3: “You Are a Lucky Person”

3: “You Are a Lucky Person”

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Count Your Blessings

  
“You Are a Lucky Person”

Luck affects everything. Let your hook always be cast;
in the stream where you least expect it there will be a fish.

~Ovid

“You were in an automobile accident.”

The date was June 22nd, 1953. I was twenty-one years old, a recent college graduate and a new bride just one day earlier. I woke up in a hospital bed with no memory about how I’d gotten there. I was told that my husband and I, on the first day of our honeymoon, had been involved in a terrible collision with the car owned by a doctor at the county hospital—the only one within a hundred miles—in a place called Nassawadox, Virginia.

The details were related to me later, when I was fully conscious. I had been driving our convertible with the top down. According to the police report, something had happened, and our car swerved towards a telephone pole and then across the road into the opposite lane, where it was hit by an oncoming car. The convertible was overturned, I was thrown out, and my husband was pinned beneath it. I later learned that a cardiologist, on his way to the hospital, had stopped at the scene of the accident and taken my husband to the hospital in his car, thereby saving his life.

My injuries, other than a concussion and various cuts and bruises, consisted of a broken pelvis, for which I was told I would have to remain on bed rest. My twenty-six-year-old husband had suffered major injuries, among which were a crushed hip, broken ribs, and a broken femur. He was rapidly losing blood, and during the first twenty-four hours was given at least twelve blood transfusions. After being stabilized, he was put in traction in a room down the hall. His doctor was a young Nassawadox resident who had done an internal medicine internship in Boston—Dr. Milton Kellam. There was no orthopedic surgeon on staff at this one-hundred-bed hospital.

My parents arrived in Virginia the next day. “Why,” I questioned them, “why did this happen to me? I haven’t lived long enough to do anything bad. I have always been a good person. Why am I being punished?”

“You are a lucky person,” my mother said. “You could have been brought to the hospital a widow. You will be all right. Your husband will be all right. I will stay here with both of you until you are well and can go home. Don’t cry. You are fortunate to be alive.”

Her mantra was the same for the next two and a half months—“You are lucky to have survived—another might have been killed. Don’t cry—be thankful.”

It was difficult, at first, to follow my mother’s directions and feel grateful as events progressed. Unable to sustain the traction, my husband was encased in a body cast from his armpits to his knees. It became a daily 5:00 A.M. ritual for him to be turned in order to prevent pneumonia. The pain he endured was excruciating, and he would cry out in agony.

So, I would awaken every day at 5:00 A.M. to listen for his cries—this became the only way I knew he had survived the night.

We fell into a routine, my mother, my husband, the doctors and I. There was nowhere to stay in the immediate area, but fortunately, the local postmaster and his wife had offered my mother a place to stay. My father had to return to work, so he could only visit on the weekends. Each morning the postmaster drove my mother to the hospital and each evening he returned to take her to her room. She would put me on a stretcher and wheel me to my husband’s room, where I would remain for most of the day. There was a big leather chair in the corner where she sat, vigilant for every gesture or need from either of us. To otherwise occupy herself, she started knitting. No one knew what it was supposed to be—it was gray, it was lengthy—a sweater? An afghan? We never found out and it never mattered.

Within a few weeks another complication arose: my husband had severe abdominal pain. Late one evening Dr. Kellam approached me, saying, “Dena, we’re going to operate on Sonny tonight. His white count is very elevated. We don’t know what’s wrong, but something is and we must find it or he will not last the night.” I was horrified. At 5 feet 11 inches Sonny had dropped down to less than 120 pounds and he was so weak. How would he survive major abdominal surgery—in a cast!

The doctor cut a hole in the cast, did exploratory surgery, found a gallbladder that was about to rupture, and removed it. Once again my mother, who had remained in the hospital with Dr. Kellam the entire night, reminded me of our good fortune—to have such a wonderful doctor who was so caring, so competent. By this time, he and everyone else were calling her “Mama!” She tended to my husband as she would have to a child of her own, watching every movement, showering him with affection. With the doctor’s consent, she even used the hospital kitchen to prepare food that he would eat.

