Braille Monitor                                                    February 2009

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Barring the Chaos Factor

by Barbara Loos

From Dan Frye: Barbara Loos is a frequent contributor to these pages. She is a longtime leader of the Nebraska affiliate and screens announcements for President Maurer during national conventions. She recently sent us an article about a difficult day with unexpected complications. It demonstrates that blind people can deal with the chaos factor as well as anyone else. Here it is:

Sometime before we were married, my husband Brad took me on a date I will never forget. One result of the events of that occasion is that I now have a deeper understanding of an expression he often uses when answering a question about, let's say, when he'll be home. His reply often includes the phrase "barring the chaos factor." I used to wonder what might happen were that factor not barred. Here's a true story of a time it wasn't.

For me the day started typically enough. I had been invited to be a resource person for an event at St. Elizabeth Regional Medical Center, one of my city's hospitals. The occasion was an educational opportunity for facility staff in which information stations were set up along a hall just outside the cafeteria. Personnel were invited to pick up materials and speak with those of us who had agreed to be spokespeople for various entities. The goal was to become more aware of and to interact with experts about patients with real or perceived special needs. I was representing the Nebraska affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind, whose message is both that it is respectable to be blind and that with proper training and opportunity blind people can do the average job in the average place of business as well as their sighted peers. One of the perks of this event was lunch in the cafeteria afterward. Since I was on a tight schedule, I arranged to get a sack lunch to take with me to my next appointment, a demonstration of Braille art and participation in some interactive opportunities with children at the Wacky Wednesday summer program at our Children’s Museum. Brad, who was to be a fellow participant in this event, joined me there with the Braille printer and other materials we were to use. This too was an activity in which we represented the NFB. Our plan was to take the bus to my home afterward for supper and a relaxing evening together. That, of course, was "barring the chaos factor."

While we were sitting on my couch contemplating supper, Brad commented that his forehead, where he had recently had surgery, felt odd. I digress here to say that Brad was almost fatally injured when a gun mount blew up in his face while he was in the United States Navy. Though he has overcome many complications, two lasting consequences of the explosion are total blindness and a plate in his forehead replacing the portion of his skull that was shattered. After twenty plus years an infection required replacement of the plate. Since, although living tissue can recover from infection, prosthetics cannot, this had been a thirteen-month experience, during which Brad had worn a modified, flexible helmet to protect his brain between the surgery to remove the infected plate and the one installing the new one. At the time of the events recounted here, it had been almost a month since the second surgery.

When I touched Brad's forehead, it felt puffy, as though air was under his skin. We joked about it a bit, but then he decided to take his doctor’s advice that, if he noticed anything unusual, he should have it looked at. Since by then it was too late to make bus connections (they stop running from downtown at 6:15), we called a cab and went to the emergency room at Bryan LGH [Lincoln General Hospital] East Hospital.

After the usual preliminaries and an x-ray, a doctor bustled in, announcing breathlessly that Brad had air in his cranial cavity, some of which might be behind his brain—a very dangerous problem. She thought he should be rushed immediately to the Veterans Hospital in Omaha. The Lincoln facility is now strictly an outpatient clinic. Enter the chaos factor!

Between the time we left my place and the point at which the doctor was convinced that Brad needed to go to Omaha, severe thunderstorm warnings had been issued, and it had begun to rain. The doctor had been insistent that Brad not go alone, so we had decided that I would accompany him. We made a few calls to let people know what was happening. Since it was after 10:00 pm by then, I decided to call my students the following morning. (I teach blind adults, most of whom are senior citizens, to use computers with speech output rather than the monitor.)

While we were waiting for the ambulance, the subject of supper came up. They decided that Brad should be fed intravenously but brought me fare similar to that I had eaten earlier from St. Elizabeth's. That seemed a long time back and a bit strange. It's the only time I have ever had food from two hospitals in one day. Although I was sorry Brad couldn't have real food too, I ate gratefully.

When the ambulance driver came in, he said it was raining to beat the band and the lightning had begun to knock out electricity. When he realized that we had come to the emergency room hastily, he asked if there was anything we needed to do before leaving town. I mentioned that I hadn't closed the windows of my house and hadn't brought the machine containing the phone numbers for my next day's students. My main concern, though, was getting Brad the help he needed. The driver said that his assistant was tracking Brad's vitals and it wouldn't be a problem to run by my house. Since by then it was after 11:00, I hoped that no one in the neighborhood would notice an ambulance pulling up to my door. No one ever did ask me about it. I jumped out, ran into the house, shut windows, spread towels over the already wet (and newly laid) carpet, grabbed my raincoat and machine, and rushed back out to the ambulance, which whisked us away. Although I got soaked in the process, it was good to know things weren't going to get ruined while I was gone.

