Wednesday, March 24, 2010
The last resort
To catch up on this ongoing story, click here.
Steph and Ammen once lived in Boone, North Carolina, a college town in the high country of Appalachia. On certain mornings they would go to Mosaic Books, where I am writing at this very moment, to read over coffee. One summer day on a nearby river, they met a bearded man named Grant, and his soon to be wife, a strikingly beautiful woman named Laura. Laura is a professor at Appalachian State. The couple also own and run an adventure outfitter called River and Earth Adventures.
As the story goes, on that particular day, Ammen was teaching Steph to kayak, and Grant was teaching Laura to kayak. Let me tell you, it takes a rock solid relationship to survive that tutorial: cold water swims, water up the nose, shouting and cursing, fear and trust and the whole damn thing. I know how to kayak, very well, and I still yelled my head off at Will three days ago as I followed him down the Watauga gorge. I missed a move, crashed down the left side of the river instead of the right, and ended up gasping in the eddy below, completely unharmed. "I WASN'T GOOD ENOUGH FOR THAT RAPID, WILL!" I shouted at him. "I SHOULD HAVE WALKED!"
"You did great," He responded with sincerity. "Excellent recovery. And here you are in the eddy, all safe." I fumed, infuriated, and refused to speak as I followed him down the next mile of rapids.
And so, when the four of them met on that on the river that beautiful summer day, both couples were arguing. The women became fast friends and griped about the men, the men became fast friends and griped about the women. From that day forward, the four of them had many adventures together, until the day that Ammen and Steph moved back to Seattle. When, a few years later, they scored a permit to run the Grand Canyon, they invited Grant and Laura along. They also invited me.
Laura was pregnant with Asa at the time and had to remain on dry land, but Grant signed on immediately. One of Laura's students was a kayaker named Will, tall and knock-out handsome, from Memphis Tennessee. He was kayaking buddies with Grant, and when he heard about the Grand trip, he marched to the registrar's office, withdrew from winter quarter, then went home and packed his dry bags.
And that's how we met. Grant and Will drove from the South East, Ammen, Steph and I flew from the North West, and we met in the middle, on the banks of the wild Colorado river, on the fringe of polygamy country, in an ice storm.
Two years later, I moved to Boone, down the street from that Tennessee boy from the Grand Canyon. When Grant and Will are paddling the spring run-off and Laura is at work, Asa- now a blond haired toddler- and I go to the library together; we walk around town, his little hand curled around my one finger.
It's all because of Stephanie and Ammen. Do you see what I mean? She isn't just a friend. She is the person who reached up and punched holes in the sky, so that the stars could fall into place. What I do, where I am, who I kick in bed in my sleep each night, is because of her. What if I hadn't met her, what if she hadn't met Laura and Grant, what if Laura and Grant hadn't met Will, what if we had never gone to the Grand Canyon, questions not worth answering. Because they did happen.
If you will remember, the last myelogram was ineffective. All of the past medical procedures had been ineffective at patching her spinal leaks- in fact, they had all exacerbated the problem. Her family searched and searched, and her mother- herself in the medical field- eventually discovered a doctor who was the world's foremost expert in spinal leaks. This doctor, a woman, performed nothing but mylogromas, spinal taps and blood patches. Steph referred to this woman as 'the last resort.'
In February, 2010, Steph flew with her family to the hospital at Duke University. The specialist was warm and reassuring, the complete inverse of the long string of previous doctors and interventions. "We will fix you," said the doctor, her hand on Steph's shoulder. "And if this doesn't work, you will come back and we'll do it again. And if that doesn't work, we'll do it again. We'll keep doing this till we fix you."
Imagine what those words must have felt like.
As the myelogram was performed, the ink surging through her column illustrated not four- the original number of errant needle stick- but ten leaks. Steph's column was a porous pipe running alongside her spine.
How did this happen? How did the animal that bit her grow six extra teeth? I'm shaky on the details, being in no means familiar with medicine or even anatomy, but here is what I can piece together. Steph lost a copious amount of cerebral spinal fluid after the original injury- enough to fill multiple pints of Ben and Jerrie's ice cream, and her body grew accustomed to dangerously low levels of fluid. Later, when it was increased by medication to a normal level, her dura burst in ten places, trying to expel the fluid.
And so the doctor in North Carolina patched her up with ten seperate blood patches.
A few days after the procedure, Laura, Grant, Will, Asa and I traveled to Duke to see Steph. We piled into the River and Earth Adventure Van, with the window stuck down and the wind howling on the interstate. "WOOHOOO!" Hollered Grant. "Appalachia comes to the big city!" We ate breakfast from Biscuit World and wondered what the visit was going to be like.
In the hotel parking lot, we sprung out of the van like clowns: four wild haired adults, a toddler, a dog.
Steph was very skinny, almost glamorous in the haute-chic sort of way, a scarf wound tightly around her neck. But she looked powerful, as if she had endured and conquered more in the past nine months than any physical challenge had ever presented to her. Regardless of what was happening to her spine, in her mind and soul, she had transcended, she had beaten it. Mental fortitude and insight beyond the scope of my understanding had transformed this callamity from devastating to enlightening. She radiated a combination of acceptance and defiance that had combined, reacted, and created a pure, straight, elemental strength.
She floated within the temporary reduction of her life: the lawn chair in the patio, the hallway, the elevator, the bed in her room. We followed her, gingerly, pulling the dog and the toddler away whenever we thought they got too close. All strength aside, anything could burst those fragile, essential blood patches. Laugh, sneeze, cry, hug, open a door- do it all with the utmost caution, or you're back to the beginning.
After an hour or so, the boys sidled downstairs to drink beer in the downstairs bar. The women remained with her. I tried to fight the urge to tell her every small thing that had happened to me in the past two seasons, but I lost. And in the middle of one of my long winded stories, I could feel her begin to fade. Her head pulsed in pain even as she lay flat. At that precise moment, when her gaze drifted away for just an instant, her mother appeared by her side. "You have to leave her for a while," she said to Laura and I, "she won't say it, but she isn't feeling good." It goes without saying that her mother's instincts were astoundingly accurate.
We collected ourselves, went downstairs and watched the last minutes of a football game from a tv suspended over rows of glass liquor bottles. I chased Asa around the luxuriously furnished hotel. I felt uneasy. As much as she loved us, openly, unremittingly, it seemed as if Stephanie's ability to heal came from her being deep within herself, not from talkative friends or anything we could bring to her. All I wanted in the world was make her feel better, my presence was not helping, the way all the doctors before this one had wanted to help her, but just ended up hurting her more.
This one- this time, this doctor, this procedure- would be different.
We said goodbye, told her we hoped not to see her back at the hospital any time soon, stayed real positive, ra ra, and then drove home in silence. It was hard, but we were hopeful, you know? She was in the hands of the most competent, compassionate doctor on the planet. All she had to do now was lie quietly, for six weeks, and the nightmare could be over.
We were hopeful.