I awoke with a start; I had been buried in a dream, but a sound reached in and pulled me out abruptly. Was it a thump? Raising up on my elbows, I glanced at the clock. 2:34 AM. Very dark outside, a cloudy night with no moon. The blue glow of the digital clock gave the room an eerie tint.
It is not unusual to hear noises in the night when you live in the country. Wind knocking over trash cans, tree branches falling on a roof, a, raccoon upsetting a planter. Occasionally a horse kicking the side of its stall.
Waiting another few seconds, I listened intently, not breathing, my body alert. No more sounds. Must have been a raccoon. Relaxing, I dropped back to the bed and closed my eyes.
Immediately, out of the darkness came a louder, distinct thumping, and the muffled sound of a voice calling.
I bolted upright. SHIT! SHIT! SHIT! It was Eric. He had been sleeping in the next bedroom where the mattress was more comfortable for his neck and wounds from surgery. He was a sound sleeper and once in bed, nothing much happened til the next morning.
I threw back the covers and my feet hit the floor. SHIT! SHIT!
Running out of my bedroom, I flipped on the hallway light and raced into the smaller bedroom.
The bed was empty, bedding in disarray. The pillow was covered with blood. More blood streaked across the sheets and circles of red formed a path to the attached bathroom. OH MY GOD! OH MY GOD!
In the bathroom there was blood everywhere, from the footprints on the floor to the handprints on the wall. Eric sat hunched over on the toilet, a towel clutched to his neck, blood dripping down his arm to his elbow. Splatters on his white T-shirt. The wall by his side was covered with smears where he had been pounding the wall to wake me up.
“Call 911. Carotid artery,” he gasped.
I bolted back to my bedroom, ripped my cell phone from its recharging cord, then rushed back. He had dropped to the floor and was lying on his back, knees up, still keeping pressure on the towel against his neck. The bathroom was a tiny thing, built in the 1970’s when large bathrooms were considered a waste of space. Just enough room for a single sink, toilet and tub. Eric’s body took up most of the floor.
Kneeling at the doorway close to his head, I dialed.
“Hello, 911 Emergency Services.” A bored voice answered the call.
“I need an ambulance immediately! My husband is bleeding profusely!”
“What is the patient’s name?”
“What is your address?” I recited the address slowly to her. “Please, please hurry!” I begged.
“I am putting the call in right now, Ma’m. Do you want to stay on the line until the ambulance arrives?”
“No, I need to help him.”
“OK, they will be there shortly.”
“Oh God, I hope so.” I whispered.
I put the phone face up on the carpet so I could watch the time. Eric was shaking. From cold? From fear? Probably from both. I got up and grabbed a blanket and covered his legs. What else could I do? I was helpless. My heart was pounding and my breathing was shallow. I couldn’t think.
“Do you want me to hold the towel for a while?” Eric shook his head slowly. His eyes were closed. His hand and arm were still shaking. He was terrified, and for good reason: most people do not survive a ruptured carotid artery. We had discussed this possibility with his doctor, because the artery had been weakened from radiation treatment.
“I’m going to turn on all the lights for the ambulance. I’ll be right back,” Hurrying from room to room, I turned on every lamp and overhead light in all of the rooms facing the driveway. I punched all the dimmers until they were on maximum output. Our driveway was long and dark; they needed a beacon to our distress.
Returning to Eric, I checked the phone screen. 2:45.
“It’s been six minutes since I called 911,” I told Eric. “Hang on, they should be here soon.”
Ten minutes since I found Eric. Eric’s brain was not getting oxygen on one side for at least that long. How long had he been pounding on the wall? What happens in ten minutes? How long can the brain operate? When does the damage become permanent? What can one half of a brain do? I rubbed my forehead and pressed fingertips against my eyes. I’ll worry about that later.
Red flashing lights filtered through the bedroom window, accompanied by the deep pitch of a fire truck engine. THANK GOD. Running out the front door, I jumped up and down, waving my arms in big circles. “HERE! HERE!” The truck turned into the drive.
The firefighter in charge was calm, professional, and understood immediately about the seriousness of the situation.
“The ambulance was right behind me and will be here any second,” he assured us. He then kneeled down and placed his hand over Eric’s on the towel, pressing firmly.
He then turned to me.
“Is there a DNR?”
My heart muscles tightened when I heard those initials. Do Not Resuscitate. Just words on a form that we had quickly checked off, now arising to a dreadful meaning.
“Yes, we have one on file at the hospital.” If Eric died in the ambulance or in the ER, they would not make any efforts to revive him.
“I’ll need you to sign another one for this trip,” The man rose to his feet and handed a clipboard to me. While I signed my name to the DNR, my heart screamed, “Yes! Resuscitate! Resuscitate! Do whatever you can to keep him alive.” But that was not what Eric wanted.
“What hospital do you want to go to?”
He nodded, then returned to a kneeling position and placed his hand over Eric’s to keep the pressure on.
When the ambulance arrived, three young paramedics let themselves into the house carrying a stretcher. As they were transferring Eric to the stretcher, I gave instructions.
“You have to keep pressure on that neck, it’s his carotid artery!” I said.
“And please cover him as soon as you can, he’s cold.”
“He has neck cancer and a large wound exposing the artery, under the towel.”
I was nagging, but everything they did – or did not do – was too important for assumptions.
The four men wheeled him out to the ambulance, with me following close behind.
“Eric, they’re taking you to UK. I’ll be right there as soon as I get dressed. I’ll see you then!”
He did not respond.
As the ambulance back doors slammed shut, I returned to the porch. The flashing lights lit up the house and then the front yard as they slowly drove down the driveway.
Suddenly, I realized I didn’t say I Love You. I should have said I Love You! Why didn’t I say I Love You? What is wrong with me?? As the DNR letters circled in my mind, I silently mouthed the words, hoping the night air would take them down the driveway, inside the ambulance and into Eric’s consciousness.
When the sirens and flashing lights were gone, the vacuum of sound was painful. The dark silence of the night enveloped the house, a deep void waiting for dawn. The black sky pressed down upon me. My ears were ringing and I was cold. I forced myself to breathe deeply, closing my eyes and imagining the inside of the ambulance as it rushed across town. He’s there, I’m here. Both under the same black sky. I’m praying for a miracle; he’s just taking the next breath.
Back inside the brightly lit house, I stopped at the bedroom door. It looked like a well-designed set for a horror film where the actors have all gone home. Plot: A monster attacks an innocent person in bed, and the victim drags himself, dripping blood, to the bathroom. Then the monster changes shapes and enters the victim’s body. He tucks himself silently inside, and invisibly rides with the victim to the hospital to re-emerge at a later time. A bloody suspense-filled script. But the blood was not fake; the victim was not acting. And the monster had been living inside the victim’s body for a long time.
I sat on the edge of my bed. There were no thumps now. I knew the ambulance was almost to the hospital, with its painfully bright interior, the paramedics working on Eric, taking vitals, monitoring blood pressure, talking to the UK Emergency admitting staff. Like a choreographed scene in a TV hospital drama. Eric being moved around like a piece of meat, his consciousness slowly dimming. His brain struggling to keep the body going. The DNR paperwork in the front seat.
I pulled on my jeans, my thoughts going numb and exhaustion setting in. Time to get moving. The bloody sheets can wait. I may return to them without a husband, or I may return to them with a disabled husband. The damn bloody sheets can wait.