As we approached one busy intersection on the way out of town, the driver announced that street lights were going out all around us. Fortunately, given the late hour and the torrential rain, traffic was sparse. The driver periodically spoke of brilliant lightning. Once in a while I heard or felt thunder, but the noise was surprisingly muffled by the ambulance sounds.

I noticed that Brad and the assistant had struck up a conversation. Although I couldn't tell what they were saying, they sounded calm. As we got onto the highway (it's about sixty miles from Lincoln to Omaha), I began to feel that the doctor at Bryan might have caused us all to be taking a bigger risk than the situation warranted. "Better safe than sorry" could be applied multiple ways. Brad, as usual, appeared to be taking things in stride. Since I figured that their conversing meant Brad was both awake and lucid, I directed my attention to the driver's intermittent comments about his job, the weather, road conditions, etc.

I was relieved when we arrived at the Omaha hospital, where Brad was efficiently admitted and assigned a bed in the intensive care ward. Sometime between 2:00 and 2:30 a.m., the first of several doctors came in. Taking a quick look at Brad, he said matter-of-factly, "Oh, this is a common situation after head surgery. We'll have your regular doctor look at it in the morning, but having some air get in during an operation happens a lot. It will probably dissipate over the next few days or weeks."

After he left, the nurses on duty, one female and one male, suggested that I take the guest room just off the ward for what was left of the night. The woman was going off duty, but she said she would show me around before she left. She found some pink pajamas she said might be a bit big, but I could try them. She mentioned a washroom and a call light if I needed either.

After she left, I put on the pajamas. That they were too big was an understatement, but I was grateful for them nonetheless. Since they had also provided a toothbrush and toothpaste, I decided to do my usual bedtime routine. A sink was in the corner, but a toilet was nowhere to be found. After tracing and retracing my steps around the room, I decided I must have misunderstood the nurse. I would have waited until morning, but curiosity and discomfort ultimately ruled that out. So, gathering the extra folds of the pajamas in one hand to keep them from falling off and using my cane with the other, I quietly opened the door and walked out into the hall. As I went around the corner, my cane tapped something metallic. The male nurse, possibly having heard that sound, noticed my presence and asked if I needed something. I said that I was looking for the bathroom, since I had been told one was in the area. Walking past me into the room, he said he thought the woman who had just left had shown it to me, but he would be glad to. He directed me to the corner with the sink. Putting my hand on it, he showed me how to move it aside, revealing a toilet underneath. I must admit that looking there would never have occurred to me.

Although it had been a very long day, I didn't sleep much that night. I could hear disturbing sounds from the ward. It was good, though, to have some privacy. I had expected to spend the night in a waiting room, wearing my suit and nylons. Around 7:15, I got dressed and called my computer students for that day to let them know I wouldn't be there. I didn't give much explanation. It would have sounded too bizarre.

When I went in to see how Brad was doing, they said he was awake and preparing to see the doctors. They didn't want him to eat until he had seen the first one. When someone nearby needed to use the bathroom, a nurse brought a bottle and, making a comment about privacy, pulled a curtain around him. I got up to leave the ward. Although our society seems to lack concern for auditory privacy while protecting against visual intrusion, I do my best to respect both. At first someone thought I was confused, but once I explained what I was doing and why, she let me go.

By the time the first doctor arrived and gave Brad the go-ahead for breakfast, both of us were hungry. Since I wanted to be there when the next doctors arrived and since we didn't have much cash with us, we shared the meal they brought for him. Eventually several more doctors came and went. All agreed that the situation was normal for the kind of surgery he had had, so they could release him that afternoon.

We were both glad to board the 4:00 van and head homeward. Even the hassle of waiting for the city bus when we got to Lincoln seemed less bothersome than usual. As we walked up the driveway to my house, the sun shone warmly, making the raincoat slung over my arm seem out of place. We marveled that it had been slightly less than twenty-four hours since the chaos factor had been unbarred.

Within a week or so the air in Brad’s forehead did dissipate. About a year later he and I were engaged, and four months after that we were married. Brad still uses the expression "barring the chaos factor" when responding to certain questions. I no longer wonder why. In fact, I sometimes use it myself.


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