, obscured by the fog of doubt and uncertainty, is months away at best.  Only one person in 20 in Carolyn's status makes a full recovery.  Yet no one who knows Carolyn  doubts but that she is that one who will.  Today is but one of a series of tiny victories along the way.  However, exhaustion compels me to stop for now and pick up the story tomorrow.

3 July 2011  ICUs are technological marvels for the critically ill, but psychological torture chambers for their loved ones.  You wait.  Cold, hard reality presses against your every thought, and only hope and dogged determination prevent it from crushing you.  You wait.  The damage has already been done, and you are helpless to correct that which only medicine and time can heal.  You wait.  Boredom allows the sewage of doubt to seep into your brain, so you struggle to keep your mind overflowing with thoughts ranging from what kind of tree that is outside your window to why M&Ms come in so many different colors when they all taste the same.  You wait.  Your loved one's recovery comes in tiny flickers of activity followed by seemingly endless periods silence and inactivity.  You wait.  You talk to your loved one repeatedly about her importance to you and her need to fight to regain consciousness, and of all the wonderful things the two of you will do together when she wakes up.  You wait.  The sun goes down, you grow too tired to talk or to read, so you sit in a darkened room listening to the hiss of your loved one's breath as it flows in and out of the tube in her throat.  And then you wait.

And because you wait, you learn to appreciate that which you took for granted.  Carolyn's beautiful brown eyes were the feature I always found most attractive.  Strong, intelligent women have a certain fire in their eyes that attracts me like a moth to a flame.  Carolyn's eyes project not only fire but warmth.  Since her collapse, however, those eyes could only stare blankly into space.  Today, for a few seconds at a time, Carolyn was able to focus those eyes on me and I could see the flame slowly reigniting.  You cannot appreciate the pure joy that arises from simply having your spouse look at you  until you have had that privilege taken away from you.

Even her ability to breathe has been a struggle.  She suffered a respiratory collapse--for reasons that I will delve into tomorrow--and was placed on a ventilator.  She had been breathing through a plastic tube in her throat, and on Friday they replaced it with a tracheotomy tube.  But your diaphragm weakens quickly when a machine breathes for you, so you have to be weaned off of it slowly.  Today, she breathed entirely on her own for 4 1/2  hours.  The respiratory tech said he was impressed that she could go so long.  Yet you could see in her face how hard she was working, and how relieved she was when they turned the machine back on.  She is becoming cognizant.  When a tech told her he was going to suction out her lungs, her entire face wrinkled in revulsion before he even touched her.  It was odd--the rest of us finding relief and joy in the fact that the person we love so much was reacting to the fact that someone was about to inflict pain on her. 

The story continues under the Journal tab.