Thursday, October 29, 2015

In an Instant

A few years ago I read Joan Didion's memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, which chronicles her struggles the year after the sudden death of her husband.  In it, she details how her husband collapsed and had a massive heart attack right before her eyes, while they were sitting at the kitchen table having dinner.

"Life changes fast.  Life changes in an instant.  You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends," she wrote.  

That quote struck me enough to stick with me, some three years later.  And this past weekend, it was one of the things I first thought of when in a mere instant, my life changed as well.

One minute my husband was running on the Canal tow path, getting in an 11 mile run before our half marathon in a few weeks.  The next minute, he was flat on the pavement, being awoken by an EMT asking him if he could remember his name or address.

Who knows how long he had been lying there?  Assuming someone found him instantly, called 911, and then another ten or fifteen minutes for the ambulance to get there - 20 minutes?  Twenty minutes of him seizing, and then lying lifeless on the pavement, bloodied and bruised.  Fast asleep.

When I received the call from the ambulance I was lying in bed with my five year old - encouraging him to leave me alone and watch his movie so I could nap.  I was looking forward to a lazy afternoon and an evening of entertaining friends at our house.  And with that call - in that instant, it all changed.

Unbeknownst to me, while I was lying in bed with my son with Aladdin playing in the background, my husband was lying alone, having a grand mal seizure on a gravel path, and a stranger was summoning help.

How could that be?  How could I not know?

I in turn summoned my village.  I texted my close friends and asked whoever received it to call immediately.  Two minutes later I had arranged to drop off my kids, and a few minutes after that my sister had arranged to pick them up later and bring them back to my house, should I be at the hospital overnight.    I arrived at the hospital shortly after that, with my husband conscious, but confused, and so began the medical jargon.  CT scans and EKGs and blood sugar levels and anything and everything and it all came out normal.

My husband had never had a seizure before, so this was all new to both of us.  And in yet another circumstance, I was reminded that although modern medicine is incredible, in other aspects doctors don't know anything, and can't answer the most important of questions.

Why did this happen?  Will it happen again? 

Don't know, don't know.

There are practical implications.  For one, my husband can no longer drive, at least for the time being.  This is a huge inconvenience, but not insurmountable, and we will make due.  We are lucky that we live in an area with a vast network of public transportation, and that someone invented uber.

There are the big questions.  Seeing Daddy walk in the house bloodied and bruised after a visit to the hospital was unnerving for my two older kids.  We have reassured them that Daddy is fine, but my seven year old seems anxious and knows something larger is amiss.

There's the fear of the unknown.  Of why and how and what the future holds and what we should do about it.

There's the introspection.  This incident has reminded me that life is short, life is unpredictable, and life can change in an instant.  It's made me ponder life and death and how we're all just our bodies and our brains, and how weird and bizarre is that?  It reminded me of a quote from a book I, coincidentally, just read: "Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery," a memoir of the career of a neurosurgeon.  He writes:

"In neuroscience it is called 'the binding problem' - the extraordinary fact, which nobody can even begin to explain, that mere brute matter can give rise to consciousness and sensation."  

That brute matter - our consciousness - our brain- how can it just turn off?  Or fire uncontrollably? How can it make a 34 year old man who is jogging fall flat on his face, to the ground, unconscious, in an instant, and jerk uncontrollably?   There's a scientific explanation that my rational mind can understand.  But yet, deep down it's mystifying and unreal and not something I can grasp.

Lastly, there's the gratitude.  That he's okay and home and well and that things could be much, much worse. There's an indebtedness I feel to the random strangers who found him on the ground, who stopped, who called 911, and who stayed there until the paramedics arrived.

Who are these people?  My husband has a vague recollection of people looking on as he was carried off by a stretcher, but no memory of who they were or what they looked like.  How odd that complete strangers can play such a large role in a pivotal moment of your life, and then you never see them again?

Both my husband and I would like to find these people to thank them.  So, for people in the Maryland/DC/Virginia area, if you wouldn't mind forwarding this post around, we would greatly appreciate it.  The incident happened on Saturday, October 24th around 1pm on the Canal Tow Path, near Carderock.

Overall, my husband is fine, I am fine, we are fine.  We are happy.  We are normal.  We are going forward.  It's just another one of life's many twists and turns, and there's nothing to do but go with it with a smile.


  1. Oh my gosh - how SCARY...That book struck me then and it does now. You seem to have a really positive attitude about it, but I'm sure that it's hard to go forward with that positive attitude! Please let me know how I can help and how everything is going forward.

  2. My love to you, in a big way. And I second, thank God for those everyday good hearted strangers.


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