by Kristina Pattison
Chilly, crisp breezes and the constant rush and halt of squealing traffic fills the mind. Mid-November in Seattle is surprisingly sunny. Soft rosy hues wash over a thick layer of cloud encircling Mount Rainier in the distance, standing proud over the somewhat civilized world buzzing below.
I am here for a friend. A hard parachute landing drove his face and neck against a rock during a fire season deployment two years ago, breaking the transverse processes off several cervical vertebrae. Severely damaged nerves left his arm limp, no longer capable of being lifted from the body or bent at the elbow.
Luck dealt him favorable cards, however. A couple fingers higher and death would have his breath and life in an instant. A smidgen lower, and he’d have no use of his hand.
Flowing down the rivers of government bureaucracy he shored up here in Seattle, where through a complicated and somewhat haphazard web of healthcare providers he met Dr. Ko, a specialty plastic surgeon.
“I don’t care how I look,” he replied.
But Dr. Ko had other ideas. New, fresh, somewhat experimental and extremely progressive, these ideas would take nerves and muscles from other parts of his body to make his arm work again.
I open the blinds of his hospital window so he can see the pillowy surface of Rainier’s mighty summit glowing in the rising sun.
Dr. Ko still has the air of adolescence about him. Though he is slight and nonathletic with sunken chest and soft belly, he portrays endurance of the new age of healthcare workers in America: overworked and under-lived. My guess says he is younger than myself and his patient, and his path has likely been very straight. From kindergarten to specialty surgeon, he will get time to live his life freely in retirement perhaps. His mind for now bears the fruit of miracles, and saving lives is his daily summit.
He explains he has a long day ahead in surgery. He looks over the incisions spanning the front of the shoulder, transversing the chest, along the length of the inner thigh. This surgery took ten hours. He expected six. This race of his has finished nevertheless. The gracilis muscle of the inner thigh is transplanted to the left bicep. Re-innervated with the intercostal nerve of the ribcage, the arm will bend with a breath of air. Now it is a matter of patience: will this patient learn how to move his arm again?
“You’re the man!” he encourages his charge and slips out with a brief, youthful smile.
As my friend works his way painfully out of bed, I help with his sling and he adjusts the several bags and cords gathering blood from his wounds. A steady whooshing sound fills the room from the doppler unit inserted into his shoulder, a form of biofeedback telling him if his blood is flowing sufficiently though the veins at the brachial plexus of his arm.
He may never jump out of an airplane again. He may never fight fire again. But he is alive. He is moving. And he has hope. But it has not come easy. He leans forward and there is momentary silence.
We walk the halls several times. When we return, he is tired. I look out the window and gray clouds have consumed Rainier’s summit. As I leave, my friend asks me to close the blinds. Darkness fills the room.
I walk back to my hotel through the harsh concrete maze of man-made surfaces and structures. Squawking seagulls scream the fighting cry of the ocean full of natural life not far away, and beaming sunlight streams through the yellow leaves of a fading year. Tomorrow, my friend will be released from the hospital, and the forecast calls for sun.