The summer weeks passed, I was able to sit and then walk, and finally the time to leave the hospital arrived in early September. The difficult process of rehabilitation began.

After several years of financial and physical duress, Sonny and I prospered, had three children, and settled into raising a family. Our accident became a bad memory that we seldom discussed. Now, go forward to July 3, 1981. Our oldest child, Marjorie, was married with a baby. Our son Jon was in medical school, and Elizabeth, nineteen years old, was our youngest. Tall, slim and beautiful with thick curly blond hair, Elizabeth was always happy, always optimistic. She went out for the evening with two friends, and called me at 4:00 A.M. to tell me not to worry, she was on her way home. I remember telling her, “Why would I worry? I was asleep!”

At 6:00 A.M. the phone rang again. It was the state police. There had been a bad accident and the driver, Elizabeth, had been taken to the hospital. “How is she?” The reply, “She was alive when we put her in the ambulance.” Her two friends were unhurt.

An air of unreality enveloped my husband and me. Another accident? How could that happen to us? We arrived at the hospital and were taken into ICU to see our daughter, who had sustained major injuries after falling asleep at the wheel, swerving into a tree, and being thrown from the car. She had been pinned under the car just as Sonny had been so many years before. She had two fractured femurs, and broken ribs, just like Sonny, and a broken nose. She would be hospitalized for an indefinite time—the parallels were chilling. As soon as possible the attending doctor planned to operate on one leg and insert a metal rod. The other would remain in traction until it was healed enough for Elizabeth to be put in a full body cast.

The July days passed slowly. I took my mother’s place in the hospital, arriving early in the morning and leaving in the evening after the night nurse came. My husband stopped to see Elizabeth every morning on his way to work and every night before coming home. Marjorie came daily with the baby, and Jon came in between classes. The staff marveled at the family devotion; Elizabeth was never alone.

I, however, had become quite depressed. It was difficult to function. How could I survive another life and death situation? Why was I fated to endure this trauma twice? I remember weeping in my husband’s arms—I just couldn’t go on, I told him. “You can and you will,” he replied. “You have to be strong, just as you were before. We are fortunate that Elizabeth is alive and will someday be all right. She needs your strength and courage just as we needed Mama’s. Perhaps our accident was meant to teach us how to cope with this one. Everything happens for a reason.”

I drew strength from his words. Until the morning I walked into her room and realized she was struggling for breath. “Mom, I am spitting up blood, and it’s hard to breathe.” I had just finished a book about a woman who, after surgery, had a pulmonary embolism and described it graphically. Immediately, I realized the same thing was happening to Elizabeth and ran to the nurse, calling frantically, “Get oxygen. My daughter is having trouble breathing. I think she is having a pulmonary embolism!”

“We’re busy now. She probably had some internal injuries. It takes a while to set up the oxygen.”

“It doesn’t take a while to die. You get that oxygen right now!” I yelled.

She got the oxygen. It was, as I had diagnosed, an embolism, from which she could have died. From that moment on, I went home only to eat, shower, and return. The summer passed, and in the late fall we planned to take our daughter home in a full body cast.

The day before what should have been a happy event, my dear father died very suddenly. I remember my son’s meeting me at the foot of the driveway to tell me what happened. I had no more tears to shed. Elizabeth’s day of celebration became a day of mourning for my father. Although a nurse came on a daily basis when I went back to work, my mother sat silently in the corner of Elizabeth’s room watching over her, as she had watched my husband and me, so many years earlier.

A strong bond had developed among us; I marveled at Elizabeth’s courage and determination to heal, return to college and graduate with her class. My only fear at this point concerned the possibility that, like her father, she would recover with one leg shorter than the other. When the cast came off, and Dr. Salzar measured her legs, they were the same, and I wept in appreciation for the gifts that had been given to me: the lives of my beloved husband and child.

When I look back, I think that perhaps my husband was right and everything does happen for a reason. My mother and father gave us strength to go on after our accident, and it was from their example that we did the same for our daughter. I cannot say that I am glad for the time we suffered and the pain we all endured but I can say that these experiences filled me with a sense of deep gratitude that I might otherwise never have known.

~Dena Slater

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